The White’s Thrush Saga

Two years ago, I told you about how Santa took up birding and soon became completely hooked on this wonderful hobby we share with him… but what he hadn’t realised, was that other people he knew were already into birding to a greater or lesser degree.

Mother Nature was obviously into all kinds of wildlife… but really she was a better botanist than a birder… and she was not competitive like Santa. Jack Frost was more of a local patch man and had not been around so much these days; he never chased rarities as he didn’t want to miss something local, so it was the Easter Bunny with whom Santa talked about lists, rarities and twitches they had both been on. Since they both lived in Europe it was their ‘European lists’ they were competitive about; they loved comparing lists and talking about what rarity might turn up next. Today, Santa was not enjoying the conversation… he was going through the horrible emotions that result from what birder’s call, ‘being gripped off’. The Easter Bunny had seen something Santa really wanted to see and he was crowing – but not about a crow – about a White’s Thrush!

“Ho ho ho, congratulations,” Santa was saying through gritted teeth, “I am delighted for you…. but are you sure it was a White’s Thrush? I mean they are rather like young Mistle Thrushes in many ways you know.” The Easter Bunny knew he was getting to him when he started making those sorts of enquiries, “Ah no doubt about it… I can’t claim to finding it, but what a bird – a bird I’ve wanted to see for many years.” Santa paused and added, “And is it still there?” The Easter Bunny laughed and replied, “Flew off high to the north.”

To say Santa was grumpy after the call would be an understatement…. he was experiencing one of the not so pleasant attributes of some birders – jealousy. “He never even mentioned it until it was too late!”, he grumbled to Chief Elf. “I would have told him!!” Santa had already developed a list of species he was very keen to see, some being rarities that he knew were almost mythical in status even where they breed! He felt so upset, he couldn’t stop grumbling and Chief Elf listened for a while but gradually felt more and more irritated. “I just can’t believe it…. he pretended to phone about something else but it’s so obvious why he rang… he knew I had never seen one.” Finally, Chief Elf just had to stop him – he stood up and turned to face Santa and shouted, “For goodness sake stop moaning – you’ve seen loads of amazing birds this year and there is no need to be jealous of a bunny rabbit just because he has seen some bird or other you haven’t!” Santa looked shocked. He went to speak, then stopped, his face turning quite red. He looked out of the window and mumbled, “I’m not jealous, I would just rather like to see one, him gloating like that made me a little annoyed that’s all, of course, I wasn’t jealous.” Then after a moment he grumbled, “But White’s Thrushes come from the north – he shouldn’t have seen one before me – he lives much further south.

White’s Thrush

The year raced on and as Santa became busier, the Easter Bunny had lots of time on his hands and took to sending little messages telling Santa what he had seen next…Red-flanked Bluetail didn’t worry Santa, he had those nesting in the conifers not so far from the workshop, though he knew it was an excellent bird in Germany where the Easter Bunny lives. A Rustic Bunting didn’t bother Santa either, they nest in Finland and he’d seen a few… even a Hoopoe didn’t bother him. He had never seen one but this was a much more southern species so it was not too surprising that damn rabbit had seen one before he did – but that blasted White’s Thrush still rankled – he thought of it as a northern and eastern species and really he should have seen it before that furry bouncing birder with the better hearing than he could ever hope for!

He did think that he could get his own back once Christmas was over and he had more time, especially as Easter approached and the bunny was more and more busy… and that being migration time, would help too. Last year he had found his own breeding plumage Citrine Wagtail, so maybe he might find something else to cheese that rabbit off… he meant, to impress Mr Bunny.

As it got busier and busier with making and acquiring presents, he stopped thinking about it so much. The autumn rush of rarities slowed to almost nothing (though an overnight trip to Fife to see a Hudsonian Godwit would have been even better if he hadn’t also spotted a big pair of ears poking up from the grass on the embankment.) He knuckled down and focused on his work…he had to or Chief Elf tended to get a bit cross and even Santa didn’t like that. In fact, Santa had noticed that Chief Elf seemed to be getting a bit above his station these days and getting quite bossy! Who did he think he was! It felt like he was no longer in charge as Chief Elf dished out orders and sent him across the yard to get the next bag of presents, or back out to shovel snow to make walking between the stores and the workshop easier…there was going to have been some stern words sometime soon.

Red-flanked Bluetail

Santa worked hard and the elves were flat out packing, making and boxing presents and as always at this time of year, he just couldn’t see how they had enough time! It always felt like they wouldn’t be ready by the 25 December these days, even with the time tricks he was capable of performing! Chief Elf told Santa they needed more staff but there was no time to organise it and so once again Santa found himself dragging a bag of presents across to the workshop from the store under the direction of Chief Elf.  As he grumbled his way past a gorse and bramble patch he spotted a Robin chasing another bird under the bushes. He hardly even glanced at it, as it would surely be another Robin – they never stopped fighting those little brutes! But then both birds shot past him at speed and Santa glanced at them as they passed – both birds brown on top and with a glimpse of red.

Santa continued towards the workshop and found a little video of the scene playing back in his head the way that birders often do when they have just seen something and think through the moment again…that strange gut feeling that something was odd. In his head, he could see a bird with a rather orange throat chasing a bird with a brilliant red throat. Had he seen white above the eye!? He stopped in his tracks, his brain started spinning. Surely the two birds had not been the same…surely the bird being chased really had a very red throat… a ruby-red throat?? He panicked and ran back to the spot and stared into the bushes where the two birds had vanished. There was no movement at all. Chief Elf peered out wondering what he was doing – smiled and ducked back in.

It was horrible. Maybe you know that feeling when you think have just missed something really, really important? A feeling that has made some birders almost physically sick with nerves as they wait for that bird to reappear and confirm what they thought they had seen and that they had not just imagined it. Minutes went by… a bird in the corner of his eye was just a Robin. Another movement – a Great Tit. His heart was racing in his chest but still, nothing appeared! He didn’t have time for this and he was surprised Chief Elf had not come out to ask what was the holdup! More minutes passed. He could almost weep with frustration. He was pretty sure he knew what he had seen but it was crazy! Surely not here – not something that rare – not something that would beat even a White’s Thrush!!!

After half an hour he had to give up, he couldn’t spend any longer staring at the bushes at nothing. He knew Chief Elf would be wondering where he was and he turned towards the workshop just as two birds almost shot between his legs and vanished below the bushes! His heart missed a beat as he turned once more and stared into the gloom below the bushes and a movement focused all his attention… then it hopped out from under a gorse bush as bold as brass. It was visible for perhaps five seconds, but one second would have been enough! The glowing brilliant ruby-red throat, the white supercilium and moustachial stripe were enough to start him trembling all over…  Siberian Rubythroat!!!  This was a moment he would never forget for as long as he lived! Chief Elf watched from the workshop window, smiled and said to his next in charge – “Thank God for that….I honestly thought he’d never spot it!” His second in command looked puzzled, “Why didn’t you just tell him it was there?” she replied. Chief Elf glanced at her and said, “You have to be at least a little into birding to really understand why… but I was never as competitive about it as he is.”

Siberian Ruby Throat

“Are you sure it wasn’t just a funny-looking Robin?” came the disconsolate voice over the phone. “Ho ho ho, that is a good one,” laughed Santa and added, “But if you haven’t seen one I guess you wouldn’t know just how amazing they look in real life – just how bright that red really is – the lovely bit of black around the eye between the two white stripes – honestly, it is the most stunning bird I think I have ever seen! “And you’ve not seen it since?” came the reply. “No but feel free to come and watch the area for a while if you want to, I’ve a spare room and you can help in the workshop when it gets dark.” The guy with the big ears just said, “Hmmmpphh, I’ll think about it,” but he couldn’t face the thought of seeing Santa’s never-ending grin and hearing all about it again and again.

And he was right about that as Santa would tell the story to anyone who would listen! As he told Chief Elf for the twentieth time exactly how he spotted it and how brilliant he was for noticing those little differences as the birds shot past in flight, Chief Elf just smiled and thought, ‘At least I can stop trying to think of reasons to send him past that clump of bushes now.’