Monday, 11 November 2013

Hermit Thrush, Porthgwarra, Cornwall - 1st November 2013

I was extremely fortunate to see this Hermit Thrush at Porthgwarra, Cornwall - the first ever record on the British mainland - and was possibly the last person to see it too. With only eight previous records (all on UK islands - Scilly, Shetland and the Outer Hebrides - plus a further two in Eire), if you wanted to see this species in the UK (without involving sea crossings) this was your chance.

This bird was found on Tuesday 29th October, while I was on a half-term holiday with the family in Lancashire. My earliest chance to get to Cornwall was on the Friday 1st November, so I took it. I got up practically before going to bed, and set off aiming to arrive not too long after sunrise. I received a message that the bird had been seen early morning and watched on and off for about an hour; but I was still an hour away when this news came through. When I arrived the bird hadn't been seen that last sighting.

When I arrived the birders were all strung out along the roadside. As with any twitch where you arrive and the bird's not currently showing, you have to find out as much gen as possible about the last sighting and then choose a strategy for how and where to concentrate your search. Almost all of the assembled birders were viewing the wood that covers the lower part of the ravine: either at the lower end, where the bird's (apparently) favourite area was, or nearer the top, where the bird had been seen last (at around 08:45). But, I'd been told the bird had been seen moving up the hill, through the wood, then beyond it until lost in the undergrowth and trees further back from the road. Searching around the top end seemed to make most sense to me.

Another birder seemed to have the same idea as me, and around 11:00 together we spotted some movement around the hedge in a garden. He asked me if any Song Thrushes had been seen that morning - I said I hadn't seen one, or heard from anyone else - and he said he thought he'd seen something a bit Song-Thrush-like fly up from the road into the hedge. We checked the garden and soon saw movement in the undergrowth in a rockery on the far side (about 10 metres away). After a few minutes we'd drawn a blank and I started looking in the hedge itself. I immediately found the outline of a thrush, which flew into the garden. I went to the gate to find the other birder pointing across the garden to an area under a large tree. "There!" he said.

We could see the bird very clearly through three vertical stems of a shrub. It was stood on a mound of mud or rock or wood, under a conifer, the base of which was surrounded by evergreen shrubs (rhododendron, laurel, tamarisk, and the like), which really blocked out the light. It was the Hermit Thrush.

The bird was very alert - staring right at us, with its tail cocked and wings drooping. It cocked its tail a few times as it continued to look at us, but I didn't hear it call. The two of us talked through the ID points to make ourselves sure of what we had.

The bill was dark and on the small side. The face was a uniform brown, mostly plain - a little paler in the lores - with a very clear pale eye-ring. The head and mantle were a uniform dull brown. The underparts were a slightly dirty-looking off-white, contrasting strongly with the brown uppers. The breast markings were very striking: the black spots were very blotchy and were only present on the throat and upper breast. There were no spots on the belly or flanks. The legs were clearly pink (which is where my doubt crept in as the photos I'd seen on the backs of a couple of cameras that morning appeared to show a bird with dark legs - a trick of the light. In my tiredness I'd forgotten the legs should be pink!).  The legs appeared long, perhaps because of the bird's alert stance. Stupidly, I didn't pay too much attention to the tail - I didn't notice the red coloration (it was so dark under that tree), although the other observers said they had when we discussed the bird later. The overall impression was of a fat, round-bellied thrush - the best description of the shape would be a big fat Nightingale who'd spilled its dinner down its front.

As we discussed what we were looking at I waved to the nearest birders, but they were some way down the road. I couldn't make too much commotion - the bird was so close and alert to our presence. I attracted the attention of the nearest birder who quickly came to our side. He said immediately, "That's it!". It turns out he'd seen it this morning and on previous days. I turned to beckon more birders up the road, and a few started to walk/run towards us; but as I turned back, the bird skittered off to the left and out of view. Only three of us had seen the bird...

There was some further movement in the undergrowth, but no further sightings. That was it. A few birders continued to watch the garden for a while, but people soon drifted back down to the wood, hoping it would show in the usual place again.

On site at the time, I felt acutely aware that almost everyone had missed it. It didn't show again that day, or the following day (a Saturday) for the many more birders who made the long trip. Not a pleasant feeling I reckon (but one I'm familiar with myself).

So around 12:45 I decided I'd head for home. I found a phone signal as soon as a could (just as I reached the A30), and rang the sighting in to BirdGuides. I was a little angry at myself for not having a camera with me (mine was damaged in Kent after my Semipalmated Plover twitch), and was feeling annoyed that we didn't have a photo of the sighting.

I have photographed this species before, when visiting North California for work in December 2011. Not easy birds to photograph, even where they are abundant...

Hermit Thrush - Sunnyvale landfill, California, USA,
Wednesday 7th December 2011

So, another successful - if tiring - twitch, which is quite nice after all the dips I had in Spring.

1 comment:

  1. Nice blog Nick, sounds like quite a day! I was pretty lucky when I arrived the bird was in the wood (the first day it was found) in the evening. There were only about 10 other birders there and after about 5-10 minutes I saw the bird, managed to see it 3-4 times to appreciate the characteristics you accurately describe above, and the rufous tail! Unfortunately the bird was very flitty but I think that was down to everyone being in the wood, when I arrived I totally missed everyone and was wondering where the heck everyone was!