We have now entered April, and even at this point of the year the redolence of spring is all too faint, more or less intangible. Inevitably, migration has been excruciatingly slow in Aberdeenshire of late, with none of the commoner migrants having made an appearance in the region of yet as far as I am aware. March, for me, has always represented that painful hiatus between the decent birding of midwinter and the start of spring migration, as has been the case this year. Yet paradoxically, for the last couple of years at least, it has also provided two top draw birds in the region.
What better BB rare to turn up to continue the winter theme than a corking 1st winter male Black-throated Thrush (Turdus atrogularis) in a local birder’s back garden in Banchory! News filtered through on Tuesday morning (26th March), with access details and extremely gripping photos surfacing that evening. School beckoned the next day, but I had a beautifully subject free morning, so thus pounced on the opportunity to make a trip up for this bird in the allotted time schedule from 9-11 on the Wednesday morning with the knowledge that it would not interrupt anything at school. Handy!
It couldn’t have felt more wintery that morning. As we made the 15 mile drive towards Banchory, a blizzard welcomed us. This eventually dissipated into light snow showers, but the blizzard from beforehand and snow from the previous night meant there was 3 inches or so was lying, making for a dramatic drive. This did not hinder our progression. We had arrived within half an hour at the house, situated in front of a line of snow-dusted tall conifers. We were ushered into the house, where another 4/5 birders were staring out onto the tiny garden. An area of seed and some apples were scattered to attract the bird in question. A pair of Blackbirds fed on the seed, whilst a couple of Long-tailed Tits were accompanied by a range of commoner finches and tits on the feeders. At this early point, however, there was no sign of the Black-throated Thrush. The bird in question had not been seen in 10 minutes. Only 3 of the birders present had connected, so I was not alone in my anxious anticipation to see this bird. As we waited, I was told that when the Blackbirds clear out, the Black-throated Thrush would be back.
And that was what happened. After ten minutes or so, the 1st winter male Black-throated Thrush descended on the bird seed, shoving the Blackbirds off and having the seed to itself. DSLR primed as I sat close to the window, I was filled with scintillating adrenaline as this absolutely gorgeous bird presented itself to the admiring onlookers, feeding away intently. Here was one of the most stonking vagrant sibe thrushes, in resplendent attire, within less than 10ft of the window in a back garden, a birder’s dream! It was quite a surreal experience. As the snow fell gently but consistently in the compact, pine fringed Banchory back garden, there a Black-throated Thrush was sat. In the heat of the moment, you could maybe forgiven for thinking you were actually in Russia. Perhaps that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but at that moment it certainly felt like deep mid-winter.
After a few minutes of cripplingly close views as it gorged on the seed, the bird retreated into a bush at the back of the garden, where it sat bold and upright briefly before moving up into the conifers once more. It returned shortly afterwards, when other newly arrived birders photographed the bird at similar quarters to me originally, whilst I admired it in the bins from a distance as it started to feed on an apple. I had hoped it would move onto the bird bath, so as to allow for more artistic photo opportunities, but in the conditions it was more attracted to the seed. The third and final time that it put in an appearance, just before I left, saw it more or less come right up to the french doors, allowing for views down to 5ft and difficulty getting the full bird into the viewfinder, even though the bird was standing tall. Nonetheless, I couldn’t have asked for more photography and view wise. Below are the best photos I managed from the session:
The extremely close views also allowed for plenty of notes on the structural and plumage features of this beautiful bird. There has been some doubt over the age of this bird, but I believe that the original call of first-winter is correct. The detailed notes made, albeit in some cases from the photos, are below and linked with the photos above and have proved helpful in my understanding of how to age these birds:
- Head charcoal grey rather than jet black as in adult. Ear coverts, nape, mantle and uppertail coverts all concolourous with head.
- Jet black eye with faint yellow iris, though not strikingly bright contrast with face as in full adult
- Upper mandible blackish, contrasting with golden yellow, fairly thick set lower mandible. Black from upper mandible bleeding roughly a quarter of the way down from tip of lower mandible (photo 7)
- Upper breast a mottled, spotted black ‘bib’ rather than full black sheen as in adult, ending at start of flanks
- Flanks subdued, smudged brown contrasting with off white underparts, rather than unmarked flanks as in adult. *
- Upper scapulars with black centres and fringes. Alula deep jet black contrasting with brown fringed, black centred lesser coverts.
- Median coverts and greater coverts black centred with increasingly pale fringes. Two outermost greater coverts with evident white fringes (Photo 2, 4 etc.), this diagnostic of a first winter bird.
- Legs a pale fleshy pink. A touch smaller than Blackbird, often standing erect like Fieldfare (photo 8). Very aggressive behaviour, intimidating local Blackbirds.
* The subdued flanks maybe make this bird quite a well developed 1st winter, as some younger 1st winters such as this bird have far more pronounced, extensive flank streaking.
Within a couple of hours, I was back at a snow free school, and getting on with the working day as planned. But that hour was one of the most enjoyable I had had for some time, alleviating all my winter related frustrations and my academic pressures disappearing in the company in one of the most stunning and exciting passerines I have seen in Britain to date. Just an amazing bird, one to remember for a long, long time to come. Hopefully it will not be the last regional rarity that I will see here before I move away from the area in the summer.
Thanks for reading,