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Thrushes All At Sea:a Visible Migration Spectacle
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On 13th October 2011 I spent five hours at Thorpeness sea watching and during my stay I saw a variety of seabirds. I was using a 30X scope and 10x40 binoculars. The weather was mainly overcast, with a few sunny spells breaking through occasionally. Winds were light, south easterly perhaps about 5-7mph. I noticed a number of groups of passerines coming in from the east during the sea watch and these were mainly, Skylarks and Meadow Pipits.

Individual Fieldfares and Redwings were also seen throughout the stay. These birds however, appeared to be finding it difficult to reach land. The first bird I picked out was at a considerable distance from the shore and although I initially considered it to be a passerine, I became confused when it landed on the water and sat bobbing about. The first thought was I was actually watching a Petrel sp. This idea was soon dashed when it lifted off with some difficulty and regained its pursuit of the coast. Eventually it revealed itself as a thrush sp. As it got closer I could see it more clearly and realised I was watching a Fieldfare. Its flight was very hesitant and close to the sea and it was obviously in difficulty. The bird’s circumstances changed quite dramatically when it was about 100yds offshore and it was attacked by 4 Herring Gulls which harried it and hit it repeatedly with their bills. The Fieldfare swerved and dipped continuously and eventually out flew its assailants and made it to the beach flying up and over the cliff.

Throughout my stay, I saw similar single Thrushes both Redwings and Fieldfares in similar difficulties. The second bird was not as fortunate and was seen to disappear in a flurry of gull wings about 500yds out and was presumably taken by one of a dozen attacking gulls. Other similar gatherings of gulls seemed to indicate other birds being taken further out to sea. Individuals continued to appear throughout my stay. Single birds dipped onto the sea and rested for 2 or 3 minutes, three or four times before they could make land. It appeared that they just could not fly anymore, but were finally able to muster the last drops of energy needed to make it ashore. One was taken by a juvenile Peregrine which I did not see approaching, but I watched it lift off the water with a Redwing firmly held and dispatched with repeated beak to head thrusts whilst flying strongly south. This falcon may also have been migrating and sustaining itself on its fellow travellers. These Thrushes appeared at infrequent intervals and all sighting involved only lone birds.

This scene presented an interesting spectacle of visible migration. The last bird I saw landed on the water four times during its pursuit of the coastline and making its final leap for shore from about 15yds out. It looked like a very weak effort but it finally made it and landed a few feet from the tide line where it sat motionless with eyes fully closed for over 30 minutes. I eventually walked down to the beach to check the bird out and it did not move as I approached it, seeming unaware of my presence at about 2 meters. I could have picked it up easily but I decided to leave it to its own devices.

It was quite a surprising phenomenon, one I had not experienced before. I have talked to a number of Suffolk birders who had experienced similar sights on the Suffolk coast but not in good weather.

Why these birds were in such distress when the weather at least in Suffolk was good remains to be seen. Perhaps they had hit some poor weather out at sea, although I assume that the Pipits and Larks presumably had experienced the same journey as many seemed to be approaching the coast from the same direction. The Gulls and the Peregrine seemed to be essential parts of this snapshot of migration and took clear advantage of the easy prey.

The pure exhaustion of these birds landing on the sea so close to the shore provided quite a contrast to the many Redwings and Fieldfares I have seen migrating over my local patch in Mid Suffolk this October.

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