Thursday 10 September 2015

Shrike Two 7th September 2015

Red backed Shrike c Terry
Today I spent most of the morning moving an inordinate amount of personal possessions from our top floor bedroom, precipitated by a plan, instigated by my wife, to re-decorate the bedroom and install a new carpet. This also required two visits to the local Oxfam Shop in nearby Chipping Norton to donate various unwanted items recovered from the darker recesses of the bedroom whilst larger items were bound for Dix Pit, now our nearest recycling depot, some twenty miles away due to the closure of Dean recycling centre, only five miles away which just happens to be where old pudding face Cameron has a house. Funny that but sheer coincidence surely?

After a swift bite of lunch I hatched a plan to restore my spirits. Availing myself of the heaven sent excuse that I had to go to Dix to drop off said unwanted items - its amazing what you find under beds - I informed my wife that as I was going to be at Dix I would travel on to the relatively nearby Otmoor for a spot of evening birdwatching. There was no dissent.

Instead of going to the usual car park below Beckley I decided to enter the reserve from the Noke end. Feeling thoroughly righteous after my clearing of the bedroom I found myself parking in the secluded village of Noke on a warm and golden early autumn afternoon and walking in to the reserve on the farm track. I wandered past a  field full of attractive Black Welsh Mountain Sheep that eyed me warily before I joined the bridleway beyond the holiday cottages.  I had a vague plan to go to the First Screen and just sit and wait for the evening roost of Yellow Wagtails to commence in a couple of hours but unknown to me fate would intervene.

I idled  along the bridleway, the vegetation in the surrounding ditches dense and somnolent in the afternoon sunshine, silently waiting in this relaxed, reclining period of the year. Now with the frenzy of procreation past there is time, if ever there is, for all natural life, not just birds, to take a momentary pause. It is of course a self indulgent fantasy on my part, whimsical and sentimental but that is the feeling this time of year imparts before the cold and dark short days of winter arrive.

I reached the First Screen having seen no other human being but my mood of contemplation was curtailed by the sight of the dreaded long lens of a photographer ensconced in a vigil on the bench. I silently passed by. I wanted to remain on my own with my own thoughts so progressed further, passing the banks of brambles now beginning to burgeon with their shiny black fruits. By the amount of blackberries, both ripening red and fully fruited black, this is going to be a good year. A Common Whitethroat obviously shared my opinion about the blackberries as, taking alarm at my approach, it zipped up and over the brambles on which it had been feeding, leaving me with an image of chestnut wings and long white outertail feathers.

I reached a gap where the grass was flattened into a track that led up the bank to a Conservation Area and leant on the wooden barrier that guarded the vast reedbeds. This would be as  good a spot as any to watch the Starlings and Yellow Wagtails arriving to roost in the reeds.

I drifted back into a mood of quiet contemplation serenaded by the constant sighing of the inumerable reeds as their pointed green leaves and long stems caressed each other at the wind's constant touch, the reed heads, all tassled and plumbeous brown, tossed like horse manes and bent to the strengthening northerly wind. It was a scene of constant rippling movement, just as the wind ruffles the sea so did the wind here ruffle the reed tops and all the while that gentle sigh as if signifying a regretful farewell to summer.

The sun was weakening now and a chill in the air persuaded me to put on my fleece. Teal and the occasional Common Snipe came from the sky and hurtled into the reeds, finding a hidden flash of water or mud on which to seek sanctuary for the night. 

Out of curiosity I consulted my phone and looked at Oxon Birding. My mood of quiet contemplation went with the wind as I read.  

'Red backed Shrike found on July's Meadow. Badger on his way to confirm'.  

There had been a report of a Red backed Shrike that was seen from the bridleway on Otmoor two days ago  but no one could get any further information. Nothing more was forthcoming despite enquiries but now apparently, late  today it had been refound by the Reserve Manager and his warden.

I was within ten minutes walk of July's Meadow and all thoughts of Yellow Wagtails were abandoned as I headed for the meadow. A Red backed Shrike in Oxfordshire is always a good bird to see and this one was literally minutes away. Too good an opportunity to miss. I had to go. I passed the First Screen still harbouring the howitzer sized lens and its attendant photographer but carried on and met Terry approaching along the track. I informed him of what was happening and he joined me in a hasty walk towards July's Meadow, trawling another couple of birders, who were also on the track, in our wake.

We encountered the RSPB Landrover and got specific instructions about the location of the shrike in July's Meadow. Badger was already there and we joined him but we could see no sign of the shrike. We checked both sides of the long hedge running alongside the meadow but with no luck. A huge flock of Goldfinches rose in the distance, the gold in their wings reflected the evening sun as they circled around before settling once again. We advanced further into the meadow which is an area of scattered, emergent hawthorn bushes, wild rose now turned to orange haws and vast areas of fluffy, silken, seeding flower heads which disintegrated as we passed through them, the seed taking off in clumps downwind like miniature balloons.

This is where we found the shrike. It was sitting on one of  the dead flower stalks, which surprised me as I considered that such a substantial bird could surely not be supported by such a flimsy structure. It was a juvenile and we watched it in all its shrikey glory as it went about hunting for prey amongst the scrubby surrounds of July's Meadow. Always a thrill to see it did not disappoint as I admired its plumage details. It changed perches regularly and caught a bee before flying to the hedge. We played peek a boo with it amongst the hawthorns as various of us endeavoured to capture the moment on camera or video. And so the time and this precious encounter passed happily and the sun slowly commenced setting, casting a soft golden light across the meadow, us and the shrike. Andy joined us and after a brief interlude of it disappearing from view, we re-found the shrike and he too saw it. 

Red backed Shrike
c Terry
The time came, which it always does, when you feel you have seen enough and turning to Terry the two of us left the others, having decided to return to the First Screen as the Yellow Wagtails had yet to arrive to roost.

We were too late to see the Starlings arriving but you could certainly hear them as an unbroken accompaniment of whistles and chattering betrayed their presence deep in the reeds. Occasionally small groups, many still in juvenile plumage would take alarm and briefly skim the reed tops as they moved position to somewhere more to their liking. Their caution was not unwarranted as a Marsh Harrier, now a sinister dark profile in the declining light passed low over the reeds and then a female Sparrowhawk launched a low level sortie across the  water in front of us, precipitating an explosion of Common Snipe from a mud bank on the far side by the reeds. A Kingfisher sought a last meal before retiring to roost and a couple of Green Sandpipers called unseen from beyond the reeds. 

Finally the Yellow Wagtails arrived, cheerily calling, as in a flock of around twenty they descended from on high into the comparative safety of the swaying reeds. 

Terry departed and soon, so did everyone else and I was alone again and the magic returned as I looked across the water to the endless motion of the reeds. A flock of Swallows descended to roost and the Sparrowhawk returned to perch low above the water, waiting, waiting for any unwary starling as a Moorhen anxiously watched it. Water Rails squealed in the reeds and a few Common Snipe flew in to feed and loiter, so beautifully camouflaged that they became virtually invisible once on the muddy shores. A Grey Heron caught a large fish and with great effort swallowed it, as inexorably the light declined to just a glimmer as the sun sank yet further below the horizon. The Starlings fell silent and the only sounds to be heard were the wildfowl calling and the constant susurrus of the reeds. It was time to go. 

Many thanks once again to Terry Sherlock for the use of his images

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