Monday 12 December 2016

Eastern promise

December is not known for being the best month for rare birds in Britain, but after an autumn dominated by easterly airflows which brought the Siberian Accentor invasion, a sprinkling of Eastern Black Redstarts and the odd rare Thrush, good birds are still turning up. The most recent mega-rarity, a Dusky Thrush, spent last week in the unlikely location of land-locked Derbyshire. I saw one of this species a few years ago in Kent, but it was a slightly frustrating experience as the bird remained largely obscured in a tree during a brief visit which had to be curtailed in the interests of marital harmony. A second chance at photographing this species therefore appealed, so with time off for good behaviour having entertained parents on Friday and nephews on Saturday, I resolved to go on Sunday.
Dusky Thrush - it may sound like an STD, but is in fact an attractive and very rare visitor from central Siberia
The long-staying Derbyshire bird follows a brief occurrence of this species on the Isles of Scilly earlier in the year
I had planned to leave relatively late on Sunday morning, but on waking in the small hours and realising I was unlikely to get back to sleep, I changed my plans and headed off at about 0330. Fortunately I had Test Match Special to keep me company on the journey north, and if England's performance wasn't exactly anything to cheer about, it was a good way to pass the time. Oxford, Birmingham and Derby came and went and before long I was leaving the motorway and making my way to Beeley, an attractive village on the edge of the Peak District National Park, some of which was just about visible as I arrived shortly after dawn.
Apples on the orchard floor drew the Dusky Thrush back to the orchard repeatedly
It was pretty dark in there, a slightly grainy ISO 2000 was often needed to avoid camera shake

The Dusky Thrush was present in a favoured orchard on my arrival, but it took a while to see as it was deep in cover. It took several more hours of patient waiting to get a half-decent photograph, as when present it tended to remain obscured in trees or obscured in the long grass of the orchard floor. At first light the crowd was three or four deep at the wall overlooking the orchard, but when the Thrush flew to neighbouring fields, as it regularly did, it thinned out and I was able to stake out a space with room to swing a moderately long lens. As the Thrush reappeared I was able to kneel down by the wall, providing a firm base to hold the lens steady in the low light of the shaded orchard as well ensuring I wasn't obscuring the view for those behind me.
A better view of the breast pattern
Rufous panel in the wing can just about be seen here
By now Beeley was fully awake and witnessing another day of potential mayhem. When twitchers descend on rural English villages, they seem to react in one of two ways. The first is to reject the whole thing like a body rejects a heart transplant - something to do with the fact that twitches bring the one thing which Daily Mail reading hamlets fear more than illegal immigration and child abduction: inconsiderate parking. The other reaction is to embrace it, take pride in the presence of a celebrated avian visitor and recognise the opportunity to raise a few quid.
A rare, clear view - bit it wouldn't look back over its shoulder!
A wider crop of the first photo above
Twitter was abuzz with tales of the hospitality of the burghers of Beeley, so I was keen to check this out for myself. It was all true: the village's reaction to potential parking chaos was not to call the police, but to lay on a free park-and-ride shuttle bus from a nearby car park. Having elbowed my way to a good viewing spot on the orchard wall, I though I was going to miss out on the bacon rolls being sold to birders by the tray-load for fear of losing my spot, but the Christmas spirit had infected the birders too and a saintly one behind me grabbed one on my behalf. Hot drinks and other snacks were available and I hope and expect that visiting birders spent and gave generously, and that local businesses and charities made a small killing over the course of the weekend. Top stuff, Beeley, let's hope others follow your example.
Eastern Black Redstart - a very attractive male
Lack of light was a bit of an issue again - this taken at ISO 3200 handheld
Before setting off for Derbyshire, I had considered whether it would be possible to combine the Dusky Thrush with a trip to Cleveland to see a long-staying and highly photogenic Eastern Black Redstart, a sub-species of Black Redstart I have coveted seeing since dipping a much celebrated bird in Kent a few years ago. I concluded that as reports of the Dusky Thrush seemed more frequent in the mornings, to see that first and then head even further north would have made for too gruelling a journey. Miraculously, however, as I was preparing to leave Derbyshire, news broke of a male Eastern Black Redstart which had just been found at Tewkesbury Abbey in my native county of Gloucestershire - possibly the bird seen in neighbouring Worcestershire a couple of weeks back.
A striking bird in a striking location
A rear view of the EBR
Tewkesbury is just off the M5, and with the westerly route home to Dorset via Bristol being not much further than the more direct route via Oxford, a couple of hours later I was pulling into a car park near the Abbey and joining a small crowd to look for the EBR. We scanned the parapets and rooftops of the Abbey without success for a few minutes and then, incredibly, a chap standing next to me picked up the bird in a tree in front of us, much closer than the Abbey. It flitted briefly between the lichen-covered branches of this and a neighbouring tree for a few seconds before dropping to the ground, then sallying over our heads for a spot of fly-catching before heading back up to the Abbey rooftops. Two excellent eastern rarities in the same day, the last one being a complete bonus which also broke up the long journey south.
Sunset on the grounds of Tewkesbury Abbey
Tewkesbury Abbey

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