The butcher bird and the starling spectacular

Great grey shrike at Hopwood

Great grey shrike at Hopwood

Some places just don’t seem likely birding hotspots… such as junction 2 of the M42! Yet just north of there, in a plantation just west of Hopwood, a butcher-bird has taken residence – aka a great grey shrike.

Shrikes hunt large insects and small animals; and if they catch too much, they store their prey by impaling them on the spikes of thorn bushes. Hence their colloquial name of butcher birds.

Despite this antisocial behaviour, they’re photogenic birds, and guaranteed to draw birders from some distance around. While I was watching, the shrike remained fairly distant, but it did come close enough to be within range of a decent photograph.

The starlings at Grimley have continued to put on some spectacular displays. It’s quite hard to decide which end of the pools to watch them from. Standing by the barn at the south end, I was underneath the murmuration several times as they passed over, so that it was a full immersion experience into Starling World.

Watching the starlings passing overhead was phenomenal

Watching the starlings passing overhead was phenomenal. Anyone want to count them?!

However, from the northern end, they are more distant but more visually stunning – especially when the starling cloud divided and merged, divided and re-merged.

Starlings over Grimley Camp Lane Pools

Starlings over Grimley Camp Lane Pools

Starlings over Grimley Camp Lane Pools

Starlings over Grimley Camp Lane Pools

Starlings over Grimley Camp Lane Pools

Starlings over Grimley Camp Lane Pools (Hallow Church is at lower right)

A few days ago, just before the display got going properly, I did catch sight of one of the reasons why the starlings behave in this way: a sparrowhawk cruising over the area. This particular group of starlings seemed to pass above.

It's his fault: notice the sparrowhawk lower right.

It’s his fault: notice the sparrowhawk lower right.

A cloud of starlings is a potential source of dinner for a hawk, so the murmuration is designed to confuse predators as to exactly where they are settling for the night.

Starlings at Grimley

Last night I received the kind of message that would galvanise anyone with an interest in wildlife. Helen Pargeter wrote:

If you would like to see a Starling Murmuration on land we rent at Grimley, do get back to me. You would need to be here around 4.30 tomorrow and I will drive us there. Trevor and I watched them for at least half an hour tonight…tens of thousands of starlings. Amazing sight.

It was on Sunday when the starlings first gathered for their evening roost there –  apparently the first time this has happened there in living memory. So this evening I found myself at Camp Lane pools with Helen, her sister Sheila, and Sheila’s grandson Max, watching the starlings arrive, swoop, rise, fall, spread and contract: it was almost like watching smoke billowing.

Starling murmuration at Camp Lane Pools, Grimley

Starling murmuration at Camp Lane Pools, Grimley

Starling murmuration at Camp Lane Pools, Grimley

Starling murmuration at Camp Lane Pools, Grimley

Starling murmuration at Camp Lane Pools, Grimley (from the north end on Friday)

Starling murmuration at Camp Lane Pools, Grimley (from the north end on Friday)

Starling murmuration at Camp Lane Pools, Grimley

Starling murmuration at Camp Lane Pools, Grimley – with Trevor & Helen’s sheep!

Exactly why starlings murmurate is unclear, but it is probably to avoid predators. In winter, starlings tend to congregate in large flocks as they roost: there’s greater safety in numbers. Nevertheless, such large flocks attract watching sparrrowhawks, so the fast-flying, ever-changing shape of the murmuration is believed to confuse predators as to exactly where they are about to roost. Indeed, when they dropped into the reeds to roost this evening, it was sudden and without warning.

I will need to experiment a bit to improve the photography, but these few should give a reasonable for the event!

Sunrise in Wichenford

Meanwhile – on the theme of natural wonders – here’s a sunrise pic from the back garden a few days ago.

Sunrise in Wichenford

Sunrise in Wichenford

Birding habits – new and old

View of the Camp Lane Pools, Grimley

Great White Egret at Grimley

About four miles from where I live is an important wetland site which is attracting some rather impressive birds. This is the Camp Lane Pools at Grimley, and even while I’ve been going there’s been a Great White Egret, which stayed for a few weeks. Being so close I’ve begun to drop in there on a regular basis, adopting it as my local patch.

Wetland habitats are unusual in the Midlands, and within the county this one is second only to Upton Warren. In the last year or so highlights have included grey plover, curlew sandpiper, little stint and a barred warbler. An impressive number of grebes have bred there, both great crested and little (which would be my nomination for Britain’s most under-rated bird).

There are several other pools between here and Holt which also attract notable birds, and with the ongoing gravel extraction by Tarmac nearby there is likely to be the development of more. With some strategic management it could become a very important area for bird life, but it does need some visionary thinking: at present the Camp Lane Pools site is up for sale, and local birders are understandably anxious about what may happen in the near future.

Three heron species at Grimley: great white egret, grey heron and little egret

Green sandpiper on the Rushy at Slimbridge

On Monday (a day off) I went down to Slimbridge, which is attracting a large number of birds at the moment. As it happened many of the headline birds were only viewable from the distance, but I had a wonderfully close view of a green sandpiper on the Rushy Pen. It was wading up and down a narrow channel just in front of the hide: being able to see it clearly even without binoculars helped me to appreciate how tiny it is.

I ended the day by going down to the Holden Tower, which seemed like a futile visit as the birds were so distant. However, a couple of others who were in the hide suddenly started taking an excessive interest in one of the window frames. They beckoned me over – and there was a brown long-eared bat, trying to roost in the corner. It didn’t seem to appreciate the attention as it tried to bury itself further into the corner, but as the wood was unyielding it adopted a more comfortable position.

Brown long-eared bat at Slimbridge