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Here we are again then - another busy and sometimes hectic 12 months have drifted past once more and it seems like a fine time to pick up where we left off this time last year and meander through a few of the highlights of 2015.

There have been brand new birds and there’s been the occasional contentious bird too. We’ve seen much admired, long-overdue “grip-backs” fall and some remarkable little arrivals head our way in some decidedly unseasonal late spring weather.

As with last year, rather than trawl through everything that’s popped up on the RBA pagers and app., or on the website or within the extensive weekly reviews to present an-end-of-year “rare-fest” round-up for 2015, here’s this year’s take on the “12 Birds of Christmas”, where memories can drift back to some of the most talked about moments of this year’s birding calendar…

…and to get the ball rolling, it’s off to Kent for a quite remarkable, one-day-only First for Britain, arguably one of the “birds of the year” for many.

Acadian Flycatcher - Dungeness, Kent September 22nd 2015
Acadian Flycatcher, Dungeness, Kent, (© Martin Casemore)

September 22nd wasn’t really the most auspicious of days on paper. The weather wasn’t massively impressive and the first two or three hours of the day passed by with little of note on the cards.

There were a couple of Barred Warblers on Fair Isle, one or two Yellow-browed Warblers also dotted around assorted Shetland islands and also down the English east coast, while a Pomarine Skua or two were reported too.

Left: Long-billed Dowitcher, Skokholm Island Pembrokeshire (© Richard Brown). Right: Wilson's Phalarop, Vange Essex (© Neil Hughes)

A couple of still present Nearctic shorebirds were also still in the mix, a juvenile Long-billed Dowitcher on Skokholm was of interest and a Wilson’s Phalarope on the Essex reserve at Vange Marshes was proving to be a bit of a lure - but no one could possibly have predicted just how much a fairly tame Tuesday morning would quickly liven up…

Acadian Flycatcher, Dungeness, Kent, (© Martin Casemore)

What happened from mid-morning onwards will however become the stuff of legend. Local Kentish birder Martin Casemore decided that the brisk conditions along the south coast warranted a mooch along to Dungeness - it seemed like a decent day for casting an eye across the English Channel -but as Martin walked the beach, the seawatching urge was curtailed in one fell swoop.

Acadian Flycatcher, Dungeness, Kent, (© Martin Casemore)

There, in amongst the tumbledown sheds, the small fishing vessels and the endless tangle of ropes, driftwood and weeds was - quite incredibly - an Empidonax flycatcher looking back at him from the shingle-surrounds.

Acadian Flycatcher, Dungeness, Kent, (© Martin Casemore)

Within just a few moments, a number of images were obtained for posterity - just in case - and the nearby Observatory staff quickly summoned. Soon after that, not too long after 10am, the Mega Alert button was pressed and the very first game to be played was just what to do next…

More than almost any other group on the British or Irish Lists, the appearance of an Empidonax flycatcher anywhere across the land means that those with a twitching bent have to quickly decide on what they want to do - here was the classic game of “stick or twist” for 100’s of birders; the two previous British Empids drew sizeable crowds to Cornwall and Norfolk where, after some initial stop-start on the identification of both individuals, the resolution was comfortably Alder Flycatcher for both birds .

Both previous examples of the family had drawn significant gatherings; many people already having seen one or both individuals - the original Nanjizal bird of October 2008 drew the crowds as it was a 1st; the Blakeney Point bird of September 2010 initially scored big with numbers because it was muted as a couple of different Empids species early in the stay by some observers before the “Traill’s” type was decided upon and Alder eased in to the “prime candidate” box.

Acadian Flycatcher, Dungeness, Kent, (© Steven Nuttall)

So this is why that game of “stick or twist” swiftly came in to play on September 22nd - if you’d seen one of the Alder Flycatchers should you take the gamble and head to Kent “blind” as it were, with no more news bar it being an Empidonax flycatcher - and hope upon hope that it didn’t become the 3rd Alder Flycatcher. The thought that there was a chance of it being a new British bird was in the back of many people’s mind; both Acadian and Least Flycatcher were already on the Western Palearctic list and Yellow-bellied Flycatcher had been mooted as a potential vagrant too.

Acadian Flycatcher, Dungeness, Kent, (© David Monticelli)

For those within two or three hours of Dungeness, the choice was easy. Jump in the car, head towards the Dartford Crossing and see what news comes along in the interim. Birders from further a field, well, they had a harder decision to make.

Engines roared then, belts were buckled and the trek to Kent began. The bird lingered on the beach for around an hour after the Mega Alert was sounded but as midday approached the news was less encouraging; there’d been no sign since heavy rain had set in around 1115 or so. The bird was lost. In every sense…

Hmmmm.

Acadian Flycatcher, Dungeness, Kent, (© David Carr)

Happily though, the rest of the story has a fine outcome.

The first few online images saw opinion stick to the “Traill’s” camp (some internet hounds suggesting it was, once again, in the Alder ball park) but as more images surfaced and with informed comment coming across the Atlantic (courtesy, first and foremost, from ex-pat and now Connecticut resident Julian Hough) the need to get to Dungeness began to heighten as every forum post was read and each picture absorbed…

Julian was clear that this most certainly wasn’t in Willow or Alder Flycatcher territory - therefore it was going to be a 1st record for Britain come what may, be it an Acadian Flycatcher or a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. Indeed, heading south and opening up the latest Twitter images, it was becoming clear that this didn’t look anything like a “Traill’s” - Acadian Flycatcher was in the box seat.

Acadian Flycatcher, Dungeness, Kent, (© Terry Laws)

Crucially though, for those on the road, the bird was still missing.

Wet but happy! Birders watching the Acadian Flycatcher (© Mark Golley)

The collective audible sigh of relief across the motorway network would have been heard across la Manche once it was established that a kind soul had expanded the soggy search to the gardens behind the fishing boats. There was the bird, sheltering within the small yet dense and bushy garden of local resident Dave Bunney.

Not so wet but happy! (© Mark Golley)

Views were often superb, observers’ patience served well as Martin Casemore’s brilliant find performed extremely well from time to time as it often took to the leeward side of the chalet, happily scoffing spiders and bugs whilst finding any number of unusual perches around the small garden.

Acadian Flycatcher, Dungeness, Kent, (© Robert Wilson)

When perched, if at the right angle, all sorts of essential detail could be seen in the field (backed up by a number of excellent images too) and the consensus on site and from those with experience of the family online pointed towards just one option - this was indeed an Acadian Flycatcher (a faecal sample processed by staff at the University of Aberdeen confirmed, a few days later, that yes, the DNA was a perfect match for Acadian).

In the review that appeared less than 24 hours after the Dungeness flycatcher was seen, the following was mentioned re:- the identification of the bird and it seems worth another airing…

As with many other members of the Empidonax group separation needs careful unpicking of the feature son show; fortunately, the Dungeness bird showed so well that a huge amount of detail could be seen in the field (from rictal bristles to the crucial extensive primary projection and triple primary emarginations). Although it is a dangerous game putting a name to these things without the aid of a net and ruler, this was shaping up (very nicely) to be Britain’s first and the Western Palearctic’s second Acadian Flycatcher.

Acadian Flycatcher, Dungeness, Kent, (© David Carr)

Piecing together the bits of the jigsaw, that extensive primary projection put the Dungeness bird well outside of the range for the “Traill’s”-types and firmly inAcadian territory (it is also seemingly much longer than you’d see on a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher too).

Acadian Flycatcher, Dungeness, Kent, (© John Pringle)

Other factors pointing to this bird indeed being an Acadian Flycatcher include the rather fat-based, bulbous and almost down-curved looking bill (courtesy of the upper mandible); dusky tipped lower mandible; sloping forehead merging to peaked crown; the nice greeny upperparts; the neat eyering; the yellow washed wingbars; the non-bright yellowish underparts; striking (in profile) longish tailed look; the bluey-grey legs.

A classic “suite of characters” individual that, once matched together, all showed this to be slap-bang in the middle of Acadian Flycatcher territory.

South view, Dungeness Kent (© Mark Golley)

The Bunney family’s South View garden became the (literal) focus of attention and remained so throughout the rest of the breezy, cool and damp afternoon and early evening - only the final 90 minutes of the day seeing a return to rather more benign conditions as sunshine broke through the moody grey shroud that had hung over Dungeness for hours.

Acadian Flycatcher, Dungeness, Kent, (© James Lowen)

Almost everyone who got to Dungeness before darkness fell saw this amazing 1st - the last sighting (at around 7pm) saw the bird flick out and away from the garden and head off a couple of hundred yards to the southwest, towards some broom scrub and was quickly lost to view in the increasingly fading light. And with that, the bird was gone…

Previously, there had been just one other Western Palearctic record of Acadian Flycatcher - found freshly dead on Iceland, at Selfoss in early November 1967. In more recent times, Icelandic birders had the mind-boggling double dose of Empid “firsts” within just a few days - a Least Flycatcher found there on October 6th 2003, followed on October 10th by an Alder Flycatcher.

Who’d have thought then that as that somewhat uninspiring morning of September 22nd dawned that, by dusk, a few 100 birders would be travelling home with a new bird under the belt…a bird that was brand, spanking new to Britain (and virtually new to the Western Palearctic too).

Tomorrow, being Christmas Day, is a day for surprise packages and the two birds on the agenda really were a couple of the more remarkable records of the year - neither were 1st records, indeed, many people have seen the two species before, but their respective discoveries were met with allsorts of head-shaking, a little disbelief (at first) and plenty of general “cor blimey”…

 

Mark Golley
24 December 2015

 

 

 

 

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