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I had the itch to twitch when rare shrikes and flycatchers stopped by



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Nature Notes: Cambridge-based nature writer Martin Walters couldn’t resist the urge to join a flock of birdwatchers on a trip to Norfolk.

Juvenile, Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio) perched on bramble in Norfolk. Picture: Simon Stirrup (42738151)
Juvenile, Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio) perched on bramble in Norfolk. Picture: Simon Stirrup (42738151)

As an all-round nature lover who takes an interest in all of our varied wildlife, I get tremendous pleasure from watching the behaviour of even the commonest birds, and I have always been slightly irritated by birdwatchers who seem only intent on logging rarities!

Indeed, I have tended to be scornful of these ‘twitchers’ who often travel far, aided now by instant electronic communication to pinpoint the exact locations of rare birds.

But oh, the shame, the shame of it! On the Norfolk coast recently I stumbled on a cluster of such enthusiasts, all training their binoculars, telescopes and long-lensed cameras at a hedgerow, and although my wife headed rapidly to the beach to catch the high tide for a swim (brrr!), I was tempted, and stopped to enquire after their quarry. The bird in question was a red-backed shrike. Not a huge rarity, but scarce enough to draw a crowd.

Red-breasted flycatcher. Picture: Jonathan Heath (42738153)
Red-breasted flycatcher. Picture: Jonathan Heath (42738153)

Nearby, another group of twitchers were stalking an even rarer bird, the diminutive red-breasted flycatcher, a species I had only seen at its breeding site in a Hungarian forest. So, to my (by now diminishing) shame I became another twitcher, at least for a couple of days! I was rewarded with remarkably close views of the flycatcher which proved to be conveniently approachable, and I was struck by how much the mixed scrub and damp woodland resembled its native habitat in that Hungarian forest years ago. This dainty bird breeds from central Europe into Asia and is a scarce visitor to Britain. Easterly winds had been blowing for days and had clearly driven some migrants off their usual route.

Brown shrike. Picture: Jonathan Heath (42738149)
Brown shrike. Picture: Jonathan Heath (42738149)

Then someone asked me if I had seen the brown shrike, an even rarer bird, and only the second record for Norfolk. I hadn’t, so the next day we trudged along the coast in splendid autumn sunshine, but not very hopeful of finding the exotic bird. But on rounding a bend in the track we spotted a huddle of twitchers all gazing into a bush-fringed hollow, worshipping and photographing the splendid shrike. By now I knew that if you see such a group you just join it and stand a good chance of seeing something worthwhile. Rather like the stories from Soviet Russia – if you saw a queue outside a shop you just joined it as there would be bound to be something worth buying.

Twitchers in Norfolk. Picture: Martin Walters (42738187)
Twitchers in Norfolk. Picture: Martin Walters (42738187)

Brown shrikes breed in north-east Asia and winter mainly to south-east Asia, so this fine bird was obviously far from its usual haunts, yet seemingly at home and unperturbed, and, like the flycatcher, easily approached. Unspoken birding etiquette however kept us all at a respectful distance. We watched as this ‘butcher-bird’ from the east pounced down to catch the odd beetle, and even at one point a fully grown lizard.

Back home I am enjoying the dawn and dusk commute of rooks and jackdaws, their autumn journey to a communal roost now well established. A while ago, they interrupted their normal straight flight and started circling and calling excitedly.

Rook in flight in Mepal, Cambridgeshire. Picture: Simon Stirrup (42738155)
Rook in flight in Mepal, Cambridgeshire. Picture: Simon Stirrup (42738155)

Squadrons passed over: a joyful spectacle, accompanied by their conversations — as I am sure that is what they are — as they chatted, about what? To coin one of my late father’s favourite phrases: we may never know! Information exchange is likely. When they started circling that day, it coincided with a sudden change in both wind direction and temperature and it seemed they were discussing the meteorological shift and were carefully checking on their direction of travel. Such sights help to ease the worries of our troubled time. I counted around 20 birds in one flock of rooks – was this corvid 19, I wondered?

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