September 20th   Leave a comment

robin1All yesterday I had a great sense of frustration as I worked in my office and looked at the weather and thought about east winds and good birds to be found. A report came in mid-morning of a red-breasted flycatcher and some yellow-browed warblers from Kilminning. I couldn’t drop what I needed to do so I cheered myself with the thought that even with the improving weather, and migrants would probably stay around a few days. Autumn migration is a much more leisurely affair than spring migration and the displaced birds that end up in our corner of Fife this time of year usually take at least few days to refuel before moving on. Then I thought about red-breasted flycatchers being fairly difficult to detect and that most of the migrants this week probably came in on Tuesday or Wednesday. It has just been so murky since that they probably hadn’t been picked up until Friday when it actually got fully light during the day. That brought on more gloomy thoughts of everything setting off again overnight and Saturday being just too late. I glanced out of the window every now and then thinking of the world outside and me being inside and on one occasion saw a pied flycatcher in the sycamore tree a few meters from my window. A great migrant bird to see, indicative of the great conditions I was probably missing and for once coming to me rather than me having to search it out. I called my PhD student Sam over to see it. Sam is Nigerian and has seen hundreds of pied flycatchers during the course of his PhD fieldwork where he is recording, amongst other migrants, the distribution and the habitat use of pied flycatchers in Africa. But he has never seen one in Europe. Although he spends the summer here as the flycatchers themselves do, he has been too busy writing up to go and find one. The pied flycatcher we were watching will be back in West Africa before Sam.

I had a quick look around Denburn on my return home in the hour before dark. The murk had returned so making it unlikely that any migrant would leave overnight but making it impossible to see anything in the wood. Still I felt I had to try.

Saturday morning arrived at last and I headed off to Kilminning. I met a couple of other birders there and after about 30 minutes I relocated the red-breasted flycatcher. It was a tricky bird, keeping to the centre of the bushes and under the canopy of the trees. In two hours I had about a minute and a half looking at it. Some really nice views but never long enough to attract the other birders over to have a good look. There are two strategies for finding a bird like a red-breasted flycatcher. If you know where it is – and they tend to follow a circuit of a hundred meters or less through a patch of stunted woodland or tall bushes – then the best thing to do is to sit down in the middle of an open area under the canopy and wait. Sooner or later the flycatcher will come past and perch in front of you. It will feed there for a half a minute or so before moving out of sight. It takes nerve though to sit still and trust that it will come past. The temptation is to dash about looking into every bush until you find it. But if you look into the bush during the 90% of the time the flycatcher is perched and motionless they are almost undetectable. So the odds of you seeing it using this second strategy are very low. Despite this, and because the first strategy is totally useless if you are not on the flycatchers circuit, most birders use the second strategy. The more experienced birders keep their nerve however and watch individual bushes for ten minutes at a time before moving on. It’s hare and tortoise and the tortoise always wins this race. I’m trying very hard to learn to be a tortoise when my nature is very much hare, ready to dash to the next bush and the next bird. Today I had the luxury of a whole day to bird in with my family otherwise occupied, so I could really practice the tortoise strategy, and it paid off.

The red-breasted flycatcher at Kilminning today

The red-breasted flycatcher at Kilminning today

As I searched for the flycatcher I heard perhaps up to 3 yellow-browed warblers calling. Later I probably heard another one at Balcomie. I didn’t see one all day though. More detectability issues – they were all keeping up in the tops of dense sycamores and if they hadn’t called I would never have known they were there. The red-breasted flycatcher was helpfully calling a bit as well and I found it a couple of time because of this. The yellow-browed warblers stopped calling by about 9 am. I am sure they hadn’t left, they just became undetectable. It really brings home to me what we overlook. Famous rarity hot spots like Fair Isle and the May closer to home are well placed to get migrants it is true, but much of their “rarity appeal” is due to there being only a few bushes for the migrants to hide in and a load of people checking them every ten minutes. Detectability is almost everything in birding. I would love to have a real map of every migrant bird that was around Crail today: I would expect that there were probably another ten red-breasted flycatcher equivalents that were not detected. And of course every birder (including me) headed for the rarity that was detected, so reducing the chance of finding these others elsewhere.

Mindful of this I headed off to Balcomie and Fife Ness. I found a pied flycatcher, a spotted flycatcher, a garden warbler, a fieldfare, a couple of lesser whitethroats, and lots of blackcaps, chiff-chaffs and willow warblers. A good haul of September “lesser” migrants. I enjoyed the flocks of skylarks coming in from the sea, the robins everywhere that have also come in and a single bonxie far out at sea. The weather improved all day until it felt like summer had returned. A lovely autumn day full of optimistic and fruitful bird watching.

Posted September 21, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

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