Days to Remember: a twitch for Varied Thrush in Cornwall, November 1982


The autumn of 1982 will live in my memory for the rest of my life. Goodies such as Long-toed Stint in the northeast, Little Whimbrel in South Wales the day after, Scarlet Tanager and Common Nighthawk on Scilly, two Chimney Swifts together at Porthgwarra... The list goes on, but it was from mid-November that my fondest memory comes.

After such a hectic couple of months, I decided to pay an old and much-neglected school friend a visit. Leaving my parents' home in St. Helens at 8pm, and making sure they had the all-important contact phone number, I headed north with the intention of hitting the fleshpots and highlife of Morecambe (it wasn't expected to be a late night!!).

Now, back in the 80s my friends were well aware that I might receive a phone call from a twitching mate and be expected to cancel all arrangements at the drop of a hat. I hadn't been in my 'Morecambe friend's' house for more than 10 minutes when I got the call from Wolverhampton saying that there was a 'biggy' at Nanquidno and would I drive as it was my turn. "How big?", I asked rather forlornly (I was only 21 and expecting a good night out). "Another first for the Western Pal", came the reply.

Five hours later (I had to have at least a shandy in Morecambe!) and after a routine 'pull' by the boys in blue, I was driving round the deserted streets of suburban Wolverhampton as my car collected a motley group of strangely-accented West Midland twitchers. The air in the car rapidly became filled with a bizarre variety of expletives and odours! Deciphering their code, I managed to filter out the words 'Varied' and 'Thrush' and thought to myself, "What on Earth's one of them"? A further 6 hours (and another 'routine pull' by the over-zealous West Midlands Police) later, I was coasting into Penzance with an empty petrol tank (much to the dismay of my companions who had kindly woken up 10 minutes earlier). There followed an agonising 40-minute wait for a petrol station to open, but soon we were on our way again. The roads in this neck of the woods aren't the straightest and we had a couple of near misses with an assortment of hedges and tractors before safely arriving at Nanquidno in the most horrendous downpour.

Our target bird's location was quickly sussed out due to the group of birders (there must have been at least 20 of 'em!!) lined up admiring it as it sheltered from the weather and occasionally ventured out onto a small lawn to feed on windfall apples. And what a bird!! Without doubt the most stunning thrush on the British list. But wait a minute! It's not in the least bit orange. In fact it's black and white.

We watched the bird at ranges of down to around 20 feet for about 15 minutes before the weather finally drove us into a nearby cattle shed that the local farmer kindly let us use as shelter – along with providing us with cups of tea and a couple of biscuits each (this is starting to sound like realms of fantasy in the light of present-day relationships with landowners!). As we completed our field notes we discussed the bird's unexpected appearance, but fortunately one of the attendee experts informed us of this rare form of plumage, which few American birders have seen, let alone British birders. This same expert informed us of the Long-billed Dowitcher which was at Stithians Reservoir, so an hour later we arrived at the Golden Lion causeway and spent a further ten minutes watching a 'bedraggled, grey snipe' though the fog of our optics.

Finally beaten into submission by the relentless rain, I turned the car round and headed back up north with only the raucous snoring from my passengers and Led Zeppelin blaring out on my car stereo to keep me awake.

At exactly 5pm I dropped off the last member of a well-satisfied, if unintelligible, 'crew' and headed for home. I pulled up outside my home at 7pm, 23 hours and 998 miles after leaving for Morecambe the previous day.

Looking back on it, there were so many things that made this twitch memorable: walking out of a pub in Morecambe and leaving my friend in the company of two very nubile young ladies (well, that's how I remember them!!); being pulled up by the police on the outskirts of Wolverhampton by a disbelieving police officer (you try and convince the rozzers at 1.30 in the morning that you're picking some mates up before driving down to Land's End to see a bird!); trying to decipher the wonderful West Midlands accent to find out exactly what it is I'm driving all this way to see; having my companions spend almost the entire journey there and back fast asleep; trying to write up my field notes whilst stood in a shed (whose floor was 6 inches deep in the foulest smelling excrement); and sharing a serious rarity with only a handful of birders…

But most of all, I remember the Varied Thrush. A stunning black, white and grey creature that managed to make me forget the conditions in which I was watching it.

Pity there won't be another one…

This probable first-winter male was present at Nanquidno, Cornwall from 9th-24th November 1982. Varied Thrush breeds in the damp coniferous forests of Alaska and western USA. It winters south to California, but vagrants in the east are regular. This is the only record for the Western Palearctic for this unlikely vagrant - should another turn up it will prove to be very popular indeed! - Eds
Written by: Chris Wormwell