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.