Thursday, 29 December 2016

Rocking it in Stow

I'd more or less mentally shut up shop for the 2016 birding year. It had been a great year and I was starting to think about my end of year review and my bird of the year awards and I certainly wasn't expecting to make any more sorties before the New Year. However, on Tuesday afternoon news broke of a male Blue Rock Thrush in Stow-on-the-Wold - a tantalisingly short distance from Casa Gnome. Initially the news was no more than the fact that someone had posted an ID query on Twitter about a strange bird in their garden and the location hadn't been disclosed. However, when you dangle a carrot such as this before the twitching community it doesn't take much to bring out a twitcher's inner detective and by late afternoon someone had Googled the name of the Twitter poster to get their postcode and then had scoured the area until they'd turned the bird up. There was a bit of controversy on Bird Forum (see here) about the fact that the location had been posted on RBA without any prior consultation but with the genie out of the bottle there wasn't anything to be done except to plan my trip the next day.

The forecast was for fog for much of the county in the morning and also unfortunately for Stow as well which is just over the border in Gloucestershire. With that in mind, and also not wanting to have endure the inevitable dawn hoards I decided to play it cool and to aim to arrive late morning when the sun would have had a chance to burn off the fog and when numbers would have calmed down. After all, since the bird had apparently already been there for more than a week before being identified I wasn't particularly worried about it disappearing. I followed on-line as the dawn arrivals connected and photos on Twitter seemed to reveal a first-light crowd of more than 100 birders, all crammed into a small space so I was thankful to have given that a miss. At around 10 a.m. I started to think about heading over there and began to get my gear packed into the Gnome mobile. I was all set to head off when my VLW pointed out that news had just broken of a fatal accident on the A40, which was the route I was going to take. With the road closed both ways I decided to go via Chipping Norton instead and thanked the stars (and my VLW) for having learnt about the news just in time. So instead I headed off along the misty and frosty Oxfordshire roads, passing a couple of minor accidents along the way, testament to the treacherous conditions. Some three quarters of an hour later I arrived in Stow and tried to get into the closest car par only to find that it was full of twitchers so I headed back to a residential side road that was well away from the twitch area, got tooled up and dressed up in my warm gear to keep out the near zero temperatures and hurried over to Fishers Close, where the bird was located. There was a steady stream of birders coming the other way though numbers weren't too huge. 

I arrived at the Close to find no more than a dozen or so birders all scoping something which of course turned out to be the Blue Rock Thrush itself, conveniently perching on the top of a chimney pot of a more distant house. I quickly got my scope out and enjoyed my first views of this Mega rarity. 

Blue Rock Thrush on a chimney pot
After a few minutes it flew down into the garden behind the house and I could relax and go and explore a bit. I soon found the area which overlooked the original finder's garden and which I recognised from the photos that morning. Judging from the RBA reports and what I'd read on Bird Forum I had been expecting only occasional views but from talking to people who were already there it seemed that the bird was often on view and that one never had to wait more than fifteen or twenty minutes for a sighting and this did in fact prove to be the case. 

I'd been a bit surprised at the location this normally mountain-dwelling species had chosen, namely a residential housing estate.  On doing a bit of reading it turned out that it liked what seemed to be similar habitat to Black Redstarts and apparently it wasn't too unusual for them to be seen in villages though of course they should be much further south and east than this one was. It certainly treated the surrounding houses like some cliffs, often perching on them to survey the scene before nipping down to lower levels to feed. It seemed to have a bit of a circuit which included the original garden as well as quite a few rooftops on the surrounding houses. This made for nice easy viewing though in the bright sunlight it did make for difficult photography. In fact the best views of it were when it was low down in the deep shade in the garden. Then one could appreciate the deep indigo blue colour and make out the vermiculations on the plumage that I naively thought marked it out as a first winter male though apparently it's actually an adult (see here). The rest of the time against a bright sky it appeared almost black though with a very distinctive jizz that immediately marked it out as something special.

In the shade it was possible to appreciate the subtle plumage details

It's more usual roof-top pose
Over the course of about an hour and a half I took a number of photos as it appeared and disappeared though much of them ended up being the same silhouette on a roof top which only has limited photographic appeal. The number of twitchers ebbed and flowed though there were never more than about forty during the time that I was there.

Twitch Shot
Given the rarity of the bird and it's close proximity to God's Own County I was very much expecting to bump into other Oxon birders and sure enough I met up with Peter Law, Wayne and Julie Bull and also Keith and Shirley Clack. Given how well the bird was performing there was a nice relaxed atmosphere and much chatting was had.

Birders selfie: from left to right: Wayne, Julie, Peter and myself
Eventually I felt that I'd had my fill and wandered back to the Gnome mobile, de-tooled, had a celebratory mince pie to keep my energy up and then headed back home to Oxford for a late lunch. What a nice finale to what has been a special birding year.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Dusky Delights in Derbyshire

A little over a month ago there was quite a kerfuffle when a non birder in Northumberland photographed a bird that he didn't recognise and posted it on an internet forum to be identified. Amazingly it turned out to be an Eyebrowed Thrush, a quite extraordinary bird to just chance upon though sadly it was never seen again. A month later on Sunday Rachel Jones innocently posted pictures of three birds that she'd photographed in her Derbyshire garden and didn't recognise. To put things in perspective, two of the species were Starling and Blackbird so she was very much a beginner but amazingly the third bird turned out to be a Dusky Thrush, a massive UK rarity. In due course the location was revealed to be the small village of Beeley near Chesterfield in Derbyshire and so next morning the vanguard of keenest twitchers were there and duly managed to find the bird which was then reported throughout the rest of Monday. Being only some two and a half hours away, this bird was very much on my twitching radar and having missed the only other proper twitchable one at Margate a few years back I was keen to go and pay my respects. It was being reported fairly regularly throughout the day though by all accounts was rather mobile, moving between a number of different sites in the village so a certain amount of persistence and luck were going to be necessary. I had mentally pencilled in later in the week to go but on Tuesday I hit a quiet patch at work and was all set to head off when some family duties came up and I had to postpone my trip. So instead I elected to go on news on Wednesday morning when as an added bonus the weather would be much milder than the the rather chilly snap we were presently enduring.

Wednesday morning, before it was even properly light, the bird was reported again on Twitter as still being present so it was that a little after 8 a.m. I set off. According to the RAC web-site there were two routes which took the same amount of time: either M6 Toll and A38/A6 or up the M1 and then across at Chesterfield (where the famous Crag Martin had been located). In the end I opted for the first route and duly set off. The weather was rather murky and gloomy though the car thermometer reported a balmy 10 degrees outside as I negotiated the tail end of the commuter traffic whilst circumnavigating Birmingham. After Derby, the roads were slower and I was forced to crawl along at 40 mph along the Derwent river valley though regular views of old mill buildings gave a nice historic context to the region. Finally after about two and a half hours of travelling I turned off the main road and was soon pulling up at Beeley, a very picturesque village just into the Peak District National Park.

The village was quite a sight to behold with birders to be seen absolutely everywhere. Many were heading back down the hill, relaxing and chatting after having seen the bird whereas others who'd yet to see it were hurrying up the road, driven on by a mixture of the same excitement and anxiety that I was feeling. A car was leaving just as I arrived so I nipped into their parking spot just outside the pub, got tooled up and headed off up the hill after the other yet-to-see-its. I'd only gone a few yards when I saw the familiar faces of Ewan and Clackers, looking contentedly over their photos on the back of their cameras and clearly about to call it a day. They showed me some suitably gripping BOC shots and told me that the best tactic was to wait at the orchard by Dukes Barn rather than running around after every reported sighting. With the bird yet to be seen by myself I didn't linger but said goodbye and hurried on.

The whole village was absolutely heaving with birders, they were everywhere you looked. Twitching with big crowds is very much not my cup of tea but I did my best to ignore the hoards and to focus on the task in hand, namely locating a rather small bird somewhere in a fair sized village with lots of hiding places. As usual I'd done as much pre-trip research as possible and so knew where many of the locations were where it was often seen. The key spots seemed to be: the gardens and hedges next to the small playing field off Chapel Hill, the small orchard in the centre of the village next to the Dukes Barn activity centre and another orchard a bit further down School Lane. From what I'd read it was generally understood that the best location was the Dukes Barn orchard and as Ewan and Keith had backed this up that's where I headed. The orchard turned out to be a rather modest affair with just a few apple trees in it and a couple of rather cramped viewing points, either side of an adjoining building. I chose to stand at the first gap near the entrance whereas others were standing at the second gap by the rear car park where a number of canoes seemed to be stacked. Fortunately, some people in front of me decided to leave after a while as they'd already seen the bird so I was able to get a front row spot as we waited. There were lots of thrushes flying around overhead, mostly Redwings, and a Blackbird would pop down into the orchard periodically. A Nuthatch and a Coal Tit were two other regular visitors to the orchard but that was about it. Still, the weather was nice and mild and there wasn't too much inane conversation going on as we waited in quiet expectation for an appearance by the star bird.

The Duke's Barn orchard
After about three quarters of an hour of waiting I looked over to the other orchard watching group and noticed a certain change in demeanour. There was clearly something going on with people excitedly looking through the hedge behind the wall there. Could they be on the bird? Somehow the way the people were behaving didn't seem to suggest that they could actually see it though something was certainly afoot. Suddenly, without anyone actually saying anything, there seemed to be a determined movement away from the orchard area and off own the road. Without quite knowing what was going on I decided to follow and hastily gathered together my gear and hurried off down the road. The direction of travel was through the village and down Pig Lane where at the end I found a gathering of birders all focusing on a field in front of them. Someone was saying that he had the bird in his scope and I quickly took my turn at having a peak through it so I could finally see it and relax somewhat. Yes, there it was sitting in a Hawthorn bush on the far side of the field though the scope was slightly out of focus for me so it wasn't a great view. More and more people were arriving all the time and it was becoming quite crowded so I looked around and realised that there was a nice vantage point in a field next to the path where a few other birders had already gone. I made my way through the crowd and over into this field where I was able to set up with an unobstructed view of the hedgerow on the other side. I soon had the bird in my scope and was able to take it in in all its thrushy loveliness.

The bird was a bit larger than the accompanying Redwings and without the rakish jizz of that species. A mid brown colour on the back with reddish tones in the flight feathers, a striking white supercilium that flared out wider beyond the eye, a large white throat area and strong black speckling on the breast over a whitish ground colour, it really was a lovely looking thrush. I busied myself with my digiscoping, alternating between photos and video for all of the twenty minutes that it was on view.

Some video footage of the Dusky Thrush

Thinking about it, the location that it had chosen was actually a pretty good one from the point of view of accommodating the hoards of birders as there was enough room so that everyone (I estimated that there were about 400 people there) could watch it in relative comfort without getting in each others' way. Eventually it took off and flew back towards the village and that was my cue (and everyone else's there) to leave.

Just some of the twitchers all watching the Dusky Thrush

I felt that I'd had good enough views of the bird to start thinking about heading back home now but first I went back to the Dukes Barn area for a celebratory cup of tea and a chance to make a donation in their collection bucket. The Dukes Barn is an outdoor activity centre that relies entirely on donations and I felt that it was a good idea for sake of the reputation of the twitching community that they should be supported for offering their car park and grounds up for the use of visiting birders. I had a quick tour around the rest of the village just so that I could see the other favoured sites for myself. I'd already explored the village on Streetview as part of my preparations so felt that I knew it quite well already but it was good to see these sites in the flesh.

The second orchard site - at the bottom of School Lane
The playing field site off Chapel Hill
Finally it was back to the car where I had my packed lunch and then fired up the Gnome mobile. I decided to head back via the alternative route on the M1 just for a bit of variety. The journey back was uneventful but with the absence of a dangling new tick carrot to keep me excited, I felt more tired and had to concentrate to keep awake. Back home I had my usual celebratory cup of tea and the chance to bask in the warm glow yet another mega rare tick in what has been a truly memorable birding year.