Wednesday 19 October 2022

Superb Shetland - White's Thrush - 10th October 2022

Sunday the 9th of October was by mutual consent going to be a day when we would forgo chasing rarities after the unforgettable experience of two days ago.Well that was the plan anyway as we greeted a morning of typical greyness, inevitable strong winds but mercifully no rain.The afternoon was predicted to deteriorate into stronger, almost gale force winds and heavy rain. Mark stuck to the plan, remaining in our house but I decided to take advantage of the rain free morning, take the car and indulge myself in some good old fashioned general birding with the express instruction from Mark that if a mega should be announced I must return immediately to collect him.

I chose to visit a few familiar locations not far from Scalloway but found very little. A pair of Greater Scaup on a windswept and choppy Tingwall Loch, two Brambling in a small quarry, and a Merlin mobbing a Sparrowhawk at Frakkafield were all that was on offer. I headed for Lerwick Fish Quay in the hope of re-discovering the second year Glaucous Gull that has been there on and off for some time. On arriving at the quay my phone pinged an alert from the Shetland Rare Bird News WhatsApp Group

It simply said

White's Thrush. Anderson High School grounds.Favouring trees in NW corner of school grounds

My blood ran cold. Here at last was an opportunity to see this almost mythical bird from the forests of Siberia and if I am truly honest the bird, above all others, that I have craved to see in Britain for more years than I care to remember.

They are a very rare vagrant from Siberia and only one or two White's Thrush are seen here in any one year. Since 1950, up to and including 2021, only seventy have been recorded in Britain, virtually exclusively in September and October on the Northern Isles. They breed in the European part of the Urals in Russia, eastwards across Siberia from the Yenisey River to Ussuriland, southwards to northern Mongolia, the extreme northeast of China, the Korean Peninsula and Japan. They spend the winter throughout southern China, Taiwan and southern Japan to Indochina and central Thailand.

The painful dips of past years and believe me they were painful, could now hopefully at last be laid to rest, given some luck. Two years ago I missed one that was skulking at Quendale but annoyingly was flushed by overkeen birders and fled before we could get there. Prior to that was an abortive trip to Holy Island in Northumberland to see a bird that remained virtually static for one day in a tree but was gone by the next morning when we arrived.

Anderson High School is situated on the outskirts of Lerwick by Clickimin Loch and I was but five minutes away on the fish quay. My phone rang. It was Mark. Before he could say anything I said

I know I am on my way to get you

The drive to nearby Scalloway would take ten minutes

Mark was waiting outside our house and piled into the car insisting on driving.I was not complaining as I was now in a high state of anxiety for if I saw the White's Thrush it would ensure that this trip had delivered the two most wanted species on my list of birds I have yet to see in Britain. Lanceolated Warbler was in the bag and now hopefully White's Thrush would soon follow.

We arrived at the school and joined around sixty birders milling around and along the tarmac path that runs around the northern perimeter of Clickimin Loch. A band of mature bushes ran along the shallow bank, rising from the loch to the path and several birders were scanning the dense foliage with thermal imagers while others lay on their backs on the sloping bank by the path in order to see the ground below the bushes.

I joined those on the ground but this was a big mistake. No one knew where the thrush was but after ten or fifteen minutes  the thrush suddenly flew at speed out of the bushes, passed above the heads of those standing on the path and headed for the northwest corner of the school grounds.Those on the path were jubilant unlike those of us lying prone in the hope of seeing the thrush on the ground.I was devastated.I had missed the thrush and who knew when or if ever it would be seen again.

Others claimed to have seen it land in a line of small bushes and trees that lay by the path winding upwards to the northwest corner, the bushes acting as a windbreak and to screen the school grounds.I followed the crowd and we gathered roughly half way up the path but there was no sign of the thrush.

Twenty minutes of, for me misery passed and while waiting I got talking to the man who had found the thrush. He told me he suspected it had been here the day before as he had seen a large thrush with Redwings but did not get good enough views to confirm its identity but came back today to check for certain. I for one was glad he did!

Then the thrush, appearing as a large pale brown bird, roughly the size of a Mistle Thrush, flew unexpectedly low and fast right past me and further up the slope to the northwest corner of the grounds.

From despair to mild elation takes but a second. I had seen the enigmatic thrush. I could claim that for sure but it was far from satisfactory. I joined others in the northwest corner hoping I could get a glimpse of the thrush on the ground and see some of its wonderful scaly patterned plumage. Then and only then would I feel fulfilled. 

The White's Thrush favoured northwest corner. Clickimin Loch in the
background and the school to the left

It was noon and the weather as predicted was deteriorating rapidly .The wind was now almost gale force bringing with it stinging rain, arriving unhindered from over the moorland behind and hammering into us. We cowered by the fence looking down at the bushes and small trees that hid the thrush.

I hung on, stoically enduring the rain and wind but becoming steadily more chilled and miserable.It was not good and in the end I conceded to the elements.There was, to my mind, no chance of the thrush leaving overnight as the rain was going to intensify during the afternoon and following night. I decided to try again tomorrow and like most I left the area but a few intrepid souls hung on, enduring the horrendous weather to be rewarded with a couple of brief views of the thrush towards late afternoon.

Despite my confidence about the thrush remaining into the next day there was still an anxiety lurking in my subconcious of whether the thrush would really be here tomorrow.It had already been present for two days, would it linger for one more? There was every chance it would as the foul weather would surely prevent it from migrating. I would have to sleep on it and hope I was right.

I did not sleep well that night due to a combination of growing anxiety and anticipation and the torrential, wind driven rain beating hard against my bedroom window. 

We were up early and out of the house by 7.30, just after dawn. It had almost stopped raining. There was only one place we wanted to be and a ten minute drive found us parking at the school and then following the perimeter path that took us to the top of the school grounds in the northwest corner.

The thrush had already been reported, earlier that morning, as still present and a huddle of some ten birders were obviously looking at it when we joined them. Because of the topography it was very restricted viewing and we joined the huddle as best we could but it was far from ideal.The thrush was apparently concealed below some small planted deciduous trees forming part of the windbreak and virtually invisible as far as I could make out.Concealed in the half light of a grey, rainy, early morning amidst a tangle of grass and leaf litter it took some time to discern its shape, no more than a darker shadow which would slightly change position every so often.

As the light improved so the thrush became more visible but was always in cover and once it moved right it was no longer possible to see it due to the angle of the windbreak

The wind continued its strong gusting, just like yesterday with the occasional fearsome blast that threatened to blow one over.Worse still, regular rain showers came from over the moorland to make life very uncomfortable indeed. I hung on but all my fellow birders one by one retreated down the path as the thrush had not been seen for over an hour and was now allegedly being seen in other areas nearer the loch.

The wind and rain battered me. It was truly awful but I was not going to give in.I was convinced this small area in the northwest corner of the school grounds was the thrush's favoured spot.It had after all returned here on  a number of occasions already and it seemed pointless to me to chase after it to where, invariably it proved invisible.

With monotonous regularity the rain squalls arrived with unabated ferocity.My fingers wet and numb with cold lost all feeling. I turned my back to the worst of the rain and allowed each shower to batter me until it ceased. On one of my scans during a lull in the rain showers, a large shape landed on the ground below the small trees.It was the thrush but it then moved right and was gone from view.

By late morning I was wet, cold and fed up. Mark and myself agreed to retreat to Lerwick for Mark to visit the library and catch up on some emails and for me to get a much needed reviving coffee and toasted sandwich at a local cafe. 

Slowly the weather improved during our temporary absence from the school grounds and the rain squalls had become much fewer with even sunny periods breaking through.

I resumed my position in the northwest corner and eventually got regular views of the thrush but they were always obscured and never really satisfactory. By now I was no longer alone and found myself compressed once more into a cramped huddle in order to get what restricted views the thrush granted.

It was very tiresome and frankly this kind of birding is not pleasureable, elbow to elbow, people tutting if you unwittingly encroached on their line of sight and others, unable to see the elusive bird, constantly asking for directions which you readily gave only to be told they still could not see it. Various comments such as 'Is it the brown bird?' or 'Is it the bird stood standing' brought rare moments of levity and made me chuckle.

It was early afternoon and fed up with the views I was getting I decided on a radical change of approach. The bird was feeding on the further side of the windbreak, never really moving far from cover but it was feeding on open grass and would in theory give a much better chance of clearer and unrestricted views if observed from the far side where the school car park led up to the grass

I walked round to join just two other birders with a similar idea. For a minute I could  not see anything of the bird but then there it was, relatively in the open and although remaining close to cover much more visible than before

We remained well back, fearing the bird would be alarmed but it seemed oblivious to our presence.We watched this arch skulker of the forest floor as it fed on worms which it brought to the surface by performing a little dance, a jig if you like, hopping from one leg to the other in a bouncing motion that persuaded the worms to come and investigate the source of vibration.The thrush moved in tight circles, performing its dance methodically over each small area of grass it inspected

I took time to admire its cryptic plumage of buff gold and white, liberally overlaid with black crescentic markings, creating an attractive vision of scaliness.Very noticeable were its huge dark eyes, doubtless an adaptation to its secretive feeding in the gloom of its native forests

I find it hard to describe the sense of achievement I felt at seeing this most wanted of birds, right here before me in Shetland.I have seen them in China and although wonderful it is not quite the same as seeing one here, thousands of miles off course. All the longing, admiring of photos and envy of other birders was now reconciled. They are a true vagrant to Britain, a magical almost mythical bird, hardly ever remaining for more than a day or two before vanishing overnight leaving those lucky enough to have encountered one with a sense of having experienced something almost surreal. I now found myself joining the ranks of the fortunate few.

The feeling of triumph I felt was almost overwhelming after the close misses of previous years.It is sheer luck that brings such an experience, there is no real planning one can do, apart from coming to Shetland in autumn and hoping that this year it might, just might be the right one.

This October it was.

Other birders noticed that we were getting much better views of the thrush and joined us by the car park wall that provided some shelter from the strong wind. Fortunately the school was closed for two weeks so there was no concern about men and indeed women with cameras and large lenses encroaching onto the school grounds.

Gradually we moved closer and closer until we were standing at the edge of the wide grass strip some fifty metres from the bird which continued to show no obvious signs that it was worried by our presence.It continued its feeding, moving hesitantly up and down the edge of the windbreak occasionally disappearing but always re-emerging to feed in the wet grass

I made the most of the opportunity to record this encounter and for the next two hours watched and photographed this iconic bird, knowing that this was highly unlikely to ever be repeated.

Never in all my wildest fantasies did I believe I would see a White's Thrush to such good effect.

1 comment:

  1. Amazing!!! (You have a typo or 3 in the last para in particular just in case you're bothered....) Your accounts, as ever, are spellbinding & I only wish you had more to tell! Back to Farmoor then.... ;o)