A review of the rare birds seen throughout the UK in December and into January
THE YEAR 2016 can be called many things. For birders, it will be remembered as a year of many firsts for the UK. These included such astonishing birds as Lammergeier and Purple Gallinule, plus, of course, Siberian Accentors galore. But, perhaps even more than this, 2016 will be remembered by many bird chasers as the year of the rare thrush. And as December came along, the year hadn’t finished with the rare thrush theme. Far from it. Things kicked off early in the month (4 December), with the appearance of photographs showing a Dusky Thrush, snapped at Beeley, Derbyshire (near Bakewell). The next day, the twitch was on, and a month later, the thrush was still at the same site, making an early appearance on many birders’ 2017 lists. Up to this year, there have been just 11 officially accepted records of Dusky Thrush in the UK, from a very wide range of counties, including Kent, Devon, Greater Manchester, Cleveland, West Midlands and Shetland, plus the first record of a bird shot in Nottinghamshire in 1905. In 2016, there was one photographed on St Mary’s, Scilly, in late October, before promptly disappearing, then this well-watched Derbyshire bird, coming to ‘un-grip’ the rest of the birding population who desired it. But, even then, the year of the rare thrush still had a couple of tricks up its sleeves. A female Black-throated Thrush was found at St Asaph, Clwyd on 16 December, staying to New Year’s Eve (but not seen since!). Another Black-throated Thrush was found at Whittle Dene Reservoirs, Northumberland on 2 January, 2017, but that is a story for another year... Even more astonishing than the Derbyshire Dusky, was the news of a male Blue Rock Thrush in a garden at Stow-on-the-wold, Gloucestershire, which first leaked out on 27 December, though the bird may have been present for a week, by then. For many UK birders, this was their last twitch of 2016 (and one of the first of 2017). Hundreds of birders went to pay homage to the subtle blue bird during the Christmas period, hopping about on rooftops (the bird that is), despite a certain amount of inevitable debate about the bird’s origins. Most were happy to accept the thrush as wild, choosing to use roofs as
substitutes for its ‘natural’ domain. But one or two less easily convinced birders pointed out there has been a history of captivity of the species, and that some aspects of the bird’s appearance were not quite right. But it will be up to the relevant rarity committees to fully assess the record, after looking at all the ‘evidence’. In the meantime, most were happy to get the ‘insurance tick’. There have only been six accepted records of Blue Rock Thrush, all being on the west side of the country (the first being in June 1985, on Tiree, Argyll), most recently from April, 2007, in Elan Valley, Radnorshire.
Talking of birds seen on rooftops in residential areas, the UK’S first Masked Wagtail, first seen on 29 November, at Camrose, Pembrokeshire, remained in the area until Boxing Day. And continuing the unexpected garden bird theme, a male Dark-eyed Junco (a striking grey, sort of North American ‘sparrow’) was seen in a garden in West Mersea, Essex, on 8th, but not again. Presumably, this was one of those American passerines which arrive in the autumn then meld into the background before showing themselves months later. Perhaps more will still emerge. Turning back to thrushes for a moment, or rather the smaller end of the thrush scale, the chats, late 2016 will also be remembered as an amazing time for Eastern Black Redstarts. Looking like a mix between a the brightest orange male Redstart and a Black Redstart, they are startling and lovely birds. The long-staying Skinningrove, Cleveland, first-winter male stayed into the New Year. Another male was found at Torness Power Station, Lothian, on 1 December, staying to at least the 22 December. But the influx was not over, with further male Eastern Black Redstarts turning up at the inland sites of Ripple GP, Worcestershire, and at the abbey in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire (11 December). And a week later, an eighth EBR of the autumn/winter was found at Mousehole, Cornwall, on 18th, and was still present into the New Year. Before we leave the subject of a record-breaking year for chats, the Isabelline Wheatear continued its protracted beach holiday in the dunes of Burnham Overy, Norfolk, until at least 10 December, and another was on Islay, Argyll, until 3rd. The first-winter male Desert at Norman’s Bay, East Sussex, was last seen on 9 December. The other long-staying Desert Wheatear, at Thurlestone, Devon, stayed to into January, despite worries expressed by some birders (especially in the rarefied atmosphere of the odd parallel world of social media) that it might abandon its favoured site after being ringed on 12th. Another treat for birders in the south-west of England came in the form of an obliging and, by its species’ standards, showy Blyth’s Pipit, at Blagdon Lake, Somerset (from 14th to 31st), a first record of the species for the county.
Arguably the most exciting of the remaining ‘megas’ in December was the first-winter Killdeer at Sandwick, Mainland, Shetland. It remained in its favoured stubble field into January. Although it is a very familiar bird in North America, there have been fewer than 60 records of this ‘stretch limousine’ version of a Ringed Plover, with an extra stripe (and those spread back as far as 1859). Also from the ‘mega’ end of the rarity range, December saw the continuation of the Hudsonian Whimbrel’s residence in Cornwall. In fact it remained at Perranuthnoe into January. And December also saw the welcome return of the
Penzance/mount’s Bay Pacific Diver, also being seen into the New Year. Assuming (surely with justification) that this is the same bird that appears every year, February will see the tenth anniversary of its first discovery in the Bay, when it was just the third ever seen in the UK (the first two coming in the same month in North Yorkshire and Pembrokeshire). And on the subject of potentially returning birds, an American Coot was still at Balranald RSPB, North Uist, Outer Hebrides (for the third winter running). It is hard to believe that the first in the UK was only as recently as just over 20 years ago (the Stodmarsh, Kent, bird in the second half of April, 1996). There can be few UK listers who have not checked out at least one of the eight subsequent records. Just when this year of shocks and firsts (and rare thrushes) was winding down nicely, there was a major post-christmas surprise, at least for inland birdwatchers, with the finding of a first-winter Surf Scoter off the dam at Rutland Water. Exceedingly rare inland, it was also a first record for Leicestershire and Rutland, pleasing visitors at the turn of the year.
New Year birds
Early January always sees a wave of extra keen birdfinders turning up something exciting to kick start year lists. This year’s came in the form of a bird which had presumably been lurking undetected for a while (like those hidden North American passerines). Surely arriving as part of the record autumn influx of Pine Buntings, a female was found at Venus Pool, Shropshire on New Year’s Day. Another bird which was distinctly lacking in colour, was a lingering grey-brown and white stonechat at Dungeness, Kent, present since November, which was confirmed by DNA analysis to be of the northern and central Asian subspecies of Siberian Stonechat called Stejneger’s Stonechat. If such a colourless stonechat can turn out to be of this form, some London birders have asked, then is a similarly washed out individual present at Richmond Park of the same form? Perhaps DNA tests will let us know one way or the other. Will DNA birding be the rare bird theme of 2017? Only time will tell. If this year is anything like 2016, then it will certainly be difficult to predict. One exciting year ends, and perhaps this one will prove to be equally exciting. Happy New Year. Good birding.
Male Blue Rock Thrush, Stow-on-the-wold, Gloucestershire, 28 December The best rare bird stories of December into early January
ABOVE (LEFT TO RIGHT) Dusky Thrush, Beeley, Derbyshire 7 December
American Wigeon (closer bird), Clachnaharry, Inverness-shire, 11 December ê BELOW RIGHT Masked Wagtail, Camrose, Pembrokeshire, December
ABOVE (CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT) Blyth’s Pipit, Blagdon Lake, Somerset, 24 December
Red-breasted Goose, Docking, Norfolk, 21 December
Ferruginous Duck, Titchwell, Norfolk, 23 December