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.

Trials of a birdwatcher

One of the perils of being a twticherbirdwatcher is going somewhere, seeing nothing of interest, and then finding that you’ve missed a rarity. This happened to me last week.

Crossbill with its favourite larch cone. Photo: Jaybee

Last Saturday I decided to go to Hamsterley Forest, a largely confierous plantation west of Bishop Auckland. My main aim was to see crossbills – see Jaybee’s photo on the right. I went on an eight mile trek – but it was one of those days when I heard hardly a single chirp in the whole forest. Fortunately, towards the end of the walk I became aware of some activity in a nearby tree, looked up and saw a little flock of ten crossbills, all feeding on larch cones – and not doing a very good job because the cones dropped almost as soon as the birds touched them!

Early the following week I looked on the sightings page of the Durham Bird Club website and saw the following: “Great grey shrike still in Hamsterley Forest at Neighbour Moor” (my emphasis). I looked up Neighbour Moor… and realised I’d passed straight through, without seeing it. I was so chagrined. Consequently, I had only one thought yesterday morning – “I have to see the shrike!”.

While on my way back up through the forest, I happened to pass by a pond, and for some reason my curiosity was piqued. As I got to the edge I was aware of a low reverberating sound, and then of a mass of something about halfway along one side. I wasn’t sure whether it was plant or animal – but when the nearer parts disappeared, I realised it wasn’t a plant. Then through binoculars it all became clear – a large mass of mating frogs! I tried to get closer, but half of them disappeared – but I did get a reasonable photo of the evidence.

Some of the frogs with their spawn: Hamsterley Forest (Click to enlarge)

Great grey shrike, Hamsterley Forest

Neighbour Moor was not far away – the relevant area has recently been cleared of most of the trees. I stood and stared, seeing nothing. Then I was aware of a brief flurry – and there was the shrike, sitting on the top of a pine tree at the edge of the clear-fell, surveying the scene.

Shrikes are fairly rare in this country – the great greys are the commonest, but they are still quite scarce winter visitors. Mainly insect eaters, they also take small birds and mammals – and if they’ve caught too much, they impale their victims on thorns for later consumption- hence their other name of ‘butcher-birds’.

The alternative problem for birdwatchers is declaring a rarity when in fact you’ve misidentified a common bird. I managed to prevent myself doing this last year, when I spotted an unusal-looking brown bird which looked like a bit like a wheatear but the colouring was all wrong. I saw several of them, which puzzled me even further because they weren’t in the bird-book. When I saw one of them being fed by a wheatear, I finally twigged: “Aha, that’ll be the juvenile!”.

Of Stockton and flying finches…

Stockton parish church

I’ve just started a term-time placement at Stockton Parish Church, with the vicar Alan Farish. I am absolutely delighted to be here because this is a church which is growing, from unpromising circumstances.

Alan had been the vicar at nearby Eaglescliffe, and had acquired a key role in finding leaders for other churches in the area. One of these was Stockton Parish Church – a large building in danger of closure unless something drastic happened. One day Alan was going into Stockton to get a watch battery or something similar, and as he passed the Parish Church he felt the Lord telling him that he was the one who should be the next vicar there. So he went back to Eaglescliffe, tendered his resignation immediately, and started at Stockton soon after.

Two years later the congregation has grown to around 100 on a Sunday, with an additional thriving midweek congregation as well. There’s an active Healing on the Streets team (which I was a part of in spring and early summer) – and a general desire to seek the Lord’s guidance in everything. It is an exciting place to be for a couple of terms.

On Saturday, I went on an unashamed tw*tch to Hartlepool Headland, to see a woodchat shrike – but what amazed me was what else was happening amongst the birds there. It’s the time of the autumn migration, as flocks of birds fly in from across the North Sea. As it had been stormy overnight, the birds were tending to flop onto the first bit of greenery they reached. Hence, the headland was host to flocks of chaffinches, siskins and redwings, and small numbers of others like bramblings, redpolls and blackcaps, all of which were newly arriving.

Goldcrest. Photo by Jaybee.

There were also goldcrests – not normally the easiest birds to see as they prefer the tops of conifers, but after their journey they weren’t being fussy. That they could have made the journey at all astonishes me: they are 6g in weight (less than a quarter of an ounce), but they managed to fly the 300 or so miles overnight through bad weather. For such a tiny bird that seems to be a staggering feat of endurance. Nevertheless, small flocks appeared all along the Durham coast on each of the last few days, having completed the same journey.

The woodchat shrike showed well, favouring a small patch of parkland opposite a chip shop. It’s been very obliging, hanging around for more than a fortnight.

Finally, a couple of recent photos of Durham during one atmospheric evening…

The Cathedral at sunset

Durham Cathedral, just after sunset…