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