Friday, October 10, 2008

Hot on the 'traill's' of a UK first

When news broke of an empidonax 'tyrant' flycatcher at Nanjizal, Cornwall on Wednesday lunch-time not only was this going to be a UK first but also a very tricky identification issue.

With the bird being 6-7 hours away, there simply wasn't enough time or light available to make a mad dash immediately. So we left at 10pm that night and drove through the night (well Jenny did most of it to be precise). We arrived at the designated field at Arden-sawah farm at 4am, I took a look upstairs, the sky was just packed with zillions of stars - a migrants charter ! We bedded down for a few hours sleep. Dawn was quite moody with black clouds sweeping in from the Atlantic low over the silhouetted farm house and lots of muffled voices from the ever increasing number of people emerging from their cars, all having driven over night.

Joining the throng of bleery eyed birders at the last place the bird had been seen the previous night it became apparent a good number of birders had made the journey. The light was gradually improving when suddenly everyone quickly moved to surround one person who had seen something that looked like it. Initial views were distant and the bird was very active feeding within a bank of vegetation and spent a few seconds either on full view or in flight and then hidden. Gradually it began showing well and the prominent features could be seen by all.

After relief came the euphoria, I glanced out to sea and tried to imagine American, well Cape May to be precise and the night sky I had experienced over there full of calling migrants. I then tried to imagine a whole gang of birds going the wrong way and catching a lift on a favourable jet stream and just flying for as long and as far as they could, because their lives depended upon it. Then this little ball of feathers, which by now was flying alone could see land - it pitched in to the first bushes it had seen for three whole days and little be known to it had just made history for its species - an avian miracle no less !! 7 hours in a car and little or no sleep was a very small price to pay to be in this birds presence.

On the previous few days a handful of other American landbirds had fallen on our shores with a Scarlet Tanager in Ireland, A Gray-cheeked Thrush in Dorset and several Buff-bellied 'American' Pipits. Talk about escaping the credit-crunch ! We watched the flycatcher and speculated exactly which species it might be - you see Alder and Willow flycatcher are virtually identical and are separated largely by vocalisations. The opinion was rather split and without anything further this little bird was never going to have its true identity known by the rest the world and properly documented in the record books.

Later that afternoon with the deft positioning of a mist net by the finder of the bird, the flycatcher got up from a bit of cover and flew some 150 metres straight into the net and the history books ! I bet if it could have uttered any vocalisations -it would have said 'THEY'RE YA GO, HAVE A NICE LIFE !'.

The bird was quickly processed and released. It continued showing and feeding well for the rest of the day. The important measurements then allowed the ringers to name the bird - it was an Alder Flycatcher and the first record for Britain !

The 7 hour drive home seemed easy and I took a look at the sky when we got back, boy was it clear and full of stars, no surprise it isn't present this morning - THIS bird has more records to break !

The flycatcher made news on the TV -

Even a Merlin unsuccessfully chasing a Snow Bunting high overhead was demoted to an 'also ran' today !

A big thanks to the farmer for allowing access on his land, to Lee Evans for manning the gate and taking the donations and the finders for sharing a once in a lifetime bird with everyone lucky enough to make the journey.


Anonymous said...

Hi matey

awesome record, can feel the excitement from here. Glad they cuaght it to confirm id. They are tricky in the field expecially if they don't call. We've been getting high numbers of Hooded Warblers here the last 2 weeks and Yellow Warblers are moving later than usual. Lots of empids arrived with the last two cold fronts, mostly Acadians with a few Leasts and Traill's mixed in. They rarely call. Most Alders seem to be recorded in south florida and some have lingered into December. Have had RB grosbeak and Yankstart in the garden this am.

hope you are both well

see ya next spring, I hope. We will be staying on Mull for 5 days with mum and dad looking for sea-eagles.

take care


Mark Thomas said...

Brill to hear from you - been trying to get on to your blog but surfbirds seem to be blocking the site ? Also emailed you but maybe not got through..

T'was a great day, YT Vireo and mad Veery twitch all over again really. As you know I prefer Sibes to Yanks but boy when a big one turns up they get you going !

Speak soon, love to the family.


Andy Wraithmell said...

Yeah long story about the blog, tell ya over a cuppa tea sometime soon. I have a new not so controversial one which concentrates on my birding rather than on the less savory things going on these days, like Sarah Palin and our knackered economy. She can see Vladimir Putin from her porch ya know!
Anyways the new address is

Maisie's life list is almost in double figures. The Laughing Gulls are her favorite!

Sibes are better than yanks, I agree. A Pallas's beats a gaudy warbler anyday.

email address is

What is Lee holding, looks like a jar of jam or something! Anyway gotta go to work. Catch yer later



James said...

Saw you at the twitch (and at the speeton great snipe). Nice photos and report plus you've captured the Merlin v Snow Bunting duel perfectly also which was a great site. An amazing bird and a great twitch.

Daniel Trim said...

Hi Mark,

Sounds so exciting, as you know Eddie and I were torn by this one! heart/head saying YES and degree/wallet saying nooo. Story told so well too, paints a very exciting picture and when we both finish Uni I think we will be comming on as many twitches as we can for a while!! So fingers crossed other mega mega megas will take that wrong turn (and survive).

Nice photo aswell, should put it on birdguides, not many good ones of it on there.

I'm just trying to get to grips with my lense- struggling with flight shots-but getting better, I will persevere!!

All the best

Dan Trim

Mark said...

Hi Mark. Hope you don't mind but I've borrowed the LGRE photo, for a spot of mischief:) Also added a link to your blog. Well done with the Flycatcher would have loved to have been there myself but unfortunately at 60 degrees north looking for our own New World mega!


ChrisJ said...

Hope you are still blogging. I just found, you lured by the word 'Buckton' I lived on Flamborough Head In the fifties. I'm 71 and I still dream about living there. At that time the golf club house was located right beside the cliff top path to North Landing and that was where we lived. I studied birds when I was in college in Derbyshire, but then moved over here --Canada, Minnesota and Southern California in that order.I have picked up birding again since I retired but mainly in the back garden and a few ecological preserves. Great to see the cliffs at Flamborough on your blog -- well Bempton, actually or maybe Buckton.
We roamed those cliffs freely as children