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

1 comment:

David Shallcross said...

Intrigued i am Dave, so please bring on the next installment.

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