Saturday, 18 January 2020

The Black throated Thrush still at Whipsnade Zoo 17th January 2020

An adult male Black throated Thrush has been present at Whipsnade Zoo since the 11th Decmber 2019 and is usually to be found at its favourite location in the zoo, which is around the children's play area, called Hullabazoo. Here it feeds on what remains of the bright red berries of a medium sized tree, visits the currently unoccupied pig pen or feeds on the short grass between the pig pen and the tree.

Since arriving at the zoo, the thrush has gone from being shy and wary to confiding, now allowing you, provided you are sensible, to get very close, much to the delight of everyone, be they with or without a camera. Doubtless the large number of people who have come to admire it over the past weeks have contributed to the thrush becoming settled and habituated to birders and curious visitors stopping to admire it.

Mark, my twitching friend from Luton and an avid bird photographer has visited the zoo no less than ten times, the perfectionist that he is convincing him that he could get a much better photo of the Black throated Thrush each time he visited. 

Two of Mark's images, taken today, of the Black throated Thrush
Personally I could not see how he could improve but then that probably says more about my photographic skills than those of Mark or indeed Adrian who joined us today. I think that is the difference between us, in that Mark and Adrian are very good photographers and know what they are doing whereas I am more a birder that likes taking pictures of birds I see and have a lot to learn about photography and possess a much less sophisticated camera and lens, but slowly it is coming together. Another difference between us is that I tend to go for behavioural images, where the bird is doing something and there is often some habitat involved too whereas Mark and Adrian instinctively go for the perfect image of just the bird. Their quality is reflected in the fact that many of their photos have been used over the years by prestigious birding publications such as British Birds and Birdwatch Magazine.

I also like the flexibility that a smaller lens gives me.To get the images they do, Mark and Adrian have huge lenses and top of the range cameras but the downside is that they are much less portable, having to be mounted on a large tripod whereas I can sling my lens and camera round my shoulder and move about at will to get a good angle on my subject.This worked well for me today as I was able to move around the tree the thrush favoured and take shots from a range of angles.

Currently recovering from shingles, Mark is not up to travelling too far at the moment so the continued presence of the thrush at relatively nearby Whipsnade, has provided more than a little birding solace to him as he recovers from his illness.

This very rare bird must be the most photographed Black throated Thrush ever, in Britain, due to the fortuitous coalescing of a number of circumstances viz it is continuously present in an accessible area in the densely populated south of England, it is a male in full adult plumage, approachable and feeding on bright red berries which allow for no end of photo opportunities. The zoo are delighted with its popularity and the resultant increase of visitors must have made thousands of extra pounds for them  in what is a quiet time of the year for the zoo.

So, all in all, everyone has benefited and feels positive about the experience although I do feel the zoo's public relations department could have made more of this unique occurence. There is still time!

Today, initially promised to be bright and cold with the odd rain shower and sunny spell, so with this in mind, after enduring a week of strong winds and endless rain, myself, and my fellow twitching colleagues, Mark, Adrian and Les arranged  for a final visit to pay our respects to the thrush. We planned to meet at Whipsnade as soon as they opened their doors at 10am.  It would be nice to see the thrush once more, in another year, especially as the crowds of birders that came earlier during its stay would now be just a memory and probably we would be on our own with the bird, which to my mind is much more enjoyable and would give us more freedom to do as we pleased.

At the appointed hour I met Mark in the free car park opposite the zoo, and rather than wait for Adrian and Les who were still fifteen minutes away, we went and paid our £21.60 entrance fee and headed for Hullabazoo. We saw the thrush immediately, it being pointed out by the only other birder present. It was sat in a tree of dense twigs and branches in the 'Frog Enclosure' which is adjacent to the berry tree. It was deep in the tree, partially obscured by the branches and twigs and for a while remained there, fluffed up and content before moving to the edge of the tree and becoming much more visible.

It was in no hurry and looked thoroughly relaxed even when visitors to the zoo passed, unknowingly, within feet of it. A couple of minutes elapsed and then it did exactly what we were hoping and flew down onto the grass right in front of us and by means of a series of bounding hops came ever closer on the grass until I estimated it was no more than fifteen feet away.

Cue the rapid fire of camera shutters and some very nice, pleasing images being obtained. What a lovely bird it is. Black of face and breast, the black feathers outlined with pale fringes, silvery grey underneath with darker brownish grey upperparts. Its bill a combination more of yellow than black.

Many of the pubished images that abound on social media quite naturally show it feeding on the berries, as such images are pleasing to the eye, especially if the bird has a bright red berry in its bill, but we wanted something different, preferably the bird feeding on the ground. Well, variety is the spice of life it is said and our wish had already been granted.

Adrian and Les joined us by which time the thrush, stuffed full of berries and worms had retreated to perch contentedly in the berry tree and did not move until it once more felt the pangs of hunger.

This was to be its routine over the ensuing five hours we spent in its company. A short burst of feeding, either on berries in the tree or, less often, worms on the ground, to be followed by a period of sitting quietly in the berry tree digesting its latest meal.

Adrian picked up a worm crossing the tarmac path and threw it onto the grass.The reaction from the thrush, currently sitting in a small bare tree in the centre of the grassed area, was instantaneous. With indecent haste it hopped to the edge of the tree and flew down to the grass where the worm lay. It picked up the worm and with great difficulty swallowed most of it, although this took over a minute as the worm was long and, for a while, part of it protuded from the thrush's bill. Finally the last of the worm disappeared down the bird's throat and the thrush took on a more normal and aesthetic appearance.

Mark and Les departed for a coffee but I remained with Adrian hoping the thrush might come down once more onto the grass. We were to be disappointed as it decided to remain in the tree digesting the large worm and when finally it became hungry again it fed on berries in the tree rather than come down onto the grass. Fair enough. It probably felt more secure in the tree. Undaunted I took some images of it feeding on berries in the tree. It seemed perverse not too.

The weather deteriorated, the sun never really shone and we could feel rain on the blustery wind. We were all happy with what we had achieved for now, so left the thrush to sit digesting a crop full of berries and retired once more to the Hullabazoo cafe for another coffee and to warm ourselves. 

Once the rain shower ceased it was back to the thrush but for the most part it remained in the tree with just a brief excursion onto the footpath, to seize a couple of exposed worms. The rain came down again but harder this time and we retreated to the butterfly house, a haven of warmth. Adrian pointed out two Red crested Partridge, feeding on the ground below the tropical vegetation and the huge gliding butterflies. Somehow  I had missed the partridges when I came here last December to see the thrush.

Thoroughly warmed up and revived from our spell in the butterfly house we left and went back to try for more images of the thrush, hopefully on the ground. Frustratingly we learnt it had been on the ground while we were in the butterfly house but now was once more perched in the berry tree, gorging on berries and then sitting quietly to digest them. Most of the berries have been stripped from the tree by visiting Redwings, Blackbirds and the Black throated Thrush, so all that remains are random berries on a few stalks or the occasional bunch of berries hanging at the extreme tip of the lowest of the tree's thin twigs. This necessitated the thrush having to acrobatically cling to the insubstantial twigs and lean down to pluck the berries, a delicate manouevre that was made all the more difficult by the regular and strong gusts of wind that made the bottom heavy, berry bearing twigs sway wildly in the wind whilst the thrush clung on, maintaining its balance with spread wings and tail.

Sometimes the force of the wind was too much and the thrush had to retreat further into the tree to perch on firmer thicker branches.

This was repeated, time and again and it seemed the thrush would never come down to the worms which we gathered from the surrounding wet footpaths and threw onto the grass, in an attempt to lure it down. The thrush resolutely ignored our attempts to entice it onto the grass and I thought it a lost cause.

Bored with waiting for the thrush to fly down to the grass I wandered round to the other side of the berry tree and took some images of the thrush that was currently feeding on what was left of the much diminished supply of berries. It was in the lee of the wind here and was relaxed and not that hungry, perching on a twig and every so often picking off a berry. Finally, replete, it hopped deeper into the tree.

It was as we were talking amongst ourselves and the thrush continued to sit in the tree that I turned to notice the thrush had at that moment descended to the ground below the tree and was digging into the wet grass in search of worms. I alerted the others and it was action stations. The thrush saw the worms Adrian had chucked on the grass earlier and, hopping over to them, commenced swallowing the worms as fast as it could and this, at last, provided an opportunity to get the definitive shots of the bird on the ground. You could hardly fail as it was so near and obliging. It  spent only a few minutes on the ground but this was more than enough for us to garner plenty of images, before the thrush flew, once more, up into the berry tree.

We clustered in a huddle to compare our images and thankfully everyone of us had got something to be happy with. Now, feeling the cold and with the wind increasing, we decided to call it a day but not before admiring the Eurasian Lynx in their enclosure near to the zoo's reception area.

Sustenance was now a top priority and a short drive to a pleasant pub resulted in a very nice meal to be followed by a lot of birding chatter about past twitching experiences and exploits.

All of which rounded off the day nicely.

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