National birding is starting to do the business for me again this autumn and yesterday, through a sequence of chance events I found myself present at a rather special occasion. That was, once the ID is confirmed the first ever record of a particular north American passerine at the famous migration land fall site of Dungeness in Kent. So how did this entirely unplanned little adventure come about?
On Monday evening my eye had been caught by reports of a Wilson’s Phalarope in Essex, and I invited Ewan to go with me to see it. But when a wet morning dawned his interest waned in a Nearctic wader he had seen several times before to my once, and I had to coax him back into going. We agreed to set off a little later than originally discussed, then just after 10:30am Ewan arrived at my door in the grip of an adrenalin rush. “Come on, we’re going to Dungeness to see a probable British first!” He had been tipped off by a friend moments earlier.
Never mind that I had just waited 90 minutes: I was now holding things up and was harried out of my home and into the waiting car, only too willingly of course! Andy had also seen the news at work and fed us information throughout our outward journey. The first winter bird was being described on RBA as an Empidonax Flycatcher species, a group of which all but one would be a first for Great Britain. It had been found on a shingle beach at the eastern edge of Dungeness point. Early photographs (see here) that were already in circulation suggested it was allowing a very close approach and was possibly exhausted.
All the way round the M25 and through the Kent motorway system Ewan was like a taught spring, running on adrenalin. After all: “This is what we wait all year for,” as he explained. I had read of his birding exploits on many occasions. Now I was witnessing the legend in action and just trying to take things all in my stride while joking about stopping for a sandwich break. We arrived on site just before 1pm to find a large but not huge group of birders lined up outside a small white bungalow. The star visitor had relocated to the shelter of the garden there.
Within minutes the Flycatcher came onto the top of a water butt to one side of the dwelling (pictured above). Having seen it I went back to the car to retrieve my camera’s battery that in the rush I had left behind. On returning the bird posed twice more in a similar way and those were the best views we had of it. When the weather turned wet this bird kept a lower profile in the garden, but was seen briefly several more times over the next 90 minutes or so. And for many of the birders who arrived after ourselves that was as good as things got. Ewan being a man who enjoys a good drenching as part and partial of a high octane twitch, I tucked into his lee side and kept tolerably less wet than he did, without him really noticing until I told him!
The lady of the house could be seen inside taking photographs of all her surprise guests, then the man arrived home and went inside. Both people were watching the bird themselves at the window, which did little for the chances of it perching on the water butt again, but then they do live there so we couldn’t complain. By 3pm the number of birders outside had possibly tripled, with cars parked along both sides of the access road for some way back. Realising we were unlikely to get better views than earlier, and sensing a possible bun fight as the crowd swelled further, Ewan and I decided to leave. It had been quite a special outing. For a superior, big lens photograph of this bird in the garden see here.
The day’s final report on RBA said that at 7pm the Flycatcher species flew to scrub 250 yards south-west of the garden and was lost to view in fading light. It was thought to be an Acadian Flycatcher, indeed a first for Great Britain and only the second for the western Palearctic following one found dead in Ireland in 1967. The ID was confirmed on 2nd October after DNA analysis of droppings taken from the beach (see here).