Monday 22 September 2014

Shrike me down with a Feather 21st September 2014

My previous post alluded to the fact that a juvenile Masked Shrike had been discovered at Kilnsea which is adjacent to Spurn Bird Observatory on the coast of East Yorkshire. I found this out while visiting Norfolk on Saturday with Clackers so there was precious little I could do until I got back home on Saturday night.

I had made my mind up whilst in Norfolk that if it was still there on Sunday I was going to go and see it. Only the third ever to have been found on our shores it was a definite must see. Kilnsea is not for the faint hearted being the best part of a four hour drive from Oxford and the sensible half of me was hoping the shrike would have flown off overnight but these hopes were thankfully dashed when consulting my RBA app.  at 7am on Sunday morning I saw it had already been reported as present.

I rose rapidly, perhaps a little unsteadily after my exertions of yesterday, informing my wife of my latest jaunt and ingratiating myself by making her a cup of tea and saying I would be back later. I called Andy to see if he still wanted to go having spoken to him about it yesterday whilst in Norfolk. The answer was affirmative so I drove to Oxford on a bright sunny morning and by 8am we were on the road and making the long journey north on thankfully quiet roads

It is always good to have company on journeys such as these as it whiles away the miles and the inevitable boredom. I knew the way as this would be my fourth visit in as many years to Kilnsea to see a rare bird so we navigated the successive motorways with ease, passed through the uninspiring surrounds of Hull and soon found ourselves following the endlessly curving road out through the rather strange little villages that line the road to the Spurn Peninsula.

Arriving in Kilnsea we were left in no doubt as to the whereabouts of the shrike, for as we drove down the road to the sea we passed a veritable wall of birders, all beige, greens and browns and every shade in between scoping from a field that lay the other side of the long hedge that lined the road we were driving down. We tried our luck in the car park by the Bluebell Cafe and by sheer good fortune we got a spot just as a car left, in an otherwise crammed full to capacity car park.

In double quick time we were out of the car, into our own versions of green and brown with scopes, cameras and bins hooked around our necks and headed off back up the road to join the hordes of similar minded folk presumably looking at the shrike. There were birders everywhere, walking, talking, looking or just standing about. An area in the field just beyond the small caravan site had been taped off, running at right angles to the hedge and across the field allowing people to look out and across to the hedge that the shrike was frequenting. We negotiated our way through a battery of photographers and lenses and then through a scrum of birders and telescopes to find a space of our own at the end.

The shrike was unmissable, an almost white looking bird from a distance that in the scope revealed itself to have a beautiful and intricate plumage pattern of marbled whites, black and various shades of grey with dark vermiculations and scalloping on various parts of its body. It was just as if it had been frosted and all pigment erased with not a trace of colour apart from a dash of orange on its right flank which was the commencement of its moult into first winter plumage. I noted its petite appearance and delicate structure and how small it was. A nearby Great Tit, not a huge amount smaller gave a good comparison. The long narrow tail with white outer tail feathers was also striking. A truly beautiful bird.

Masked Shrike with Darter sp of dragonfly prey. Note the diagnostic large white
patch at the base of the black primaries and the orange of first winter plumage
beginning to show on the right flank
It had chosen for our visit to frequent the long hawthorn hedge, perching there in the lee of the wind and dropping down into the grass of the field to seize amongst other things a small Darter species of dragonfly. It moved slowly along the hedge towards us, each time it returned to the hedge after a sortie it would move a few metres closer. The cameras bunched in the corner of the field nearest the hedge were soon going off in quick fire salvoes of clicks with everyone trying to capture the moment. The shrike oblivious to all of this came so far and then commenced retreating back along the hedge.

'The Hedge'
You can just see the shrike as a pale blob in the centre of the picture!
Other birds were in the hedge as well. Whilst looking at the shrike we found a female Common Redstart, its russet brown tail quivering as if with nervous energy, a male European Stonechat perched at the very top of the hedge and a Common ChiffChaff hopped around the shrike. The arrival of a Magpie prompted the shrike to rapidly seek cover with indecent haste as it dived into the depths of the hedge but was soon out again once the Magpie departed. In the sun the shrike almost shone, its plumage so very pale against the dark twigs of the hedgerow.

It really was as easy as that. We drove four hours and walked to see the shrike within fifteen minutes of arriving. No waiting, no hassle. Would that it could be like this every time. Always just too distant for any decent images with my camera, the day was saved by Andy who managed some more than acceptable efforts with his digiscoping set up and these grace this blog. We watched the shrike for maybe forty five minutes and then decided to spend the rest of the day looking for the other good birds that had been reported from the area namely Red breasted Flycatcher, Barred Warbler and Olive backed Pipit plus other goodies such as Pied and Spotted Flycatchers.

Just back up the road was another smaller scrum of birders looking intently at some small trees in line with the shrike's hedgerow. Rumour had it that a Red breasted Flycatcher was to be seen here so we joined the throng but there was not an inkling of any flycatcher. Small dark movements in the trees turned out to be Goldcrests busily hunting the twigs and leaves. Slowly people drifted off walking to the nearby car park of the Crown and Anchor pub to see if the flycatcher was there. We were reluctant to leave as Andy needed this species for his UK list but in the end we had to concede defeat. We too went to the pub car park but the birders there told us they had no luck although the sheltered pub garden, surrounded as it was by small trees looked absolutely prime for migrants. I wandered round to the other side of the car park and a small movement in a tree caught my eye. I looked in the bins and there was a Pied Flycatcher looking down on me. This under any circumstances is a good bird to see and Andy got a really amazing photo as the bird seemed to pose for just the right amount of time amongst the branches and dying leaves before slipping away.

Pied Flycatcher
Further beyond the trees surrounding the car park and across a small field another sheltered hedgeline harboured two Spotted Flycatchers, perching low down out of the wind on berry laden hawthorns and flying out to snatch passing insects.

I suggested to Andy we try looking for the Barred Warbler. This was only a few hundred metres away, almost opposite the pub and necessitated going down onto the beach and looking back up to yet another unkempt hedge lining the road. 

Barred Warbler hedge
The beach side of the hedge was the sheltered side and the warbler would come out every so often and show itself. We joined yet another line of birders standing on the sand staring at the hedgerow. The Barred Warbler had just been seen but annoyingly on our arrival had now returned into the depths of the hedge. We waited, enduring yet another inane conversation between two birders trying to outdo each other about their bird and moth lists. Sometimes you want to just turn around and tell them to stop talking such drivel, get a life or just not say anything but you never do.

Thankfully the Barred Warbler decided to come out into the open and all talking ceased as everyone concentrated on watching it. Displaying typical Barred Warbler behaviour it just meandered slowly about the hedge, sluggish and desultory, seemingly not  interested in anything much other than just regarding the world before it returned back into the centre of the hedge. Cue mass exit of birders including ourselves and with Andy very happy to have added yet another species to his UK list and me to have seen two Barred Warblers in as many days.

Barred Warbler juvenile
Now somewhat at a loose end we returned to the pub car park to learn that the Red breasted Flycatcher had just been seen in the trees by the road not more than a few minutes ago. We returned to a once again crowded pavement and joined the ranks looking expectantly across the road at the small trees on the other side and after a few minutes I detected a quick movement in the centre of a tree and there was the diminutive and appealing sight of a Red breasted Flycatcher. It was not there long before zipping in typical fashion in and out of the branches, perching for a few seconds before, ever restless, flitting off at high speed to another perch. Andy now had yet another species to add to his UK list. We watched it flying about, never still, until it eventually disappeared. A Garden Warbler tack tacked at the top of the tree and then flew along the hedgeline.

Happy with this we decided to try to see the Olive backed Pipit and here our luck ran out due to some very unfortunate circumstances. Olive backed Pipits are very hard to see at the best of times skulking in long grass and normally remaining on or close to the ground. To see them under such conditions requires a lot of time and patience. Regrettably this was not acceptable for some birders and we could see as we walked down the road to the location that a number of birders were deliberately and concertedly trying to flush it by walking off the path and into the long grass whilst a crowd standing on the bank and who should have known better only encouraged them by their mute acceptance of such behaviour and awaited the inevitable result that the bird flew off and those present were 'entertained' and presumably satisfied with a brief view of a fleeing Olive backed Pipit. But what pray of those such as us who would also like to have seen the pipit and were unfortunate enough to fall victim to this behaviour and had to put up with the selfish uncaring actions of a minority. Needless to say the pipit was not seen again all day. So Andy who had never seen an Olive backed Pipit was deprived of the opportunity, as doubtless were countless others. It still makes me feel frustrated as I write this.

We walked back along the shoreline finding a couple of European Stonechats standing sentinel on fence posts, a Whinchat perched on a garden wall and nearby two Spotted Flycatchers. We finally took a break by returning to and sitting in the now birder free pub garden. We sat at one of the picnic tables and soon saw two Pied Flycatchers still in the trees, one of which sat out in the open and allowed prolonged views.

Pied Flycatcher

Garden Warbler
Another Garden Warbler gobbled elderberries just to its right. We were not alone for long for as soon as anyone saw someone else looking through bins they would come over, curious as to what was going on and soon there was quite a crowd back in the pub car park looking at the Pied Flycatchers. Forgive me but after a while I just get tired of being surrounded by lots of other birders. There is no space or privacy to just enjoy things on a personal level. I understand and know it is wrong of me to be thinking this way especially at a twitch but it does grate after a while and I really wanted to get away from all of this, so we walked back down the road to the cafe and had a coffee and hot chocolate respectively and Andy treated us to two slices of very nice lemon cake.

Time was moving on and we decided to drive down the road to the Observatory. There were no birders here and we had the place to ourselves. I had never been here before and we examined the bleak area with its deserted ex wartime buildings and looked at the Heligoland trap and net rides for trapping migrant birds.

Spurn Bird Observatory
Then we walked onwards to the sea and out onto the deserted beach and dunes beneath a wide windswept sky. The wind was now blowing strongly onshore and the huge breakers roared in and out crashing and dying in foaming white lines on the orange sand. 

This was more like it as my mind and body conjoined once more and the two of us decided to end the day with a seawatch. A few Gannets passed by, a Little Gull was noted by Andy and then another one flew haltingly above the waves. Best of all Andy picked up two Sooty Shearwaters distantly moving north and over the next ninety minutes another four single birds passed by together with numerous unidentified auks, over a hundred Little Gulls, unidentifiable distant divers with the added bonus of a summer plumaged Red throated Diver close in on the turbulent sea and an Arctic Skua giving a spectacular display of aerial prowess as it harried an unlucky Kittiwake.

It was just the right end to the day and we returned to the car. 


Yours truly
There were still people trying to flush the Olive backed Pipit as we left which if it had any sense would be far away in some undisturbed corner of this wonderful area.

Many thanks to Andy Last for making some of his images of the Masked Shrike, Pied Flycatcher and Garden Warbler available for this latest tale of birding

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