Saturday 31 December 2016

From Dobby's grave to Hogwarts

Readers with long memories and nothing better to do may recall that I forsook a potential day's birding during the peak October rarity season to join the rest of the family on a trip to London for a Harry Potter film location walking tour. With more time off over the festive period, and the children still deep in their J K Rowling phase, I organised a wholly selfless itinerary to take-in a few more locations from the Potter movie franchise this week.

First up, a couple of days in Pembrokeshire, and a visit to Freshwater West beach. This is the scene of what Mark Kermode memorably described as 'the unfortunate elf-based incident' when trying not to give the plot away whilst reviewing The Deathly Hallows part I. We headed there the day after Boxing Day and relived the tragic moment when Dobby carks it and gets buried in the dunes by his young sorcerer pals.
Blue Rock Thrush - a bit of Christmas magic or throwaway plastic tat?
Blue Rock Thrush, Stow-on-the-Wold. I apparated from Gloucester Cathedral and was there in a flash.
Whilst in Pembrokeshire, it would have been rude not to check out Croft Villas in Camrose, where a Masked Wagtail, the first record for Britain of this form, had spent several weeks. Unfortunately it decided to pick the day before our arrival to succumb either to the migratory urge, the cold weather or one of the local cats. As if to rub salt in to the absence of the Wagtail, news broke of a Blue Rock Thrush in Gloucestershire soon after we had pawned our first born to fund the toll for the Severn Bridge crossing into Wales. I proposed tentatively that we turn around and head straight there but not for the first time this year I was forced to accept the will of the majority, and we pressed on.

I put the Blue Rock Thrush from my mind: we were going to Pembrokeshire and I was going to enjoy it. Choughs and a Black Redstart at the Green Bridge of Wales, and a Scaup in with Tufties at Bosherston Pools provide some birding interest, and quality time with the family had the usual tonic effect. By Thursday morning, however, the continued presence of the extreme rarity was eating away at me. The problem was, everyone else wanted to spend the morning in Pembrokeshire before heading back east. This would have limited the time available to see the Rock Thrush to the last hour or so of daylight, not a prospect I was keen on.

The difference of view over the options was in danger of becoming a full blown conflict, so I proposed a peace plan of such fiendish cunning that Voldemort himself would have been proud of it: as we have to go back over the Severn Bridge anyway, I suggested, why not nip up the road to Gloucester Cathedral, whose cloisters serve as the Hogwarts body double in several of the Potter films. Perhaps I could drop the family off there, pop along to Stow-on-the-Wold for the Blue Rock Thrush and be back to meet them in the town of my birth before dusk? Miraculously, the peace plan was accepted by all parties.

The forecast was for thick freezing fog all day in Stow-on-the-Wold, so I had visions of seeing the Thrush, which had been photographed in beautiful light the previous day, only as a silhouette in the gloom, if at all. I needn't have been concerned: the town was bathed in sunlight as I arrived to join the large crowd hanging around the Cotswold stone houses waiting for the Thrush to sit up on a rooftop somewhere. Disconcertingly, it hadn't been seen for an hour, so I headed for Fisher Close, scene of most of the previous sightings. After a few minutes chatting to Nick and Claire Oliver who arrived at about the same time, a shout went up and we got our first view of the bird. Over the next couple of hours it did several wide circuits of the area, often perching for extended periods on the rooftops and chimney pots.

I got some satisfactory photographs, but having to jockey for position to get them wasn't much fun, so I wandered towards the high street with food in mind. Walking down a narrow alley, a scuttling noise above me made me look up and there was the Blue Rock Thrush, much closer than any of my previous sightings. I had it to myself for a few seconds until I was joined by a family of muggles who were almost as pleased as I was to enjoy such a close encounter when I pointed it out. It hopped up to the ridgeline, posed for a few seconds longer and was gone. Thus sated with my views, I headed back to the Cathedral for a quick tour from the children who had by this point sussed out the most well-known locations from their favourite film scenes.

Debate about the origins of this bird has raged on site and on-line. While I was there, Lee Evans, the self-styled Albus Dumbledore of British twitching, had taken a break from mourning the loss of George Michael to apply his version of the Sorting Hat and pronounce it a definite cage bird. Other opinion was either more circumspect or more inclined to regard it as a wild bird. I can't add anything to this debate that hasn't been said already, though have tried to summarise the case for and against its acceptance to Category A of the British list in the following photos and captions.
Matted feathers on the lower breast were being mentioned by some as a bad sign yesterday - indicative of captive origin or just a sign of poor condition associated with an arduous migration?
A drooping left wing was being cited as another feature suggestive of captive origin - though we can all recall tired migrants which had suffered some kind of wing and/or feather damage.
Behaving more like a Blackbird not a Blue Rock Thrush was thought by some to be uncharacteristic of this normally wary species - not something I can comment on having never seen one abroad, but would a tired, hungry migrant spurn any easy pickings it came across?
The unexpected habitat is of some concern - but are the rooftops and gardens of a Cotswold town completely out of the question for a bird which is said to inhabit old buildings in human settlements in parts of its range? After all, it's a bird not an architecture critic.
Looking pretty tatty here in the flight feathers and the tail - but, again, does this make it cagebird material?
Cagebirds often show damaged or deformed feet - not looking too bad here though
While the garden feeder antics may have looked a bit odd, there was plenty of more natural feeding behaviour on display too - here despatching a bee of some description
No-one seems to have located anywhere in Britain where Blue Rock Thrush is kept in captivity, so unless from an illicit trade, that might support the case for wild origin. And's it's a well known fact that satellite dishes provide the perfect habitat for rare birds - ask the Adacian Flycatcher... 

The ridge lines of Stow-on-the-Wold could just about pass for rocky outcrops where you might expect to see this species
So, does this bird illustrate the old adage that anything can turn up anytime, anywhere - or is this species in this habitat at this time of year just too unlikely? A bird of southern European origin might seem less likely, but one of a more easterly origin appears more plausible. It's been present for a couple of weeks, which would overlap with the arrival of other rare thrushes from the east, and several Eastern Black Redstarts, including the one I saw not long ago at Tewkesbury Abbey - not far as the migrant flies...

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