Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush near Abergavenny, Gwent + historic Raglan Castle – 16th Oct

This seemed as good a chance as is likely to see a montane, southern-European bird in Britain that I had recorded twice previously abroad. After last winter’s Blue Rock Thrush in the Cotswolds, an individual of the Rufous-tailed variety was uncovered five days ago in South Wales. And sensing that the latter too would remain for a while I bided my time a little before setting out to add it to my British list.

The autumn migrant bonanza predicted in early September by RBA has not materialised either locally or nationally. Last month’s good run of form in Oxfordshire fizzled out during my week in Corsica and October has so far resembled the proverbial damp squib. The jet streams have once again taken control of Britain’s weather pattern, hence the potential for respectable east-coast falls of Siberian-breeding migrants has been and remains slight. So thank you birding gods at least for this little number.

Several other Oxon Birders had been to see the Rock Thrush already, but on noting a dry and mild weather outlook for the weekend I chose to get on with preparation towards next season in my garden instead. But those forecasts had not mentioned the grey and spirit sapping side of things. So by Sunday afternoon the familiar urge to just get up and go somewhere was with me once more. I can never remain content staying at home for long.

The Rock Thrush had so far been first reported late morning then through each afternoon. Hence I left home around 10am today (Monday) and checked RBA after reaching the far side of Gloucester. Once again the bird had been relocated at 10:45am after earlier negatives were put out. With a downgraded hurricane passing the western shores of the British Isles this visitor was hardy likely to have gone anywhere. And on reaching site at around 12:30pm conditions were indeed very windy.

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Abergavenny and The Blorenge from Gilwern Hill

To the south-west of Abergavenny rises the huge and brooding mass of “The Blorenge”, not a horror movie monster but the dark brown expanse in the picture (above). I had been there once before to search unsuccessfully for Red Grouse. Immediately west lies the rather less imposing Gilwern Hill (SO245129) that the Rock Thrush has been frequenting, and between the two climbs the B4246 road towards Blaenavon. On getting out of the car I was thankful for a thermal under layer donned in anticipation of wind on the high tops. Then I set off along a track towards some quarries on the northern side of this hill where the bird was said to be.

The scenery could only be described as soul quenching, which was very welcome after working shifts of rather too much stubble, ink and endless grunting since my trip to Corsica. I had hit the road in search of revival and was indeed being rewarded. To the north, across patchwork fields of the Usk valley stretched sunlit uplands of the Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons national park. And away to the east the long, bracken clad crown of The Blorenge spread imposingly beneath clear autumnal skies. But all of this was lit by hazy and insipid atmospheric conditions that made the published vista the only one worth saving.

Returning birders bore contented smiles and I felt snug inside my various layers while forging onwards with the wind at my back. On reaching the location point I at once beheld the welcome sight of several birders with optics raised. Then upon my joining them the Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush was soon pointed out. So that was another quick connect. The bird was moving restlessly around a boulder-strewn slope, perching prominently atop particular rocks here and there but never for too long. There was plenty of this habitat here and it was easy to see why the bird was taking a little time to locate each morning, so I was pleased not to have had to find it myself.

Some birders elected to follow our quest across the hillside when it moved, but I stayed faithful to one spot that it kept returning to. The Rock Thrush was being exactly what the name suggests, a Thrush that likes rocky places. The habitat here was strikingly similar to Mount Vrondou in Greek Macedonia where this year’s earlier encounter had taken place. My first record of the species had been in November 2011 at the as rocky Cape Greco, the south-eastern tip of Cyprus along with a Red-throated Pipit, but neither was accepted by the national recorder. Today, by the time I had got the camera setting right the subject had moved on. No matter, I knew a man who had achieved rather better results a couple of days earlier.

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Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush © and courtesy of Andrew Last

In adult breeding plumage males, such as I had observed in northern Greece earlier this year (see here) are unmistakeable. But immature birds, females and winter plumage males all look very similar. Today’s individual has been identified as a first winter male. The species is a March to September visitor to mountainous areas above 1500m in southern Europe, wintering in sub-Saharan Africa. A stocky-looking Thrush with rather long bill, it generally chooses higher altitudes than the Blue Rock Thrush.

With the show over the other birders I had joined all drifted away one by one. Then with the weather looking set to deteriorate I too headed back to the car after a couple of hours on site. That walk face on into the wind was to say the least bracing. On the way I stopped to talk to two local birders who told me when and where on The Blorenge to locate Red Grouse, so I may well visit here again on a less windy day.

As I have mentioned from time to time, I often like to combine a twitch with a bit of history. Today on the way home I stopped at Raglan Castle on the A40 between Abergavenny and Monmouth, one of the last medieval palace-fortresses and finest remaining buildings of the period in England and Wales. Later amongst the grandest homes in Tudor and Stuart England, built to impress and intimidate by a very powerful family of those times, it retains that sense of awe even in a ruined state.

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The great tower and gatehouse both date from the latter half of the 15th century, arising out of no doubt dubious rewards amassed by the then incumbent as a major supporter of King Edward IV in the Wars of the Roses. That phase of construction ceased following the former’s execution in 1469 but the family’s power and influence in the region continued to grow through strategic marriages within the nobility. During the Elizabethan and Jacobean period of the next century the castle was transformed into a lavish country house with one of the finest gardens of the time.

This staunchly royalist local dynasty did not fare so well, however in the English Civil War. In 1640 Raglan Castle fell to and was trashed by parliamentarian forces. Unable to make much of an impression upon the great tower, the despoilers instead dug under its foundations and one side of the structure came tumbling down like other grand status symbols before and since. The head of the family was hauled off to London and premature death, after which his ancestral pile fell into ruin, becoming a source of local building stone until the early 19th century. But even now the most palpable impressions of past power, wealth and above all status emanate from the structure as the modern day visitor walks around.

This diversion provided a stirring end to what had been a generally exhilarating day. I have always had an interest in ancient sites and historic places and so may extend this journal’s coverage to include more of them in the future. So all you purist birders be warned! Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush was incidentally the 340th bird on my British list.

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