September 28th   Leave a comment

A very poor photo of the brown shrike today - my phone put up to my telescope.

A very poor photo of the brown shrike today – my phone put up to my telescope. Puts John’s photos into perspective.

Today we had our first mega rarity in Crail for a while. I was out this morning doing a circuit from Wormiston to Balcomie when I met two birders at Balcomie Cottages. They had the very tense manner of people who had seen something really good and who wanted someone else to see it too. They were fairly sure they had seen a brown shrike – a very rare bird that breeds in China and Siberia and that winters in India and south-east Asia. The same places that yellow-browed warblers are from, so perhaps it was not surprising that some other rarities had come in with the flood of warblers. I immediately picked up their tension – a brown shrike is perhaps a once in a lifetime Crail bird – and joined their hunt.

The shrike was very elusive. Over the next hour or so we got a few fleeting glimpses and I saw enough of the features to convince me that it was indeed a brown shrike. I had to be sure – it’s a very rare bird and the first time I have ever seen one anywhere, let alone Crail. It was a young bird and they look a lot like young red-backed shrikes, as well as a couple of other very rare shrike species that are also vagrants from Asia. Little by little I got views of a thick black mask with a pale supercilium above (that’s what it sounds like – a line running above the eye on a bird), a uniform darkish brown head and back, without any white in the wings or obvious paler fringes to the wing feathers, a reddish tail, broader at the base and thinner at the tip and no very obvious scaly feathers on the underside. It also had quite a big head and bill. All these characters together allow you to identify a brown shrike from the rest. Taken together they form quite a distinctive bird. Later on in the afternoon I could appreciate this because it fed out in the open much more, but this morning it was a teasing and frustrating puzzle to piece together its identity from snatched views. When you have accumulated what you need to make an identification the process is very satisfying, but at the time it is less enjoyable. There is a constant feeling that the bird might just fly away forever at any moment and leave you with just “was it or wasn’t it?”

We put the news out on the local and national birding grapevine and soon birders started appearing. By mid-day there were probably 50 people there but the shrike was still very elusive. It was feeding low to the ground and in between perching in dense bushes. The glimpses continued. I reckon I only had about 24 seconds of views in about 3 hours. I had to leave, which was unfortunate – a buff-breasted sandpiper was sighted with some golden plovers in a field behind the cottages (would have been another Crail tick), and the shrike started being more visible. But it had been a great morning nonetheless with three yellow-browed warblers and a lesser whitethroat as well, and a great view of a merlin which on any other day would have been highlights enough.

I returned in the afternoon with my telescope and watched the shrike out in the open with the now big crowd arranged in an ordered line a couple of hundred meters from the bird so it could feed in peace and everyone could get a view. I also searched in vain through the golden plovers still in the fields behind for the buff-breasted sandpiper. I then checked the golf courses – buff-breasts are famous for their love of feeding on short neat turf and so they are spoilt for choice around Balcomie. Again no luck. I returned for a last look at the shrike just in case it departs with the clear skies tonight. As I finally left there were still people arriving and even running along the track to Balcomie. I had done my running in the morning and headed back to Crail slowly, in peace with another great Crail birding day. Although there is still that buff-breast to find tomorrow…

Oh, and I nearly forgot. The day had already started brilliantly with a yellow-browed warbler actually in my garden as I watched the sunrise. It fed quite happily in the bushes in my back garden and the veg patch. The 126th bird species I have seen in or from my garden. I think this weekend is probably the best time ever to look out for yellow-brows around Crail. Look out for a tiny nervous green and yellow stripy bird or listen for its “see-you-wee” three note whistle.

Lesser whitethroat - one of the lesser highlights today.

Lesser whitethroat – one of the lesser highlights today.

Posted September 28, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

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