Tuesday 12 July 2022

Shrike Delight 7th-9th July 2022

On Monday the 27th June at the RSPB's Bempton Cliffs Reserve in Yorkshire, a Turkestan Shrike was discovered in the bushes flanking a rough track just inland from the reserve. This was quite a find and totally unexpected at this time of the year. Turkestan Shrikes are normally found from south Siberia to central Asia and winter in northeastern Africa and the Middle East. It has only reliably been identified seven times before in Britain although others have been seen but contentiously deemed unproven by the BBRC (British Birds Rarities Committee). An adult male, for example, that I saw in September 2019 in Shetland  was considered by one and all that were present to be a Turkestan Shrike but despite DNA analysis confirming this, has still not been verified as one by the BBRC.

The problem is that until recently there were two subspecies lumped together under the name of Isabelline Shrike. Both subspecies are very similar in appearance with only arguably adult males distinguishable. Fairly recently those that adjudicate on such matters decided that the two subspecies were in fact separate species and one became Daurian and the other Turkestan Shrike, the latter being much the scarcer of the two. Just to confuse matters further the Turkestan Shrike is also called the Red tailed Shrike by some as it has a very obvious chestnut tail. As this latest individual in Yorkshire was an adult male its chances of being accepted by the BBRC as a Turkestan Shrike are thought to be relatively high and many birders requiring it for their British List were willing to make the journey to Bempton to see it.

Mark called me on Tuesday suggesting we go to see the shrike and on Wednesday the 29th June Mark, myself, Les and Martin met mid morning at Little Paxton in Cambridgeshire to make the trip north.  

The shrike had been seen well and photographed the day before along the track that ran at the back of some farm fields. On arriving at the location we could hardly miss it as a long line of cars were parked precariously along either side of the narrow lane that leads out of Bempton towards the reserve. Birders were milling about everywhere and there were probably up to a hundred and fifty present along the track, all looking at a very distant shrike sat on top of a bush near to some farm buildings.

Prior to today it had allowed relatively close approach along the track but I guess with so many birders now present, it had decided to keep its distance.It was obvious it was not going to come closer as we stood in the long grass at the edge of the track, so after scoping it we retired to the cliffs to look for the Black browed Albatross that has returned for another year of loneliness and frustration amongst the thousands of Gannets breeding on the cliffs.

The albatross is best seen from the Staple Newk viewpoint which is perched precariously at almost the highest point of the impressive cliffs that undulate away on either side. 

Below the viewpoint are the Gannets, many nesting on a stack of chalk jutting out into what was today a sea of deep blue, hundreds of gannets lined in rows along ledges, spaced enough apart to be just out of range of their immediate neighbour's formidable bill. Above and around them cruised an infinite number of other gannets, an endless confetti of circling white birds, whilst amongst this throng the smaller, darker, fast flying auks hurtled in all directions like errant meteors. This city of Gannets kept up a constant rhythmical growling as birds returning from the sea greeted their partner guarding their precious single offspring on its nest.

It is a sight and sound that I never tire of. Despite the fortuitous luxury of the shrike's presence this is why I had planned an excursion to Bempton all those months ago. I wanted to be here, knowing that I could stand on the viewpoint and all care and concern would slip away as I leant on the wooden guard rail and looked out to sea and the ever changing sight of countless seabirds going about their lives.

Even before you come within sight of the gannets the constant growling and sickly smell of guano rises on the sea breeze up and over the cliff edge.Utterly distinctive and as you arrive on the viewpoint there are the gannets, suddenly revealed as if a curtain has been drawn back and the entertainment begun. An endless show that continues night and day for as long as the birds are here during the summer.

The albatross showed really well towards the late afternoon, performing its usual flight along the cliff face and then circling a short distance out to sea before returning to repeat the process. There is little more I can say about it as I have said it all before in previous posts

We returned home somewhat underwhelmed by the distant views of the shrike but pleased to have seen the albatross again. Perish the thought that I have become blase about the albatross but having seen it no less than six times last year and now once this year the thrill of encountering it, whilst still extant is hardly  the momentous occasion it once was. How quickly things can change in the fickle world of birding!

Mark was not to be deterred by the distant views we had of the shrike and went back on Saturday with Adrian to try to photograph the shrike, which by now had settled down on Wandale Farm which is bordered by the track where it was originally found. Negotiations had been undertaken to gain access to the farm and it was agreed with the farmers, two brothers, Mick and John, that birders paying £10 each could come onto the farm and view the shrike which was showing very well and regularly in a small area of hawthorn, elder and willow scrub near the farm buildings.

Mark and Adrian duly made me go green with envy as on their return they showed me the photographs of the shrike that they had taken on Saturday.

It was sheer coincidence that I had booked myself four days in a B and B in Bempton some months ago, planning to relax and enjoy the spectacle of the seabirds breeding on the cliffs and resume acquaintance with the star bird in their midst, the Black Browed Albatross. Now I had the chance of another great rarity if only it would remain for another week before my holiday was due. This I deemed highly unlikely and tried to put it to the back of my mind.

Some hopes with that! I checked RBA (Rare Bird Alert) and day after day it was reported to be still present in its favoured area and showing no inclination to depart.

After an early morning, four hour drive in pleasant sunshine, on Tuesday the 5th July at 10am I arrived at the entrance to Wandale Farm and parking the car on the grass verge by a ripening field of corn I walked up the concrete approach track to the farm buildings. I had no idea what to expect and the place seemed deserted. I skirted around the buildings and came to the area of hawthorn and willow scrub that had been mentioned in various posts on social media.

Around thirty birders were already present and looking towards the hawthorns some fifteen metres opposite. I handed over ten pounds to John, one of the farmers and he indicated towards the hawthorns, where I was delighted to see that the shrike was on view, perched low in a hawthorn bush. It sat, virtually motionless, enjoying the sun and very obviously at ease, even closing an eye in sleep for a few seconds. It  eventually stretched its wings and became active, dropping down to the ground to seize a caterpillar. I clicked away with my camera for twenty minutes before it suddenly flew around the back of the bushes and was gone.

Everyone advised me that the spot just vacated by the shrike was its favourite location and it would soon return. However they were wrong as the shrike did not return for a very long time, hours in fact, as instead it went roving along the surrounding hedgerows and eventually disappeared. It returned mid afternoon and then put on a great show as it dived in and out of the tightly packed tangle of hawthorn twigs and bramble sprays. It spent a lot of time preening, perched just inside the  outer edge of the hedge, frustratingly partially viewable but un-photographable. Between periods of preening and inactivity it caught various invertebrates such as green caterpillars, beetles and bumblebees. It would disappear, in typical shrike fashion, into the hawthorns where it would sit for long periods out of view but with patience inevitably surfaced to perch on top of a hawthorn and show itself once more.. 

Occasionally it perched higher on a favourite hawthorn stem that stood proud above the tangle of shrubs, using the bare stem as a vantage point  to survey the ground for prey or fly out and seize a passing insect.

While waiting for the shrike to return or re-appear I was entertained by the large number of Tree Sparrows which breed in the older farm buildings and use the willows and hawthorns in which to rest and at this time of year, guard and feed their fledged young, which were hidden in the densest part of the hawthorns. The sparrows seemed to be everywhere, their cheery chirping a constant conversational chatter as they flew out to feed in the surrounding farm fields. It was such a novelty to see this formerly common but now very scarce bird in such numbers. A flock of over a hundred were feeding out in the fields towards the cliffs while House Sparrows conversely were hard to find with just a few hanging around the farm buildings.

I was here for four days and with the shrike really taking my fancy, formed a plan to go and see the shrike each morning and then walk on a farm track that took me to the cliffs and there spend the rest of my time enjoying the seabird spectacle. I had also booked a place on the RSPB's Yorkshire Belle that takes you on a four hour sea cruise below the breeding cliffs. It would be a novelty to see the cliffs and the birds from another perspective.

But today it was the seabirds that took priority as the shrike had gone on one of its periodic absences and I knew it would be some time before it returned.I would go to the cliffs and then look for the shrike later in the day. Having already paid my £10 pounds I  was free to come and go on the farm for as many days as I wanted and without further expense.

Everyone coming to Bempton wants to see the Puffins which is entirely understandable.The smallest and least numerous of the auks that breed on the cliffs, its rotund form, dapper black and white plumage, bright orange feet, multi coloured bill and engaging personality make it a must see for birders and general public alike.

However, for me, the Razorbill takes priority in my affections. Looking ultra smart in rich chocolate brown and white plumage, there is little further embellishment to its appearance apart from pencil lines of white extending from bill to its boot button brown eyes, a vertical line of white on its bill and white piping to its inner wing feathers. And what a bill, a blunt thick instrument that seems to fit exactly the bird's stoic character. 

Unlike the Guillemots that sociably stand in lines, shoulder to shoulder, on impossibly narrow ledges the Razorbill prefers its own company or that of its mate.

They space themselves well apart, each pair on a small ledge or sometimes single birds squat on the cliff face grass and thrift, silently craning their necks around, curious, as if trying to see if anything is behind them. Others stand looking inwards to the cliff face as if in quiet contemplation, untroubled, occasionally emitting a conversational growl or soundlessly opening their bill to reveal a shock of buttercup yellow.

I watched them for hours and noticed a peculiar aspect of behaviour where one of a pair would drop from the cliff to fly out to sea and as it did, rather than employ the usual fast whirring of wings that is typical of their flight, exaggeratedly move its wings in a much slower, rowing motion, maintaining this for some seconds until, well out from the cliff, it would resume its more customary rapid flight. 

I followed these individuals as they went out to sea and all would describe a circle and then return to the cliff. Was this some form of display to its mate or to others of its kind? Not all the Razorbills did this and it seemed to be confined to one of a pair.

Gannets inevitably dominate the cliffs at Bempton due to their size, brilliant white plumage and sheer numbers.They do not breed until five years old and parties of younger birds congregate on certain areas of grass at the clifftop edge, often within feet of the viewing points. 

Others patrol ceaselessly, again often coming within a few metres of the viewpoint as they pass by on huge outstretched, unmoving wings, using the air currents to glide in mesmerising circles round and round as if searching for something known only to them. Or are they just curious of us on the crowded viewpoint gawping at their presence?

It is an unending pageant that cannot fail to touch one's inner being. To be so close to wild creatures such as this is truly special.

Some birds were still collecting nest material, tearing chunks of grass from the cliff top and such were the numbers doing this they had created a rough cropped 'lawn' amongst the long grass. 

The adults are pure white apart from their black wing tips but younger birds display a bewildering variety of black/brown and white plumage. Rarely do you see a bird that is a year or two years old as they mainly remain in their wintering areas off West Africa but older birds, although not yet adult are present, their plumage in varying transitional states; some with the trailing edge of their wings looking like irregular piano keys due to newer white feathers having replaced others that are black or brown. Yet others have a body and upper wings replicating those paint spattered overalls you sometimes see worn by painters and decorators.

Today there was an exception, as there sometimes is, when I saw a very young gannet in its second year of life that should still be in its winter quarters. It stood out amongst its pristine white companions, its brown plumage showing barely any white at all as it cruised around with the other gannets before disappearing

I went back to the farm via the track from the cliffs in the hope of finding the shrike once more and after the usual wait of an hour or so the shrike duly returned and perched in the hawthorn bushes. I commenced taking yet more photos of this very lost shrike. Well why not as this is unlikely to happen again. 

However, after some minutes the Tree Sparrows commenced making quite a racket, scolding and chittering in alarm and perching high in the bushes. Something was worrying them and I and other birders around me, thought it must be the presence of the shrike that was unsettling them as they had newly fledged young hiding in the bushes and the shrike would have no hesitation in capturing one if it could. The shrike also became agitated, perching high in the bare twigs and chattering away to itself, bobbing its body and nervously flicking tail and wings.

Was this a reaction to being mobbed by the sparrows? This went on for some minutes but then the cause of all this anguish made itself clear as a Little Owl flew from the bushes back to the ruined house in the farmyard that it called home.

This individual shrike has a noticeable patch of feathers on its right flank missing.It appears as a distinct black smudge. 

It is thought that the shrike has arrived at Bempton from the Netherlands, as a bird with the same mark on its flanks was present there prior to this bird's arrival at Bempton. Someone has also claimed to have seen it flying in off the sea on the day of its arrival. It seems highly unlikely that such a rare bird with such a unique feature  in its plumage is a separate individual from the  bird seen in the Netherlands.

The shrike eventually flew off across the fields to a distant hedgerow where it stood out in the dark green foliage on account of its greyish white underparts. I left it there but before leaving the farm a Barn Owl came out to hunt the fields in the late afternoon sun. John and Mick, the two farmer brothers told me it had young in a box in one of their barns. I waited to see if it caught anything and after some time it duly obliged and flew a little unsteadily with its prey clutched in a talon, back to the barn and that was the last I saw of it

Blessed with continuous good weather I was in good spirits on returning to my B and B. The house looks out over an uninterrupted view of farmland and my host told me that a Barn Owl came each evening to hunt in front of the house. I  decided to wait, as it is not every day you see a Barn Owl, let alone two. I always derive a thrill at seeing this secretive owl that flutters in a wavering hesitant flight low over fields in its hunt for prey, the bulky head giving it a distinctive front heavy appearance, the bird held aloft by broad rounded wings.

A short wait ensued and then the owl slalomed over a hedge and quartered the field in front of me.  

It floated along by a hedge, stalled and dropped head first into some rough grass For a minute it was out of view but then lifted its head and I could see it had a vole in its beak. Rising from the grass it transferred its prey to a talon and flew to wherever it had its nest.

Wednesday morning arrived and I made my way to nearby Bridlington to take up my place on the Yorkshire Belle,  ready to view the seabird colony on the cliffs at Bempton. The vessel is quaint, a dignified elderly ship somewhat redolent of the Scillonian that sails to Scilly but much smaller and is staffed by a crew and half a dozen RSPB volunteers. Today, it was not too crowded as not all the places were taken so there was room enough to see the birds adequately

Half an hours sailing brought us to the cliffs, accompanied by an informative commentary on both the history and geological features of the cliffs as well as the birdlife. Apparently a Puffin's wings beat four hundred times a minute in flight and the cliffs form the northernmost outcrop of chalk in Britain.Two new facts I learnt this morning.

There was a hope we would see the albatross on the sea as it had been present an hour earlier but we were out of luck. Instead I spent my time papping away at the various seabirds that we encountered and chatting to the helpful RSPB volunteers.

We were a mix of tourists and birders and everyone, somehow got along, the tourists understanding that we birders needed space to take our photos and we in turn more than willing to answer any questions provided an RSPB volunteer did not get there first!

On arriving under the cliffs, we encountered many rafts of Guillemots and Razorbills as well as the occasional Puffin. All eyed us cautiously, curious at first but only becoming fearful once the ship was very close, the auks skittering with rowing wings across the  surface of the sea or crash diving at the last moment.

Photography was not easy as the comparatively small vessel tilted with the sea swell but bracing myself I managed to maintain. some form of stability. Below Staple Newk, where I had stood only yesterday, I looked up to see the occupants looking at us hundreds of feet below. The huge conurbation of birds were just as impressive from sea level as they were from land, a cacophony of calls echoing from the cliffs as the birds came and went from their nest sites.

A great worry hangs over the  Bempton seabird colony, for the worst outbreak ever of avian flu in Britain has swept through seabird colonies from the far north of Scotland to as near as The Farne Islands this year, killing thousands of birds. I saw only one dead Gannet at Bempton and can but hope this was just natural mortality and nothing more sinister. 

The Yorkshire Belle stopped at various points under the cliffs and then we slowly made our way back to Bridlington but before we got back to port a pod of maybe six Bottle nosed Dolphins entertained us as they decimated a large shoal of fish. At one point the dolphins were so close to the ship I could see them passing under the hull, their grey bodies like minitaure submarines as they glided underwater.It was hard to anticipate where they would surface but at one point they were so close you could clearly hear the expelling of air from their blowholes as they surfaced. For fifteen minutes they surged around the sea to our starboard side and then they were gone. The show was over.

I had some lunch in Bridlington which was very busy with tourists sampling all the tat that goes with a popular seaside town. I have never seen so many fish and chip shops! This kind of environment is not really my choice and I was glad to make the fifteen minute drive to the quieter pastoral pleasures of  Wandale Farm. 

The shrike had been showing well before my arrival but had temporarily disappeared.I knew what to do and sat on a farm trailer to await the return of the shrike. It took an hour but then it flew in and perched in the open, before dropping down, moving at intervals around the hawthorn scrub before disappearing, then re-appearing further along the bushes by moving silently and unobserved through the dense thicket of hawthorn.

In one of the shrikes periodic absences I explored the farm yard where I had been told there was a Black Redstart. It took a little while to find it, skulking around the various buildings and abandoned machinery but once found it was easy enough to follow it, although it was never at ease in the open. It showed little signs of breeding behaviour but it was surely unusual to find it here in eminently suitable habitat  in the middle of the breeding season. Other birders claimed to have seen two so maybe it is breeding after all.

Having found the redstart and with no sign of the shrike I made my way back to my B and B. Tomorrow was my last day and the plan was more of the shrike and then make my way to Bempton Cliffs for the last time.

Thursday morning was sunny and warm.

Arriving at the farm there was no sign of the shrike but eventually I found it working its way along a distant hedge making its way by short flights to the top of a field that slowly rose to a footpath running parallel with the cliffs. Other birders who had yet to see the shrike hurriedly made their way up to the distant footpath to intercept the shrike and met with partial success as I could see them watching the shrike, although it remained distant on some fence posts

I was the only person left by the hawthorns and was gambling the shrike would return here but it initially looked as though I had made the wrong move as I could see the birders, silhouetted on the rise, looking long and hard in one direction, away from me. They obviously could see the shrike. Ten minutes later I looked again and the birder's scopes and bins were now pointed down the field. The shrike had flown  but where?

My answer came as it swooped in to perch on a metal railing and then quickly fly up into a tree not more than ten metres from me. What a result. My gamble had worked.I checked the distant birders but they were still not looking in my direction. I waved but it was hopeless as they were too far away to notice.

Eventually the other birders cottoned on to the fact the shrike was back in its favourite hawthorn patch and came at speed down the track to join me. 

I hung on for a few more minutes and then went for one last lingering look at the gannets on Bempton Cliff. There was nothing more to say or do.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds lovely! Wish I could get up there to see the shrike.... x