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The Quest For The Butcherbird: Part 1

September 1, 2014

This blog is from my trip to Normandy in July 2014, during which I photographed a rare and formidable predator of the thistle meadows - the Red-Backed Shrike.

 

It might not be the Masai Mara or Ranthambore, but for me Normandy is the next best thing. I say this without having been to either of the above places but, for each lion and tiger that I may have missed out on, I have had the honour instead of observing so many incredible creatures in my own backyard: from sparrowhawks and badgers to glow-worms and great-crested newts. Normandy has been my life - my family home since I was 9, and my photographic haven since I was 15 - and whilst I speak with bias, there is no greater feeling for a nature photographer than getting to know intimately the rhythms of the wildlife on one's figurative, and sometimes literal, doorstep.

 

Enjoying wildlife means much more to me than taking photographs. Whilst this blog will probably reveal my obsessive and often mad determination, I would never sit in a hide for ten hours just to hear the click of the shutter. Nature doesn't deserve to be looked at through a lens all the time, so often I just sit back and soak in whatever beautiful sight lies before my eyes - hares boxing at dawn, buzzards courting at dusk, light falling on heather. 

 

But there is a science to this as well and so, when I look, I also learn. Much of my wildlife photography to date has focussed on aesthetics - light, colour, texture, atmosphere - but on this trip I'm determined to capture a little more of the animal behaviour. Take away the human notion of beauty and you are left with the necessity of survival. This is the story of all animals, and a story which has been lacking in my Normandy portfolio. It's there - maybe not in the larger-than-life struggles that the Masai Mara offers, but that's what makes these next nine days such an irrestistible challenge. 

 

July is the best time to see red-backed shrikes in Normandy, and this is what I'm coming to see. It may only be the size of a starling, but this bird hasn't gained its nickname "the Butcherbird" for nothing. It will eat any insect it finds, from bees to bush crickets, regardless of size or ferocity, and will even tackle mice and snakes. But most unusual is what it does with this prey afterwards: it stores its catches away in a "larder" - usually a thorny bush or barbed-wire fence. I hope to observe and document some of this behaviour from my tent hide, and also identify sites which I can revisit with a film camera in 2015. 

 

I'll also be photographing much of the other local wildlife, as this is the peak season for butterflies, moths and dragonflies, whilst elusive mammals will be much more active during the daylight hours. But whilst Normandy can often seem cosy and familiar, I honestly have no idea what animals I might see and what surprises I'm in for. I'll be sharing some of the wonders in these upcoming posts. 

 

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