Friday, 20 November 2015

The Eye-browed Thrush Conundrum

Today I want to talk about Eye-browed Thrush. Now I don't have an encyclopaedic knowledge of rarity stats, and I don't subscribe to any bird information services that can provide such, but this I do know: Eye-browed Thrush is presently a very rare bird! It always has been really, but there was a time when it seemed an October trip to Scilly virtually guaranteed one. That time began in 1984, and happily coincided with my first visit. Yes, I woz there.

In 1984 it was a rarity of unimagineable hugeness - everybody needed it. So when one turned up on our final Saturday there was a massive amount of very quick running. Justifiably so. The IOS Bird Report put it like this:

'The breathtaking beauty of a fine male at Salakee, St Mary's on Oct 20 induced something akin to a stunned silence amongst the assembled gathering as it periodically appeared in hedges or on grassy fields.'

Absolutely. It truly was a stunner.

There were then two in 1987 - either side of my visit that year - and another in 1990. I got a chance at that one, on Tresco, but dipped. Come 1991 and no one was that surprised when yet another Eye-browed Thrush was found at Telegraph, St Mary's on Oct 12. I saw that bird, which performed really well but was very different from the 1984 male, being a rather dull first-year. It was also present the next day.

And now comes the interesting bit. The bird was at Telegraph on Oct 12 and 13, but seemingly gone the following day. And then on Oct 15 an Eye-browed Thrush turns up on Tresco and also stays for a second day. Same bird? Could be, I've no idea - I certainly didn't see it and don't recall even going to try. Oct 17 dawns, and there are no Eye-browed Thrushes anywhere. It's all over.

Except it isn't! Early on Oct 18 an Eye-browed Thrush is found on St Mary's - again in the Telegraph area! What's going on? Is this the same bird, back from Tresco? Or, if the Tresco bird was a new one, is it now visiting St Mary's? Or is this the original St Mary's bird popping up again after a period in hiding? Or have there actually been three birds?! Herein lies the conundrum of the post title...

Because the official stance is that just ONE bird was responsible for all the sightings. As far as I am aware this remains the position today. I suppose this is certainly the safest approach, if by 'safest' we mean bo-o-o-oring! After all, let's not forget that Scilly was awash with Eye-broweds in the late 80s/early 90s. Seriously though, to this day I think a trick was missed here. I saw the Oct 18 bird, and I'll bet I am not the only birder who at the time was convinced we were not looking at the dull individual of Oct 12/13. My memory tells me it was noticeably brighter - still a first-year, yes, but not the same first-year.

Memory, eh? How useful is that after all this time?! Ah yes, good point, but thankfully I don't just have to rely on my memory. I have photos*! So I present them here, and ask that NQS readers cast a critical eye over them and see what you think. Same bird, or different?

This is the first bird - photographed by George Reszeter in the Telegraph pines. Present Oct 12 and 13, it is certainly a dull individual, and the pale greater covert tips age it as a first-year. Plumage-wise, I'm getting only brown on the upperparts - no hint of grey in the head in my opinion. It's worth noting that I've slightly upped the colour saturation on this photo, because the original was a bit flat and this puts it more on a par with the second photo...
And here we are on Oct 18. Telegraph area, at the top of Porthloo Lane I think. This photo captures my memory of the event really well. Quite distant, nice sunshine. Again, presumably a first-year, but to me it appears significantly brighter. I am definitely getting some grey in the head on this bird too (it certainly doesn't look the same colour as the scapulars) and the face pattern looks more contrasty. On this photo I have turned the colour saturation down several notches, so the vegetation looks a bit less garish than in the original. Even so, isn't that bird still a lot more colourful than the one above?

Okay, there you have it. In case it wasn't obvious, I am in the two-bird camp. Of course it's a shame that one bird is facing left and the other right, but I still reckon there's enough evidence in the photos alone to conclude that two different birds were involved. My guess is that the first was a young female, the second a young male - hence the hint of grey in the head etc. That being the case, I suppose one or other may well have been responsible for the Tresco record...but when we consider the 'scarce migrant' status of Eye-browed Thrush on Scilly back then, well, it's got to be three birds surely?

Come on, dear readers, this is NQS in campaigning mode - let's right a 24 year-old wrong! That lovely young male(?) Eye-browed Thrush deserves recognition and its rightful place as a digit in a stats table somewhere...

* The photos are not mine, but I have no idea who took the second one. So, if the original photographer reads this, my apologies that I am unable to give credit where it's due, and my thanks for not suing me.


  1. Having seen the birds in question, I can categorically state that at least 2, possibly 3 individuals were involved in the sightings. The original bird was a very drab first-winter female type whilst the second, initially on Tresco and then latterly relocated at the north end of St Mary's at Telegraph, was a much brighter bird, more than likely a male. A similar situation arose in October 1993, when again I saw two different Eyebrowed Thrushes on Scilly - a long-staying first-winter on St Mary's followed by an exhausted, rather emaciated first-year on St Agnes. Like 1991, both birds were accepted incorrectly as just one individual (see Evans, Rare Birds in Britain 1991: 109; Rare Birds in Britain 1993: 231-232 and Rare Birds in Britain 1800-1990: 374-375. At least 9 Eyebrowed Thrushes have occurred on the archipelago, all fully detailed in my Rare & Scarce Migrant Birds of the Isles of Scilly Up to and including 1998 on page 79.

    1. Many thanks Lee, it's nice to have this corroborated by someone who was there. Perhaps the ten rare men didn't have the photos to hand and therefore had to err on the side of caution? Or am I being generous there...?

  2. Based on these pics its hard to argue that these are no two two different birds.

    I saw neither, but did see the Oct 27 bird on Agnes on my first visit to Scilly - on the same day as a Baird's Sand, and 4 Red-rumped Swallows!

    1. Cheers Mike, glad someone else thinks the photos tell that story too.

      Seeing stuff like that on your first visit to Scilly does kind of endear the place to you, doesn't it!

  3. Well as the finder of the Oct 18th bird. Dare I say that because my own experience of Eye Browed Thrush was the picture in the Shell Guide and the bird of the 13th. I assumed all EBT's were rather pale looking. Yes, a bit basic I know.
    When I happened upon the bird of the 18th (at dawn) it's plumage appeared so bright (by comparison) I didn't realise what it was. My first view of the bird was when it was side on, buried up to it's belly in the grass, maybe a Redwing among the others. Then it turned to face me and the red went right around it's belly. I nearly feinted.
    It didn't stay long and went into hiding.
    Eventually the bird was relocated and identified. But the recording of the numbers became somewhat confusing.

    1. I remember it all very well, Ric. A fairly fraught day! All's well that ends well of course, and everyone was delighted when the bird performed as it finally did. Such a cracker too! Looking at those photos now I really cannot see how those two birds ever got lumped as one, and your recollection of events simply reinforces my conviction that the second bird was so much brighter in the field. Thanks for commenting.

  4. Hi Gavin,
    A very good post and one I read with great interest as, like you I saw both birds. The first bird was a new bird at the time and I have to say I was a little underwhelmed by it! Ok, I was very happy seeing it, but it was pretty dull compared to other EBTs I had seen photos of and I must admit I was a little disappointed. Then fast forward a few days later to the second bird and it was a completely different beast. I remember it vividly, when the news was first broadcast it came across the CB as an American Robin and at the time that is what I thought I was running for! Something you would never even had considered if it were the first bird. I too have a photo of the 2nd bird - Happy to email it if you want though it sadly show the same side that you have. All good stuff.

    1. Cheers for the comment Chris, it's good to hear from someone else who was there and saw both. Yes, I remember the American Robin scare (and the running!) but I wasn't disappointed when it turned out to be another Eye-browed Thrush. Thanks also for the offer of the photo; I don't think I'll need it but will be in touch if it looks like coming in handy. In the meantime I've set the wheels in motion to get the BBRC '91 Eye-browed Thrush We'll see what happens...