22 Sept 2015

22 Sep 15 - Flying To Catch The Dunge Empidonax

I was thinking it was about time to head out to Brands Bay for today's mid morning low tide, when I heard the pager wail its mega alert from downstairs. A quick look at the RBA website, said a New Mega Species at Dungeness. I was confused as I failed to read the message properly & hadn't spotted the new Mega species was detailed in the message. Therefore, I decided to finish off entering some recent Bird notes & wait for an update to see what this new mystery species was, before I reacted. Then two rapid calls from local Poole Birders, Marcus Lawson & Richard Webb, got me reading the message again properly. Damn it was an Empidonax Flycatcher i.e. one of those tricky New World species of Flycatchers. It had been found on the beach near the fishing boats at Dunge. Marcus was ready to leave from Poole immediately, but Richard didn't think he could leave for 90 minutes. I could leave as soon as I had grabbed the camera, waterproofs & make a coffee for the journey. While doing that, Marcus rang back to say he would wait to grab a lift as I passed a pick up place in Poole. We couldn't wait the hour for Richard. Marcus & I made good time to Dunge, after planning to avoid the two long 50 mph sections on the M3, by going via the A3. But after passing the M3 turnoff on the M27, we saw a sign to say the A3 was closed at Guildford: not good news. I nearly spun the car back for the M3, but then Marcus suggested a compromise of going cross country to the M25 via the A29, A24 & M23: this turned out to be a surprisingly good option. We arrived in the rain just after 14:00 to find a modest crowd of only 100 - 150 people on two sides of South View garden. A quite surprising small crowd for an unknown Empidonax Flycatcher. Pager messages, while we were en route, were suggesting it wasn't an Alder Flycatcher: hence it was probably a first for Britain. But it was raining & some people had probably already seen it & left. Many who were waiting on news of its identity were probably behind us on the road. Marcus had been looking at photos & suggesting Yellow-bellied Flycatcher or Acadian Flycatcher. My opinion was clear: as driver I should keep my eyes on the road, so I hadn't even seen the photos. But Marcus's thoughts sounded better to me than a probable Alder Flycatcher: having seen the first UK record of Alder Flycatcher in Cornwall.
The crowed around South View cottage: It was best looked from the area close to the telegraph pole
I joined the crowd, waiting in the steady rain, to hear it had been seen about 15 minutes earlier, but was now out of view in the garden. I got the camera & scope all set up hoping as the rain stopped, it would show itself. It did & it didn't. The rain did stop briefly, I saw a couple of flight views of a small interesting looking Bird fly low down a couple of times around the front of the cottage. The reaction from people at the other end of the line of Birders, suggested that was the Flycatcher. But it kept very low & eventually this Bird seemed to flick back low into the garden. Looks like that had been the Flycatcher, but obviously well beyond any chance of being sure for me. I waited for another twenty minutes hoping it would appear in the main garden, but no joy. Ten minutes later, Marcus walked along to where I was standing, to say he had seen it at the other end of the line of Birders & I really needed to change position. I was tempted to stay put, but was also worried that as more people arrived, that it may be difficult to get into a good viewing position at the other end of the line of Birders. So I moved & managed to squeeze into a viewing position to look into the front garden. The only problem, it was appearing near a bench & TV dish, but there was swaying vegetation & a wire fence in my foreground. Not a problem for my bins, but I was worried the camera would be more fussy. Ten minutes later, it few back into view & sat on the bench. A quick bins view confirmed it was an Empidonax Flycatcher.
Empidonax Flycatcher: The initial photo isn't going to be a great help to figure out the species. In fact, the first seven photos were of foreground, then the camera managed to get the focal point correct. Even now, it's blurred due to foreground vegetation, but there are a couple of tantalizing wingbars to be seen
Having got this initial photo, it flicked off left & out of view again. But I was pleased to have seen the Flycatcher & got a few photos. I might have got better views & a better photo, but for some totally disgraceful behaviour from the blue hat of Steve Gantlett appearing right in my viewpoint. As the Flycatcher started to show, a group of five or so people through it was acceptable to move in front of the line of Birders who had been patiently standing there & were watching it. They then started to stand up in front of the crowd. The worst offender was Steve Gantlett, who was highest up & in my direct line of sight. He deserved the verbal abuse he received. No apology was provided as he or the others left after the Flycatcher moved out of sight.

About twenty minutes later, the Flycatcher was back. Fortunately, for a longer view & without any fresh stampede in front of our group. I was in a slightly better position, but with more foreground vegetation in front of me. This time, I was even quicker to switch to the camera & was rapidly firing away on every opportunity. The guy next to me expressed some comment of surprise about the number of photos being rattled off, but in reality it was only about one hundred over several minutes. This is with my new camera body which I'm still getting use to: the Canon 7D Mark II. I finally started to fall in love with it today. It's a lot quieter & can shoot ten frames a second (compared to eight on the old camera). So both are better especially with a close Bird & in a crowd. But I've had it for about three weeks now & haven't been that happy with it during that time, as I've been convinced it was wasn't as sharp as my old Canon 7D Mark I. I confirmed that at the weekend, when I used a test pattern to tune the AF microfocus settings (thanks Northlight Images). Some test shots on the Monday showed a noticeable improvement to the sharpness. Today, the photos were looking a lot better. What the guy next to me might not have appreciated, that the 400mm lens & the internal 1.6x cropping gives the equivalent of a 13x magnification & the incredibly clear screen is almost as good as the bins, providing its focusing at the right point. So just watching the Flycatcher through the camera isn't a bad option. But there was still the foreground vegetation swaying in the wind. But every time the focus was right on the Flycatcher, then another few photos were taken. Based on some good feedback from Peter Moore about the 7D Mark II from Scillies pelagics (& other August posts) and photos on St Mary's, another bonus of the Mark II is the relative lack of grain at higher ISO settings. The light was really poor & it was raining more than not, so I had set the ISO to 2000. This was a lot higher than I would have considered with the Mark I, but I didn't want to end up with the shutter speed being too slow, if I got the chance for some photos. I should have been able to get away with an ISO closer to 1000, but wasn't prepared to try adjusting settings when the Flycatcher was on view. Enough about the camera, I will now let the photos speak for themselves.
Acadian Flycatcher: All the photos have been cropped & sharpened, but no other changes to colour balance have been made
Acadian Flycatcher
Acadian Flycatcher
Acadian Flycatcher: A nice shot of the head shape
Acadian Flycatcher
Acadian Flycatcher: In the end, I had just these eight photos from just over 100 photos. Most were obscured by vegetation with some having nice views of the foreground or fence
Acadian Flycatcher: A rear shot showing the extensive wingbar & tertial edgings. Pity there is vegetation blurring out the wing detail of the primaries
So what species of Empidonax Flycatcher is it. I haven't had the chance to look at the books, other than the Sibley field guide that was quickly thrown into the car. Not, that I particularly rate this field guide. On the face of it, Acadian Flycatcher looks to be the best overall fit to me at this point. But Sibley isn't great & more reading is certainly needed. Something to read up in the morning. Having got some reasonable views & photos, then I decided to give up my position to let others get a chance of views.
Post Blog write up comment: I've been struggling to find decent Id information within my library, but the RBA & Birdguide teams have been hard at working this out. So happy to amend the photos from Empidonax Flycatcher: Probably Acadian Flycatcher to Acadian Flycatcher. Ultimately, there is some DNA work that will be investigated as some Flycatcher poo is currently in the post from the Dungeness Bird Obs.
Acadian Flycatcher. The uncropped sixth photo
So what are my other thoughts about the Canon 7D Mark II. I was totally gripped about the mega deal that Peter seemed to get with his new camera body (see this blog Post for details, but do not view in the presence of others who might be offended by your subsequent outbursts of bad language). But after today, then perhaps there is a special reward scheme for Birders buying this new camera body. Looks like I cashed my reward in today.