Friends will confirm I have been moaning for some time now about my inability to find anything other than white-winged gulls. It was perhaps an unreasonable gripe given that gull roosting was the only birding I had time for all winter. Anyway, my luck eventually changed. It began gently enough with a M and F/Imm. Common Scoter (the latter perhaps more likely to have been a F as the Imm. M present on 06/01 was already diagnosable, showing yellow on the bill) and two Arctic Terns brought down by rain at Draycote Water on the evening of 15/04. The terns were still present the next day when there was a small scatter of records across the West Midlands along with another new scoter.
I was out early on 17/04 to begin the breeding bird survey season on my six HLS study farms. It had been a clear night with a frost and it was so cold I decided to delay my start as air temperature has a significant influence on song activity. I went looking for Ring Ouzels. I have found a couple in Northamptonshire but the only ones I ever found in Warwickshire were a bit of a cheat in that I went to Napton to twitch two and discovered there were actually four present. Checking arable fields along the Flecknoe Road I noticed three grey geese flying very low N/NE towards the road from the direction of Napton. I don’t know why I even bothered to look at them given the time of year and suspect it was because there was nothing else to distract me. I was surprised to find they were not Greylags. They had dark heads and necks, similar in appearance to Pink-footed Goose but appeared to be showing no pale forewing. As they flew towards the road I checked the head, neck and wings again, still the heads and necks appeared dark brown and there was no pale forewing visible. The flock crossed the road in perfect light some 500 metres from me and now I was sure there was no pale forewing, the upper wing appearing remarkably uniform and the underwing dark. In addition I noticed that the backs were dark and compared to Pink-footed Goose the dark neck faded rather gradually in to the paler breast. The underparts were quite pale and fairly uniform in appearance but for a darker area towards the rear flanks. I also noted that the dark band across the tail was very broad and the tail had just a narrow white border. Structurally the birds appeared larger and heavier than Pink-footed Goose though obviously there were none present for comparison. The bills simply appeared dark and I heard no calls. Before they got too far away from me I had time to check the features I had registered a couple of times more. On reaching Draycote Water the group turned NE and I last saw them over Farborough Bank. I had not committed the flight identification features of Bean Goose to memory but returning to the car and checking the old Collins Guide I keep in the glove box I discovered that I had seen most of them, though I failed to note a distinct white border to the greater coverts. I was reticent to ascribe them to sub-species on the basis of a flight view but they certainly did not appear as obviously long-necked as Taiga Bean Goose does in my, admittedly somewhat limited, experience. As it was around 06.30 and Draycote would not open for an hour I drove to Thurlaston and walked down to Toft Bay. There were only Canadas in the bay, or anywhere else on the reservoir and a quick check of the field by the sewage works, favoured by geese, also drew a blank. Finally I got to work and surveying the Pleasance in Kenilworth found a Greenland Wheatear. It was not a dark individual, which is typical of the earlier birds passing through the UK that are said to be of Icelandic origin. Interestingly Martin Elliott saw several in Cornwall the day before.
The next real local rarity was another tardy ‘northerner’. Zigzagging a winter wheat field at Upper Brailles on 18/04 I looked up to see a bird on telegraph wires. It was face on and whilst I had no idea what it was, I wasn’t expecting anything special. Lifting my bins I was pretty shocked to find myself looking at a Great Grey Shrike.
Great Grey Shrike, Upper Brailles.
Great Grey Shrike, Upper Brailles.
It was 07.30 so I called Matt Willmott, the land management adviser who handles the farm and continued surveying. Matt and I met at around 10.00 and he called the farmer. The chap was quite happy for people to see it but didn’t want them parking in his yard, where he also lives. I managed to find a gateway along a public road from which the bird could be viewed when up on the wires and called a few people. Gus Ariss and Steve Valentine duly arrived and before we had got round to working out how to acquire a grid reference for a message the bird flew to the crown of a large tree near the road. After a short pause it flew on, crossing the road to the north where it was last seen in the vicinity of Nineveh Farm at around 12.30. During its time at Brailles the shrike was feeding on large invertebrates along an unharvested headland, a HLS option which provides a source of food for gramnivores, particularly Yellowhammer, in winter. Since surveys began in 2010 we have been finding a variety of non-target species, including numerous migrants, using HLS options and I have discussed the subject here http://www.rainsbrooknaturalhistory.com/the-benefits-of-hls-to-migrant-and-wintering-birds/ and here http://www.rainsbrooknaturalhistory.com/a-purple-patch-on-the-patch/ . When I eventually got round to finishing the survey I discovered a small arrival had occurred in the pasture fields on the adjacent hill top, mostly comprised of warblers but including two super smart male Common Redstarts.
Though the Great Grey Shrike was the first I have seen in the UK in spring it was the fourth I have found in Warwickshire and I almost got an even bigger boot out of what happened the next day. As I walked through a bird mix on a neighbouring farm at Honington (something I only had to do to get close enough to hear birds in the bordering hedgerow) I heard a distinctive ‘tchuk’ call. I had finally found my Ring Ouzel, but the mix was a two year one and the Kale waist high so there was a nervous pause before the bird broke in to view. It flew right past me and nosedived in to the hedge at the top of the slope, disappearing in seconds. I returned once more that day, for a photo to validate the record and again I only got to see it when it flushed.
Ring Ouzel, Honington.
Though the mix had a footpath running along its edge there seemed no point putting the details out when the bird could not be seen and I suspect the farmer would have been unhappy if he had found people wandering around in his bird mixes. I checked it again the following day when it was still present and still not viewable without walking in to the mix. These two year mixes are frequently used by Song Thrush and Dunnock but I have to say I had never considered seeing a Ring Ouzel in such tall vegetation. I shall spend less time bashing sheep paddocks and gorse covered hills for them in future and concentrate more effort on damp field margins.
It was back to normal on 20/04, a singing Grasshopper Warbler near Long Compton the best I could manage, but I shall never forget those preceding three days.
POST SCRIPT Whilst birding at Napton Res. with Dan Watson on 24/04 I received a call to tell me Martin Elliott, who was surveying the Upton Estate for Rainsbrook Ecology, had just found a Great Grey Shrike. Dan and I sped over there and spent an enjoyable hour watching the bird in some horse paddocks just outside Edgehill. It seems unlikely that it was not the same individual which was at Brailles the previous week, the two localities being just a few miles apart. Again the bird had settled on land under a HLS agreement.