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 Bluethroat - Fact File
Bluethroat, a rare British birds
Luscinia svecica
Scarce passage migrant, mostly on east coast.
On passage found chiefly in coastal bushes and scrub.
Bold white eye stripe and rusty sides to base of tail shared by both sexes, but female lacks male's blue throat with red (or white) spot.
14 cm (5.5")
 

Bluethroat

One autumn morning in the early 1880s, the little 'town' of Cley woke up to find itself famous. It was perhaps the tiniest, sleepiest town in England, known only to a few artists because of its old windmill and picturesque red-roofed houses, and its church, which is as big as an abbey.

What brought sudden fame to Cley? A little bird about the size of a robin, which looked like a robin, and in fact was a robin, except that whereas our familiar friend has an orange-red breast, this small gentleman was equipped with a beautiful blue bib and gorget. Of course, blue-throated robins had been arriving on the Norfolk coast for hundreds of years. But nobody had noticed them.

It so happened that two London doctors, Fred and George Power, who in addition to their professional duties were keen amateur naturalists, decided to spend their autumn holiday on the Norfolk coast. In those days there was not much known about blue-throated robins, and only one or two had been met with in this country. But the two brothers Power had been studying maps, and the idea occurred to them that the spit of North Norfolk shingle which runs out into the sea from Cley must be an ideal resting place for tired birds on the southward journey from their breeding-grounds in the far north.

It was even possible that the rarest, loveliest and most sought-after of the feathered tribe, the Arctic bluethroat might be among their number, though such a prize was hardly to be expected except with the greatest good fortune. Anyway, the doctor brothers packed their bags, tied up their top-boots and guns, and to the old-fashioned George Inn, at Cley, in the wilds of Norfolk, they came.

Next morning they started out early, gun in hand and a plentiful supply of small-shotted cartridges in their pockets, for Fred Power had dreamed that he had shot a bluethroat. It was raining and blowing hard from the north-east. They made their way down to the beach, and had hardly got as far as the first bushes near the old watch-house when a little bird darted out at the feet of Fred Power. He caught a glimpse of a bright, chestnut-coloured tail with a dark band across it, and knew it was a bird he had never seen before.

His brother heard a shot, and then a shout: 'Come here, George, what do you think I have got?' It was, of course, a bluethroat. They had been lucky enough to hit off what came to be known in after years as a 'bluethroat morning', and in the course of that stormy day the two naturalists bagged some half dozen of these birds, hitherto almost unknown in England.

Those were the days when every naturalist was a bird collector, and fame came to Cley in consequence of the exploit of the Power brothers. The following season, collectors came from all parts of the country, eager to get a blue-breasted robin. But the weather was fine that year - no east wind, no rain. Some of the visitors enjoyed themselves. Artists could sketch and boys could bathe, but the naturalists came and wept, disappointed and empty-handed.

Nevertheless, Cley had yielded up her secret, and for 20 years and more the attraction of bluethroats drew bird-minded men to the little Norfolk town. Directly the season opened each year the naturalists came but not always the bluethroats. If the prayers for 'dirty weather and an east wind' were answered, the feathered travellers were there to meet them, but if fine weather prevailed, such as most mortals enjoy, the bluethroat hunters would sit about dismally enough, literally whistling for a wind. So it became known that bluethroats only came to Cley under certain weather conditions.

When prospects were good, telegrams would be dispatched all over the country to enthusiastic naturalists - 'Bluethroats are in!' Hardly a bed could be obtained in Cley in 'bluethroat weather', and landladies reaped a golden harvest. Parties of eager amateurs accompanied by professional gunners would be seen leaving the village on foot or by boat after early breakfasts. Nothing but bluethroats would be talked of for days together, and congratulations were showered on the lucky individual who returned home with the coveted prize.

But times have changed indeed. The blue-breasted robins which made Cley famous still come there - if the wind is east - and are still greeted by naturalists. But they are serious-looking ladies and gentlemen, these modern naturalists. They are equipped with field-glasses and notebooks, telescopes and cameras; and 'bluethroats are in' is no longer a magic signal to the gunning fraternity of Cley.

By Michael J. Seago

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Copyright Information

  • Article: © Eastern Counties Newspapers Group
  • Illustrations by Dave Nurney from - The Pocket Guide to the Birds Of Britain and North-West Europe By Chris Kightley and Steve Madge © Pica Press and reproduced with kind permission.
  • Other material: © Birds Of Britain