Friday 1 September 2017

A Woodchat Shrike at Chipping Sodbury 1st September 2017

I have only ever seen one Woodchat Shrike in Britain and that was an adult in Norfolk quite some years ago so it was with interest that I noted a juvenile had been frequenting Chipping Sodbury Common for the last four days.

I have never been to Chipping Sodbury which is near Bristol but the drive was only one hour across country from my home, so with a sunny day predicted I set off this morning with high hopes. I wound my way through and across some of Gloucestershire's most scenic areas and eventually turned off onto a quiet, steep sided, winding lane that took me downhill and through the pleasant village of Horton and then, abruptly, the narrow tree shrouded lane opened out onto a huge area of flat common land bisected by the lane I was on.This was Chipping Sodbury Common and the half dozen cars parked on the grass verge a little further on indicated I was in the right area.

Of birders there was no sign but I parked the car and, loaded up with bins, scope and camera, set off in what I hoped was the right direction.The Common is very large and extends on both sides of the road so it was a lottery which way to go. Tossing a mental coin I set off across the area to my left and made for a distant hedge line, walking through rough grassland on which there was plenty of evidence that it was also used by cows. Dodging the cow pats I came to a gap in the hedge and through the gap found another even larger area of common land beyond, but this time liberally dotted with brambles and small hawthorn bushes. 

It looked the ideal habitat for a shrike and indeed it was, for I espied a small group of birders standing well out in the middle of the Common looking intently further towards a bush, on top of which there sat a Woodchat Shrike.

An instant result which was very gratifying, and I settled down to look at my first ever juvenile Woodchat Shrike. As you can tell from my photos it did not allow anything like a close approach, always maintaining at least 50-100 metres distance between any birders and itself. For the majority of the time it sat at the top of a bush in true shrike fashion and at intervals descended to the ground to seize its prey which, from what I saw, mainly consisted of bumble bees. It regularly moved its position, flying some fifty metres or more each time to a new perch but remained in this general area of bushes throughout.

It was an attractive pale fawn above and whitish below with a noticeably reddish brown tail which it fanned occasionally, showing a broad and dark sub terminal band above the white tips.The strong sunlight made its appearance look very pale in some views but when a cloud briefly covered the sun it looked darker.

Woodchat Shrikes occur in Britain regularly as off course migrants but are no longer considered a major rarity and since 1990, by which time over 500 had been reported from Britain, it was removed from the list of rarities that should be reported to the BBRC (British Birds Rarities Committee), but in my opinion are, nonetheless, very much worth the effort to go and see when they do grace these shores. Their normal distribution is central and southern Europe and around the Mediterranean to North Africa. They spend their winter in Africa and the Middle East.

The identification of a juvenile Woodchat Shrike and Red Backed Shrike is no easy matter and care is needed to ensure the identification is correct.This bird showed some of the classic pointers to Woodchat Shrike with its overall paleness, a whitish line of scapulars, random scalloping to the edges of both upperpart and underpart feathers and at some angles a reddish buff suffusion to its hind neck, suggestive of the adult plumage into which it would moult later. Like all shrikes it showed a prominent dark eye and formidable bill.

We watched and followed as it moved around the area, occasionally disappearing and then re-appearing at the top of another bush. Its paleness made it hard to follow at times, as it flew low and fast between the bushes but on perching its pale breast and underparts shone in the sun and made it obvious once more. It was dive bombed by a passing Swallow on one occasion, causing it to tumble downwards into the bush in indecent haste.

There were other less exalted migrants frequenting the bushes as well. At least ten Whinchats were perched, perhaps slightly less prominently, each on its own preferred bush and looking similarly as pale as the shrike and at least three Common Redstarts were amongst them, one being a lovely young male, his bright colours muted by the pale fringes to the newly acquired adult feathers. Common Whitethroats flitted low down from bush to bush, allowing brief glimpses before they sought the dark centres of bush or bramble.

An hour and a half passed, pleasantly un-noticed and then I felt it was time to leave. In situations like this a time always comes when you know anything more would be fruitless and an excess. I left a dozen or so fellow birders and made my way back across the Common to the car.

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