Flycatchers and Tales of the Unexpected - Part 1 by Dave Wilson

Towards the end of October (2015), during a reading of postings on the Society's Facebook pages; details of bird sightings from other places; and a search through my own pictures from a few years ago, I came across three photographs of flycatchers, all of which, though from different places and involving different species, brought to mind what I have always considered the greatest of all birdwatching joys – that is, enjoying, preferably with one or two friends, a completely unexpected or entirely unpredictable encounter with an unfamiliar species.

Spotted Flycatcher (c) Meg Steele
The first of these instances occurred on 23rd September, at Burton Mere, where Meg Steele, a newcomer to the Society's Facebook group and, as far as I'm aware, to birdwatching in general, came across an unfamiliar bird; arrived at a correct identification; and managed to capture a superb image of the Spotted Flycatcher for us all to enjoy. The unexpectedness of this encounter – in fact, the whole experience – will, I'm sure, live long in Meg's memory.

On the day before, a Kent birdwatcher, Martin Casemore, out at Dungeness in heavy rain, had also come across a new bird, one which astounded birdwatchers everywhere and raised the thrill of unexpected birdwatching sightings to the level of unique unpredictability. He had spotted a North American flycatcher which, sadly, had been driven to our shores and which belonged to a group of a dozen very similar members, invariably described as being notoriously difficult to differentiate from each other. Away from its natural surroundings - wet woodlands in the Eastern United States - and especially when moving about by trees, it would have been virtually impossible to obtain an accurate identification, but photographic evidence, chiefly of the bird incongruously at rest on the Dungeness shingle, or on man-made objects, suggested that it might be an Acadian Flycatcher, the first to be recorded in the British Isles.

Arcadian Flycatcher (c) Alamy
These suspicions were confirmed following DNA examination of a faecal sample, an exercise which highlights the necessity of using up-to-date scientific methods when confronted with difficulties in determining the species of the North American 'Empidonax' flycatchers. No doubt Martin's discovery, like Meg's, will never be forgotten, and both cases illustrate the present-day importance of photographic evidence in arriving at accurate conclusions : the days when the notion that scribbled pencilled notes on anything that came to hand were sufficient aids to ultimate identification have been replaced by far more sophisticated, reliable and undeniably accurate techniques.

The third totally unpredictable event has a tenuous link with another of the 'Empidorax' group - the Gray Flycatcher, and it occurred during a visit to the Oregon Trail Interpretive Centre in North-Eastern Oregon four early summers ago. The tale includes a reference to knitting and wool which indirectly led to a chance encounter with an iconic species. Now that your curiosity might have been stirred, dear reader, I'll pause a while; give you time to puzzle over what the mystery bird might have been; and return to the narrative shortly.

Dave Wilson

Flycatchers and Tales of the Unexpected - Part 2 by Dave Wilson

An interest in the history of the American West brought us to the Oregon Trail Centre on a fine early June morning in 2011, and, within a short space of time, a third thread entered this tale of the unexpected – what might be called a series of isolated incidents where one led to another and ended in an astonishing encounter.

Sage Thrasher (c) Dave Wilson
Before entering the Centre, which was perched on a high point among fairly inhospitable sagebrush habitat, I happened to hear a lovely sustained warbling song coming from a slope behind the centre. This was being delivered by a Sage Thrasher, a fairly common summer visitor to arid zones in this part of North America, vaguely similar (at distance) and about the same size as our Song Thrush and in this instance, one which tolerated a close approach for a snapshot. As soon as I'd taken the picture, I noticed, about fifty yards down a rocky slope, a small grey bird flitting about by an ancient, barbed-wire fence.

Gray Flycatcher (c) Dave Wilson
Again I took a picture, but this time unknowing of its species, or even that it was a flycatcher. Later that day, I looked closely at pictures of all the very similar-looking 'Empidonax' species in my sole field guide and deduced that this bird was a Gray Flycatcher, similar to the Dungeness Acadian Flycatcher, but with a few barely discernible differences, including bill length and colour, an occasional olive tinge on the upperparts and, uniquely, the habit of dipping its tail slowly when perched. Its preferred breeding haunts are the dry habitats if the interior of the states of the West, identical to the sagebrush slope where we were. This incident was certainly unexpected, but there was something more to come.

Great Horned Owl fledgling (c) Dave Wilson
The brief encounter led to the concluding surprise, when Carole, a keen knitter, noticed, during the climb back through prickly vegetation, what appeared to be a large bundle of discarded wool of various shades of grey, a very curious place for litter-dumping! A closer look revealed that the bundle was, in fact, a Great Horned Owl youngster which had probably just embarked upon its first flight; minutes later, in the large entrance hall to the Oregon Trail Centre, we came across one of the adults close to, I presumed, a concealed nest site.

What an interesting, unforgettable sequence of events – the delightful strains from the Sage Thrasher; the tiny Gray Flycatcher feeding among the sagebrush; and one young and one adult Great Horned Owl enabling me to include the experience among my memories of joyful unpredictability when birdwatching. And, to conclude, surely all three of us – Meg, Martin and myself – will hope that every reader will, at some time in the future, be able to relate to us all his or her own “tale of the unexpected”.

Dave Wilson

Pennington Flash Issues and Concerns

A real positivity about the Greenheart Forum meeting today regarding habitat management at Pennington Flash. Whilst a return to a full and meaningful Ranger Service of old, when Charlie Owen and Pauline Mellor-Greenhalgh worked there is a way off. Myself, Dave Wilson and George Pike pressed for the desperate situation at Pennington to be resolved a.s.a.p. We all understand that money is tight and the Council even now has to make further cutbacks.

Meanwhile the reserve falls into disrepair and people flout the law, fish wherever they fancy, let their dogs run a mock in the designated reserve and in front of hides. It's an appalling state of affairs and an insult to the pioneers of conservation that founded our Society to preserve this wildlife wonder (The Flash). Therefore I'm now looking at a programme of funding the site, mutually with the council to apply to various grant bodies to help us preserve this nationally important wildlife area. Your individual help on volunteer days is vital for this site to hold its own until funding can be allocated, and I suspect that's not too far away.

Please spread the word and let me know your interest in being part of a survival strategy team. 


There are many problems arising at the Flash in recent times, the diminished staffing over the last few years has lead to a free for all of poor behaviour and respect for wildlife by the public, drinking, vandalism, trespass and fishing in the Nature Reserve is appalling, dogs on the loose and soiling of even the children's play areas are not beyond the animal lovers limits. and little is being done by the Council to counter this.

This band of brothers "L.O.S." is trying alone to resolve these issues and we have raised these points recently and received this reply:

Hello David,

Please find below the bullet points from last week’s meeting.
  • Supply LOS with litter pickers, high viz vests, gloves, bin bags and RA for ad hoc litter picks.
  • Supply LOS with stock netting, fencing pliers, gloves, safety glasses and RA for ongoing minor fence repairs.
  • Review bird feeding locations within the reserve with LOS preferring a phased reduction to one feeding location (Bunting Hide).
  • Return cages over feeders to deter squirrels.
  • Propose Bunting hide tidy up as Council Volunteer project in partnership with LOS.
  • Look at s106 (public open space) monies for habitat management.
  • Discuss Pennington Flash projects with Community Reparation.
  • Work on the screen has started.
  • Only use whole peanuts within the feeders.
Regarding litter, it was felt that the reserve as a whole was kept free of litter, but the situation along Pennington Line was unknown.

Illegal angling has reared its head again, even though the ‘No Angling’ signage is still in place, I will pick this up with the EA and the angling club.


Michael Fishwick
Greenspace Development Officer

We will be holding some work parties in the future, if you can help (nothing too strenuous ) please reply to this notice. 

Thankyou, David Shallcross

L.O.S. Fieldtrip to Hilbre Island - Sunday 10 April

We will be meeting at Doctors Nook car park (WN1 1SX) at 7:00am for a strict 7:10am departure and will be parking up on South Parade (CH48 0QG) in West Kirby at approximately 8:15am.

We are governed by the tides today. Low tide is at 8:21am when we can start walking out to the island. If the weather is kind we will stay on the main island over high tide, which I believe is around 10 metres at 1:50pm and we can leave at about 4:20pm to head back to the mainland.

We should see seals, waders, ducks and gulls galore, with our eyes especially peeled for Osprey and Red Kite.

PLAN B ( in case of bad weather)
We'll still walk over to the island but at 10:40am we'll head back to the mainland. Then we'll take in some of the Wirral's other areas of natural beauty to be decided on the day.

There should be plenty of seats available for lifts, but it's a very strict departure time this week, so please make sure you're on time.

If you're planning on joining us please advise either by accepting the invite on Facebook, emailing me on or 'phoning me on 07930948392.
Steve Scrimgeour
Acting Fieldtrips Officer

The L.O.S. Sponsored Bird Watch - 15 May 2016

We are having our sponsored bird watch day again this year. Teams can be up to 4 adults or more if there is a youngster present. Please register your team with either Eddie King or Joan Disley by using the email address below or at the Derby Room Meetings and we will supply the forms needed to record your birds and a sponsor form. Sponsorship by friends and work colleagues can take any form; per bird, per a number of birds or just a fixed amount for the day. All funds raised go to the society.

It is usually a wonderful day out just bird watching with friends and some friendly rivalry too. Please give your team a name, something with birds in the title, e.g., one group are the “Feather Brains” and “Jackdaws and Teals” so something in that line would be good.

There will be an evening meal at the end of the day, giving teams time to go home and get changed before returning to hand in their results later and have a good chat about what they did and saw. It’s a good day out so please come and join in. Once we have numbers we will advise all of the meal destination, time and further information.

If you wish to come for the meal, please advise Eddie or Joan as soon as possible as booking will have to be arranged. If you can’t join in then please sponsor someone or join us for the meal at the end of the day.

Eddie King
Recorder and Sponsored Bird Watch Organiser