Saturday 14 October 2017

Abiding memory of confiding

I nearly considered going on a twitch this weekend. Happily Mrs L was already out so instead I took my daughters swimming whilst all my mates filled their boots with Rock Thrush, so my Saturday is mine again. However it did get me thinking about how I did actually enjoy seeing rare birds a few years ago. I am not sure why this isn’t the case anymore, perhaps it is just because any rarity these days is likely to be a complete scrum. Did twitching become more popular all of a sudden? Or is it that digital photography’s mass appeal has made it to birds? I am not sure, but a twitch these days holds little appeal - as the recent pathetic scenes at a Norfolk PG Tips only served to confirm. I didn’t go and I am glad that I didn’t.

A few years ago however I did go, and I have some fabulous memories that are dominated by the bird and not by out-of-control crowds. The Steppe Grey Shrike in Lincolnshire comes somewhere near to the top of my list. It was a long day – nearly nine years ago now - starting out by driving to Yorkshire. It sounds crazy but looking back it was kind of normal. Anyhow, we had  successfully seen a Two-barred Crossbill on a farm somewhere and having dipped a Pied Wheatear at a Caravan Park near Bempton we were headed back home via what we had heard was another decent bird, a Steppe Grey Shrike. This is a very similar to a Great Grey Shrike (excubitor), but actually falls under the Southern Grey Shrike (meridionalis) group – this one is known as pallidirostis and is a paler version that breeds in Central Asia, a seriously long way away. Back then I don’t think I knew any of this, all I knew was that it was a rare bird, a Shrike, and that I liked both of those things.

We drove through the endless flat landscape of Lincolnshire fields until we found the spot. A few cars were parked up, and a few hundred yard away we could see a small line of birders along the edge of a field. Optics unpacked, I slung my scope and tripod over my shoulder for I was a proper birder back then, and we made our way out to join them. As we came along the muddy margin the bird flew directly towards us, past us, and landed on somebody’s head. Gah!!

It was astonishing, it really was. For the best part of an hour this crazy little bird used people, scopes, tripods, camera bags, you name it, as perches from which to hunt. It had clearly never seen people before and was completely unafraid. I had never seen anything like it, and to this day it probably remains the least wary bird I have ever seen anywhere. I was spellbound and captivated – moments like this are so very very rare, and I knew then I would never forget it. And that holds true today – it is still one of my most fondly remembered birding moments. I’ve seen rarer birds, I’ve seen many Shrikes, but this one is still top of the heap. Being a massive fan of social media, I tweeted out a random photo of it last week and clearly it struck a chord as people from far and wide responded that they too remember the event incredibly clearly.

I've included a couple of photos from the day. Back then I wasn’t really very skilled and did not understand that pointing a camera directly at the sun wouldn’t likely result in a decent picture. Julian Bhalerao however did a far better job, and sent me this photo after the event of the bird perched on my scope with a very youthful looking me behind it.