Ruth Miller

On the Black Sea coast of Bul­garia, Ruth Miller and friends en­coun­tered a great num­ber of mi­grat­ing shrikes…

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents -

The joy of see­ing mi­grat­ing shrikes in Bul­garia

In early au­tumn, some friends and I vis­ited the Black Sea coast in Bul­garia. This was a new area for us and we were keen to see what it of­fered as a bird­watch­ing des­ti­na­tion. knew we were too early for the peak mi­gra­tion sea­son to have kicked off here, but bird­watch­ers are noth­ing if not op­ti­mists, so with high hopes we drove out to the Kali­akra Penin­sula, a key lo­ca­tion for watch­ing au­tumn mi­gra­tion. We weren’t dis­ap­pointed. We jumped out of the car and started walk­ing across the dry head­land. The ground un­der­foot was hard and cracked, short parched grasses scratched at our legs and the clumps of bushes were uni­formly cov­ered in sharp thorns all try­ing to hook onto us. Good job we were dressed in sen­si­ble bird­ing clothes, not shorts and san­dals, like all the other vis­i­tors to the area. But we were sur­rounded by birds. It seemed that every sin­gle bush had a bird sit­ting on top of it. How ex­cit­ing, but where to look first? Start with the near­est is of­ten a good rule, so I lifted my binoc­u­lars and checked the bird sit­ting bolt up­right on top of the thorn bush just in front of me. It seemed to be fear­lessly check­ing me out in ex­change. It was medium-sized, and gen­er­ally brown all over its back and head. Its throat and belly were much paler, but the most strik­ing fea­ture of its plumage was the won­der­ful pat­tern of scal­lop­ing that cov­ered its back, breast and flanks.

Marvel­lous mi­grant

Be­hind its eye was a dark smudge and it sported a sturdy bill with a wicked-look­ing hook on the end – this was a tool that meant busi­ness. There was only one bird that met this de­scrip­tion: a Red-backed Shrike, and the del­i­cate ver­mic­u­la­tion on its plumage showed it was a ju­ve­nile. How won­der­ful, a mi­grant bird and one mak­ing its first jour­ney to Africa for the win­ter. It was in good com­pany. Check­ing the other bushes, most seemed to sport a ju­ve­nile Red-backed Shrike and there was plenty of shrill noise among these birds as they fid­geted and chased each other around. This squawk is prob­a­bly at the root of its com­mon name com­ing from the Old English word ‘scric’ mean­ing shriek. Every so of­ten, a bird would swoop down from its high view­point and snatch a large cricket in the grasses be­fore re­turn­ing to its perch. Some­times, it would eat its prey straight away, but of­ten it would im­pale its meal on a thorn to re­turn to it later. Shrikes, which be­long to the genus La­nius mean­ing ‘butcher’ in Latin, are of­ten known as ‘butcher birds’ be­cause of this spe­cial­ist feed­ing habit, and if you are a male with a sig­nif­i­cant larder of im­paled pro­vi­sions in the breed­ing sea­son, the more im­pres­sive you are as a prospec­tive mate.

Van­guard of birds

The ma­jor­ity of birds were brown and barred, so mostly young birds or fe­male­types, but there were a few glo­ri­ously dis­tinc­tive adult males in the mix too. These hand­some chaps had a rich red­brown back, a dove-grey head and a sub­tle pink wash to the breast, with a full black ban­dit mask through the eye giv­ing them a very rak­ish ap­pear­ance. Clearly shrikes are among the van­guard of birds that mi­grate through Bul­garia in au­tumn, as nearly every bush we looked at held a shrike and some­times there sim­ply weren’t enough bushes to go around as birds chased each other to claim a suit­able perch. It was stag­ger­ing to see so many of these strik­ing birds in one place and all so in­tent on feed­ing on those huge in­sects that they weren’t both­ered by us be­ing there. It may have been a shrike mono­cul­ture, but what an ex­pe­ri­ence! Check­ing through these ac­tive birds we re­alised that they weren’t all Red-backed Shrikes though – there were a few Lesser Grey Shrikes too. These monochrome birds were pale grey on the back, black-and-white wings and tail, and clean white un­der­neath, though they shared with their red-backed cousins the same hooked bill and a black ban­dit mask. The bar­ring on the back and the lack of black on the fore­head on most of these birds showed that they were ju­ve­nile Lesser Grey Shrikes, though Alan did pick out at least one adult among them. With this ju­ve­nile plumage, these Lesser Grey Shrikes re­minded me of the sim­i­lar-look­ing Great Grey Shrikes I have seen at home in North Wales. Most years we are lucky enough to have a cou­ple of birds over­win­ter­ing in an area of up­land for­est where they like re­cently clear-felled ar­eas. They make a cir­cuit cov­er­ing a huge area, so catch­ing up with one bird in a vast land­scape can be tricky. It usu­ally in­volves puff­ing up a steep hill to a view­point, of­ten when the weather’s freez­ing and there’s snow on the ground, and then wait­ing pa­tiently for the bird to show up.

Pa­tience pays off

You scan thou­sands of conifers look­ing for a pale blob and for a long time noth­ing shows. It can be bleak and foot-stamp­ingly cold on this ex­posed spot, but sud­denly a Great Grey Shrike ap­pears from nowhere and ex­cite­ment lev­els soar. It drops to the ground to catch some­thing and flies back up to the tree to im­pale its prey. On one oc­ca­sion we found an un­for­tu­nate Blue Tit skew­ered on a spike, but be­ing a butcher bird is an ef­fec­tive way for shrikes to sur­vive in a hard win­ter. So, with the hot Bul­gar­ian sun beat­ing down on my back, I soaked up the views of these Red-backed and Lesser Grey Shrikes here, and wished them well on their jour­ney south. And buried the thoughts of cold feet and Great Grey Shrikes; that’s an ad­ven­ture for an­other place and time. Ruth Miller is one half of The Big­gest Twitch team, and along with part­ner Alan Davies, set the then world record for most bird species seen in a year – 4,341, in 2008, an ex­pe­ri­ence they wrote about in their book, The Big­gest Twitch. In­deed, Ruth is still the fe­male world record-holder! As well as her work as a tour leader, she is the au­thor of the Birds, Boots and But­ties books, on walk­ing, bird­ing and tea-drink­ing in North Wales, and pre­vi­ously worked as the RSPB’S head of trad­ing. She lives in North Wales. bird­watch­ingtrips.co.uk

Adult male Red-backed Shrike

Ruth’s group found one adult Lesser Grey Shrike Kali­akra Penin­sula, Bul­garia – Ruth’s bird­ing hotspot

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