Thursday, 3 June 2021

Two Shrikes, lots of hills and a fire - and also I come to a realisation about focussing on the birds

This week I've been on holiday from work so I've been trying to get out as much as I can to try and find as many birds as I can and, hopefully, give a bit of a boost to my NMT list.

Saturday started off badly when I called in at Middle Marsh, the nature reserve in my local area which I helped set up, and found that about half of the reedbed area had been burned to the ground by vandals. This has been a very bad year so far for deliberate fires on greenspace and nature reserves in Middlesbrough and the wider area. Earlier in the year several patches of the grassland at Middle Marsh were burned, and similar fires have been happening in long grass and scrub areas all over Teesside since late winter. Luckily for Middle Marsh half the reed area and the scrub and woodland behind it is still intact - presumably too wet and/or green to burn. It should all grow back although I don't know what effect a fire at this time of year will have - the young green shoots of this years growth of reed has been burned, along with the dead stems of the last several years, so it may take a while before that part looks like a reedbed again - watch this space.

From there I headed out to Saltholme and Seal Sands. There were lots of birds, including recently hatched young of many species - from the familiar Mute Swan, Mallard and Canada Goose to the less commonly seen Lapwing and Avocet. The Black-headed Gulls, which breed in colonies in several places, have many well grown chicks, but the Common Terns that often nest in among them are still quite a way behind them and have no chicks yet. This is because the 'Black-heads' being resident in the UK year-round are able to start breeding sooner than the terns which are migrants that spend the winter in Africa and have only been here for a few weeks.

I didn't add anything to my NMT list on Saturday, however, or on Sunday when I had to drop Sue off at the bus station in Leeds and took the opportunity to meet up with some friends there. We went to the lovely RSPB reserve at Fairburn Ings - a large part of which is on a former coal mine but now holds many different wetland habitats and the wide range of species associated with them. We saw Buzzards, terns and grebes and heard lots of warblers and one cuckoo. The sight of a small mammal - probably a Bank Vole - halfway up a tree in broad daylight was something none of us (all naturalists) had seen before.

On Monday I went to South Gare - which I think I neglect a bit in favour of Saltholme - and was rewarded by two new NMT birds - a Red Kite that flew in off the sea from the north (goodness knows where it was coming from), and then a Spotted Flycatcher, which Nick, one of the regular South Gare birders, had just found in some bushes. I watched it flycatching for a few minutes and was able to get one very poor picture (below). Unlike its dapper black and white relative, the Pied Flycatcher, Spotted is a streaky brown and grey bird. 

From the gare I decided to go along the coast to Saltburn, in the hope of seeing some seabirds that are less commonly seen at South Gare. Saltburn was crowded with tourists (not surprising on a very hot and sunny Bank Holiday Monday) including right at the end of the pier where I set up my scope. There were many Kittiwakes on the sea but it was a while before I was able to get a good enough view of a Fulmar (NMT #147). I had been hoping for a Razorbill (a smaller relative of the extinct Great Auk) but although I saw a couple of birds that might have been this species, my views weren't good enough to rule out the similar Guillemot.

Late that evening when I was getting ready to go to bed I decided to check the local 'bird Twitter' to see if anything interesting had been seen that day - and immediately knew that the next day I was going to be doing my biggest NMT ride yet - to Whitby, 30 miles away across the moors. The reason for this sudden crazy plan was that a Lesser Grey Shrike and 11 European Bee-eaters had been seen in farmland just out side the town. I've seen both of these birds many times before, in other countries, and I've even seen Bee-eaters in the UK once (a group of 6 in Dorset in 1997), but the Shrike would be a 'British tick' and both species would be fantastic birds for my year-list. 

I got up at 4am on Wednesday morning and was out of the house by ten to 5 (a record time for me - I rarely make it up and out in less than an hour). The first challenge was the steep Ormesby Bank, which I nearly made it to the top of before getting off to push, followed a few miles later by the even steeper Birk Brow, which I didn't even attempt - instead I pushed the bike the whole way up it. After that the hills were gentler and the flat stretches longer. I stopped for a rest at Scaling Dam - a great birding site which I've talked about before in this blog (see  Franklin's Gull at Scaling Dam ) but unfortunately the hide was locked so I couldn't get a good view of the birdiest part of the lake. The journey from Scaling down to the coast was beautiful - Skylarks singing everywhere, Curlews and Lapwings displaying at me as I cycled past their breeding territories, and a Barn Owl flying along in front of me (I think this is already my best year ever for Barn Owl sightings). In Whitby I realised that actually there hadn't really been any tourists worth talking about in Saltburn the day before - at least not compared to the crowds that had come to see the site of St Hilda's monastery, the place where Captain Cook learned to sail and (last but not least) the fish and chip capital of England (at least according to some people). Just south of the ruins of Whitby Abbey there are arable fields interspersed with caravan sites and it was on the edge of one of these, in the middle of a field, that a group of birders with telescopes and cameras were standing around looking as if they had just been watching something but weren't anymore - Uh oh! Thankfully what they had been watching had only flown into the next field and was quickly relocated sitting at the top of the hedge. 

It was the Lesser Grey Shrike - a bird which doesn't normally come any closer to Britain than southern France and Eastern Europe but which had somehow managed to overshoot by several hundred miles. Shrikes are passerines, aka 'songbirds' (and they do sing), but the old name for them - the Butcher-birds - gives you some hint about their nature. They were called Butcher-birds because they are little hook-billed predators that sometimes impale the corpses of their prey on thorns or barbed wire for retrieval later. In the case of  the Lesser Grey the prey is mostly beetles, grasshoppers and other insects but the larger members of the Shrike family will eat small birds, reptiles and rodents.

Despite the blurriness of these two photos (there was quite a heat haze
even at 9am) you can see all the key features which tell us that this is a
Lesser Grey Shrike -  grey back, black 'pirate-mask' going up onto the
forehead, black wings with a large white patch, and pinkish underparts
(although you might need the eye of imagination to see this last feature -
I definitely saw it when I looked through another birder's really good scope) 

The Bee-eaters, unfortunately had flown off about four hours before I got there and didn't return until late that evening. They are still there now apparently but the journey to Whitby and back was really tough and it'll be a while before I'm ready to do it again, so I'll just have to hope that they move up the coast a bit.

Today I decided to take things a bit easier, so I stayed in bed late, got up at a leisurely pace and then cycled over to Saltholme for the second time in a week - after the torturous rides of the last few weeks Saltholme seems really easy now and I can get there in 45 minutes from my house (it took me 4 and half hours to get to Whitby and nearly six hours to get back). I mooched around Saltholme and its environs for a couple of hours, looking for anything different but with no joy so I headed home. Thankfully I decided to break the journey at 'Go Outdoors' in Portrack (I needed a new waterproof jacket and they have a sale on) and then checked the local bird-club's Twitter feed before setting off again - to learn that a Woodchat Shrike was at Saltholme RSPB reserve - in a spot I had been in earlier in the day (a lesson, perhaps, to check every bush carefully, or maybe it had arrived after I'd been there). 

So it was back on the bike and back the way I had come for my second shrike species in 2 days and my 149th bird on my NMT list. The bird was right next to a cycle track, with  quite a crowd of people watching it so I got onto it straight away, and was able to snap some reasonable pictures. I knew a few people there, including some of the wardens from the reserve and some of the birders I met in Whitby yesterday so there was a bit of a party atmosphere.

It wasn't until I was on the way home that I realised that I had fallen into the trap of focussing on chatting  to other birders, getting pictures, sending messages to friends to tell them what I had seen and what my NMT list was on now (149), worrying about the journey home and what I was going to cook for dinner - anything in fact except the bird itself. 

I have birded with some really outstanding birders over the years and one thing that they have in common is that when they are watching a bird they are giving it their full attention and really studying it - even if it is something they have seen hundreds of times. They are looking at every detail of the bird, thinking about where it has come from, what subspecies or population it might be from, what sex and age it is, what it is feeding on, etc. etc.  but I had done none of that.

Woodchat Shrike is a bird that I know pretty well from other countries I have lived in or visited, and I think this made me a bit blasé about this one. I have now studied the photos that I, and others took of today's bird and I am pretty sure that it is an adult female of the nominate subspecies (Lanius senator senator) - judging by the shape and shade of the red patch on the head, and the amount of white above the bill (see the 2 pictures below, which also show the little hooked bill) - but I didn't even think about any of that until I had left the bird behind and was well on my way down the track. I think I did something similar with the Lesser Grey yesterday, although perhaps I had more excuse then with the thought of the gargantuan journey home to distract me.

I sometimes get annoyed with birders who look down on those of us who keep lists of the birds we've seen, and who say that listers love their lists more than their birds. I have always argued that it's possible to love keeping lists and still really love and value birds - now I'm starting to worry that I have been putting my list, (and my determination to see as many species as I can in a year without using motorised transport to do so) ahead of the enjoyment and appreciation of the birds themselves. I'm still going to carry on with the NMT list but I am now determined to really give my attention to the birds and not just the list and the journey.