Thursday 3 September 2020

A Red backed Shrike in The Midlands 31st August 2020

Today I never intended to drive to just north of Birmingham to see a Red backed Shrike as my plan was to go and see a confiding male Common Redstart at Otmoor. It had been present for around six weeks but annoyingly decided to depart the previous night, as I discovered on arriving at Otmoor.

Somewhat at a loss I stood and chatted to Mark who had also come to see the redstart but despite our willing it to appear it was obvious the game was well and truly up and it was gone. Even the Cattle Egret, found here two days ago was not around, so we stood on the bridleway and chatted as birders do, but we did see a Turtle Dove which was unexpected but that did not hang around either, flying off the minute it saw us.

Mark left for home to do some gardening while I decided to drive north for an hour to Sutton Park National Nature Reserve which lies six miles north of Birmingham city centre and adjacent to the rather upmarket town of Sutton Coldfield. I planned to try my luck with the shrike which enticingly was an adult male, so in my book well worth seeing. If it had been a juvenile or female it may not have been so tempting.

Sutton Park NNR was unknown to me but is an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) and comprises of 2400 acres of former deer park, given to Sutton Coldfield by Henry VIII in 1528, and is now the second biggest urban park in England and one of the largest of its kind in Europe. There is a wide variety of habitat and if you can escape the hordes of people who visit there you can find a good variety of birds such as Spotted Flycatcher, Common Redstart and all the common warbler species and occasionally a rarer find such as the shrike.

One hour after leaving Otmoor I arrived at the entrance to Sutton Park NNR and my spirits dropped to my boots as I was confronted with a sea of people and a mass of cars parked in every available space. Of course I had neglected to remember it was a Bank Holiday. There was no room whatsoever to park my car and I was about to turn tail and leave when I checked the RBA directions and found that I had arrived at the wrong entrance gate to the park. I was at Town Gate, the most popular entrance to the park but needed to relocate to another entrance called Boldmere Gate.

A quick search on Google Maps informed me it was but five minutes drive north and leaving the chaotic scenes behind at Town Gate I found myself entering a less manic situation at Boldmere Gate with plenty of space available to park my car.

Following the directions on RBA I parked by the model aircraft field and set off northwest for half a mile to some tall pines in the distance.The shrike was to be found two hundred metres north of the pines. I could from my current position see a distant line of birders looking towards an open area of gorse, heather and scattered bushes. 

Fifteen minutes of walking and I had joined them.The shrike was immediately visible, perched low down on a thin branch of a hawthorn bush that allowed it to survey the grass around the bush.

It was not particularly active and remained perched quietly, hardly moving, just occasionally cocking its head to regard something moving in the grass below but never actually leaving its perch to investigate further. For a good twenty minutes it sat and then suddenly flew down to seize a beetle, it had seen at a surprising distance from the bush. Flying towards us and dropping into the grass where we could see it hopping about before securing the beetle. Its eyesight must be very acute.

It flew up from the grass and back to the bush but disappeared inside it and was lost to view. Then it flew out and to some dense gorse beyond and was gone. Word was that it would return eventually but no time was given when this would occur. Others went in search of it but in these situations I find it is best to wait a while and sure enough, twenty minutes later, it unexpectedly flew directly towards us and landed in the grass once again to seize what looked like a moth before flying to devour its prey on a perch in another nearby bush.

Cameras clicked away as the shrike consumed the moth and then for the next forty five minutes the shrike sat on its perch obviously fully fed and disinclined to hunt for further prey.The occasional adjustment of position on its perch and cocking of its head to study any movement of beetle, lizard or insect below was about the only action we were granted.

Many of the assembled birders and passers by lost interest and drifted away and soon there was only a few of us hoping the shrike might do something interesting. Sadly it had other ideas and when it eventually did leave its perch, it was to fly further away and out of view.

I was told I had been fortunate to see it immediately on my arrival as at other times it had not been seen for several hours despite this spot apparently being its favourite location.

Even with such an attractive bird there is a boredom threshold and after waiting to no avail for it to return I  accepted that there was little point in prolonging my vigil. I made the long walk back to the car, being buzzed by model aircraft from the field and noticing how the park was becoming ever more populated. lt was definitely time to go but a pleasant two hours was mine to savour on the drive home.

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