Grey-cheeked Thrush finders account – Strandurgh Ness, Fetlar – 29th October 2014

Posted by Rory Tallack on Thursday 11th December 2014 | Birding in Shetland

A late-autumn coastal monitoring walk of Fetlar’s wild and remote north-east cliffs for Rory Tallack landed him with the remarkable discovery of a highly prized American passerine. A find like this is a fantastic example of the fact the birds in Shetland can literally turn up anywhere and often when you least expect them…

Grey-cheeked Thrush at Strandurgh Ness, Fetlar. Photo by Rory Tallack.

Surveying in Fetlar for the day, Paul Harvey and I decided to split up in order to cover a long route in half the time; he headed to the south east of the island, while I set off walking the north east coast. Ten minutes into the walk, I had a call from Brydon Thomason asking if I could look out for seal pups on my way round. I briefly regretted answering the phone – this meant I couldn’t take the usual shortcuts away from the coast – but I agreed and continued the walk, checking each geo for seals as I went.

Around an hour and two seal pups later, I reached Longa Tonga, a deep, rounded geo, where two more pups were conspicuously lying on the beach below. There were 3 adult females in the water so it seemed sensible to make sure there wasn’t a third pup out of sight. I walked to the far side of the geo and down into a small dip, where I suddenly became aware of a bird on the ground, only around 5 feet away. This in itself wasn’t a huge surprise – I’d seen good numbers of Redwings all morning – and I didn’t even lift my bins. However, as I looked down, I was stunned to see this one wasn’t a Redwing, but an American thrush! Unfortunately, the bird was almost as surprised to see me as I was it and, after an awkward couple of seconds, it disappeared down into the geo, out of sight, and I saw it on its way with a single loud expletive. I hadn’t seen it for long enough to feel I’d clinched its identity, but my initial impression was of a bird with strikingly cold underparts, no buffy tones around the face and, as it flew off, it was clear that neither the tail nor the upperparts were obviously warm-toned.

The bird was now out of sight, but I was quite sure it hadn’t gone far. I phoned Paul and Brydon, leaving Paul a message to say that I’d found a catharus thrush, ‘probably Grey-cheeked’.  I knew it would take him at least an hour to get to me – he would be as far from his car as I was from mine – and at that point I had the feeling I might need a hand to see it well enough to confirm the ID. Fortunately, however, I relocated the bird quickly and, after a couple of failed attempts to get close, pinned it down to an area of boulders at the far end of the geo and fired off a handful of distant shots. I moved to a better position a few metres closer and slowly peered over a ledge, camera poised. It was gone. Somehow in those few seconds it had disappeared completely.

My phone rang. It was Paul – he was on his way but had still not reached his car, which meant at least another hour, probably more. A quick look at the back of my camera revealed a series of distant smudges on a rock, but fortunately there was enough there for me to confirm my initial thought: I had stumbled upon a Grey-cheeked Thrush on a cliff in the middle of nowhere! I phoned a couple of friends and then set about trying to re-find the bird once again. For around half an hour it eluded me completely, before briefly giving itself up on the cliff-top to the north east of its original geo. It promptly disappeared again and this time I decided my best bet was to wait. I found a promontory from which I could see two or three hundred metres of cliff to the north, and sat down. To my surprise, I soon picked up the bird about 100m away, feeding on a grassy slope near the bottom of the 30m cliffs. I stayed on it until it flew into another geo, then moved closer and waited once again. Again it reappeared, feeding on the next grassy slope, slowly but surely moving north-eastwards along the cliffs. I phoned Paul. He was now only a few minutes away and was with Malcie Smith, the only other birder on the island at that time. By the time they arrived, it had just moved out of sight, but I knew exactly which geo the bird was in. We positioned ourselves on either side in order to keep track more effectively as it moved, and over the next 45 minutes we watched as it fed along the cliffs, occasionally disappearing out of site for minutes at a time and, at one point, giving fantastic views down to just a few meters.

Rory Tallack