Wednesday 21 August 2013

Woodchat Shrike at Harrington Airfield - 20th August 2013

One of the many good things about birding is to always expect the unexpected, and today something happened that was very unexpected indeed. I was busy at work during the day, and it seemed like any ordinary day as I made my way around Milton Keynes doing my deliveries. Then I popped into a customer and when I came back I checked my phone to be greeted with texts, missed calls, voicemails and tweets - a juvenile Woodchat Shrike had turned up at Harrington Airfield!! I hurried around my route while arranging to meet Jon and Kirsty for the after work twitch. I knew one hadn't been seen in the county for a long time but I wasn't quite sure how long it had been. After work I got to Jon's house as quickly as I could during the rush hour traffic and soon we were on the way to the airfield. We parked up and made our way to area the bird had been frequenting and soon found ourselves at the 1st bunker with a bizarre "marie celeste" atmosphere about the place. Scopes were littered around with no one seeming to be present, strange I thought! As I made my way around the concrete bunker I suddenly found out why as a group of birders were huddled up in a hole with lenses facing in the same direction. Mark Williams was amongst them and when he saw me approach he pointed in the direction the bird was in. I looked around but couldn't see it and when I looked back at Mark he was still pointing but a bit more dramatically this time. I suddenly realised he wasn't pointing passed the small bush right infront of him but he was pointing at the bush! The Woodchat Shrike was sat on top of a bush only about 10 feet away. This was a relief as I know from personal experience just how hard birding this site can be, birds seem to just "evaporate" here so to get it straight away was a bonus. We watched the Shrike for a while before it flew up and over our heads and landed in the top of a tree before zipping around the corner. Birders were now obviously finishing work as a steady stream of people could be seen heading through the trees and soon there was a fairly sizeable group. It took a while to refind but luckily someone saw it at the bottom of a small tree and then it came back up to the top again and carried on feeding putting on a real show. It even flew up and caught insect right above my head! I managed to get a few phonescoped pictures as it perched up probably wondering what we were all looking at.
Woodchat Shrike (phonescoped)
And then Jon very nicely allowed me to use his 500mm prime to get some pics. What a fantastic looking bird?!

Woodchat Shrike

Woodchat Shrike
After getting our fill of this little cracker we decided to head to the pub for a celebration pint and while we were having a glass of beer in the beer garden I sent out a few texts to find out just how long it had been since the last Northants Woodchat Shrike sighting. Mike Alibone and Bob Bullock both text back to say that only two had been reported previously, quite staggeringly one in 1883 and an older record from 1869. I nearly fell off my chair when I saw this! We had just seen the first Woodchat in 130 years! I knew that they must have been reported by Lord Lilford's book "Notes on the birds of Northamptonshire" which was published in 1895. I am lucky enough to own an original copy of this two volume set and it makes for very interesting reading, in fact I may one day include a post on this blog with extracts from it as it shows the many differences in bird populations and mans attitudes towards birds in the past. The entry for the Woodchat records both the previous sightings. The bird seen in 1869 was found near the village of Duddinton and the later one of 1883 was just outside Stamford (according to Lord Lilford it was just inside the Northants border) when a dead bird was picked up on the 9th of January. The bird was partly decomposed but it records it as a female bird with slightly soiled plumage, and showed signs of a bird that was "picked up in a long frost". Due to these reason the 1883 bird is in dispute but nevertheless it means the present bird is the first one recorded in 130 years!

Woodchat Shrike entry in Lord Lilford's "Notes on the Birds of Northamptonshire"p1895
 And the first one recorded as being seen alive for 144 years! Amazing statistics showing just how good a county bird this is. It had been feeding all day and the clear sky and large moon did make a few of us comment that it probably won't be there in the morning but we did of course keep our fingers crossed but unfortunately it didn't work and there were no sightings of the bird following day. It was one those evenings that I think a few of us will have fond memories of for quite a while, and to add a special note to the evening this was Jon and Kirsty's first ever Shrike sighting and what a sighting it was!


  1. Great images David, I'm led to understand that in the book you mention, Great Bustards used to be recorded in Northants, look forward to a post about the book.

  2. Thank you Douglas. I've just had a look at he does mention Great Bustards in the county but much before his time. There are two sightings both mentioned by John Morton in his "Natural History of Northamptonshire" which was published in 1712 (I have that too but unfortunately a copy and not an original), with one of the records as one "that was shot by Captain Saunders in Moulton Field". During the entry Lord Lilford relates his tales of hunting Great Bustards in Spain while he was out there and he also gives an insight into the attitudes towards birds back then as he mention laying in wait for the Great Bustards with a thrill of excitment as he may also get to shoot "such birds as a Little Bustard, an Eagle, a Harrier or a Roller"!!!

    Incidentally in the Lilford's next chapter he mentions that a Little Bustard was shot by a Rev.G.E.Maunsell in a turnip field near Rothwell on November 20th 1858.


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