Friday 26 January 2024

The Warbler that looks like a Pipit but is named after a Thrush!; Northern Waterthrush, 5th & 10th January 2024

On the 3rd of January a birder living in Heybridge, on the edge of Maldon in Essex, noticed an unusual bird feeding on a wall that borders a stream in his back garden. He realised that the bird in question wasn't a familiar British species and grabbed his camera and managed to get a few shots. When he posted a photo of the bird, which he had identified as a Northern Waterthrush, on social media the birding world went into meltdown!

Northern Waterthrush is a species of the New World Warblers, a family of birds found in the Americas. They resemble our own brown and white streaked Thrush birds, although are somewhat smaller, and prefer wet habitat. Hence an early settler to America must have labelled it as such because of its likeness. It looks and behaves more like a Pipit species than a Thrush but is actually neither and thus belongs to the American Warblers. Surprisingly there had been seven records of a Northern Waterthrush being seen in Britain before, all on The Isles of Scilly except for two on the mainland, the last on Portland in Dorset in 1996 so this discovery was sure to be a popular one to see. Obviously we'd never seen one before.

Before dawn the following day, a number of twitchers had descended upon the housing estate where the bird had been discovered. The estate is bordered by an overgrown area of wet ground with a creek running through it. It was deduced that the bird, being a lover of such habitat, would probably be using the creek as well as the garden of houses along the same stream to feed. Incredibly just after it got light the Northern Waterthrush was indeed found within the creek!

This further discovery meant that even more birders were mobilised into travelling to see the bird. Three of my good friends, Kev & Karen, and Jim (The Standlake Birder) managed to get there just after lunchtime and had good if brief views of the bird when it perched up in a small oak tree next to the creek. I made plans for the following morning, thinking that the Friday would be quieter and less stressful than the weekend when hundreds of birders would be sure to arrive to see the bird.

Part 1, Friday 5th January

We often try to leave early so that we get to a twitch site before it's fully light but inevitably never quite manage it. This time however, we were on the road before six, a necessary petrol stop slowed us up a bit and another vital stop followed (it could be a long stakeout) so we didn't arrive until just after eight. The bird hadn't been reported so we hadn't missed out on anything. We somehow managed to park in the same town, despite cars parked everywhere, and made our way to the creek. Over a hundred and fifty eager twitchers had arrived before us, and the limited viewing area was rammed. The best we could do to begin with was to tag onto one end of the throng. From our position we couldn't see the ditch, where the Waterthrush had shown a preference for the day before, apart from a section some fifty odd metres away. We did have a good view of the small oak tree though and that was where most eyes were focused upon. Around half a dozen birders/toggers were unfortunately stood right on the sluice of the ditch, aiming to get the closest and best views of the bird when it perched up in the tree. At the time it wasn't realised, but being so close was clearly a mistake and hugely responsible for what followed.

For the next three hours we stood staring at that oak tree and saw nothing of interest other than a multitude of Blue Tits while our feet froze in the cold. Despite thermal imaging cameras being deployed at the front, there was no sign of the Waterthrush. The twitch was good natured and most folk were concentrated on the matter in hand so for the most part it was quiet too, and despite the amount of birders present the bird shouldn't have been put off at all. Even still it seemed possible that the increased activity in the area had been enough to force the bird away from the creek.

It is likely that the Waterthrush had arrived in the country on the back of the major storm in October that also dropped a multitude of other rare American warblers to south-west Ireland and then remarkably into south-west Wales as well, we were lucky to see one of those birds when we twitched a Magnolia Warbler in Pembrokeshire. So it is probable that the Northern Waterthrush had either been present in Essex for a couple of months, or it had slowly made its way eastwards after landing on the west coast. It just took a seasoned birder to notice it in his own garden to discover it. I wonder how many birds that arrive here surreptitiously, go undetected. There must be loads, especially those that arrive into places well away from the birding hotspots. It was now unlikely that the Waterthrush would forsake its favoured site so easily. It had probably just hunkered down more because of the increased interest in it and the pressure on its feeding area.

I never like to leave a twitch because if you do, and the bird is subsequently found later in the day, then all the previous effort would be made in vain. On this occasion though it appeared as if the Waterthrush wasn't going to show so it seemed safe to go home. Also if the bird was re-found, Maldon is only a two hour drive from home so we could return for another go. At eleven-thirty we decided we were fed up with waiting for the bird to show and headed back to the car. That's when the fun started!

I opened the boot of the car, and began getting ready for the drive home. As I usually do, I checked my phone for messages and such like, and took a glance at the BirdGuides latest sightings page. The latest entry read something like; 11:30, Northern Waterthrush, "again in the creek". I couldn't believe our luck. The bird must have appeared as we walked away. What did I say about never leaving a twitch?!

We quickly re-donned our wellies and marched quick time back to the twitch. When we got there we were more than a little confused. There wasn't any mass excitement, the birders weren't all aiming their optics and cameras at anything, and there wasn't even the noisy cackle of everybody congratulating each other on the sighting. In fact nothing appeared to have changed at all, the eager toggers were still stood next to the railings and the rest on the bank above still appeared to be either bored or disappointed. At least the crowd had thinned out a little and we were able to get a bit closer to where the action may happen. I made inquiries and found out that the report concerned a brief view of the Waterthrush made by just two observers in a thicket at the far end of the bank. So there were still over a hundred birders who hadn't connected with the bird. But at least a number of the birders were now looking at another section of the habitat and not just at the oak tree so there was more chance of the bird being seen again. We managed to gain a couple of places on the upper sluice where we had an elevated view of proceedings and settled back in.

An hour passed without anything happening. Then I noticed a birder scrambling down the bank on the opposite side to the ditch. He had spent a lot of time looking intently into the thick bushes that lined the edge of a reed fringed pool. Apparently he had heard the Waterthrush call but there was no sign of the bird. Again though the centre of the search shifted and birders spent more time scrutinising the other side from the original focal point. At one o'clock, the bird was seen. It was feeding along the edge of the pool but was tricky to see because of the bushes obscuring the view. A fair few of the assembled however, managed to get a view of the bird. We were maybe twenty metres away from where the bird was supposed to be but had no chance of getting near owing to the scrum that ensued as most birders present vied for a view. The twitch descended into a very unruly bun fight which reminded me slightly of some of the skirmishes that I used to witness at football matches, thankfully without the violence but chaotic nonetheless. There was no way I was going to subject Mrs Caley to that so we remained stood away from the goings on. I now felt sure that we'd get our chance at some point.

Twenty minutes later and the mob suddenly surged back to where we stood. The Waterthrush was making its way along the waters edge right in front of where we were. I still couldn't see it though, it seemed as if you had to be practically in the bushes to get any sort of view. Apparently the Waterthrush then flew rapidly into a mass of brambles next to a tiny open patch of water at the bottom of the sluice. We had a clear view of the pool but the bird didn't emerge into the open water that I could see. Some folk could see it however, including Mrs Caley who caught a quick glimpse of it sidling along the muddy edge of the pool. Being shorter than myself she had a less elevated field of view which paid dividends for once! It was again underneath dense vegetation and many were barking out instructions as to where to look. I was too high up on the bank though so once again it seemed that I had no chance of seeing the bird. This was incredibly frustrating, more so since Mrs Caley had seen it, and I wondered if I'd ever get to see the bird.

However, now that a few birders had connected, and were happy, the crowd thinned out a bit more. That gave me the chance to leave Mrs Caley safely at the top of the sluice and join the throng when the bird was noticed again. Almost six hours after arriving, I finally caught sight of the Waterthrush as it walked steadily along the pool. It was still largely obscured by overhanging branches but I was able to grab snatches of the bird. At least I could say I'd seen it! The Northern Waterthrush was number 424 on my life list.

I settled down on the bank and waited for the Waterthrush to show again. It had moved further away along the channel again. Fifteen minutes later and the birders were rushing back towards Mrs Caley at the sluice because the Waterthrush had flown back yet again. I guess the bird was twitchy because of the furore surrounding it. I remained sat on the bank and waited for the bird to saunter past again. In truth I was fed up with the running around and I didn't appreciate some of the behaviour that I was witnessing. I know that I was part of the problem but my intent was to see the bird so I couldn't be put off by the over zealous nature of my fellow twitchers. Anyway by staying where I was, the Northern Waterthrush rewarded me eventually by walking past my position. Of course I was quickly surrounded by other people wanting to see the bird, but this time I concentrated of getting some photos. I had to use manual focus to get the camera to "see" through the branches and it was pretty dark where the bird was so I was doubtful that I'd gotten much. I was delighted then to discover later when editing the images that I had managed to capture the bird. Not very well but I had my record shots of a very memorable twitch and bird.

We'd had enough and needed the use of some facilities so once I'd got those images, we left the masses to it. I shuddered to think what it'd be like the next day when there'd be even more twitchers present.

Northern Waterthrush (Parkesia noveboracensis)

The Saturday was by all accounts an absolute chaotic day at the Waterthrush twitch with over four hundred people trying to see the bird which was understandably extremely elusive and was only seen by a handful of observers. Conjecture was raised that the ditch immediately below and next to the sluice was the bird's favoured feeding area, and that the birders standing right next to the railings of the culvert were preventing the bird from going there. Thus it had become much more elusive because it was having to forage elsewhere.

On Sunday a couple of local birders acted upon the theory and asked birders to remain on the bank, above the sluice and thus away from the culvert and ditch. Lo and behold, given the space it required, the Waterthrush happily fed in the ditch at length, several times throughout the day, and gave amazing views to all attending!

The same was repeated again on the Monday, and it became clear that if the bird was given the room it needed then it would feed happily in the creek and even in the culvert itself and show superbly. It also became apparent that a pattern was arising in the times that the Waterthrush would show. It would appear as if by magic in the culvert at point blank range around half past seven just as the light crept into the day. After forty-five minutes or so it would fly over the bushes bordering the creek and disappear. An hour or so later it would return. This pattern would be repeated every hour or two through the day giving everybody who waited for long enough, ample time to see it. The bird would finally show right in the culvert again just after four in the afternoon when it would go to roost. My hunch was that the bird was actually roosting within the culvert drain itself.

I decided that, after seeing evidence of how well the Waterthrush had been showing, in the form of many outstanding photos that were posted on social media, that a return visit was in order.

Part 2, Wednesday 10th January

We left home half an hour earlier in an effort to get to Maldon in time for the Waterthrush leaving its roost. Naturally we failed and were in a local supermarket, some things really are important if you're going to spend half the day stood out in the cold, at twenty-five past seven when the bird was reported as being present. At least we knew that this time we'd get our views, and I even started making plans for the rest of the day! Of course, as every twitcher knows, it's never wise to get ahead of oneself.

By quarter to eight we had joined the line of around fifty birders watching over the creek. We made our way to the furthest side of the culvert. When I'd been there the week before and the dust had settled on my first sighting of the Waterthrush, I'd taken a long look at the site. After seeing the subsequent reports and photos of the bird, I thought that standing to the left of the culvert would give us the best chance of seeing the bird up close, particularly if it fed within the confines of the concrete walls of the drain. Standing directly above the culvert allowed for better views of the entire area but offered less vision into the drain itself. I nudged Mrs Caley into the front, "room for a little one?", and stood behind her. While I accustomed my eyes to the dingy light, the sun was yet to rise above the horizon, I asked a chap stood next to me, 'Where was the bird seen?'. I was answered, 'In the culvert'. So that was good. I continued, 'Where is it now?'. Rather huffily, I thought, the chap replied, 'In the culvert, like I said!'. Ok, it was early morning after all.

Less than five minutes after arriving, we had our first view of the Waterthrush when it walked across the flotsam in the culvert and into view on the far side of the ditch. This was the first time that I'd had a decent view of the bird! The Warbler that looks like a Pipit but is named after a Thrush picked away deftly at the weedy edge of the water. It was an extremely nimble bird too, balancing expertly on plant stems and floating debris. After taking a short fill of the bird through my binoculars, I set about taking a few record shots. It was still pretty dark and in the drain darker still so my initial photos were taken with an ISO setting of 3200 and a shutter speed of 1/30 of a second. I used the Program setting though which I find helps in low light levels. A couple were good enough to keep and I had a vast improvement on my efforts the week before.

I'd seen photos taken on the previous couple of days showing the Waterthrush perched on the culvert wall. I wanted that pose so waited with the camera poised for when the bird would alight on the moss covered concrete. And it did just that. Unfortunately it did one quick flick of the tail and flew off over the brambles towards the adjoining housing estate. I wasn't quick enough to get the shot. I didn't even catch the tail!

The consensus was that the Waterthrush had flown off a fair way so now it would be a matter of waiting in the cold, and it was a very cold morning with a keen wind making it feel even more frigid. Over the past three days the Waterthrush had made repeated visits to the creek, often staying for half an hour or more so I expected it to be back soon. It was only fifteen minutes when someone announced that it had returned. The bird was creeping along the nearside bank to us, but that was just the only place we couldn't see from our vantage point owing to bramble bushes at the waters edge. So we had an uncomfortable minute or two watching all the folk to our right get views and take photos, while we waited until it came into view. It was a bit brighter as well, although the sun still had to rise up from behind the houses, so the views when the bird emerged from under the bushes and into clear water were much better than before. The bird was further away but I could set the camera with a shutter speed of 1/320 of a second, ten times quicker than twenty minutes before.

I don't think I'd ever considered that one day I'd be adding a Northern Waterthrush to my life list and yet here I was watching one. I had to pinch myself at how well the bird was showing compared to my previous visit as well. I fully expected to completely fill a memory card considering the unlimited chances the bird was offering up as it fed in the creek. Now we could appreciate the plumage details of the bird as well. As I've said already, it most resembled one of our Pipit species, albeit one with a short tail. The feint yellow wash to the streaked underparts was now far more obvious than when I'd seen it last Friday, as was the bold supercilium. The Waterthrush had a habit of flicking its tail and of dipping its body down, similar to a Dipper or a Cetti's Warbler. We watched it hop across the plant stems and then fly a few feet onto the opposite bank. That bank was still deep in shadow and frozen but that didn't seem to bother the bird which was still finding food.

Two minutes later a small group of dabbling Mallards appeared to disturb the Waterthrush which ran around them and away from us towards the street. Then instead of continuing to feed it flew off. I think it flew under a bridge that ran under the street but couldn't be sure. What was certain was that it had gone for the moment anyway. For the second time that morning though, I fully expected the Waterthrush to be back before too long. It was eleven minutes past eight. We'd only been on site for half an hour. Compare that to the six hours for a meagre view the first time round!

On Monday and Tuesday the Waterthrush had returned to the creek at around ten o'clock each morning. We stood shivering, the sun had made it above the rooftops but as is often the case, the temperature had actually dropped in the more rarified air. The line of waiting birders became less patient as their extremities became numb in the cold. By ten o'clock the Waterthrush hadn't returned. Birders began leaving and the density of the "crowd" thinned out a little although there was a turnover with others newly arriving. We were as cold as everybody else despite dressing for the occasion in many thermal layers and started setting a time to give up. There was no way we were going to wait for as long as last time so initially we set ten-thirty as our leave time. The bird was nowhere to be seen but I urged Mrs Caley to wait for a bit longer. 

The sun was now shining fully onto the creek, except for the opposite bank which I guessed would remain in shade for most of the day. We watched every bird that flew across the creek into the bramble scrub eagerly even though we knew that they were all more common local birds such as House Sparrows and Robins. At quarter to eleven, I had to beg Mrs Caley to wait another five minutes. I didn't want to leave like we had on our first visit and have to race back again. But we'd seen the bird well enough already so I felt that eleven o'clock would be long enough. I'd just have to be content with what I had seen. 

Then at ten forty-eight a bird dropped out of the sky and into the bramble bush on our side of the ditch. Instantly I knew that it was the Waterthrush, even though I had next to no experience of the species. I just knew it wasn't one of the common species. I almost shouted to Mrs Caley, 'That's it!', and 'Watch the edge under the bramble where it showed before'. My hunch was proven to be right just a few seconds later when the Waterthrush crept out from the bottom of the bush and stood on a floating reed stem. In the full sunshine it looked a treat too. Thank goodness we'd stayed that little bit longer!

The bird was retracing the same route that it took earlier, tripping out into the middle of the creek and giving excellent viewing and photo opportunities. It was a real thrill to see. This was an extremely rare bird and likely to be the only one that I'd ever see. It was now much more obvious why this species had been christened as a Water-thrush as well. When the bird flew off of a plant stem I even managed to grab a lucky flight shot.

Unfortunately for the Togger in me though, the waterthrush appeared to favour the northern bank of the stream which wasn't gathering any sunshine. Maybe it preferred frozen food to microwaved. This preference for the dark side meant that shutter speeds were slower again but the bird still gained some nice poses for those of us still taking photos.

As before the Waterthrush worked its way along the water's edge towards the onlookers. With almost every step it crept closer and closer and despite the shadows, the views obviously improved. The icy water didn't appear to bother the bird at all, judging by the amount of times it plunged its head into it!

We were treated to unrivalled views from our position to the left of the culvert. I had chosen our spot well, since I could now see that those birders stood directly above the drain or to the right of it couldn't see the bird judging by the cameras being holstered and the amount of tiptoeing being done. I was taking shot after shot and loving it. My grin, not often seen, stretched from ear to ear.

The bird reached the culvert and was only a dozen feet away. We were looking directly down on it but even our view was blocked off by the wall of the drain at times. But when it ventured out onto the floating mat of vegetation and ice we were able to see it pretty well. Extremely well in fact!

Our last view of the bird was when it walked back up the far edge of the creek. I thought it would make the complete return journey but instead it suddenly flew onto the wall of the culvert again. Before I had a chance to grab that photo I had wanted most, it flew back towards the houses again. The Waterthrush had graced us with a best in show performance for six whole minutes. It wasn't seen again until gone four o'clock in the afternoon when it returned to roost. Thank goodness we didn't leave at half past ten!

Usually I'm not big on travelling to see the same bird twice but I'm so glad that I did on this occasion. Definitely bird of the year so far! I wonder which species will be next to hit the Old Caley life list?


1 comment:

  1. Many clear photographs, finally. Now I know what a Northen Waterthrush looks like, thanks to you and Mrs Caley's efforts. Fascinating blog.