Friday 24 May 2024

Death Shrike

It has been a pretty incredible week for drift migrants on the east coast, with incredible numbers of Red-backed Shrikes, including over 30 on Fair Isle and ten at Flamborough Head, dumped by heavy rain and an easterly airflow. Mix in a scattering of Icterine and Marsh Warblers, Bluethroats and Common Rosefinches, and the east coast has had a distinctly southern Scandinavian feel. I have had a fab week at work, but have been pining for the coast and this fall of eastern gems.  

Yesterday, ahead of taking the YWT board on a site visit, I popped into one of our woodland nature reserves to see a Wood Warbler that has been holding territory for a while. I heard the bird as soon as I jumped out of the car and soon was treated to a spectacular show as this exquisite phyllosc, parachuted and shivered around me, delivering its two quite different songs with impressive volume. 


It seemed to favour low, bare branches of the Beech trees, and if I sat quietly against a tree-trunk, it would sing within ten feet of me. Absolutely brilliant. I didn't have a camera, but recorded the best bit - it's song, on my phone. Nearby, it was nice to see some Bird's-nest Orchids flowering on the usual slope, beneath the Beeches. 

Wood Warbler on passage in Cyprus, April 2023.


Today, I was up before the lark and headed east to check for any remnants of the coastal fall, at Flamborough Head.  The Old Fall Loop was fruitless, until I got to the Lighthouse Grasslands where yesterday's Icterine Warbler was knocking out a squeaky toy-laced chattering song from the Motorway willows. Ickys are great birds; the pale-lemon face and throat is not really reminiscent of anything else, though with this one's white belly, it did remind me a bit of yesterday's Wood Warbler's underparts. The long bill and bright orange mouth were most obvious as the bird burbled and tinkled from the edge of the hedge, offering great views. This individual sported a really well-marked pale wing panel, khaki upperparts, a typically beady eye and steely grey legs. My fellow YCN guide Mark Pearson arrived with a small tour group and we together enjoyed great views as the bird continued to perform beautifully.


Around the corner, a lingering male Red-backed Shrike preened from a bank of brambles in the Gorse Field. I was delighted to see this bird and witness part of the memorable fall of this smart species. After watching it for several minutes, I headed back round to the car, with a rather Scandinavian-looking Willow Warbler in the Golf Course Willows, the only other notable migrant. 


I decided to check Holmes Gut and after jumping the gate, a Spotted Flycatcher zipped up on to the hedge-top - a good start! After a chat with Dave Woodmansey, I ambled through the long grass, carefully checking the hedgerow and willows. Not a lot stirred, though some Swifts were feeding low-down over the bushes, giving awesome views. I stood a while to drink in my favourite birds, as they pelted past, mouths agape. Nothing was doing and time was running out. Work beckoned so I headed back to the car. The Spot Fly was looking rather agitated on top of the hedge near the Yorkshire Water compound. Nearby, I could see another bird on the barbed wire fence that encircles the compound. Lifting my bins, a female Red-backed Shrike snapped into focus! Fantastic! Not as smart as the earlier male, but a self-find always feels more rewarding. She sat motionless, surveying the scene, showing beautifully. If only I had my DSLR! I snapped a quick record shot with my phone and moments later she dropped down into the compound then flew up into the low branches of the Sycamore. This set off chaos among previously-unseen small birds who clearly were not happy to share their bit of cover with a predator and I saw Garden Warbler and Blackcap, along with the Spot Fly, mobbing the shrike. I got a glimpse of what was probably a female Pied Flycatcher but it moved into cover before I could nail it. 

Red-backed Shrike on the fence. Honest!

The shrike decided it was time to move on, and dropped into the back of the hedge and out of sight. Having been lucky enough to find a good bird right at the death, it was time to depart for work.

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