Friday 30 December 2016

Thrush Double Take 30th December 2016

Another day of freezing fog, ice slicked roads and yet another serious though thankfully non fatal road accident in Oxfordshire meant the cancellation of today's visit to relatives in London. Throughout the morning the fog persisted and out of casual interest I checked RBA(Rare Bird Alert) for news about our local bird celebrity, the Blue Rock Thrush, only to find there had been no sign of it for most of the morning.

It surely could not have flown off in all the fog that descended during the night so maybe it had succumbed to the extreme temperatures last night or less likely a local cat had caught it? At just on lunchtime I checked RBA again only to discover the thrush had been refound, having moved from Fisher Close where most people were looking for it, to a location some few hundred yards away just behind Stow's High Street.

At a bit of a loose end and knowing it was only a few minutes drive to Stow I decided to go for another look at the thrush as it will be very unlikely that I will ever have such an opportunity again. Also, I was a little unhappy at the images I had got on Tuesday and today I could try to rectify matters.

At 2pm it was still misty in my home village of Kingham as I left to drive towards Stow but just as before, on getting to the higher elevation of Stow the fog had dissipated and I found myself in welcome bright sunshine.

I parked along a side street and immediately saw some birders clustered in a tight scrum five deep and looking over a back garden gate to where the Blue Rock Thrush was perched on a house gable in the sunshine. 

A tap on my shoulder and I was greeted by a twitching buddy I had not seen for some while, Donald, who with two friends had made the five hour drive from his home in Glasgow. We caught up on each others news and indulged ourselves in some birding banter and camaraderie before Donald had to set off back on the long drive to Glasgow

Meanwhile the thrush continued to sit on the roof but then flew to another and perched there giving me a superb opportunity to get some really nice images of it.

It chased an insect across the roof and then hopped up the roof tiles to the apex where it sat for a while before flying to another roof and perching on a chimney. 

It moved regularly, between intervals of perching quietly, and we duly followed it but in the end I decided to go back to the garden and just wait there as it would surely return to the garden it was now so obviously favouring.

My plan came to fruition as it flew in a series of short flights from rooftop to rooftop to the garden, perching on the gable above the garden and then lower down on the guttering before flying down to the bird food scattered at ground level in the back garden.

Viewing conditions were extremely cramped looking over the closed iron gates into the back garden. The gates were bounded by high hedges on either side so really there was only room for three of us to view the bird at the gate while others peered through gaps in the hedge as best they could. There was a bit of mild complaining from people behind us that they could not see but in fairness I felt no guilt as I had secured my place at the front simply by opting to remain at the gate and foregoing seeing the bird on the surrounding houses.

In fairness I did not hog my position although there are many who would and regularly invited others to stand in front of me for a few minutes to view the thrush and eventually relinquished my position permanently. The thrush had sat for ages on the guttering before finally flying down to feed. Two Starlings thought they would join it but were seen off in no uncertain fashion by the thrush which rushed threateningly at them.

On the ground the blue in its plumage was much more noticeable and it really was a pretty bird. With the closer views today I also noted that the narrow white feather fringes to its body feathers were not restricted to just the breast and flanks, and the flight feathers were very obviously tipped dull white.

The sun  was slowly being obliterated by the mist or was it fog rising from the lower ground below Stow and by 3pm it was beginning to get really dense. It was time to go and I left the thrush still feeding. I will definitely pay another visit tomorrow if the weather is suitable.

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

Wednesday 21 December 2016

Bucks Bittern 21st December 2016

A dull and grey day, the shortest day of the year dawned, and now with all the Christmas shopping done I was devoid of care and had a free morning, but even so it was not until after ten that I managed to get out of the house. I was none too sure where to go but of one thing I was sure, I wanted to go birding, somewhere solitary where I could sit and allow the stresses and strains both physical and mental to slip from me.

But where to go? Being a weekday there was a good chance that I could find somewhere to myself and in the end I settled for going over the county border into Buckinghamshire and to a lake where I knew there would be a Bittern. One or more are present most winters although they do not breed there. It took about an hour to get to my destination, passing through the damp and winter dull surrounds of rural Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire. On the back roads, bounded by stark, flailed twiggy hedges it was as if the world was stilled. Occasional houses in small villages I passed through, defiant against the gloom were lit with festive lights and decorations that somehow seemed to accentuate the sense of abandon that beset the countryside rather than bring cheer. I saw not one human soul.

I parked the car in the tiny parking spot by the reserve and walked down to the small hide which from its elevated position overlooked the lake below it. 

At the edge of the lake were reeds made into separate triangles by channels cut through them and then, beyond was the expanse of the lake with more reeds on the other side.The winter reeds, dead now and golden brown, from their tassled tops to their very base, formed dense stands of thousands of stalks, the tops occasionally wafted into motion by a sigh of wind but soon subsiding into a drooping immobility again.

The small doorless hide was dank, dark and spartan and smelt of the earth and dead leaves that comprised the steep bank leading down to the reeds and water's edge in front of the hide.  Alone, I sat and contemplated the scene knowing that it was likely I was in for a long wait but knowing that this solitude, depressing for some but not for me would allow me time for quiet contemplation and to generally bring body and soul together before the inevitable but welcome onslaught of festivity and conviviality in the coming days of Christmas.

A couple of Fieldfares chackered manically in the dense hawthorns behind the hide, clumsily flouncing in the twigs, alarmed by the failure of the twigs to support them, as with outspread wings, they strived to balance and strip that one particular berry that took their fancy and always seems to be the most distant and hardest to reach.

Robins and Great Tits flitted around the hide looking almost affronted at the unfilled feeders, then dropped to the ground to seek any nuts or seeds that may have fallen and not been found. A Marsh Tit called distantly and a male Pheasant was made exotic by the contrast of its outlandish plumage with the bare featureless hawthorns and leaf mouldy ground it trod.

A Water Rail squealed like a piglet from the reeds below and then ran across the small open channel of water between two of the reed beds. A dark silhouette against the water. Tail flicking it picked its way through some cut reed stems on the edge of the reeds, never allowing itself to be truly out in the open but constantly seeking the assurance of reed cover to conceal its movements and presence. A Cetti's Warbler briefly churred an alarm as it flew to the base of the reeds and was visible for just a moment as an indistinct dark brown form moving deeper into the reeds.

Time passed but there was no movement that betrayed the presence of a Bittern. Extraneous noise came from the road behind the hide and from the tree hidden railway on the far side of the lake but here I was, if you like, marooned in an area of special silence away from human disturbance, as if the extraneous noises were of a separate existence that I was conscious of but untouched by.

I looked once more at the channel cut through the reeds to my right and a movement caught my eye.It looked like a small mound of reeds was moving, disturbed by a  non existent wind but it was in fact a Bittern, just emerged from the reed bed and shaking its feathers back into alignment. It moved further out of cover to where the water formed its own channel through the cut reeds and walked slowly along at the side of the reeds searching for food.

They are such incredible birds to encounter, always bringing me excitement at their discovery as they are so secretive, seldom seen and there is always the nagging anxiety that when you do encounter one it will only be for a  brief time before it will retreat back into the reeds again and become invisible.

Today however I was on my own, the hide was quiet, the lake was undisturbed and the Bittern obviously felt secure in the narrow water channel flanked by the reed beds. Its movements, as ever were slow and considered and involved frequent stops for no apparent reason, when its neck and head would be held high and pointed at an angle upwards in an inquisitorial manner before it retracted its neck and resumed its more normal rounded form. It took a spell standing on some reeds preening just out of my sight, although I could discern the occasional movement through the obscuring reeds but then it re-emerged and came nearer along the channel, raising high its large green feet as it waded carefully through the water. It stretched a wing and then stopped. Something had troubled it in the reeds and it raised its neck and inflated it almost like an angry cobra before creeping into the reeds and disappearing from sight.

I guessed that it was walking through the small reed bed and would hopefully come out on the side that was nearer and opposite me and after some twenty minutes it duly emerged as predicted. Never leaving the security of the edge of the reeds it sidled along until it came to the very tip of the reed bed extending out into the lake and could go no further without having to wade through an open expanse of water to the next small reed bed. It stood, slowly almost imperceptibly moving its head and then extending its neck upwards to its full extent. Cautious and suspicious almost of its own shadow, it stood erect, like part of the reed bed, its buff, brown and black marked plumage in harmony with the reeds in which it stood. For a full two minutes it was immobile before flying with legs dangling across the open stretch of water and into the next reed bed. I waited as before and the whole procedure of it passing through the reed bed and emerging in the channel on the other side was repeated. I watched as it waded through the water, not stopping this time and disappeared for the final and last time into yet another area of reeds.

The Bittern had quite remarkably been on view for at least forty minutes. A great start to Christmas.