May 28th   Leave a comment

There is a fundamental birding law – something equivalent to sod’s law – that if a family member has an important celebration in another country, that cannot be missed, then something will turn up on your local patch while you are away. I left Crail on Wednesday as the easterly winds continued and I watched the text messages start to come in from the May Island on Thursday – a short-toed lark, icterine warblers, red-backed shrikes and a marsh warbler. David Steel the warden of the May Island has been a little down (and if you have met him you will know that it takes a lot to get Davey down) because of the lack of birds this spring. But this has all changed: his series of euphoric texts last week indicated that there might even be some migrants appearing at last around Crail. Sure enough, a red-backed shrike was found in the walled garden at Balcomie on Sunday morning. I got a text about it as I was heading back to Crail, but got home too late to go and see it. Migrants head off early evening if they are going to continue their journey, so the fact that it was still around late afternoon didn’t mean very much (although better than nothing of course).

I headed down to Balcomie at 6 this morning. The aftereffects of the family celebration on Saturday night precluded an earlier start: first light is not really a realistic option at this time of year in any case (well before 4 am now). I consoled myself that shrikes like big insects and big insects like to get up late too, when its warmer and dryer. If it had been an isabelline or a woodchat shrike, and so new to my Crail list, perhaps. Even so I had Balcomie and the haar to myself. It was quite thick first thing with visibility down to about 50 meters. I think it probably worked in my favour. I entered the garden and straight away saw the shrike perched on a bit of dead bush in the middle about 30 meters away. I watched it and it watched me moving slowly past it until I was about 10 meters away. It then stopped watching me and flew down to grab one of those late rising large beetles and resumed its perch. Not really bothered about me at all. I had one of my closest ever encounters with a shrike. Very close, but I was confident it wasn’t disturbed as it changed perches, sometimes closer to me, sometime further away, fully concentrating on feeding. It would pause between sallies, perched immobile on a washing line post or branch and I could fully admire every little crescent mark on its underparts and the slight mask and subtle shading on the head. A really special moment even if this hadn’t been the first Crail shrike for three years.

One hundred years ago red-backed shrikes were common in many parts of Britain. 38 years ago I saw my first red-backed shrike at one of its last nesting sites in the Brecklands of East Anglia. It was a Young Ornithologist’s Club – the old and stiff name for the RSPB’s young people section – trip out from Cambridge. The leaders got a telling off at the time for showing us such a rare bird. But I am glad they did. That this was the last nest in England of a bird that had once been a common made a big impression on me. I learned that you shouldn’t take things for granted on that trip. And the excitement of the unusual made me come back for others, reinforcing an interest that still brings me joy every day.

I left with another happy heart, even with a day of marking students’ exams ahead. And the haar blew away as I reached Crail revealing a sunny, warm day. Perfect for a shrike to refuel in. It was still there last thing this afternoon but tonight will be clear. If it is still here tomorrow, it will be visible from the track just before you get to the entrance Balcomie farmyard. Check the dead branches of the trees and bushes in the orchard between the sheep field and the walled garden, or the steel washing line supports under the big sycamore. It is well worth seeing. Red-backed shrikes have started breeding again in Britain but it will be a very long time – if ever – before they become commonplace here.

The female red-backed shrike at Balcomie this morning

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Posted May 28, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

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