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