Sunday 11 June 2023

A Shrike at South Stack, Anglesey 6th June 2023

This last week,  one of glorious sunshine but unusually strong northerly winds, I have been a residential volunteer at the RSPB's South Stack Reserve at Holy Island on Anglesey in North Wales. They provide very pleasant free accommodation in a cottage with views that would normally cost a fortune if you were to rent the place, in return for my carrying out various less than onerous duties on their behalf on the reserve for four days out of five.

It really is no hardship, in fact the opposite as my bedroom window gave me an uninterrupted panoramic view over fields to the Irish Sea and Snowdon in the distance. The reserve itself must be one of the most scenic that the RSPB possess. At this time of year it looks at its absolute best with an abundance of coastal flora, including mounds of pink thrift growing in profusion by the sandy coastal tracks that run through the heathland, the rich purples of bell heather, yellow clusters of rock rose and bird's foot trefoil and the ultimate prize of the unassuming, cliff hugging Spatulate Fleawort, a sub species of the Field Fleawort that grows nowhere else in the world. 

Spatulate Fleawort (Tephroseris integrifolia maritima)
sometimes known as South Stack Fleawort

The spectacular cliffs provide  home for ten pairs of Choughs, eleven thousand Guillemots, fifteen hundred Razorbills and just twelve Puffins. For a naturalist it is heaven on earth at such a vibrant time of the year.

On Tuesday morning at about 7.30 a female Red backed Shrike was found in the reserve's lower car park, right beside my accommodation, by a researcher setting out to survey the seabird colonies.

Gallingly I was in the house at the time, literally metres away from the shrike but unaware of its presence. It was photographed and subsequently seen for the next hour in various gardens of the isolated homes that lie by the road leading up to the RSPB's visitor centre but then it disappeared and no one could relocate it.

I resolved to chalk this one up as  'the one that got away' as I was on duty in an hour but Andrew, one of the top birders on Anglesey and a long term volunteer at South Stack re-found it just after 5pm, just as my day of volunteering finished, the bird having moved less than a quarter of a mile inland. He called me and gave me directions to where it was and we arranged to meet near a place called Ffoel, this being but a ten minute walk from my temporary home.

On getting there I was saddened but unsurprised to hear it had flown off across the surrounding heathland minutes earlier, being hotly pursued by mobbing Blackbirds, Dunnocks and even a Willow Warbler. 

We wandered various tracks through the surrounding gorse and heather following in the direction it had flown but with no joy. I left Andrew and two of his local birding colleagues still hoping to find it as I was tired after a hard day of showing visitors Puffins, so called it a day and learnt later they were unsuccessful in finding the shrike. Hardly surprising as there was such a large area of heathland where it could hide itself. 

The next day was my day off and I had planned to go to Cemlyn Bay some ten miles away to see the large Sandwich Tern colony there but that was soon forgotten when I received a text from Andrew who does a daily early morning bird survey of the reserve, telling me that Ken, a birding friend of his, had discovered the shrike not very far from where Andrew had re-found it yesterday afternoon.

Walking to the site I met Ken who told me it was showing well, perched on telephone wires and fence posts further up the road beyond a house where the road ends. Filled with optimism I walked the last few hundred yards only to find no sign of it.

I followed a track round the back of the house and made my way around the garden and paddock in front of the house. 

A pair of stonechats were hunting invertebrates in the paddock to feed to their fledged young in the gorse and heather behind me but there was still no sign of a shrike on either fence post or telephone wires.

I walked further down a slope towards a line of conifers known locally as 'the plantation' as that was where Ken  told me he had last seen the shrike fly.Again I found nothing there and in the process scratched my hand badly on a bramble so decided discretion was the better part of valour and retreated back to the track by the paddock where I met another birder who said he had just seen the shrike briefly, perched in a small isolated tree in the paddock I had been checking only minutes earlier!

Such is birding.

We stood here for fifteen minutes and chatted as birders do while keeping a close watch on the paddock hoping the shrike would show itself again.

There it is!

And sure enough the shrike flew from our right into one of the small trees in the paddock.

It then came closer, perching on the boundary fence no more than thirty metres from where we stood. 

Its arrival caused some consternation to a pair of Meadow Pipits which voiced their concern about the shrike's presence from nearby wooden fence posts before it promptly disappeared.

We waited for it to re-appear but after forty five minutes with no sign of it returning my new found colleague decided to leave and go down to 'the plantation' to look for Spotted Flycatchers of which there had been no less than four present yesterday.

Within five minutes of his departure the shrike re-appeared and for the next hour spent its time hunting from the three small trees in the paddock or from the posts and wires of the boundary fence, coming very close at times. 

By now it was mid morning and the sun was so very bright it made photography difficult. The weather has been fabulous so far this week and today was no different.The sunlight in the clear coastal air possessing an  extra luminosity which while most welcome is not ideal for bird photography.

Despite the difficulties with the sun I had more than enough images of the shrike and made my way back to the house for some lunch,  resolving to return in the late afternoon when the sun was lower and the light more conducive to photography.

Although I regard myself as a birder rather than a photographer I confess that these days I find great pleasure in taking photos of my various bird encounters but try to remember to forgo the camera for a while and watch the subject in question too.It is all too easy to forget about this when desirous of that ultimate image. I feel I still maintain the right balance - just!

Returning in the afternoon I came across a couple looking for the shrike but they were not in the right area and I suggested they follow me to the paddock, feeling confident the shrike would be performing there much as it did this morning.

We came across one other birder by the paddock who told us the shrike had been here five minutes ago but he had lost sight of it.

Don't worry, I advised the couple, it will be back soon. 

An hour later my credibility was rapidly on the wane as there was no sign of the elusive shrike and. eventually the couple, very politely told me they had to leave.

I told them about my companion this morning who had done the same and as soon as he left the shrike showed up.

They laughed and set off to walk back around the paddock.

They were half way round when the shrike returned.

It's back! I called, whilst waving to them.

They came hurrying back to join me.

It's almost in front of us on the fence wire. Really close.

I pointed to the fence

The shrike had certainly returned and now perched on the fence was giving excellent views as it hunted from the wires and wooden posts. Slowly it worked its way along the fence line, dropping on prey from its elevated perches and then returning to a fresh perch,coming ever closer.

Finally, becoming aware of our presence it decided to approach no closer and flew fast and low to the middle of the paddock, then up into one of the small trees and perched there looking for prey.It was almost constantly active, the strong wind buffeting it but not really causing the shrike any major inconvenience.

Andrew arrived and we watched the shrike for an hour before deciding we had more than done it justice and could leave feeling fulfilled. and if I am honest rather thrilled at this close encounter with a formerly common breeding bird in Britain but now only an uncommon summer visitor.

No comments:

Post a Comment