Thursday 29 December 2016

The Shortest Twitch Ever 27th December 2016

It was early afternoon and I was just reclining on the sofa reminiscing on what a fantastic year it had been for rare birds in Britain and settling down to watch a football match between Brighton and Queens Park Rangers when there was a discrete ping on my mobile phone, announcing I had a message. It was from Justin so this meant it was bird news. The message was plain and simple 'Blue Rock Thrush near to you'.

I checked RBA and sure enough  news was coming through of a Blue Rock Thrush at Stow on the Wold which was just over the border in Gloucestershire and only ten minutes drive from my home. To say this news took me aback was an understatement. A Blue Rock Thrush, in December, in a small town in the heart of the Cotswolds was about as unlikely a bird record as one could encounter.

Blue Rock Thrushes are found, in the form of various races, over a wide area from northwest Africa and southern Europe then ranging east through the Middle East, China, Vietnam, Japan and Indonesia. The bird at Stow on the Wold is only the seventh to ever be recorded in Britain.

No precise location was given as to where exactly in Stow the thrush was but nevertheless as it was so close I drove to Stow in speculative mode and checked out where I thought it might be, based on photos I saw on the internet and with the forlorn hope that maybe, just maybe the odd local birder might be knocking around the streets of Stow, which is hardly a large town, and could give me more information. Sadly I failed to find any birders or any indication, however slight, of the thrush's location. I drove back home, resumed my position on the sofa and resolved to await further developments which might give news of the thrush's exact location in Stow.

An hour later and there was another ping on my phone with a message from my good friend Badger, this time enquiring whether I was still at home or had I gone to Stow. Why would he be asking this? I checked RBA again and there was the answer - an update about the Blue Rock Thrush had come through, informing one and all it was frequenting the back garden of number 7 Fisher Close in Stow on the Wold and conveniently giving a Satnav reference.

I needed no second bidding and was back in the car in a trice, having left my camera and bins on the back seat in anticipation of just such a scenario. I set off once again on the short drive to Stow, arriving in Fisher Close, which was a cul-de-sac of closely packed houses, some fifteen or so minutes later. I could see three birders at the bottom of the cul-de-sac looking intently up at a nearby rooftop and carefully parking the car in the restricted space available I grabbed my bins and camera and ran the few yards to join them. Looking at the rooftop through my bins I could see the Blue Rock Thrush sat on the apex of the roof. It was brilliant to see it and so quickly but the light was fading and the bird was just a silhouette so any images I attempted with the camera were guaranteed to be woeful. In the bins I could just about discern a dull greyish blue tinge to the bird's overall plumage.

The thrush remained here for five or so minutes and then dropped down on the far side of the roof and was gone.We walked around to view the roof from the other side and the thrush flew up from the ground and settled on another rooftop this time giving closer and more extended views. It was now around four pm and the light was fading rapidly as a few more birders arrived and saw the thrush before it repeated its disappearing act. Fifteen minutes, maybe more, passed and there was still no further sign of the thrush. Blackbirds were already flying to roost and it was now quite dark as I left a handful of anxious birders who had yet to see the thrush and made my way home.

In the interim I had arranged with Badger via my mobile phone that he would come to my house at around seven tomorrow morning and we would go back up to Stow so he too could see the thrush and I could hopefully get some better images. Once I was back at home I consulted Bird Forum to see what other people were saying about the thrush and found out that the address should not have been released as no permission had been given by the owners of the property and there was much speculation about how the residents of the small compact housing estate would feel about the inevitable mass intrusion of birders that was bound to happen tomorrow. Strict instructions were issued that no one was to park in the roads around Fisher Close or in the Close itself but anyone visiting should park in the Pay and Display car park nearby, and above all else everyone should respect the residents privacy and avoid any behaviour that might engender conflict with the residents.

To be frank I feared the worst.

That evening Badger texted me again advising that thick fog was predicted for Oxfordshire tomorrow and maybe we should hold off until around ten. I was agreeable to this as it would mean a much less hurried preparation tomorrow.

Wednesday arrived and consulting my RBA app I saw that the Blue Rock Thrush had already been reported that morning at seven thirty. Looking out of my bedroom window I could see fog, but not dense fog, had brought its opaque presence to the surrounding countryside and it would preclude any photography but certainly it would still be possible to see the thrush as visibility would not be too bad. Also, with my local knowledge I knew that Stow was one of the highest points in the Cotswolds and that fog at lower elevations such as in my village of Kingham often did not apply to Stow which was a few hundred metres higher. However the decision had been made to wait until ten and the fog did come to affect us in another way as it caused a fatal crash which closed the A40 near Witney and Badger, coming from Abingdon was half an hour behind schedule as he had to make a big detour to avoid the chaos.

At half past ten we set off from my house in the Audi to make the very short trip to Stow. As we climbed up the road from Kingham to Stow we left the foggy surrounds and at Stow found ourselves above the fog and in brilliant sunshine and clear blue skies. A typical crisp, clear, Cotswold winter's day greeted us. It could not have been better. 

Foregoing the expense of the Pay and Display car park I again used my local knowledge and quickly found a free parking space on the main road in Stow by the Bell Pub. From here the thrush was just a few hundred metres walk into the housing estate.

I expected to find quite a scrum of birders but  on our arriving at the top of Fisher Close was pleasantly surprised to find a relatively small number of birders present, no more than forty, standing clustered in the road and looking at the Blue Rock Thrush sitting on the top of a chimney on one of the house roofs in Fisher Close.

Our first distant view of the Blue Rock Thrush
Badger saw it too and so the main objective of this morning's visit, namely that Badger got to see the thrush, was achieved with minimum fuss and virtually instantaneously. Two ladies carrying buckets circulated amongst us collecting donations for a local hospice and we, together with most other birders lobbed in some pound coins to show our appreciation.

Badger getting into the spirit of things with the residents and
indulging in some Neighbourhood Watch
My worries about any conflict between the residents and birders proved to be groundless. The residents regarded us with a mixture of bemusement and curiosity and were without fail friendly and accommodating, showing much interest in both us and the thrush and where both we, and the thrush, had come from. In turn we showed the utmost care to not impinge on the day to day lives of the residents, keeping to the roads and paths and carefully avoiding walking on the open plan front patios of the houses which were accepted by all as sacrosanct and private. So all was well and the generous donations to the local hospice undoubtedly also served to keep public relations on an even keel.

The Daily Express and Daily Mail even ran articles about the thrush and the subsequent events occurring at Stow on the Wold. Birders from Sussex to Scotland and all points in between came to see the thrush such is its rarity and undoubtedly there will be another rush when the weekend comes. Serious listers will no doubt be revisiting it in the New Year to put it on their 2017 list should it remain until then. 

The thrush seemed settled on its rooftop so we walked down another road which looped around behind the house roof on which it was sitting and gave much better views, with the bright sun now fully behind us.The road itself was extremely slippery with frozen frost and icy surfaces where the sun had failed to yet penetrate and it had to be negotiated carefully by all of us to avoid any slip and possible damage to limbs and just as importantly to high value optics and cameras.

It went thataway!
The treacherous frost and ice covered road and footpath
awaiting unwary twitchers. Badger still upright - bottom
right of lower image!
The star of the show continued to sit on the roof and then dived down into a back garden and was gone from view. This was to be the pattern of its behaviour for the next two hours, so the majority of birders stationed themselves in a wide arc around the cul-de-sac and awaited the periodic appearances of the thrush on the surrounding rooftops. 

Birders awaiting another appearance of the Blue Rock Thrush

The thrush is sat on the top of the chimney pot of the house
 in the centre of the picture where it remained for about
thirty minutes
It became apparent that the thrush had adopted a routine where it would feed out of sight in its favoured back garden at number seven and then fly up onto a particular chimney on a nearby rooftop to sit in the sun for extended periods and allow itself to be admired by us.

The Blue Rock Thrush had been present, according to the residents, for anything up to two weeks and was allegedly feeding on scraps of pork pie in the back garden of number seven. Whatever it was doing to sustain itself it appeared to be in robust health.

Such an unusual and unlikely record inevitably attracts its doubters and various people have drawn attention to minor things that they considered suggested it was an escaped cage bird.

It had rufous tips to its undertail coverts, its left wing drooped, its toe on its right foot looked slightly bent and its behaviour suggested it was used to human company. Honestly I do sometimes wonder at just how nit picking we birders can sometimes be.

The rufous tips to the tail coverts do exist in wild birds from the east of their range and with the deluge of eastern vagrants that have arrived in Great Britain this autumn I cannot see why this individual cannot be from an eastern population. As to the drooping wing, well from my observations the thrush, when it flew, was fast and agile and showed no sign of any flight impediment whatsoever. The bent right toe, if it was such, could just as easily happen in the wild. Further, the bird's plumage showed no sign of bad abrasion suggesting it had been caged and it could hardly be called tame as it always kept to the tops of the roofs and its behaviour to me seemed no different to those I have seen in the wild in as disparate places as Morocco. Cambodia. Spain and Greece. Collins Bird Guide quotes..........breeds locally also in stone quarries, on ruins, churches and even inhabited buildings ........... As a displaced migrant it had found in the clustered roofs of the houses, on an estate at a reasonably high elevation in the Cotswolds, a very similar habitat to those natural ones I had encountered in Morocco and Cambodia and as described in Collins.

Well, that's my argument in favour of its wild credentials and as far as I am concerned I have accepted it as a wild bird. The BOU (British Ornithologists Union) and BBRC (British Birds Rarities Committee) who adjudicate on such matters to my mind lost credibility when they accepted as wild a Chinese Pond Heron that spent a few weeks eating goldfish from suburban back gardens in Kent and when queried about why this bird was accepted as wild came up with the unsatisfactory justification that no one had reported one missing at the time from a zoo! Since then I decided to make up my own mind about events such as this and will only follow the BOU and BBRC on matters taxonomic

It may also be of interest to know that Birdworld in nearby Bourton on the Water confirmed that they had not lost a Blue Rock Thrush from their collection as they had not had one in the first place.The species is also rare in private collections.

Whatever the provenance of the bird it was just pure joy to see one in Britain and showing so well and also to enjoy the pleasant company of the many other birders who came to see it. These events often turn into a social occasion when old friends and casual acquaintances come together and new friendships are made, and this twitch was no different in this respect.

Badger and myself spent a happy hour and a half standing in the sunshine with our fellow birders watching the periodic appearances of the thrush on its favourite roof tops, chimney pots and television aerials.

An old lady came from one of the houses carrying a Christmas Selection of chocolate biscuits in a large tin which she carried around to every birder present and encouraged us to help ourselves. A magnificent gesture and everyone wished her a Happy Christmas and all the best for the New Year.

On another occasion whilst everyone was standing waiting for the bird to re-appear and looking in one direction I saw it fly up onto a roof behind them. I was the only one to initially notice it and realised a life time's ambition when in a pantomime voice I called out to the assembled unaware masses 

'It's behind you!' 

Forgive me but simple pleasures.

The thrush seemed content to spend long periods just sitting on the roofs in the sunshine, looking around from its lofty perch and obviously favouring the sunlit areas of the roofs rather than those in shade. Latterly it became a little more mobile and gave more opportunities to get some images as it regularly moved position.

Its plumage was dull blue with a distinct grey caste and from a distance it appeared more grey than blue. Its breast and flank feathers were narrowly fringed brownish white giving an indistinct scaly look and its median and greater coverts were tipped with white forming two indistinct white spotted lines across its wings.Various arguments have so far been put forward as to its age. Some say adult and others first winter. Personally I went for the latter but since then a very detailed analysis of the many photos taken of the bird has shown that it is an adult. In size it was slightly smaller than a Blackbird, more Starling size and to my mind looked very like a combination of the two in body shape and behaviour.

The Blue Rock Thrush dived down from its rooftop for one last time and we found ourselves at that point when you know enough is enough.We had enjoyed extended views of this lovely bird and Badger had his video and I had my photos. We ambled back to the car, stopping to have a friendly chat with a resident about the 'interesting' festive display on his front lawn. 

It must look amazing lit up at night!
We were back at my home in less than ten minutes and enjoyed a large piece each of Badger's Christmas Cake and a nice reviving cup of tea before parting until the next 'big one' arrives.

Happy New Year to one and all and thank you to everyone who reads my blog. It is much appreciated.

Thank you also to Badger whose videos will now also grace selected future blogs

Blue Rock Thrush courtesy of Badger/Megabrock Productions. Please view at 1080p HD

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