Monday 16 January 2017

A Northern Double 15th January 2017

An Eastern Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros phoenicuroides has taken up winter residence at a small, formerly industrial seaside village called Skinningrove in North Yorkshire. As can be seen from the image above this is a bird well worth seeing both for its beauty and its considerable rarity in Britain, being a very attractive version of our duller plumaged Western Black Redstart P. o gibralteriensis which breeds in Britain in small numbers but is widespread in mainland Europe. 

Western Black Redstart
Eastern Black Redstarts are currently regarded as a subspecies of Black Redstart but there are many who, because of the marked plumage differences and separate geographical distribution in central Asia think  they should be classified as a separate species.

Eastern Black Redstarts are very rare in Britain with only six being recorded up to 2015 but individuals have been observed at no less than three locations in Britain this winter, which I suppose is unsurprising considering the almost unprecedented arrival of rare birds from Asia to these shores this last autumn, and exceptionally, two are spending the winter in Britain, one at Skinningrove and another at the other end of the country at Mousehole in Cornwall.

I have only ever seen one before and that was the first ever recorded for Britain near Margate, Kent in November 2011. I can remember being struck by how attractive it looked and harbouring a long held wish to see another. Well, my chance came this year with the individual that has remained to tough it out in not exactly the ideal situation at Skinningrove, but it seems happy enough and has survived the various cold spells so far. Despite this I resisted going to see this bird as it was so far away but in the end weakened as I knew it would be fairly certain to be there and therefore the long drive to see it would not be in vain.

So this Sunday I left the house at 5am to the sound of steady rain hitting the car's windscreen and headed northwards into the dark and wet night, a little depressed by the weather true, but I felt good and relaxed after a long sleep, having gone to bed early the previous evening.  Being the early hours of Sunday the roads were deserted and it was only when I joined the Motorway some forty five minutes later that I saw more than one vehicle. For me, driving alone, there is a comfort in driving at night on quiet roads and it is a very different atmosphere to going birding with friends. The outside world is held at bay in the night, just a presence mainly unseen and unheard. I deliberately left the radio off and allowed my mind to wander at will in the quiet of the car's interior. Worries about this and that came and went, memories drifted through my head stimulated by I know not what, plans for the future, holidays, work, a new voluntary commitment  all came and went in the soft darkness of night and the red glow of the car's instrument panel,

Sadly this reverie was rudely shattered by a required motorway services stop at Tibshelf to refresh and revive myself with a skinny latte, indulging a taste for coffee that I have acquired ever since my visit to Colombia at the beginning of last year. The shock of leaving the quiet of the car's dark interior and walking through the glass doors of the deserted services to have one's eyes tested by blazing white strip lights and ears assaulted by top decibel pop music is almost too much. Is this really necessary at this time of night? These places are meant to be rest stops after all not an endurance test.

Coffee in hand I retreated to the car and administered some Radio Three. Sibelius I think and my equilibrium was restored. A short doze and then it was back on the road. Two more hours of driving to go.

Driving at a steady sixty, a grey wet dawn was just about discernible through the rain spattered windscreen as I approached Doncaster. I had taken something of a gamble with the weather in that the forecast for my home county of Oxfordshire and the Midlands was for rain all day but further north it was meant to stop by ten or eleven in the morning. Currently there was no sign of the forecast being correct as I pressed onwards leaving the M1 and transferring to the more easterly AI, a quieter road and with fewer heavy lorries spewing out spray clouds from their huge wheels. I left the Motorway and now minus the spray from fast moving vehicles I could see it was getting brighter, the rain had ceased and a little later I was passing  a huge industrial complex comprising a science fiction vista of  pipes and strange looking structures, with chimneys belching out white smoke into the watery sky. This was the giant chemical works at Redcar but on leaving this behind I headed further out into pleasant rolling pastures and then into hilly country before descending  on a hair pin bend down to sea level at Skinningrove. Everywhere had that post rain look about it, wet  and dripping, soggy and grey as if the rain had drained all life from the landscape. The North Sea was a cold and uninviting presence in the distance.

Skinningrove is a small, unprepossessing, former industrial village on the North Yorkshire coast in what is now called Cleveland and has a wide sandy beach, an abandoned eighteenth century stone jetty and nestles below cliffs on which a large number of Fulmars were already staking claim to nest holes. It is not an attractive village but is saved from being mundane by the presence of the beach and the sea. It is best described as functional and everywhere you look betrays its industrial past. Skinningrove boomed in 1848 when local iron stone workings commenced and iron smelting  started in 1874. Mining continued until 1958 and iron production until 1970 but then  a decline set in and now it is very much living in the past and its former glories are preserved in the obligatory mining museum. A general air of depression is all about but maybe it was just the weather giving me that impression.

Industrial cottages on Skinningrove Marine Parade
The Eastern Black Redstart has made its winter home in and around some huge rocks, piled against the northern wall of the jetty to protect it from the ravages of the sea. The jetty itself is defunct but still intact and was built in 1880 to allow large vessels to carry off the iron and coal from the area. Adjacent to the northern side of the jetty there is a large sandy beach which is used by, judging from my experience on this visit, an inordinately large number of dogs and their owners. At the back of the beach are steep grassy cliffs populated by Fulmars.

Skinningrove Jetty- south side

Skinningrove beach and cliffs to the north of the jetty
Arriving at just before nine am I was just in time to beat the vanguard of  dog walkers. Leaving the car, a male European Stonechat perched in its jaunty way within feet of me which was a nice start to the day. I walked a couple of hundred metres northwards along the stony and wet track from the car park to the jetty and soon found the Eastern Black Redstart or did it find me?

Looking a little bedraggled with spiky wet feather tips it was on the top of the jetty wall but then dropped down on the other side. I followed the track down onto the beach and looking right saw the huge rocks piled against the jetty wall and the redstart perched on one of them. I was alone apart from a local birder crouched by the rocks taking photos with a small camera. I joined him and we chatted as we waited for the redstart to re-emerge and perch once again on the rocks

North side of the jetty

The Eastern Black Redstart's winter home at Skinningrove
north wall of the jetty and rocks below
By now the dog walkers were arriving in force but thankfully ignored us and set off along the beach and kept well away from the rocks. I have not seen quite so many dogs for a long while, each owner seemed to have more than one and the noise of barking, yelping and shouting was at times intrusive but they have just as much right as I do to be on the beach  and to be fair, generally kept away from us to avoid any undue disturbance

This lady had a minimum of six dogs!
It did not take long for the redstart to show itself  well and when I say show itself well I am not exaggerating. Coming within feet of us it was completely unafraid and hopped from rock to rock dropping down to feed on the jetsam tangled at the base of the rocks or flying up to the side of the jetty wall to pluck prey from the ancient bricks. Apart from brief spells perched on top of the rocks, when it would shake its feathers and quiver its tail, curtseying and bobbing in a robin like way, it was almost constantly in motion feeding and there appeared to be no shortage of prey for it to find. It confined itself to a small area of rocks under the jetty wall, flitting amongst and under the rocks and then perching boldly on top, all the time shivering its tail in time honoured redstart fashion. Compared to our normally dowdy grey Western Black Redstarts it was very colourful indeed. Steel grey on its upperparts and with a black face and breast, its triumph of plumage were the completely rusty orange underparts and tail. Even the underwings were orange.It was a real beauty and a joy to behold so closely. Judging by its plumage it was a male and at times it looked like it was quietly singing to itself as its bill was often partially open and its throat swelling.

Eastern Black Redstart
With my new companion we watched it for an hour and a half as it fed amongst the rocks. A couple of times retired gents joined us for a chat, reminiscing on fishing, times past and having a general moan about life as one does.It became apparent from their conversations and others that the redstart had become quite a celebrity and was regarded with some affection by the locals

The Eastern Black Redstart was not the only inhabitant of the rocks. There were also a couple of Robins, a pair of Dunnocks, a colour ringed Rock Pipit, which I learned later had been ringed at a place called Giske in Norway on the thirtieth of March last year, a female Pied Wagtail and even a pair of European Stonechats put in a brief appearance on the jetty wall. 

European Robin
Usually Robins are the bane of birders as they pugnaciously see off rarities such as the redstart but in this instance the tables seemed to have been reversed as the redstart definitely had the upper hand over both the Robins and the Dunnocks, chasing them off from its patch if they had the temerity to encroach.

After an hour and a half I decided to leave the redstart and get some pictures of a pair of stonechats nearby, feeding in the scrub at the top of the beach. Wading through the usual disgraceful litter and detritus of humankind at the top of the tideline I soon achieved this and returned for just one more look at the Eastern Black Redstart.

 Male European Stonechat

I finally managed to drag myself away from this version of birding bliss but before I did wondered what I was going to do for the rest of the day as it was only eleven am. Saltholme RSPB Reserve was nearby but did not appeal to me as there was not much around apart from five Scaup. Also Saltholme is not the nicest of reserves in my opinion, being large and exposed and I really did not fancy it in this weather.

In the end I opted to head south and make a stop at Albert Village Lake on the Derby/Leicester border to try and see some Glaucous and Iceland Gulls which had been reported from there. Stopping at a garage to get some fuel I consulted RBA just in case there was something good that had been found nearby. I scrolled though numerous reports of Waxwings and Glaucous Gulls and then came to an entry 'Black throated Thrush'. I checked the details to find it was a female and that it had been present all morning at a place called  Adwick Washland near Wombwell in South Yorkshire. This was ideal as it was on my way south, only just off the Motorway and about an hour and a half's drive from my present position

So that was the rest of the day sorted out and I made haste to Wombwell and Adwick Washland. Following the Satnav I parked alongside many other birder's cars by the road at the designated spot and enquired of a birder where I should go to access Adwick Washlands. He gave me directions and I set off on what turned out to be about a mile walk along a circuitous wet and muddy track. The next two birders I came across as I walked onwards informed me that the thrush had flown off just minutes ago and looked like it had flown a long way over some trees. I got to the location where it had been feeding at the edge of a field with some Blackbirds but the glum faces of the thirty or so birders present told me that it was not looking good. I had missed the thrush by fifteen minutes.

There was nothing to do but just stand and hope it would return. A forlorn hope really but I could think of nothing better to do as I did not know the area  and in situations such as this it is usually best to just stay put in one spot and hope. Something that birders do quite a lot!

I stood mutely with the others and slowly our number dwindled as more people gave it up as a lost cause. Three locals were stood next to me and bizarrely started talking about 9/11. I think one had been birding in New York at the time. The sun then came out! I scoped the Blackbirds feeding at the far edge of the field for the umpteenth time but they resolutely remained just Blackbirds. A splendid male Bullfinch flew along the adjacent hedgerow but little else was around to stimulate any interest. A Little Egret was feeding on a stretch of water behind us with three Common Teal. Yes, it was that desperate! A whole hour passed and I decided to devote just a few minutes more to watching an empty grass field and then leave.

Five minutes later a birder's phone rang. A quiet conversation ensued and then a shout. 'Its been found again in a field on the other side.' Whatever that meant. We all followed the birder in question and I and others assumed it was just a few hundred metres back down the muddy track. How wrong we were. We kept walking and walking with no sign of stopping. After a mile we got back to the road where I had left my car but carried on over a river bridge and took another track for half a mile before joining a footpath by the busy road, and passing the local pub, headed up hill and around a corner.We must have walked two miles by now but coming to another bend in the road I found a scrum of around forty birders standing on the footpath and looking over a manicured hedge and onto a field of kale sweeping downhill away from us to some trees at the bottom. It was a real crush as some birders had driven to the spot and parked their cars half on, half off the pavement which left little space to stand on the pavement. I insinuated myself between a car and the hedge and by some miracle of contortion got my scope and tripod set up.The field was so vast that a scope was definitely going to be needed to find the thrush.

'Well where is it, anyone got any clues?' was the general enquiry amongst us. No one had, except it had been showing well in the field of kale according to RBA. Everyone was asking everyone else if they could see it and if so could they give any directions. Someone said it was in the trees but someone else said  it wasn't but was in the field somewhere. A series of comments and confusing directions followed. To set the picture I should say the field of kale had two sets of distinct double tramlines of brown earth running down it and these were about the only feature that could be used as a reference. Everything else was just leaves of monoculture kale.  

A voice spoke. 'There is a bird on the right hand track in the field'. Another voice. 'Which track, there are two double tracks.'  'Look on the left one'. I looked in my scope. It was a Redwing. A lull. Another plaintiff voice 'Anyone on it?' 

Silence. Then, 'There it is, its in the kale leaves left of the right double track'. We looked and could see nothing. 'Whereabouts exactly?'  'It's quite close' came the reply. Less than helpful. I looked again and found a Mistle Thrush on one of the tracks. 'I've got a Mistle Thrush on the track' I volunteered. 'No its not that one and there is another Mistle Thrush to the left of it' came the reply. 'Well can you state where the Black throated Thrush is in relationship to them?'  'I think it's to the right of them. Yes, there it is. That's it definitely. It's quite close in the middle of the field'.

I scoped the field again and found yet another Redwing but slowly panning right across the kale leaves, at that moment the Black throated Thrush moved and I had it in the scope. Yes, at last! A couple of other birders also found it and we kept on it. The views were distant but I could see quite clearly the thrush's cold brown upperparts and dull white, dark streaked underparts. Its plumage was virtually featureless apart from two dark patches each side of its pale chin and throat. This was only my second Black throated Thrush ever. A birder behind me asked to look though my scope. I let him look so he could get some idea where it was in the large field.The birder next to me asked for directions which I gave and with a whoop he confirmed he had it in his scope too.

Various panicky, anxiety racked enquiries came from up and down the line of birders. 'I've lost it.' It's gone'. 'No it's still there facing right, it was hidden by a leaf'. And so it went on until the thrush flew off to the left and was gone from view. I decided I had enough and relinquished my position to someone behind me. I ambled back to the car reflecting on the difference between my relaxed encounter with one other birder this morning and this high stress twitch with fifty or so anxious birders this afternoon.

Such is birding

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