The duston Red-backed shrike

I must say I have the greatest admiration for birders who, as well as visiting established nature reserves and popular birding sites, routinely demonstrate a pioneering spirit by going off the beaten track to discover and explore new, and different, localities with potential for attracting birds. This usually means ditching quantity in favour of taking a gamble on finding quality birds in areas not – or rarely – visited by others.

Doing just that, Nigel Muddiman struck gold on Monday, 3rd October by finding a Red-backed Shrike while visiting a site on the edge of Duston, not too far from his home.

The shrike, a juvenile/first-winter, was located in an open area, flanked by a raised grass bank, in which it occupied a narrow line of low trees and bushes, alongside an overgrown, reed-filled pond. Remaining faithful to this small area, it was on view to all comers throughout the afternoon, usually showing well at quite close range.

During the period of observation, it was constantly feeding – usually dropping down from any number of random perches into the fairly short grass before emerging with prey items, which consisted principally of unidentified beetles and grasshoppers. It was clearly in good health and was also seen to eject pellets.

Readily aged as a first calendar year bird and, more precisely, a first-winter, the close views revealing a distinctly barred crown against rufous ground colouring of head and upperparts, along with pronounced and extensively barred underparts.

With the last record in Northants in 2015, this was a great find – especially in view of the fact that it’s only the sixth record this century and only the fourteenth in the last 50 years!

Nationally, Red-backed Shrike’s UK status is red-listed and is now down to 1-3 breeding pairs, with 180-250 birds recorded annually on passage (BTO/RSPB).

Despite a thorough search of the area during the morning and again in the afternoon of the following day, the shrike was nowhere to be seen.

All images © Mike Alibone


A steppe in the wrong direction?

The Long Buckby Lanius and its capricious taxonomic history

On 3rd November 1997, Nick Roberts was driving between Long Buckby and West Haddon when he came across a shrike on a roadside fence post. The bird quickly dropped to the ground, where it remained for a short period. It was still there a few minutes later when Nick returned with Peter Spokes and together they watched it, subsequently identifying it as a Steppe Grey Shrike.

First-winter Steppe Grey Shrike, Long Buckby, November 1997 (Graham Soden). This bird spent a considerable amount of its time feeding on the ground, ‘hopping around’ like a wheatear. As a consequence, its bill, legs and underparts frequently became stained with soil.

Local birders were duly notified and many arrived the same day to see it. It remained in the vicinity the following day, by which time it had attracted a growing number of observers, many of whom had travelled from different parts of the UK.

The record was submitted to, and accepted by, the British Birds Rarities Committee as the 12th for Britain. There have been fourteen subsequent accepted British records.

First-winter Steppe Grey Shrike, Long Buckby, November 1997 (Graham Soden).

Back in the day, Steppe Grey Shrike was almost whatever you wanted it to be, depending on your choice of taxonomic authority – floating around between being races of Great Grey Shrike, the more recently split (from Great Grey Shrike) Southern Grey Shrike complex, and a full species in its own right. At the time of record acceptance in Northamptonshire it had already been lumped with Southern Grey Shrike (e.g. *Clements 2017) and so constituted a ‘first’ for the county.

However, it was generally recognised as a full species by several authorities (King 1997, Hernández et al. 2004, Panov 2011 – cited by the International Ornithological Congress (IOC)) and has remained as such until this year, being on the IOC World List, which is now followed by the UK in defining what is on (or off) the British list. Unfortunately, because there has never been a true consensus on the definitive taxonomy of this species, last month, the IOC decided to (re)lump Steppe Grey Shrike with Great Grey (see here) ‘pending’, as they say ‘full resolution of this complex.’

It would seem to make better sense to leave it in full species status until the evidence to lump it with Great Grey Shrike is available and undisputed – and in this respect, surely this is a step in the wrong direction.

The above move by the IOC will no doubt prove unpopular – not only with us in Northants but also across the UK as a species is effectively dropped from the British list.

*Clements, J. F., T. S. Schulenberg, M. J. Iliff, D. Roberson, T. A. Fredericks, B. L. Sullivan, and C. L. Wood. 2017. The eBird/Clements checklist of birds of the world: v2017, with updates to August 2017.
References cited above by the IOC
Hernández, MA, F Campos, F Gutiérrez-Corchero & A Amezcua. 2004.  Identification  of Lanius species and subspecies using tandem repeats in the mitochondrial DNA  control region. Ibis 146:227-230
King BF. 1997. Checklist of the Birds of Eurasia Ibis Publishing Company. Vista, CA.
Panov E. 2011. The true shrikes (Laniidae) of the world. Ecology, Behavior and Evolution. Pensoft Publ.

The Harrington Woodchat Shrike

When Wellingborough birder John Trimble paid a visit to Harrington Airfield this morning little did he expect to find a national rarity. Perched prominently on a dog rose, just past the first bunker, was a cracking juvenile Woodchat Shrike!

Juvenile Woodchat Shrike, Harrington Airfield, 20th August 2013 (Bob Bullock)
Juvenile Woodchat Shrike, Harrington Airfield, 20th August 2013 (Bob Bullock)

Juvenile Woodchat Shrike, Harrington Airfield, 20th August 2013 (Bob Bullock)
Juvenile Woodchat Shrike, Harrington Airfield, 20th August 2013 (Bob Bullock)

This is a long overdue rarity for Northants – overdue since the last one, that is. There have been two previous records of one in spring 1869 at Gore Piece near Duddington and a female said to have been picked up dead near Stamford on 9th January 1883, although the latter is in dispute.

Juvenile Woodchat Shrike, Harrington Airfield, 20th August 2013 (Mike Alibone)

This is a textbook juvenile. Colder plumage tones than juvenile Red-backed with diagnostic pale-centred scapulars, ghosting those of an adult, and pale base to primaries forming an obvious whitish patch on the closed wing – visible from a great distance.

The bird was very active throughout the afternoon, during which it was much admir’d by a handful of local observers as it fed on a diet of wasps and bees, which it caught on the ground, returning to one of a number of favoured perches to consume its prey.

Nice one, John!

Red-backed Shrike at Thrapston GP

A Red-backed Shrike was showing well in bushes by the river, opposite the hide on stilts at Thrapston GP’s Tichmarsh reserve late this afternoon. Alan Bull captured images of this splendid male, which is the first in the County since the last accepted record of a male at Hartwell on 24th May 2004. This species last bred in Northamptonshire in the 1960s.

Red-backed Shrike, Thrapston GP, 11th July 2011 (Alan Bull)