Tuesday 24 September 2013

The Nuclear Option in Suffolk 24th September 2013

A Lesser Grey Shrike had taken up temporary residence in some horse paddocks between the Suffolk villages of Leiston and Sizewell. It had been there for around ten days but it was only on Monday after a hectic weekend that I finally got it together to go and see it. Travelling to Suffolk from where I live in northwest Oxfordshire is not to be undertaken lightly as there is not really a direct route and it seems to take an age to get there. 

Planning to make a day of it at Leiston and then nearby Sizewell necessitated an inordinately early start in order to get around the M25 before the usual automobile insanity of rush hour motorway driving got into full swing. Even so by the time I reached the M40 and then the M25 at 6am, the motorway was full of vehicles. Monday, a back to working day for most people and everyone in a hurry and devoid of patience with doubtless one and all wishing they could be anywhere but going to work. I weaved around huge articulated lorries and avoided the infamous white vans, as usual being driven with reckless abandon in the fast lane. The night sky almost imperceptibly gave way to a misty and still morning, the sun a watery shape soon to disappear but still casting it's light through a hazy sky. 

I arrived at Leiston and headed for Halfway Cottages where I could apparently park and walk across the road and up a bridleway to see the shrike, below some electricity pylons running from the dominant and obtrusive  bulk of Sizewell Nuclear Power Station, all too visible a couple of miles away on the nearby coast. A veritable colossus of concrete and technology, a true eyesore amongst the sedate rural charms of this part of Suffolk. The huge pylons strung with high voltage cables ran from the black heart of the power station and vanished deep inland. 

This however was the shrike's chosen habitat for it's transient stay. I wandered up the bridleway. No one else was about. A ChiffChaff, no doubt deluded by the unseasonably warm, humid weather sang away in the bushes. Unsure of where to go exactly I called Gnome who had come to see the shrike a couple of days earlier. It was now 8.30am. Gnome informed me to go under the pylons and the shrike should be in the horse paddocks just beyond them. I passed under the scarily crackling and vibrating cables wondering what kind of malignant force field I was subjecting my body to as I passed underneath. It has been suggested that to live anywhere near these cables is dangerous and can give you leukemia. I surmised that a couple of hours would probably not affect my well being but still felt uneasy at the  close proximity of the high voltage cables. I scanned the fence posts dividing the horse paddocks and sure enough the shrike was sitting, dumpy, grey and white, on top of one. Relaxed and unhurried it was contemplating the ground below.

I watched it for fifteen minutes, noting the differences between it's larger cousin the Great Grey Shrike. Similar in colour, being grey above and white below, with a bulbous conical beak and only a slightly hooked tip. I noted the standard black highwayman's mask on the sides of it's head and the pure white cheeks. A flash of white at the base of the outer primaries and its slightly smaller build. It was a first year bird, lacking the black forehead of an adult. The last one I saw in Britain was an adult, way back in the spring of 1985 at Great Wakering in Essex, so this had been a long time coming and it was good to become re-acquainted with this species. I looked down briefly and on looking back the shrike had gone. Damn. 

A couple of other birders arrived and the shrike was soon relocated, having moved to the top of a large bush in an adjacent paddock. I watched it for another thirty minutes as it got progressively more distant and in the end decided to go to nearby Sizewell, planning to return later in the afternoon to see if the shrike had come any closer and would give some photo opportunities. 

I drove to Sizewell. It would be such a pleasant place if it were not for the towering, monolithic colossus of the Nuclear Power Station, protected by a plethora of closed circuit cameras and coils of barbed wire. A distinct vibrating hum emanated from it as I walked along the beach and klaxons kept going off announcing safety drills and the whole edifice stretched for around half a mile adjacent to the back of the dunes and beach. 

Such a contrast to the still, mirror calm sea and the miles of unspoilt dunes and beach stretching as far as you could see in both directions but no matter how steadfastly you look out to sea you are always aware of what is behind you, dominating your senses both audibly and visually. The only good thing that can be said, referring to matters ornithological, is that the power station is home to Black Redstarts but today, despite walking the length of the perimeter fence surrounding the seaward side of the power station, not one could be found. 

Why was I in such an unsavoury spot you may ask? Well, an Arctic Skua had taken up residence on the beach directly below the power station and had been present for some days and, even better for photographers, was allowing close approach. I have seen literally thousands of Arctic Skuas, usually in spring on their migration north up the English Channel but always in flight and at a distance. So to see one on the ground and close to was definitely not to be missed. Some had speculated this particular skua was not well, others said it was partially oiled but on viewing it I could not concur with either suggestion. It's flight feathers were pretty tatty admittedly but that did not seem to interfere with it's flight in anyway and it would occasionally take to the air and harass the local gulls in typical skua fashion, going through a series of breathtaking aerial acrobatics literally, at times, right over my head before gliding falcon like, back down to the shingle. It's demeanour was that of a typical skua in that it carried on in it's own insouciant way, leisurely going about it's life and not giving an apparent toss about anything or anyone. I could see no evidence of oil on it's plumage and I was looking at it from no more than ten feet away.

Arctic Skuas usually moult in their winter quarters so it is entirely plausible that
this bird's plumage is so worn. It was also ringed but unfortunately the details
on the ring were unreadable


Skuas are the pirates of the bird world. Kleptoparasites that gain their food for the most part by forcing other, usually smaller seabirds such as terns and Kittiwakes, to disgorge food following a prolonged aerial attack by the skua. This was one such pirate. Dark, brooding and a little menacing but with no lack of charisma. A bit scruffy with it's heavily worn plumage but still a bit rakish. If birds had sex appeal this was it and ladies would throw themselves at it's raffish mercy as it downed a dry martini at Rik's Bar in Casablanca. A true pirate of the seas. Technically it's plumage is called intermediate, being a combination somewhere between the two usual extremes of dark and light morph and due to the lack of barring on the underwings it would appear to be an adult. I took lots of pictures. 

Looking out to sea the outfall from the power station was attracting a lot of gulls to feed on whatever was being turned up to the surface by the upwelling of water from the power station discharge. A line of immature Herring Gulls squabbled amongst themselves, disputing every morsel that came to the surface. Strung out in a line, a respectable distance from the quarrelsome juvenile Herring Gulls were some smaller gulls. The first two were Black Headed Gulls but then an even smaller gull became evident. It was a winter plumaged adult Little Gull. I scanned further and in the end found no less than sixteen, all second year birds or adults and all in winter plumage. They fed daintily, picking fastidiously from the surface of the water and flying back to the source of the upwelling once they had drifted too far from the outflow. Little else was around apart from a dark smudge of ducks further out on the glassy sea surface. A quick check in the scope revealed around eighty Wigeon, which soon after took off and headed inland. I went back to the car, had some lunch and then returned the two miles back to Halfway Cottages for another look at the shrike. This time it was a little closer to the bridleway and I attempted some photos but distance and heat haze still made things difficult. 

Nonetheless I watched it for an hour or so during which time I saw it catch and consume at least two grasshoppers or crickets and a bumble bee which it caught in flight. Eventually tiring of the shrike I resolved to return to Sizewell for another bout of skua communing. As I walked back to the car, a shiny, copper coloured Slow Worm, almost under my feet, sidled across the grassy track disappearing at a leisurely pace into the grass and bracken. 

Back at Sizewell and there was still no sign of the nuclear Black Redstarts. It was just not going to be my day but I cannot have it all. I returned to the beach and the lone figure of the skua stood, in solitary and silent contemplation on the shingle ridge.

I approached from the sandy waveshore and as I did a small wader, shining white below and spangled above like the shingle, in mixed colours of black, grey, buff and white, ran before me. A juvenile Sanderling. I stood still. So did the Sanderling. Each of us for our own  reasons uncertain. 

Endearingly it looked at me, head tilted to one side and deciding that I posed no immediate threat, with tentative steps, approached ever closer. So lovely in the late afternoon sunlight, positively gleaming in it's juvenile freshness as it ran back and fore following the wave curve on the sand. 

It was joined by three more juveniles, quietly communing to each other with soft twitterings. They came very close but then thought better of it and with fast pattering black legs retreated to what they considered a safer distance. I left them and turned for home. 

We both had a long way to go. 

This memory would sustain me on the long miles back to Oxfordshire.

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