Thursday, 18 February 2016

Looking Back; My First Shrikes

After reliving the excitement I felt from the Dawlish Warren Lesser Grey Shrike - a superb find by Lee Collins - I thought I'd have a reminisce of all my first encounters with the three most regular species of Shrike found in the UK. 

Dartmoor ~ Monday 19th April 1999

After a rather uneventful morning walk around Yarner Wood, Jean, Dad and myself headed on to Warren House Inn hoping for some Ring Ouzel action.  We were in luck with good views of a pair - such a shame they have become so scarce in the county now.  We also saw a couple of Wheatear and a stunning male Whinchat surrounded by numerous Stonechat, my first of the year.  Best bird of all though came as a complete shock - we knew one had over wintered on the Moor but didn't have a clue it was still knocking around, or where.  As we walked down to the short turfed area at the bottom of the valley, we were struck by a bright white bird perched up on a dead tree along a dry stone wall at the base of the opposite slope.  I'll never forget the next few words that came out of Jean's mouth "It's a Shrike!".  It was indeed - a pristine and absolutely stunning Great Grey Shrike facing us in bright sunshine, the dark eye mask looking really tidy and it was amazing to see that small but fierce looking black beak for the first time.  We watched it for a good half and hour perched up and flying about. Pure ecstasy. And a good example of how the surprise factor added to what would already have been an incredible experience.

Exmouth ~ Wednesday 20th October 1999

A juvenile Red-backed Shrike had been residing near Mudbanks for several days, Jean and Dad saw it on the Monday of this week whilst I was at school.  Much to my surprise when Dad collected me from the bus stop after school on Wednesday all my birding gear was in the car - we were off! And about 45 minutes later we were parking up at Mudbanks Lane in Exmouth.  It was almost 17:00 and the light was fading fast, you could certainly have described the conditions as dimpsy (what a great word!).  We rushed from the car up to the small green a short distance to the north, where the Shrike had been hanging out. Despite the light, there it was, my first Red-backed Shrike and in a rather un-shrike like place!  I can still remember watching it in the half-light chasing a late flying bumble bee for a good 15 seconds, it was remarkable to see how agile it was in flight..

St. Levan ~ 29th March 2002

This was part of an extraordinary days birding in Cornwall with Phil A, Jeremey Mc and Dad. This day will probably make up the next 'looking back' post, but to complete this entry I must mention the fabulous Woodchat Shrike we saw.  We walked from the car park at Porthgwarra, and as soon as we arrived at the small field surrounded by a dry stone wall and scrubby hedges where a small crowd was waiting, we could see it.  Shrikes are great birds anyway, but to see such a beautifully coloured one was a real treat - the rich chestnut cap looked amazing in the sunshine, a colour I'd never seen on any species of bird before. I also remember being amazed at just how small it looked, although this didn't stop it looking like a beast of a bird.

Not the same Woodchat, I photographed this bird in Plymouth on 3/5/09

I've seen several of all three species since, but what truly fulfilled my shrike needs was being part of the protection team around the breeding Red-backed Shrikes on Dartmoor.  Getting to know such a charismatic bird so closely, and to watch them hatch and fledge young was just so so special. I helped out on two seasons, sadly the second season wasn't a good one at all, but during the first my personal highlight was scanning left to right in the telescope and seeing no less than TEN Red-backed Shrikes!! Completely nuts.

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