Friday, 30 December 2016

Rock and roll thrush

I thought this year was about finished as far as birding was going. A year tick or two perhaps but nothing exciting. Then, the day after Boxing Day, I spotted that a blue rock thrush has been seen in Stow in the Wold. Apparently it had been there for two weeks happily feeding in a garden before a photo was posted and the bird identified. There was, shall we say, a degree of scepticism on the inter web about its provenance, with a bird park 5 miles away, and this being a relatively popular aviary bird. Photos taken the following day though showed it to be fully unringed, with little sign of cage damage, it was wary and was a 1st winter bird. All of this helped its claims for authenticity so a major twitch was underway.
At 6am when I left the house it was misty and cold. The drive up was slow, with the mist keeping the speeds down but to be honest I was really early and arrived to the car park in Stow about 8.15. Two other cars were disgorging their inhabitants who to judge by the 'scopes were after the same thing. We all walked the short distance to Fisher Close, which is part of a quite nice modern estate on the edge of Stow. There were I suppose 80 birders on site mostly in one spot where the bird was originally sighted. What the residents were thinking I don't know with a few hundred thousand pounds of optics pointing at their bedroom windows!!The lady in the house was collecting for a local charity though and another house was selling tea and coffee so all seemed good.
Over the next three hours the crown swelled then dispersed around the estate as there was no sign of the thrush. We trudged the surrounding roads, scanning rooftops and gardens, checking starlings and blackbirds but no sign of the rock thrush. There was a bonus bird of a flyover waxwing, but the general feeling was "it's done an offsie overnight". I had quite a long chat with one birder from Essex who gave up about 11.40 and headed off. I had a carpark ticket till 1 so I stuck it out. I pottered back to where I started hoping it would come back to favoured haunts but nothing.
Then, suddenly, from the top of the close was a shout of "it's showing". Twenty birders collectively scooped up their gear and ran, literally in my case, following the hordes to a nearby garden. The birders collective sense of fair play kicked in as there was a limited viewing area and we quickly milled through it so everyone "got on" the bird. Then we could relax.

The blue rock thrush is really a native of southern Europe or Northwest Africa, even as far across as Asia. It is a very rare bird here with only 5 accepted records. It should be in mountains and high altitudes, but this Winter has seen any number of rare thrushes and assorted other birds so it's not a given that this isn't a genuine vagrant.
As I said, it's natural habitat it rocky cliffs, and here it was loving the rooftops as a good surrogate.

Size-wise it is about as big as a starling but slimmer and whereas starlings perch vertically it is more horizontal. Of course, it is also blue! The colours were often difficult to make out as the fog was hanging about in the village. You could easily make out the lovely markings on the breast and the sharp, almost pointed beak. Although it is called a starling it is actually in the chat family, or old world flycatchers, hence that beak.
Over the next 45 minutes we followed the thrush around as it moved around a few hundred yards of housing estate, mainly on the rooftops then dropping down into gardens to feed,

It did keep returning though to where we first spotted it, and this was the only area where we could get it on the ground in open sight. It was a bit of a scrum to get to the front, which when owned was not given up easily so I ended up leaning over a fortunately short lady with my 500mm lens trying not to brain her. The thrush did oblige though with sitting up on a flower pot once and "giving itself up".

When it flew off again for another tour I took that as a sign to head home, as did many others. A slow but happy band walked back to the carpark for a celebratory coffee before wending their collective ways home. A stunning end to the year with a real bonus of a mega lifer. I know I said it before but surely there can't be any more surprises in the next two days!!

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Not so dusky

This really is the year which keeps on giving. Up to today I'd got 10 UK lifers, 2 more than last year. Some pretty good birds in there as well - Siberian accentor, Isabelline wheatear, Stejnegers stonechat, arctic warbler, great knot, great spotted cuckoo to name a few. You never want to give up though and December can often drop in a nice bird or two - buff-bellied pipit, Western sandpiper and lesser white-fronted goose come to mind. When the internet started to go mad yesterday though it was a less predictable bird which was sparking interest.
The weather systems throughout Autumn have been mainly bringing in birds from the East - sibe's as they are known. This is what caused the influx of accentors and yellow-browed warblers, mainly on the  East coast, but over the last 3 weeks or so the weather has changed and we have been getting no real rarities popping up.
No one was predicting another true Siberian rarity, a dusky thrush, and certainly not in the middle of the country. This is what occurred though. One had been frequenting a small village called Beesley in Derbyshire for about two weeks, feeding on apples in an orchard with the local redwings. It was only when a local posted a photo of a strange bird on the inter web that someone spotted it for what it was and all hell broke loose.
Dusky thrushes are very rare in this country. There has only been 10 previous sightings  although one in Margate two years age was well twitched, but not by me!!! So, the wheels started to turn and a major  twitch got under way. Fortunately the bird was frequenting an orchard next to a local outdoor activity charity so there was parking and easy access. It was a small village though and over 400 turned up on the first day.
So, I set out just after 5 on a very foggy morning and headed up the largest area of roadworks in the UK, also known as the M1. Three sets of roadworks and one breakdown delayed me a bit, but I still got to the centre about 8. Some people regard twitches as a pain in the proverbial, here though they saw a big opportunity. Volunteers were on site to help you park (£3 donation), give access to their loos, sell tea and coffee and prepare bacon butties (£2). If the bird stays they could make a fortune!!
It was only a 20 yard walk through the carpark to the orchard, where I suppose 50 people were already 'scoping the field.

I got onto the end of the line and almost immediately it flopped out of a tree onto the floor and started munching on apples.

The bird was about twenty yards away, albeit in very dull and misty tending to foggy weather so it was difficult to get good images.

You can just about make out the main features though. Superficially like a redwing, a small thrush with a very bold eye-stripe. No red on the wing, so not a redwing, and that very striking white throat patch. 
It didn't hang about long though, with the local blackbirds giving it a hard time. After no more than 5 minutes it flew off. The crowd was building and by 9 was well over 200 now scattered around the orchard as well as other points in the village trying to relocate the bird. I stayed put and was rewarded 30 minutes later with it popping back and having a munch on an apple, this time in a tree, giving better views.

You can see a few more of the characteristics here as well. Note that really white undertail, definitely not creamy, the very large, regular chest markings and that throat patch. It also has what look like furry leggings, suitable I suppose for a bird which over winters in Siberia!!!
Again it didn't hang around and after only 2 or 3 minutes flew off strongly into the village. The crowd generally started to disperse to partake of the teas and bacon butties or wend their way home. I decided to do the same. As a footnote the bird was only very briefly seen throughout the rest of the day, so the people arriving late got very poor or no views at all. You also wonder how many other rarities might be out there. This one probably arrived with the easterlies and has gone unnoticed since then. Always pays to check the thrush flocks.
I headed off for a cross-country drive to Deeping Lakes for some roosting long-eared owls. They have been present for a few weeks but are apparently hard to see. That was not an understatement. By the time I got there the fog was really setting in. 

The owls are on the island in the mist, not exactly showing well. Fortunately three other birders were just leaving and put me onto the two birds.

The owl is in the top left of the photo, honest....
I gave up after 15 minutes with the fog getting worse and worse and headed back home a very happy person. A cracking bird and pretty surprising and even better that I didn't go for the Margate bird so a grip-back as well. Only three more weeks of the year to go, can there be any more surprises in store? Would be nice wouldn't it!!