I'd more or less mentally shut up shop for the 2016 birding year. It had been a great year and I was starting to think about my end of year review and my bird of the year awards and I certainly wasn't expecting to make any more sorties before the New Year. However, on Tuesday afternoon news broke of a male Blue Rock Thrush in Stow-on-the-Wold - a tantalisingly short distance from Casa Gnome. Initially the news was no more than the fact that someone had posted an ID query on Twitter about a strange bird in their garden and the location hadn't been disclosed. However, when you dangle a carrot such as this before the twitching community it doesn't take much to bring out a twitcher's inner detective and by late afternoon someone had Googled the name of the Twitter poster to get their postcode and then had scoured the area until they'd turned the bird up. There was a bit of controversy on Bird Forum (see here) about the fact that the location had been posted on RBA without any prior consultation but with the genie out of the bottle there wasn't anything to be done except to plan my trip the next day.
The forecast was for fog for much of the county in the morning and also unfortunately for Stow as well which is just over the border in Gloucestershire. With that in mind, and also not wanting to have endure the inevitable dawn hoards I decided to play it cool and to aim to arrive late morning when the sun would have had a chance to burn off the fog and when numbers would have calmed down. After all, since the bird had apparently already been there for more than a week before being identified I wasn't particularly worried about it disappearing. I followed on-line as the dawn arrivals connected and photos on Twitter seemed to reveal a first-light crowd of more than 100 birders, all crammed into a small space so I was thankful to have given that a miss. At around 10 a.m. I started to think about heading over there and began to get my gear packed into the Gnome mobile. I was all set to head off when my VLW pointed out that news had just broken of a fatal accident on the A40, which was the route I was going to take. With the road closed both ways I decided to go via Chipping Norton instead and thanked the stars (and my VLW) for having learnt about the news just in time. So instead I headed off along the misty and frosty Oxfordshire roads, passing a couple of minor accidents along the way, testament to the treacherous conditions. Some three quarters of an hour later I arrived in Stow and tried to get into the closest car par only to find that it was full of twitchers so I headed back to a residential side road that was well away from the twitch area, got tooled up and dressed up in my warm gear to keep out the near zero temperatures and hurried over to Fishers Close, where the bird was located. There was a steady stream of birders coming the other way though numbers weren't too huge.
I arrived at the Close to find no more than a dozen or so birders all scoping something which of course turned out to be the Blue Rock Thrush itself, conveniently perching on the top of a chimney pot of a more distant house. I quickly got my scope out and enjoyed my first views of this Mega rarity.
|Blue Rock Thrush on a chimney pot|
After a few minutes it flew down into the garden behind the house and I could relax and go and explore a bit. I soon found the area which overlooked the original finder's garden and which I recognised from the photos that morning. Judging from the RBA reports and what I'd read on Bird Forum I had been expecting only occasional views but from talking to people who were already there it seemed that the bird was often on view and that one never had to wait more than fifteen or twenty minutes for a sighting and this did in fact prove to be the case.
I'd been a bit surprised at the location this normally mountain-dwelling species had chosen, namely a residential housing estate. On doing a bit of reading it turned out that it liked what seemed to be similar habitat to Black Redstarts and apparently it wasn't too unusual for them to be seen in villages though of course they should be much further south and east than this one was. It certainly treated the surrounding houses like some cliffs, often perching on them to survey the scene before nipping down to lower levels to feed. It seemed to have a bit of a circuit which included the original garden as well as quite a few rooftops on the surrounding houses. This made for nice easy viewing though in the bright sunlight it did make for difficult photography. In fact the best views of it were when it was low down in the deep shade in the garden. Then one could appreciate the deep indigo blue colour and make out the vermiculations on the plumage that I naively thought marked it out as a first winter male though apparently it's actually an adult (see here). The rest of the time against a bright sky it appeared almost black though with a very distinctive jizz that immediately marked it out as something special.
|In the shade it was possible to appreciate the subtle plumage details|
|It's more usual roof-top pose|
Over the course of about an hour and a half I took a number of photos as it appeared and disappeared though much of them ended up being the same silhouette on a roof top which only has limited photographic appeal. The number of twitchers ebbed and flowed though there were never more than about forty during the time that I was there.
Given the rarity of the bird and it's close proximity to God's Own County I was very much expecting to bump into other Oxon birders and sure enough I met up with Peter Law, Wayne and Julie Bull and also Keith and Shirley Clack. Given how well the bird was performing there was a nice relaxed atmosphere and much chatting was had.
|Birders selfie: from left to right: Wayne, Julie, Peter and myself|
Eventually I felt that I'd had my fill and wandered back to the Gnome mobile, de-tooled, had a celebratory mince pie to keep my energy up and then headed back home to Oxford for a late lunch. What a nice finale to what has been a special birding year.