All the 3s: Blue Rock Thrush in the Cotswolds – 28th Dec

Another fine reason arose to be out and about in the frosts of mid-winter when news of this bird broke yesterday from the Cotswold town of Stow-on-the-Wold, Glos. I have encountered Blue Rock Thrush often enough abroad. The national bird of Malta where I commenced my southern Europe travels five years ago, I have also observed the species in Cyprus and Morocco, and several times each in the south of France and Portugal. But more parochial British list additions are always welcome and this one represents bird number 333.

12 months ago an incessant Atlantic weather pattern was dampening my spirits prior to a January escape in the BRT’s home territory. Now the elements have contrived to cater for my choice to endure the British winter this time around, by offering up more cold, clear days of the kind I so enjoy. It was a glorious, frosty daybreak at home in Garsington but on the other side of Oxford there was fog that endured throughout the day. The A40 was closed west of Witney due to a 20 vehicle fatal accident, necessitating a detour through that town. Eventually I arrived in Stow some time before 11:30am.

The pay and display car park closest to the bird was full, with green clad optics carriers coming and going. As I walked from there towards the BRT location people coming back the other way were all content and saying: “It’s showing well,” and such like. As with the Derbyshire Dusky Thrush this occurrence demonstrates how a rarity can remain beneath the radar for some time, in this instance a week before someone with a passing interest puts images on social media and news gets out. Then local residents need to brace themselves for an invasion, prepare the charity buckets and sit tight.

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Thar he blows!

On reaching Fisher Close I found a rather modest gathering who were all clearly on the Blue Rock Thrush that was perched obligingly atop a chimney (pictured above). Voila! Apparently there had been around 200 birders crowded into the small cul-de-sac at first light, which must have been a bit of a shock to any late-waking resident who might not have been forewarned. I myself do not feel the need for dawn starts unless there’s a significant advantage in seeing a bird. But I likewise appreciate that getting there early is a matter of form for many birders.

I only needed to tick this BRT for Blighty and thereafter was content for the twitch to turn into a social occasion. There wasn’t long to wait as I looked to my left and found fellow Oxon birder Adam (Hartley), who I would have been surprised not to see here. We chatted for a while then I looked behind and someone else was smiling and waving. Andy? No the Viking beard couldn’t have grown that much since before Christmas. Here were Wayne and Julie (Bull) and before long we were joined by Keith and Shirley (Clack) who I also somehow expected to meet. As we stood around talking these various friends greeted other birders who they knew from here or there: twitching is like that!

All the while the reason for our being present kept coming and going, perching on roof apexes and taller chimneys. It seemed a rather incongruous location for a Thrush that I have always associated with inland or coastal cliff faces in southern Europe. But this bird was treating the environment of it’s adopted resting place in exactly the same way as I had always observed its kind in the past, as I consider the above images show.

This is only the seventh British record of a shy species that normally is seen at distance in its home range and tends to hide itself when disturbed. Today’s BRT was no exception. It behaved just as all those others I have seen abroad did, appearing at height as a silhouette and surveying all before it. But when light caught this male bird in the right way its deep blue colouration and strikingly long bill could be plain to discern. For some quality images see here.

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Definitely not a covert Oxon sortie into Glos … just a social gathering

It remains to reflect upon how I seem to have spent some time in Gloucestershire of late. That neighbouring county has hosted Dusky Warbler and Eastern Black Redstart in December 2016, as well as the Richard’s Pipit and Blue Rock Thrush of this journal’s last two entries. All of those are birds I have yet to record in God’s own county (Oxon) where we currently survive on a diet of Bittern, Harriers, Caspian Gull and Tristis Chiffchaff. Whilst appreciating those are all excellent birds to have in a central, land-locked English county, I as always yearn for something new and different. And so far this winter I have not fared too badly a little further afield.

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A Richard’s Pipit at Arlingham, Glos – 26th Dec

Having been pleased to add Blyth’s Pipit to my life list four days ago, I decided also to have a look at this very similar bird. I went to a site by the Severn estuary just to the south-west of Gloucester with a vague idea of assessing how much difference I could detect between the two. But my prime motivation was just being out and about, not too far from home (66 miles) on what was a beautiful, clear mid-winter’s day.

Arriving mid-morning and parking short of some farm buildings (SO709119) I set off along a right of way through a muddy farm yard then onward to a flood defence embankment. Being alone, finding the bird seemed like a challenge and Meadow Pipits began to fly up from either side of the earthwork that I hoped would be a harbinger of something scarcer. Before me stretched a restful landscape of subtle purple, ochre and green hues (pictured below) all in a hazy light. It was low tide. Here and there busy little Stonechat adorned fence posts and wires, while more commonplace Chaffinch and Dunnock went about their own business.

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The Severn estuary at Arlingham

And so I took a little time to luxuriate in being somewhere new, different and this pleasant. The directions on RBA cited a narrow rough field in which was a mistletoe covered hawthorn. This (below) looked like the spot and there ahead of me were three more birders clearly observing something in the greener area between me and themselves. Scanning to where the right hand person was looking I found a bird of the right shape and jizz. Not such a challenge after all then!

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The Richard’s Pipit site

The other birders now walked on ahead of me and I followed. As I caught up with them a bird went up out of long grass and over our heads, emitting a rasping chree-up call. This was definitely not a Mipit but indeed my bird for today. The call of Richard’s Pipit is also a key indicator, since upon referral to my favoured Helm guide I find that Blyth’s has several quieter and softer ones. The RP then settled briefly to the landward side of the flood defence, before crossing over and feeding in the short-cropped green area.

Now we crept up on the blind side of the embankment, before peeping over the top and watching the bird moving slowly away. The feeding action at once struck me as being less energetic than last Thursday’s Blyth’s. As I had recalled from my two previous sightings of Richard’s, today’s bird appeared a little darker-toned and the likewise reddish legs seemed of less super model proportions. The record images (below) do not reveal too much, but as always show at least that I am not making this story up. For a good one captured at a later date see here.

I then walked away to put the sighting on RBA and when I re-joined my companions they said the Pipit had moved into longer grass along the river’s edge. It remained out of sight for around 30 minutes before reappearing some distance towards the farm buildings. That was the direction in which I needed to head, and so I began to walk back. The RP was now keeping to the far side of the green area and it could have been a long wait for the bird to come closer for a decent photograph. And so, with things still to do at home I left.

So just how much variation could I detect between these two larger, wintering Pipits? I will not attempt to go into plumage topography since I am not knowledgeable enough to do so and in any case that bores me. But I have to agree with the Helm guide’s assertion that in the absence of obvious diagnostics the two just appear distinctly different in the field. The most important thing of all was that my third Richard’s Pipit had cleansed my weary dark-season soul a little by giving purpose to a quite refreshing morning out.

Blyth’s Pipit at Blagdon Lake, Somerset – 22nd Dec

When this bird was identified last Monday five days after first being found, I at once recognised an exceptional opportunity to gain a difficult lifer. When any British mainland Blyth’s Pipit has appeared on RBA in the past it always seemed like a tricky species even to get sight of never mind distinguish from the very similar Richard’s Pipit, indeed citations are often qualified by the word “probable”. But this individual had been showing well on open ground around a lake shore near Bristol all this week prior to my visit on a fine winter’s day today.

Since the first modern British record of Blyth’s Pipit in 1988, this rare vagrant from eastern Asia has become increasingly regular in late autumn, with a few lingering into winter. But most of these are encountered in the Hebrides and Scillies where I have never been. The majority of large Pipits seen after early October are the Siberian breeder Richard’s Pipit that averages around 120 a year. I have observed the latter twice at Weymouth, Dorset (Jan 2012) and on Portugal’s Sagres peninsula (Jan 2014).

Blagdon Lake (ST508595), at the northern edge of the Mendip Hills, is managed by Bristol Water primarily as a private fishing facility, but bird watching is accommodated for permit holders. Access is currently allowed for visitors wishing to see this rarity. Around 11:30am I arrived at the fishing lodge car park (as instructed on RBA) to find very few cars and fewer birders. The consensus amongst a confused smattering of us was to walk east along the lake’s perimeter road and see what we found. Then birders driving back the other way let us know that vehicle access had been opened up closer to the area that the Pipit favoured.

On relocating to a spot known as “Green Lawn” birders were dispersing and I was told the BP had just flown to an area east of the trees (pictured below). There were three locations at the eastern and of the lake that it commuted between in company with several Meadow Pipits. So I walked on and fortunately found myself in company with two very knowledgeable and helpful volunteer wardens who quickly put myself and others onto our quest. With the tick gained that familiar surge of relief known to all birders swept through me and it was then possible to relax and enjoy. And this little number performed very well.

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Blagdon Lake on a perfect winter’s day

The Helm guide to confusion species describes Blyth’s rather aptly as exhibiting few diagnostic features but “a host of minor differences that create the impression of something distinctly different”. Having had the benefit of watching this bird for a few days, the wardens described all those nuances as the first winter Pipit moved ever closer along the shore. I will not go into detail but to me it stood out amongst the Mipits for being much more long-legged with an upright stance. It had an energetic feeding action, often raising or tilting its head to one side when the smallish bill became apparent. Something different indeed! Eventually all the Pipits flew back to Green Lawn where I captured a record shot (below) that shows the bird’s generally buffy hue and long reddish legs.

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Blyth’s Pipit

On this twitch I was struck by the very welcoming outlook of local birders who were helping visitors to get onto the rarity. One of them said this was the biggest gathering so far this week, and save for an inevitable person with a camera trying to get far too close everything was conducted in a good spirit. I also met bird warden Nigel Milbourne who publishes the Blagdon Lake web site (see here), and would like to express here my appreciation for his efforts in putting information out and negotiating visitor access with Bristol Water. Mission accomplished and with the great assistance of these true birding colleagues a rather difficult lifer in the bag.

Dusky Thrush at Beeley, Derbyshire – 6th Dec

When news broke on Sunday of a Siberian breeding Thrush in the Peak District national park it was not to be missed. Collins lists seven Asian Thrushes that occur as stragglers in western Europe through autumn and winter. Like the star passerines that enlivened England’s north-east cost during October they really ought to migrate the other way into south-east Asia, and I myself had yet to see any of them until now.

I believe some of these and other native European Thrushes are known affectionately to some birders as “The Turds” due to their Latin genus name of Turdus. Today’s Dusky Thrush Turdus eunomus is the same shape as a Song Thrush and a little larger than a Redwing with attractive variegated patterning. As if to demonstrate how very many rare migrants must go undetected in usually unwatched areas, this individual had apparently been present in the village of Beeley, just inside the national park boundary for around two weeks. Then a local resident photographed it, word got out and a major twitch ensued.

I had spent a perfect sunny winter’s Sunday scouring local woodlands for Crossbill that is still missing from the 2016 Oxon year list that local form dictates I do not admit to keeping. The result was mild dark season depression. Walking the south Oxon downs hoping to cross paths with a Merlin recently had produced the same effect and the prospect of starting all over again in January really doesn’t enthral me. Drifting lethargically into the new week, upon seeing a lifer’s presence confirmed 137 miles from home I searched online for local accommodation, found a last minute room in a well-rated B&B for £45 and booked it straight away. Having made that decision, with the prospect of hitting the road and a new bird to see, I felt alive again.

After Monday afternoon at the charity shop where I volunteer, I set off northwards at 6:30pm. Yes there is life after 5 o’clock in mid-winter, and propelled along by the best driving at night sound in the world ever (that’s another Slash reference) I soon found myself on the M1 motorway north of Leicester. It was a pleasant and uneventful run and around 9pm I drew up at my B&B in a very frosty Matlock. Checking RBA at breakfast the Dusky Thrush was reported early. I arrived on site at 8:50am to a very well-organised twitch, with coffee, bacon sandwiches and toilet facilities all laid on by Beeley’s Duke’s Barn outdoor activity centre (a registered charity) where I got the last parking space and made a donation.

The Dusky Thrush is in the apple tree (centre)

The Dusky Thrush is in the apple tree (centre)

Local birders who were stewarding the event confirmed the instruction on RBA that the bird could be looked for in an orchard from behind one of the centre’s barns. I walked around that building to find a large group of visitors all crammed into a rather cramped and obstructed viewing area. The picture above gives the general impression. This struck me at once as a gathering of seasoned, traditional birders as belied by the near absence of big camera lenses. Proper field etiquette was being observed that included not talking loudly until the bird has been seen, and everyone just watched and waited patiently.

Things didn’t take too long. After 20 minutes the Dusky Thrush, a first-winter probable female was located in dense tree cover at one end of the orchard and a certain amount of jostling and getting in one another’s way ensued. That was inevitable in the circumstances and guess what, I was one of those who could not get on to the bird. But then the DT moved left to feed in one then another apple tree, revealing all it’s subtle plumage detail. To me it resembled a rather pale Redwing with a broad and prominent supercilium. This superb image (here) on RBA shows exactly how I too saw the bird, so it was just as well there were one or two big lenses present after all. For the full RBA gallery of this bird see here.

Dusky Thrush (fem)

Dusky Thrush (fem)

I had stepped up onto a boardwalk behind the watching group and concentrated on watching the Thrush rather than trying to get pictures myself. The above image is the best record I could manage. All this lasted for around 10 minutes then at 9:20 the bird flew off into the village. Much of the crowd now dispersed but I elected to hang around for a while and hope for a better photo opportunity. I began chatting to two nearby birders about our earlier sighting and new arrivals nearby told us to be quiet. Well, I can’t have it both ways! Occasionally over the next hour people would claim obstructed views but the DT did not show well again in that time.

By 10:30, mindful of the need to head back to work early in foggy conditions, I went for a wander around the village. Birders and their cars were now everywhere, possibly to the annoyance of local residents and play group mums. Well that’s poetic justice, but if I’m referring to parents of disabled children using the centre I withdraw the sentiment of course. There was no way the Duke’s Barn car park alone could have contained such an influx as had been instructed on RBA. Everyone was searching for the DT, apparently with little success. The bird was seen a few more times later in the day but I had been party to it’s best showing.