This autumn has been quite phenomenal with regard to rare birds arriving on these shores from Asia and it continued this week with the unexpected discovery of a Dusky Thrush on Sunday 4th December at a picturesque Derbyshire village called Beeley, which lies in a valley below the beautiful contours of the Derbyshire Peak District National Park.
A lady birder called Rachel Jones looking out of her cottage window found the thrush feeding on fallen apples in a small orchard at Dukes Barn which is an adventure centre for disabled children in the village. Rachel placed some pictures of the thrush on the internet, not knowing quite what it was but when it was identified and confirmed as a mega rare Dusky Thrush she advised that she would try to arrange access with the owners of Duke's Barn from Monday onwards for the undoubted hundreds of birders who would wish to see it.
The Dusky Thrush is an extremely rare vagrant to Britain and this bird, a first winter female, is only the twelfth to be recorded here. They breed in north central and north eastern Siberia and normally winter in Japan, Taiwan and southern China.
I first became aware of the thrush's presence on Sunday afternoon via Twitter but at that time no access could be arranged and everyone was advised they had to wait until 10am on Monday morning when it would hopefully be confirmed that access had been granted and birders the length and breadth of the land could make their plans to head for Derbyshire.
Clackers and myself had already decided to go to Sussex on Monday to see a Desert Wheatear and a Rose coloured Starling, having decided to wait for the news about the Dusky Thrush that would follow later that day. Having learnt on our journey back from Sussex that access had been arranged and the thrush was still present we made a plan to go and see it on Wednesday as the weather on Tuesday was predicted to be awful with fog and consequently limited visibility. Checking later on the reports of sightings on Tuesday it was apparent that the thrush had become much more elusive, and flighty, moving between various locations around the village such as the playing field by The Devonshire Arms pub and an area around the Church rather than remaining faithful to the orchard. A few doubts crept into my mind especially when I saw pictures of the crowd of birders crammed in a corner by the dry stone perimeter wall of the orchard. Not my kind of birding at all but I had no choice.
Despite my doubts we decided to go for it as Clackers had never seen a Dusky Thrush and was obviously very keen to rectify this matter. So, on the advice of another Oxonbirder, Peter Law, who saw it on Tuesday we determined to get there at dawn as this would present the best opportunity to see the bird in its favoured orchard rather than chase after it around the village for the rest of the day.
Unable to sleep properly on Tuesday night due to a painful shoulder I rose at 3.30am on Wednesday morning and caught up with some work emails until it was time to head off to collect Clackers from Witney at 5.15am. It was mild outside but dark and dank as I drove to collect Clackers from his house. We set off on the two and a half hour journey to Beeley but soon encountered our first problem with signs advising that the M1 was closed from junctions 18-20 which was on our route north. We stopped in some services, dispensed with the Satnav and consulted an old fashioned road atlas and found we could join the M1 further up by heading directly for Birmingham and then cutting across country. This was seat of the pants navigating the old way but we were none the worse for that. Driving was a motorway nightmare of three lanes of nose to tail traffic, all moving at breakneck speed in a blur of darkness and blazing headlights and the vehicles immediately in front of us were throwing up a fine mizzle from the wet road surface that clouded the windscreen. Constant use of the windscreen washers cleared my view but it was one more unwelcome thing to think about and potentially distract me.
Eventually, having crossed from the M42, we joined the M1 on the other side of the closed section and then slogged our way up the motorway, passing long lines of huge lorries on the inside lane whilst cars and vans, including us, dodged around and past them as best we could.
Our planned arrival at Beeley was originally to be before 8am which is just when dawn breaks but with the ensuing delay of diverting around the closed motorway and the difficult weather conditions we were now scheduled to arrive at some time after 8am. There was nothing I could do but drive as carefully and speedily as was safe with the added hazard, since turning off the motorway, of quite thick mist and low cloud. Although unaware of increasing our altitude as we drove north up the motorway, turning off onto a minor road heading for Beeley it now became apparent we were at some elevation and this had taken us into low lying cloud causing my spirits to sink as it really was quite thick and we would have little chance of seeing the Dusky Thrush in this. We carried on, winding and turning on the tortuous narrow road that was now passing through a mist enshrouded, bleak and uninhabited landscape. We crossed other minor roads that appeared unexpectedly out of the murk, following the instructions from the now reinstated Satnav and slowly descended across Beeley Moor and as we did we dropped below the cloud and mist and visibility became more normal. Beeley, lying as it does at the bottom of a steep valley required us to descend cautiously on a downward spiralling road until we came to a free car park on the edge of the small village
I decided that this would be where we stopped and parked the car and other birders obviously had the same idea. It was now light and I could see that the narrow village roads were already crammed with cars, birders cars undoubtedly, lined bumper to bumper along the sides of the narrow roads.
We got our birding gear together and followed some other birders who knew where to go to find Duke's Barn. We went down the road from the car park to a staggered crossroads at the bottom of the village and turned left up a hill and then after a short walk turned left again and entered Duke's Barn Activity Centre
Two ladies were manning a table outside the Centre dispensing bacon rolls, cakes, tea and coffee. They seemed to be doing a good trade which was pleasing as the Centre relies entirely on voluntary donations to keep going. I put all the change I had in their donation bucket but resisted the cakes! Their small car park with a capacity for only six cars was already swamped. We walked a little further beyond and came to an activity area of boardwalks and rope swings adjacent to the orchard with about eighty birders huddled shoulder to shoulder, tripod to tripod, looking over the low perimeter wall of the orchard to the few scattered apple trees and fallen apples in the centre of the orchard.
Our view of the orchard and scattered apple trees
I must admit to some qualms at the sight of such a scrum of birders. Just where would I be able to stand to get a decent view of the orchard and the apples? I noticed there was a line of birders standing on an elevated section of boardwalk a little way back from the orchard wall, and below and between them and the perimeter wall was a space completely devoid of birders. I have no idea why no one had occupied this, as standing there would not obscure the sightline of the birders on the boardwalk. I needed no second invitation and walked there and stood right by the wall with a perfect view. Clackers, following on, noticed what I had done and joined me as others also noting our actions took similar advantage. We were very lucky as otherwise it would have been what one would euphemistically call 'an elbow job.'
Birders by the orchard wall
We were all set. A birder next to me who had been present since before dawn told me the Dusky Thrush had been feeding on the apples earlier but had flown off. No sooner had he said this than a Blackbird and another 'thrush' landed in the crown of a large tree at the edge of the orchard. The 'other thrush' was the Dusky Thrush and it really was as quick and sudden as that. Clackers had his lifer literally within minutes of arriving and I had seen my second Dusky Thrush in Britain.
It did not stay long, a couple of minutes at the most and then flew off to another unknown part of the village. Now there was a quandary that confronted us. Do we stay put and hope it comes back or do we head off around the village hoping to encounter it again? Many birders opted for the latter and from our position by the wall I could see some of them scattered around gardens on the opposite side of the orchard whilst others were undoubtedly looking elsewhere in the village. We decided we were staying put as we had a superb position overlooking the orchard and I was confident the Dusky Thrush would eventually come back to the orchard. If necessary we had all day to wait for it to appear but hopefully that would not be necessary.
We stood quietly in the windless grey morning and waited. Straggling flocks of Redwings and Fieldfares periodically flew over us, the loose, un-coordinated formations of the latter, a living embodiment of their name and we heard some Crossbills calling as they too flew over but remained unseen. Forty five minutes must have passed before someone shouted from a line of trees a hundred metres or so behind us bordering the play area 'It's here!'. A mass exodus ensued as birders rushed over to try and see the thrush which was perched distantly in a tree on the other side of a field. We stayed put. The thrush did not remain long and the birders soon came back.
An hour and some had passed and then birders on the other side of the orchard were running and looking at some trees that were out of sight for us. 'It must be over there now' I said to my immediate neighbour but we resisted the urge to join them and remained faithful to our position by the wall. Minutes later the Dusky Thrush settled in the same large tree by the orchard, as before, but this time it remained longer and I managed to fire off some record shots of it perched and a bit obscured by twigs in the fork of two substantial boughs.
It was not easy as my sight line required some excruciating body contortions, ever mindful of the hordes behind me who would have no compunction in telling me loudly and clearly not to obstruct their view.
Two minutes, maybe three passed and the Dusky Thrush flew again. As it did a birder behind us shouted 'Its flying!' and eighty other birders rounded on him and told him in no uncertain terms to SSHHHHHHH! He looked as if he wished the ground would open up and shortly after slipped away shamed and embarrassed. I could only feel sorry for him.
A lady from the Centre arrived with sausage and bacon rolls for sale on a large tray. Clackers kindly purchased one of each to keep us fortified. I chatted to the birder next to me who told me he was from Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk and who, like us had decided to remain in his position overlooking the orchard. The three of us were convinced the thrush would eventually come back to the orchard as it had been reported from here at regular intervals on both the previous Monday and Tuesday. Time drifted onwards. Irritating conversations of birder drivel ran through the waiting crowd but there was no sign of the thrush to bring it to an end. Almost another hour had now passed since the Dusky Thrush had flown off. A female Blackbird flew down to the grass to feed on the apples. Now why could that not be the Dusky Thrush! Ten minutes later the Blackbird flew off and we continued our stoic vigil of a now birdless orchard.
A thrush flew in high and fast from the right, its form dark and indistinguishable against the grey sky and dropped like a stone to settle in an apple tree towards the far end of the orchard. Bins up and murmurs in the crowd. 'That's it. It's in the apple tree'. Others enquired anxiously, 'Where is it? Which apple tree?' Directions were relayed in hushed tones from a remarkably well behaved crowd and as the directions rippled through the crowd the Dusky Thrush flew down from the tree towards us and settled in the grass amongst the apples. It was almost in front of us and about fifty metres away. Absolutely fantastic. I cannot describe how elated we felt at finally seeing the Dusky Thrush so clearly. We were getting exceptional views of this beautiful and rare thrush. Our patience and determination had paid a huge dividend as the thrush hopped about in the green grass, jabbing its beak at the fallen apples.
The Dusky Thrush was a medium sized thrush, slightly smaller than a Blackbird and was dull brown on its head with a prominent creamy supercilium running from its bill, over its eye to the rear of its crown.The rest of its upperparts were also brown with a noticeable pale chestnut panel on each wing. Its underparts were white liberally spotted and streaked with grey and black and showing a prominent pale patch on its upper breast.
A male Blackbird arrived in the orchard and immediaterly took exception to the presence of the Dusky Thrush and attacked it. We groaned audibly. 'Bloody Blackbird. Why now? Go away!' but annoyingly the Blackbird persisted with its attacks. Anxiety levels rose amongst us, fearing the worst that the Dusky Thrush would fly off out of the orchard. Fortunately the Dusky Thrush was made of sterner stuff and avoided the Blackbird's aggressive charges by only flying a short distance away and remaining in the orchard but the Blackbird chased after it and persisted in its threatening behaviour Then the tables turned with a vengeance. The Dusky Thrush rounded on the Blackbird and gave it a thorough dose of its own medicine, which resulted in the Blackbird desisting and retreating, like all bullies do when they are confronted. This was still not enough for the Dusky Thrush however which made sure with one more flying charge, that the Blackbird departed the orchard once and for all and left it in peace.
The male Blackbird getting its come uppance from the Dusky Thrush
The Dusky Thrush then messed around in one of the apple trees for a few minutes before dropping back to the ground and resumed its feeding on the fallen apples.
Another ten minutes passed and then with a rattling chaka chaka chak call, a bit similar to a Fieldfare, it flew rapidly up and away from the orchard towards the centre of the village.
A gentle murmur rose to a crescendo amongst the assembled throng of birders. Everyone had gained more than satisfactory views during the twenty or so minutes the Dusky Thrush fed in the orchard and like theatre goers after the performance is over and the actors have taken their final bow, we let our concentration relax and felt able to talk amongst ourselves in more than a whisper as we congratulated each other, recounted our personal experiences and decided what to do next.
The by now traditional post twitch shot of Clackers with
one more species to add to his UK list!
We decided that it was time to take our leave. We could do no better than this and as soon as we moved away other birders hurried to fill the space we left. Birders were now constantly arriving and spreading out all over the village. There must have been three to four hundred present in various places with many gravitating to the wall enclosing the orchard.
We walked back to the Duke's Barn Centre to find that complete chaos had now engulfed the tiny car park with cars jammed and unable to reverse or go forward whilst a stream of arriving and departing birders weaved their way back and fore between them. A long queue had formed for the toilets. The table laden with cakes was still intact but there was no sign of the ladies. Thank heavens we had parked well away from here. At the cross roads I looked down the road and at the bottom another large assembly of birders were looking over the road to a field opposite which presumably was where the Dusky Thrush had now settled.
A familiar diminutive figure came into view. It was a fellow Oxonbirder in the form of Gnome, who had just arrived. We greeted each other, had a brief chat and gave him directions as to where to go. Other birders just arriving anxiously asked us if the thrush was showing well and we told them 'Yes, about every hour' and also gave them, based on our experience this morning what little advice we could.
At this point may I record our personal thanks to the owners and staff of the Duke's Barn Visitor Centre for being so welcoming and hospitable. Also to the patient and understanding residents of Beeley who found their beautiful village invaded by an army of birders and inevitably suffered some disruption to their everyday activities.
This had to be one of the biggest twitches of the year. It was not quite on the stratospheric level of the Siberian Accentor at Easington in October but getting close. We felt good. A high risk adventure had paid off yet again and my hundred percent success rate at twitching with Clackers remains intact. Not quite a miracle for us both but close. (See some video of the Dusky Thrush at the bottom of this post)
Here is a list of the birds Clackers and myself have seen on our various twitches in the last two years and so far we have never dipped once! It will happen one day but until then .............
Harlequin Duck -Aberdeen Scotland
Ferruginous Duck- Slimbridge Gloucestershire
Lesser Scaup -Cardiff Wales
Franklin's Gull- New Brighton Cheshire
Forster's Tern - Mistley Essex
Pectoral Sandpiper - Sidlesham West Sussex
Dotterel - Sheringham Norfolk
Great Knot- Titchwell Norfolk
Kentish Plover- Manchester
Grey Phalarope- Sidlesham West Sussex
Great Spotted Cuckoo -Portland Dorset
Wryneck - Church Norton West Sussex
Dusky Thrush - Beeley Derbyshire
Desert Wheatear - Normans Bay East Sussex
Siberian Stonechat - Titchfield Haven Hampshire
Isabelline Shrike- Beeston Norfolk
Rose coloured Starling - Crawley West Sussex
Citrine Wagtail - Spurn East Yorkshire
Blyth's Pipit - Wakefield West Yorkshire
Red breasted Flycatcher -Burnham Overy Staithe Norfolk
Red flanked Bluetail - Wells Woods Norfolk
Olive backed Pipit -Wells Woods Norfolk/Kilnsea Yorkshire
Siberian Accentor - Easington Yorkshire
Penduline Tit - Exmouth Devon
Yellow browed Warbler - Wells Woods Norfolk/ Spurn Yorkshire
Pallas' Warbler - Kilnsea East Yorkshire
Arctic Warbler - Kilnsea East Yorkshire
Dusky Warbler - Spurn East Yorkshire
Barred Warbler - Staines Middlesex/ Cley Norfolk
Booted Warbler - Llandudno North Wales
Wilson's Warbler - Isle of Lewis Scotland
Cirl Bunting -Paignton Devon
Little Bunting - Spurn East Yorkshire/Cardiff Wales
Video of Dusky Thrush courtesy of Badger/Megabrock Productions
Video of Dusky Thrush courtesy of Badger/Megabrock Productions