Wednesday 23 February 2022

Four Very Rare Thrushes 23rd February 2022

The presence of an American Robin in Eastbourne this month (it is still there as I write) caused me to reflect on the fact I have now been fortunate to have seen four, very rare, large thrushes in Britain during the last couple of years. Two were relatively easy to see and did not entail a long distance and nerve racking twitch but the other two were the exact opposite.

It started just an hour from my home, when on the 11th December 2019 a Black throated Thrush was discovered, of all places, at Whipsnade Zoo in Bedfordshire and found a particular cotoneaster bush, close to the children's play area, very much to its liking. At first it was a little coy but eventually over the ensuing weeks of its stay became used to people and allowed a very close approach. Even better, it was a photogenic adult male in its full black throated glory and posed beautifully amongst the rapidly diminishing red cotoneaster berries. It remained over Christmas and well into the New Year, being last seen on 14th March 2020. The zoo were very grateful for its presence as the number of birders visiting boosted their revenue in what is traditionally a quiet time of year for them.So it was a win all round. I went to see this highly popular bird three times but others made far more visits over its long stay.

Including this bird, there have been 85 found in Britain up to the end of 2020, averaging about 2-3 per year.They breed in the central Urals, across southwest Siberia and eastern Kazakhstan to northwest China and spend the winter from Iraq to northern India, ranging eastwards through the foothills of The Himalayas to Bhutan.

The next thrush was not quite so easy to see, in fact it looked nigh on impossible. It was a bird of legend and mystical allure, namely an Eye-browed Thrush and it was found on North Ronaldsay in Orkney, remaining for only seven days from the 2nd to the 8th of October 2020. Only 23 have ever been seen in Britain up to and including 2020 and on average one occurs every 2-3 years. They breed in Siberia eastwards to the Sea of Okhotsk and Kamchatka  and south to Lake Baikal and northern Mongolia, migrating across China to spend the winter in Taiwan, Indochina and Thailand, south to Singapore, Sumatra, The Phillipines and northern Borneo. So this one was very, very far from home.

Two of us made a logistically complicated and arduous trip to 'North Ron' in an endeavour to see it. It was a huge gamble and on arriving on Orkney we thought we had blown it, even before we were due to take the flight from Kirkwall to North Ron, but news came through of its continued presence just before we were due to fly and after a nerve racking search for it around an abandoned croft, there it was perched on the remains of a dry stone wall. We saw it on the afternoon of the 7th October, its penultimate day on the island and had two hours to enjoy it before we had to take our return flight to Kirkwall and make the two day trip home.

Next was a Varied Thrush, that was discovered on the 27th October and was last seen on the 1st of November 2021. Again it was on Orkney but this time on the island of Papa Westray (Papay to the locals).This was easily the rarest thrush of the four, having somehow arrived here all the way from the Pacific northwest of North America. It was only the second time one has been seen in Britain, the first being way back in 1982 at Nanquidno in Cornwall. For us it entailed the most arduous and complicated twitching journey to date, involving a long overnight drive, a ferry to Orkney and a charter boat from Kirkwall to Papa Westray. It was the most extreme of gambles but then such a huge rarity surely merited the  large measure of difficulty, uncertainty and supreme effort required for it to be seen.  We saw it  on the 29th of October after a long and tense wait at a place called 'house of Links' and finally reaped the dividend of our gamble as it emerged onto a wall and then performed in the rain on a wet and sodden grass field.

And that brings us up to the present day and the very obliging American Robin at Eastbourne, found on the 8th February 2022, still present today and doubtless will be around until the cotoneaster berries run out! Only 28, including this one have been discovered in Britain and on average one is found every 2-3 years, often being found in mid winter. They breed commonly throughout North America from Alaska and northern Canada to southern Mexico and spend the winter anywhere from southern Canada to southern USA then southwards to Guatemala. 

Eastbourne being on the English mainland and in the south coast county of Sussex, thankfully did not entail a particularly arduous and involved journey to see it. I even went to see it twice it was so good, for who knows whether there will be another so obliging. I saw it first on the 10th February and then again on the 14th. This is the third one I have seen in Britain but the two previous ones were before I owned a decent camera!

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