Saturday 18 May 2013


It was late Friday night and I was tucked up in bed fantasising about what we might encounter on our hastily arranged trip to the Western Isles the following day. The thought of Pomarine Skuas started to get things stirring between the sheets, where 'spooning' rather than 'spoons' are usually at the forefront of my filthy little mind. All of a sudden though I was brought back down to earth. Eminating through the darkness came a haunting wail, the dreaded sound of MEGA alert! Petrified about what I might witness flashing up on my pager I decided against trotting downstairs to retrieve my pager. It was probably a bird I did not 'need' anyway. I muffled the irritating din with a pillow over my head and continued to doze...... until I received a text from Snapper Richards 'Are you awake? If so, check your pager!' he demanded. I flung back the quilt and darted downstairs as fast as my trembling little legs could carry me.

You are joking? There was only a DUSKY THRUSH over in Kent and amazingly this had been its third day on site! A quick glance through my library confirmed that this would be the first twitchable individual since a first winter male appeared in Hartlepool during December 1959. Teen heart throb Adam Faith was number one in the UK single charts back then but did this particular 'Adam' have 'faith' in the bird still being present the following day? I called Snapper back. We needed to move in a few hours if we were to get on site as close to sunrise as we could. The problem was all of our usual crew were either drunk, tucked up in bed asleep, could not be arsed to answer their phone or away in some far off distant land. I was beginning to panic bearing in mind I had a ten hour drive looming and a ferry to catch on Sunday morning. There was no way I had the stamina as driver for an eight hour round trip to Margate and back followed by a marathon trek north to the Isle of Skye.

Another irritating case of Thrush!

Fortunately Martin Smyth sprang to the rescue with a lift. After picking up a rather tipsy Snapper Richards from Cannock we headed over to Coventry where we caught a lift with top 2013 year lister John Jennings and his pal Dennis Woodward. It was now 3.00am and I was pretty much shattered. The previous day had been a stressful affair after clocking up a ten hour stint in the office and I had only managed to obtain less than a hour of that unsettling pre-twitch sleep. I felt pretty damn rough and to make matters worse I was convinced the bird would depart throughout the night. The atmosphere in the car was tense during our journey south-east.

At just after 6.00am we pulled up outside Margate Cemetery and at this stage there had been no sign of the bird. As we retrieved our kit from the boot of the car though, a rather flustered Andy Holden darted past us looking like 'Where's Wally' on his sports day. He was heard to shout "It's been seen!". We legged it through the graveyard hurdling tombstones as we went. The first friendly face we encountered was that of Alan Clewes. Luckily he had his scope trained on the DUSKY THRUSH as it perched up as bold as brass in the tree tops. We took turns to have a quick peek at the rare oriental temptress. The pressure was off and the second phase of adrenalin began to kick in. It was now time to savour the moment.

DUSKY THRUSH (first winter female)
Margate Cemetery, Kent - May 2013
Photo by Adam Archer

The scene that surrounded us was reminiscent of a geeky, 'care in the community' equivalent of Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' video as one travel weary, birding zombie after another shuffled and groaned, quietly from grave to grave as the bird flew from tree to tree. Despite being pretty mobile the bird treated all that were present to some decent views in the early morning murk. Occasionally it was mobbed by one of the resident Ring-necked Parakeets and was flushed a short distance. At other times a few excited birders edged too close but everyone was relatively well behaved during our time on site. The thrush continued to remain pretty loyal to its favoured corner of the cemetery. It would disappear for a while but it was not too long before it popped up out in the open in order to satisfy its admirers.

Alan Clewes is shocked to the core by the presence of the Dusky Thrush!

As the morning progressed more and more late comers started to arrive, each with their own excuse for not being there earlier. They were like a bunch of apologetic teenagers who had failed to do their homework. Some like me were obliviously tucked up in bed when the news filtered through, others were down the pub (always dangerous at this time of the year) whilst the other odd twitcher amongst them was just plain dumb. Whatever their tale though, everyone who made an effort to make it to Margate this day would have scored eventually. Unfortunately there was no sign of the bird the following day.

DUSKY THRUSH (1st winter female) - Margate, Kent.
Photo by Josh Jones

The Dusky Thrush breeds further north than its close relative the Naumann's Thrush from north-central Siberia east to Kamchatka. It spends the winter from Japan south to Taiwan and to Southern China to Myanmar. If accepted this will be just the tenth record for Britain. The initial sighting was way back in 1905 when one was shot at Gunthorpe in Nottinghamshire. The most recent was a stunning male that was identified from photographs that were taken in a snowy garden in Leigh, Greater Manchester on the 8th December 2010. One of the records of a bird on Shetland in 1975 is rumoured to show signs of it being a Dusky x Naumann's Thrush intergrade however this is yet to be confirmed. There is also some talk of the Kent bird showing a few features to suggest this however the consensus of opinion is that it looks good for a second calendar year Dusky Thrush.

The ruins of St Mary's Church at Reculver, Kent.
Photo by Adam Archer

After spending a few hours with the DUSKY THRUSH we then made our way up to the north Kent coast to Reculver. There had been a male Red-backed Shrike in the area the previous day however we were too preoccupied by another bird to search for it too hard. A splendid female Montagu's Harrier came into view as we approached the oyster farm and for about twenty minutes we enjoyed some of the best views any of us have had of this species in Britain. After a hearty breakfast in the nearby cafe we then made our way back to the West Midlands. It had been one hell of a Saturday morning! 

Saturday 4 May 2013

Grey-headed Wagtail in Leicestershire

Thornton Reservoir, Leicestershire
Photo by Adam Archer

Belated news of a scarce form of Western Yellow Wagtail filtered through from Leicestershire last night. A male Grey-headed Wagtail, the form thunbergi had been present around the horse paddocks along the eastern side of Thornton Reservoir for the past three days. As the village of Thornton is only half a hour car ride away from our new house and having not seen this subspecies before, I decided to try for it today. After speaking with Leicestershire's Johnny Hague regarding access to the site and the bird's habits, the consensus was that an afternoon visit would prove more productive.

After completing a few more 'moving in' tasks, Nadia and I headed east through rural Leicestershire and arrived on site at around 3.30pm. The bird had been reported on and off throughout the morning but as we arrived there was neither any sign of the bird or any other birders. A male British Yellow Wagtail (form flavissima) was a nice distraction but it was not what we were looking for. Just a few minutes later though another Western Yellow Wagtail was heard calling and suddenly the handsome Grey-headed Wagtail appeared out of nowhere to feed alongside one of the horses that was grazing the pasture.   

Grey-headed Wagtail (male of the race thunbergi)
Thornton Reservoir, Leicestershire - May 2013
Photo by Adam Archer

The bird continued to show well on and off as it risked life and limb picking off any insects that were disturbed by the horses hooves. Like any wagtail species though it would often fly off for no apparent reason only to reappear a short time later. It would also disappear over the brow of the hill at times but as the horses reappeared then so would the Grey-headed Wagtail along with at least 3 British Yellow Wagtails.  Other birds on site included 2 Common Buzzard, a Sparrowhawk, both singing Common Whitethroat and Lesser Whitethroat and around 20 Sand Martin.

Flat-headed Wagtail (male of the race squashbirdi)
Photo by Adam Archer

Grey-headed Wagtail or Dark-headed Wagtail as it is sometimes known breeds in central and northern parts of Scandinavia, eastwards across to north-west Siberia. It spends the winter in East Africa, the Indian subcontinent and across parts of South-east Asia. Just a few weeks ago it is quite possible that this Leicestershire bird was feeding at the feet of Zebra or Wildebeest out on the African plains. 

Thursday 2 May 2013

WOODCHAT SHRIKE in Warwickshire

Woodchat Shrike - Brandon Marsh, Warwickshire - May 2013
Photo by Adam Archer

Lanius lightning struck twice over at Brandon Marsh Nature Reserve this morning when their second WOODCHAT SHRIKE in four years was found. Unlike the distant Newlands shrike on the 29 May 2009, this particular bird showed very well indeed near the old farm along Brandon Lane. I managed to  connect with it this evening where it performed like a star hunting from a couple of small bramble patches, when it was not being dive bombed by the local Barn Swallows.  

Woodchat Shrike - Brandon Marsh, Warwickshire - May 2013
Photo by Adam Archer

This was only the fifth ever sighting of this Continental rarity for the entire West Midlands region. The initial record was from way back on the 14th May 1893 when a pair was allegedly found at Weatheroak Hill in Worcestershire. It was not until a staggering 106 years later before another turned up, this time a handsome male at Sutton Park in the West Midlands which stayed from the 1st to the 14th June 1999. The next was the aforementioned Brandon Marsh bird in 2009 followed by another, this time a juvenile at Whitemoor Haye, Staffordshire on 8th September 2010.

Woodchat Shrike - Brandon Marsh, Warwickshire - May 2013
Photo by Adam Archer

Other birds on site included several calling Cuckoo, my first of the year as well as singing Blackcap, Common Whitethroat, Sedge Warbler and Reed Warbler.