Thursday, 8 October 2015

Dungeness's one-day wonder

It was surely a mistake. 'Empidonax sp., Kent, Dungeness.' Of all the species to turn up on a routine seawatch in the English Channel in September, you would not put money on an American flycatcher. But the message repeated, necessitating an immediate change of plans - better safe than sorry. By noon, we were on site but suspected it was already too late; observers were spread out over a large area of shingle near the fishing boats, scanning and walking in random directions. Clearly the bird was no longer on show, and not where it had first been seen and photographed so well.

Acadian Flycatcher, Dungeness, Kent, 22 September 2015 - the first for Britain and second for the Western Palearctic.
As we'd driven down to Dungeness, those much-tweeted images of what was indeed clearly an 'Empid' confirmed we'd made the right decision. Unless it had succumbed, there was every likelihood it remained in the immediate area, so we began searching. I opted to check gardens on the inland side of the road, starting at Derek Jarman's old house, and slowly worked in the direction of the lighthouse, then zig-zagged back across the road to check a patch of low cover. At that point a shout went up, someone sprinted along the road and it was suddenly game back on - the bird had been relocated in the garden of South View cottage, and before long we all converged to soak up views from a safe distance.

The crowd starts to build after the flycatcher is relocated in a chalet garden just inland from the road at Dungeness.
Despite worsening rain, the flycatcher periodically sallied out from cover, occasionally perching in the open to very appreciative noises from the crowd. The photos had shown a somewhat greeny-yellow bird, helping to eliminate initial options and leading to suggestions of the Western Palearctic's first Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, but during the few hours after its discovery the pendulum began to swing towards Acadian Flycatcher for a number of subtle reasons.

Intermittently good views were possible when the bird occasionally perched out in the open.
There's just one previous record of Acadian Flycatcher in the WP, involving a bird found dead in Iceland on 4 November 1967, so getting the ID satisfactorily nailed was crucial for this potentially first live example on this side of the Atlantic. That process took place in the field and online during the course of the day, through a mass collaborative effort which I won't repeat in this brief post - we've just finished putting together coverage of the find and the steps that clinched the identification for the next issue of Birdwatch (out on 17th October), so you can read the full story there.

On the day itself, with this ID looking increasingly strong as the afternoon wore on, understandably the bird's continued presence dominated the afternoon's news, as evidenced by this BirdGuides app screenshot. Unknown hundreds managed to get to Dungeness by dusk, some from as far as Bristol, Derbyshire, East Yorkshire and even northern France, but unfortunately for many others who arrived the next day, it proved too late - the flycatcher was not seen again.

The Acadian Flycatcher might look unwell here, but it is simply scratching an itch.
Britain's first Alder Flycatcher, in Cornwall in October 2008, had seemed like a one-off event at the time, but a second appeared within two years. Hopefully those who missed out on this extraordinary record will get another chance to see the species in Britain.
Acadian Flycatcher artwork by Steph' Thorpe.

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