Tuesday 28 July 2015

Shrike One 26th July 2015

Red backed Shrike c Stephen Burch
Having spent a very pleasant Saturday with Peter chasing after heathland butterflies and Brilliant Emerald dragonflies at a couple of locations in Hampshire I returned home weary but pleasantly fulfilled. A hot bath and a glass of white wine helped to soothe aching limbs and feet before I slipped into bed and as is customary checked Twitter on my I-phone to see what other people had to say about matters consequential and more often than not, inconsequential.

I scrolled through the various tweets and there was a tweet from Paul Wren plus a picture of a Red backed Shrike which he had just been to see that very evening at Churn which lies on the southern border of Oxfordshire. Inwardly I groaned. Any chance of the eagerly anticipated lie in on Sunday was now out of the question as I had never seen a Red backed Shrike in Oxfordshire, unlike just about every other Oxfordshire birding acquaintance of mine who already had seen one at Otmoor last year whilst I was birding in Ecuador. This was my chance to set matters right.  Also, the weather forecast was for yet more rain, arriving sometime during Sunday morning, so to pre-empt its arrival I would have to rise at a very early hour. 

Above all else though, it would be nice to see a Red backed Shrike as they are a considerable rarity in Oxfordshire and now, regrettably, also nationally. I can remember in my youth how they bred in many a hedgerow throughout England but sadly they are long gone and I doubt they will ever return.
Five am on a grey and gloomy early Sunday morning found me driving southwards to the other end of Oxfordshire in search of the shrike, which was to be found near a long abandoned and disused Field Study Centre lying in a far corner of the Churn Estate, near to the Ridgeway.

At this time in the morning the roads were virtually free of traffic and the world seemed to be just for me and no one else. However I could not relax as the roads, although free of vehicles, persuaded portly Woodpigeons that they would be ideal to stand or waddle about in, the birds seemingly unable to comprehend that the black car approaching them at speed heralded their nemesis if they did not flee. Only at the very last moment would they decide to fly and on a number of occasions I was obliged to take evasive action and steer around them as they failed to move fast enough. It is always Woodpigeons that seem to be so slow on the uptake. Any other bird would be long gone. If not Woodpigeons to avoid it was young rabbits, not yet savvy to the dangers of playing about on the road and the threat from motorised vehicles. Thankfully I managed to avoid any fatal collisions with both bunnies and pigeons but several corpses along my route, already being investigated by Magpies and Red Kites, signified that not every motorist was so vigilant or sympathetic.

A hunting Barn Owl flew along the roadside verge as I descended down the long hill to Burford. Ghost white under the grey cloud. I hoped it would retire to roost before this normally busy and fast road became populated with cars. Too many are killed on this fast stretch of road year after year by the passing vehicles.

After forty minutes I found myself  turning off the main road and onto the long unclassified track that leads through expansive corn fields to a dead end adjacent to the former Field Study Centre at the distant perimeter of the Churn Estate.

I was a little unsure as to the exact location where the shrike was to be found and was hoping and expecting to find other birders already there but no, I was alone. I therefore had to get on with it on my own and without the aid of a map, which in my haste I had left at home. I did however have a vague idea, based on the reports from yesterday evening, as to where to commence my search, which was near the Field Study Centre, now just a forlorn and decrepit brick building much overgrown by vegetation and gently being reclaimed by nature. 

Parking the car on the only available grass verge I set off along a rutted and grassy track running between the Field Study Centre and an immense cornfield to my right. The long, dew soaked grass stems left damp smears on my trousers as I passed through them, the non descript beige and green carpet of grasses enlivened by random oases of colour; the blue-mauve flowers of Field Scabious, purple-red heads of Greater Knapweed and the flat white flower heads of Yarrow. Remnants of our natural flora that were once abundant but now are to be found cowering, depleted and in retreat from our herbicide saturated land and making one last desperate stand in neglected hedgerows and byways.

At this early hour in the morning all was quiet and still apart from the birds and even their calls seemed to be diluted and diminished by the immense acres of cornfields and straggling hedgerows rolling gently upwards like a tidal swell to the Ridgeway, that ancient road that eternally traverses the Downs. Indeed the sense of space and isolation, the history and wonderment of all those souls who through the centuries have trod the Ridgeway came to me like some forgotten whisper and was strangely re-assuring at this early hour. In spirit I felt I was not alone. 

The area I was currently in looked likely habitat for the shrike as scattered hawthorn bushes, some fully leaved and others dead and skeletal formed a semblance of a boundary on each side of the track and looked to be ideal vantage points for the shrike.

The track looking towards the Ridgeway.The shrike was in the bushes to the right
The track looking  from the Ridgeway towards the disused Field Study Centre
Initially there were quite a number of birds perched on the various bushes. Most favoured a couple of dead bushes, using the exposed twigs and branches to enable them to keep a lookout. Optimistically I checked these birds through my telescope but they were only juvenile Starlings and, surprisingly, a flock of ten Mistle Thrushes which also seemed to be mainly juveniles, judging by their scaly upperparts. Another brown bird flew up onto an exposed twig, bringing brief excitement, but it was a Song Thrush.  A Curlew commenced calling repeatedly nearby, its call, so evocative of wild and lonely places embellishing the sense of space and isolation around me, and as I walked to investigate it took off from the overgrown edge of a close by field, its cries still audible long after it had vanished in the sky. Families of Goldfinches and Linnets, twittering fussily and insistently amongst themselves flew off before me and a couple of Common Whitethroats dodged through the twiggy confines of the bushes, peering out and churring softly in anxiety. I slowly walked further on and by now all the birds had fled from my presence leaving the bushes seemingly devoid of any life. I came to another isolated hawthorn bush, stopped and stood, uncertain of what to do or where to go next. I was running out of options. Feeling slightly downcast, I disconsolately regarded the bush and as I did a previously invisible, thickset brown bird about the size of a thrush, hopped out from the centre of the bush and clung on an outside twig. I could hardly believe it was the Red backed Shrike but it was.

Overall it was a dull red brown on its upperparts and drab white with prominent black scaling on the underparts. Its head was thickset and a substantial black bill with a prominent hooked tip enhanced its bull necked no nonsense appearance.

A juvenile, it looked at me with a large, liquid black eye as if it could not quite countenance my presence. Almost point blank it regarded me for a couple of minutes but then thought it wise to put some distance between us and flew to the next bush along. I followed it and with my scope studied it as we gently progressed from bush to bush each time the shrike changed its position. Not overly aggressive, nevertheless it showed obvious signs of having no apprehension in tackling prey of all kinds. It briefly showed interest in a whitethroat, pursuing it in a desultory fashion through the twigs of a bush but mainly it was on the lookout for insects and other invertebrates. I watched a couple of times as its head moved laterally, closely following the trajectory of passing bees but it decided against pursuit. It was adept at hiding away in the centre of the bushes it frequented or making sure it was always on the opposite side of the bush to me but occasionally it would perch openly on an exposed twig but never for long.

What a joy to see this bird having missed the one from last year and such luck to find it so relatively quickly and easily.To complete the morning a Quail commenced calling from far out in the ripening cornfield to my left as a Red Kite mewled querously overhead and some twenty Swallows twittered on distant telephone wires.

Many thanks to Steve Burch for allowing me to use his picture of the shrike to illustrate this blog

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