Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Empidonax!! When you know that you're cured...

Only a couple of posts ago I laid bare my Dungeness bird list on the back of my reconnection with the shingle peninsula. Although there have been 'Dungeness ticks' that I could have gone for in recent months, they have either not been terribly rare or highly mobile. So there really hasn't been the need or the opportunity to do so. Listing can be a corrosive infliction. If taken too seriously you can become irrational, tetchy and ultimately unfulfilled. It's all OK when the listing behaves itself, and you connect with all the possible targets, in that case life is brilliant. But when you dip, things can go dark. I wondered how I would react when a real stonker turned up at Dungeness. Well, at 10.00hrs this morning I found out...

"Dungeness mega. Empidonax Flycatcher at the fishing boats now. Showing well"

That little gem of information appeared on Twitter via Martin Casemore. I took it all in with more than a little wonder and a feeling of pleasure for the hardworking Martin, who spends more time in the field than most livestock do. There was also a feeling of detachment from it all. I had no thought of going to try and see it, even though the car was waiting in the driveway and I have no commitments for the rest of the day. Why not?

Had I been staying at the observatory this morning I would have dashed over to the boats pronto, not only to see the bird but to take on the role of a bystander in the unfolding drama (it is the third Empidonax flycatcher to be recorded in Britain and a first for Kent). It is without doubt one of the all-time great Dungeness birds, most probably never to be repeated, and the tales of its discovery will be told down the years. It will become legendary. I would have observed all of the locals arrive, panicky with fumbling optics, and watched them calm down as they got onto the bird. But then I would have retired, once the hordes from 'elsewhere' started to descend on the place. And there lies one of the reasons that I am not going down - the crowds that would be waiting to greet me. That scenario does not have a place in 'my' Dungeness of 2015. It would have the feeling of gate crashing a party. There are many birder's at this very moment sweating in their places of employment, clock-watching, working out how they can bunk-off early and head to Dungeness. I do not envy them those feelings as I've been there before. In the 'old-days' my overriding reasons for twitching the bird would have been so that I didn't miss out, be gripped off and somehow be a lesser birder. But, as I sit here typing this, I do not feel an ounce of any of that. And for that I feel really happy. My peace for staying put and doing so out of choice, is total. Twitter is now throwing up 'back-of-the-camera' shots of the bird (nice) and also pictures of the ever increasing throng of birders, many of the faces people that I know. I'm really happy for them. But I won't be joining them.

My time in the field has become one in which I am connecting more with the places themselves - the geography, the geology, the weather conditions and the assemblage of species before me. It has all become a far more personal and, dare I say, spiritual experience. It is of the moment, not twitched, not pre-ordained, these moments just happen. Rarity is always a great bonus (I was more than thrilled when I stumbled across the Long-tailed Blue earlier this month). I am going back down to Dungeness for an extended stay next month. It is undoubtably a good time for rare birds, BUT - the overriding reason for my choosing that particular time of year is the hope for visual spectacle in the form of falls and visible migration, moments in time that will be of a personal nature and cherished. But if the numbers are missing, those intimate moments can still evolve - a Goldcrest foraging in a lone broom bush out on an empty beach; a Redwing falling out of a clear sky and pitching down in front of you; a late Swallow arrowing out to sea in search of an African savannah - all redolent of the need to survive, of witnessing big moments in a single species life. I recently blogged about spectacle over rarity. Last autumn, the Dungeness boys and girls witnessed a day of Ring Ouzel migration that numbered in the hundreds. I hankered after that, I wished that I had been there to witness it - and I'm not feeling that with this Empidonax flycatcher.

Most of those who are there today, witnessing this very rare American flycatcher, would not understand where I'm coming from. I'm not suggesting that they should. Of course, for the finder, coming across such a rare migrant by the vegetation-less fishing boats, will be something that he will never forget. But for me, the events of today, and my reaction to them, are comforting indeed.


  1. Spoken throughout like a true naturalist and patch watcher - but a rather lengthy way of saying - "what a load of twats twitchers are".
    I wonder how many jobs got risked today because of a sudden absence, how many wives or husbands got pissed off, again, at seeing somebody suddenly cancelling an important date and disappearing out of the door, how many near accidents there were on busy roads in the rain as somebody took too many risks in their panic to not miss seeing the bird.

  2. Steve/Derek,
    Here, here! It would seem that the ageing process allows for these developments - if this had been 1999 I'd have rung in sick, developed a migraine and or claimed a fake emergency - all in the cause of seeing someone else's bird. What nonsense, when in reality it's just a bird and if you really do care about Empidax flycatchers, then surely a holiday in America is where you'll do your learning. Get your eye in on the subtleties of plumage variation and the like. The shingle desert isn't going to be conducive to anything close to a learning experience purely because of the hoards of camera wielding, rabid, individuals who have reduced a, once peaceful pursuit, into a mindless, number chasing, sport. And yes, I'll take my share of the blame for promoting such antics - 70 mph along the Elmley RSPB track just to "Kent tick" a Greater Yellowlegs - oh the shame of my past! It really is rather good fun viewing new light through old windows (to quote Chris Rea) - Dyl

  3. Derek/Dyl. It wasn't my intention for the post to be anti-twitching, more a look at my response to the bird being there. True, gatherings of the 'green hordes' suck the life out of me, but that's my problem, not theirs!

  4. Absolutely brilliant Steve! I'm a purely vicarious twitcher now, or trying to be, though I didn't feel total peace when I heard about this bird. But it has been really enjoyable to read all about it online, look at all the pics of the bird and the crowd, without the faff of actually going to see it.

    1. Thanks Mark. After a week at Dung full of Tree Crickets, Sickle-bearers, Long-tailed Blue, et al, a modest looking bird is not that tempting!

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