Black-throated Thrush – Whipsnade Zoo, Bedfordshire

On the morning of Wednesday 11th December Rare Bird Alert reported that a Black-throated Thrush had been seen at Whipsnade Zoo in Bedfordshire. It had been seen briefly, with Redwings, near the former Asian Elephant enclosure before flying off. A stunning photo of the bird was posted on twitter and news gradually filtered through to the birding community.

There have been only 84 British Records (to the end of 2017) and as this would be a first for Bedfordshire a major twitch was likely although some people commented that the photo looked suspicious perhaps manipulated in Photoshop. There was no further sign of the thrush on Thursday but then, on Friday 13th, it was seen again in the pig pen next to the Hullabazoo children’s play area. It remained elusive in poor weather during the rest of Friday and it was again a little ellusive on Saturday disappearing around lunch time.

I saw the superb photos which followed, what a cracking bird and no question of Photoshop trickery. Virtually in full summer plumage with an almost unbroken black throat and chest. I was by now very keen to see it. We were staying with my Mum and Dad for our early Christmas weekend. After a brilliant weekend with all the family I made arrangements with Dad to try for the Black-throated Thrush on the Tuesday.  

Aly sent me a copy of an e-mail which David Fisher had sent her and this included a google maps pin of its favoured pyracantha bush. It also included some additional information on where else the bird had been seen over its first few days. It was regularly associating with a flock of Redwing in the vicinity of the Hullabazoo kids area, often either in the pyracantha bushes behind the aquarium and butterfly house and the indoor play area, or actually feeding on the ground in the small pig pen.

As the bird was within Whipsnade Zoo we would need to pay the entry fee of £21.60 each. I picked Dad up at 8:30am so that we would arrive at around 10:30am. The zoo opens at 10am and news each morning wasn’t coming through until 10:30am at the earliest once birders had had time to look for it. Our plan had been to wait in the car park for news before committing to the £21.60 entry fee, selfish I know! However, at 10:15am and with us still 15 minutes from the zoo news came through of the continued presence of the bird just west of the miniature railway siding.

As we got to within a mile of the zoo a really thick fog developed putting some real doubt over how easy this bird might be to see. We paid our entry and walked towards the favoured area meeting David Fisher on the way. He had seen the thrush and was now heading for a coffee and hoping that the fog would clear before his return. Within a few minutes the thrush showed again briefly for us in the pyracantha bush reaching down to pick some berries. The bird was pretty close to us but it was difficult to see much detail as the fog was so thick. 

The fog began to clear and suddenly the whole flock of Redwing picked up and flew off but thankfully they circled back towards us. They dropped back into the nearby trees and with visibility now very good we had excellent telescope views of the thrush. After a minute or two they took off again and flew a bit further this time, over the small green bridge which spans the miniature railway siding. Around a dozen or so birders left fairly quickly but Dad and I decided to wait for it near the Hullabazoo area and its favoured pyracantha bush.

After 15 minutes and with no sign of the thrush flock or any of the birders who had followed it I also decided to head in that direction. This left Dad and around five or so birders waiting in the original area. I walked over the tiny railway bridge and wandered around looking for thrush flocks or birders. I passed the Tiger pen and then reversed my steps heading west along the road which runs alongside the miniature railway line. I found the birders and joined them, they were watching the thrush. It sat in the top of a small tree facing towards us. After five minutes the flock flew over our heads and back towards the railway siding. We walked back and then enjoyed good views of the Black-throated Thrush feeding on the grassy areas which run alongside this road, it was kicking up leaves with an active flock of around 30 Redwing. It then flew across the road and into the tall poplar trees around the former Asian Elephant enclosure and soon afterwards it was off again and back down onto the grassy areas.

The Black-throated Thrush was clearly larger than the accompanying Redwing and pale grey other than a strikingly black throat and chest. The ear coverts and crown were paler and the bill was strikingly yellow with a black tip and upper mandible.

I tried to call Dad several times but it went to answer machine. I finally got to speak to him, we were having good and regular views but nothing close enough for Dad to get the photo he was after and so he decided to wait by the original bushes where all of the best photos had been taken.

The rain began to start. It was forecast to improve by 1pm but this didn’t seem to happen and we gradually got colder and wetter. We decided to head back for a coffee and a slice of cake and met a couple of birders who were just arriving. After a coffee break we tried for the thrush again and a little later bumped into the two birders again, they still hadn’t seen it.

It seems that over the last week the bird has been much easier to see in the morning before gradually moving further away and getting seen less in the afternoons. Its favoured bushes only seem to be favoured first thing but as the zoo becomes busier the thrush flock appeared to move towards the perimeter of the zoo becoming more mobile and elusive.

Dad and I had toyed with the idea of waiting for news on Tuesday morning before setting off. I’m pretty sure that had we done this, just like the two birders we met as we were getting a coffee, then we wouldn’t have seen it at all. 

The breeding range of Black-throated Thrush is from the extreme east of Europe to Western Siberia and north-west Mongolia and it normally winters in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, Iran, India and Myanmar. The thrush probably moved into north eastern Europe in the autumn before joining flocks of winter thrushes there and when these thrushes moved into western Europe it came with them.

My only previous record of Black-throated Thrush was a long-staying 1st winter bird at Webheath in Worcestershire in 1996. There were actually two long-staying wintering Black-throated Thrushes seen in 1996 with the second one being in Cambridgeshire.

I finished 2019 on 263 which is my 2nd best year (after 289 in 1996) and well ahead of my 250 target.

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