On Wednesday 4 October a Red-eyed Vireo had been reported just to the north of where I live in south-west Norway and the birding blogs I follow seemed to report an unending stream of scarce migrants and rarities. Meanwhile, all I had managed locally was a few Yellow-browed Warblers.
In the evening I checked the weather forecast as usual and made some plans for the following day. On a Thursday the boat timetable works well for my local 'rarity island' and normally this is what I would have done. However, I had birded there all day there earlier in the week without anything momentous and knew that some other birders would be covering the island anyway. Nothing significant had happened with the weather and I had flights booked to the east of Norway later in the day so I decided to do my usual round on my local patch at Herdlevær, thinking this would save time and that I would get home with plenty of time to pack and sort the house out before I left.
The weather on 5 October was a perfect autumn morning, being crisp, clear and sunny – more of a vis-mig day rather than conditions likely to produce a fall. Herdlevær was pretty good with an obvious changeout having taken place in the last few days. There was not a huge number of birds about but some good flocks of Goldcrests and increase in the number of thrushes and finches. A Ring Ouzel and two Yellowhammer were local firsts for the year for me and I picked up a Yellow-browed Warbler, so all in all I was quite happy. I was in the process of heading back to the car when I met Øygarden regular, Bert de Bruin.
We chatted about birds, about how certain people seemed to be on a lucky streak and how it would be our turn again sometime, little realising what was in store for us. In late June, I had found the first Gull-billed Tern for the county but by now this seemed to be in the distant past.
When I was almost back at the car I picked up a flycatcher, which I initially called as Spotted but then immediately corrected myself, thinking 'no, it's not'. Although the initial view of the bird was only partial and very brief, something seemed 'off'. It was just too well patterned, mottled on the underparts and with a lot of pale spots on the upperparts. Bert and I both realised that we needed better views and hopefully also photographs.
The mystery flycatcher was initially distant and quite elusive (Julian Bell).
After some nerve-wracking minutes, we managed better views and obtained some record shots before it once again disappeared. The bird was quite mobile in a limited area and frequently vanished, but we persevered and finally obtained much better views and some more images.
This did not actually help too much as we just couldn't make it fit any of the likely suspects – Asian Brown Flycatcher was not really an option and none of the 'Yanks' we could think of fit either. We kept coming back to the idea that it might be a freakish Spotted, but at the same time realising that this was wrong. Bert kept mentioning Dark-sided Flycatcher but neither of us could believe it. By now I was running out of time and was happy enough that we could figure things out later, so we strolled back to where we were parked.
Dark-sided Flycatcher, Herdlevær, Norway, 5 October 2023 (Julian Bell).
Back at the cars we said our goodbyes and I headed home, still not managing to get the bird to fit anything I knew. Bert, however, took another look at his pictures before he left and correctly put the word out – something we had mentioned but couldn't quite actually bring ourselves to do during the initial phase.
As is usual around here, other birders were not far away and turned up soon after I left. After some hasty and mildly panicked telephone calls and requests for pictures which I frantically uploaded before leaving for the airport, excitement was building.
Those with literature to hand and time to peruse the photos properly began to converge on either Dark-sided Flycatcher. While they were doing this, I had packed and driven an hour to the airport. Sitting in a bar next to the departure gate and gulping down a large beer, I also worked my way through some ID literature. We had all come to the same conclusion – this was Norway's first and the Western Palearctic's second Dark-sided Flycatcher.
As one of the county's top rarity finders said, this is likely to be the rarest bird we will see in our lifetimes.