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The Quest For The Butcherbird: Part 2

September 2, 2014

The first three days from my trip to Normandy to photograph the red-backed shrike and other critters. What might I find? 

 

Day 1: Saturday 12th July 

 

I have now arrived in Normandy and the first thing I notice are the spotted flycatchers. There are absolutely tonnes of them! A rough count just along the short driveway up to the house reveals 6 adults and 4 fledglings - a clear sign of breeding success, and a fantastic augury for the week ahead. The flycatcher is an unassuming bird with a speckled plumage, but its interest lies in its hunting technique: using a favourite branch to look out from, it flies out to catch a passing insect and returns, in the same swift circular path, to its perch. 

 

Another excellent find is a Ringlet butterfly in the nettle hedgerow. This is a new garden tick which brings the garden list up to a very impressive 29 butterfly species. To put this into context, the UK has 59 species and even the richest butterfly reserves rarely number above 20 species, so I can't help but feel some pride from the diversity of my own mini nature reserve. 

 

For the meantime, I'm not taking any photos. I'm just observing and getting a feel for the place. Our land has changed a lot since Easter - the grass is greener and there is birdsong cascading everywhere, both of adult birds and fledglings learning to sing. There is new life in bloom as well as the husks of old life: an exuvium, or shedded exoskeleton, of a dragonfly, and a trickle of newts in the pond compared to the hundreds I found back in April. 

 

I go cycling at 6:30pm around one of the local tracks, Le Haras D'Elbe. I have seen much wildlife here throughout the season, such as hoopoes and weasels, and think this would be a good place to start. Incredibly, within 5 minutes, I find a male red-backed shrike perched out in the open. This is a superb find as, although I have infrequently seen a male shrike in my garden over the last few summers, I have never observed red-backed shrike in this area before. The only colony I know of is about 20 minutes further down the road, on a steep hillside (we call it Shrike Shicane) leading to the local village of Livarot, so finding one here is a small miracle. 

I carry on a little further, alerted by the cries of our local buzzards. Every year a pair has bred on the edge of the forest by the Haras D'Elbe farm, and this year they have successfully bred with one chick. He looks very mature, having lost his downy feathers, but still relies on his mum for scraps of food. Suddenly I am drawn to a flash of red to the left - I can't believe it: it is a second red-backed shrike! I have no doubt that this is a different bird, and a moment later it is joined by a female. A splendid pair, they perch together on a gorse bush, scanning the field. They have lots of potential prey before them - it is late evening, so moths are more active, and sleepy butterflies (lots of Essex and Small Skippers here) make easy targets. There is such a strong supply of food here, I'd be amazed if they didn't have a healthy brood of chicks. 

 

I cycle back home, elated, amazed, incredulous. An unbelievable start, as I have triple the sites I expected, and I haven't even checked on Shrike Shicane yet. 

 

Day 2: Sunday 13th July 

 

Today I check out Shrike Shicane. This is a pretty reliable site, as my family has seen shrikes here for the past 7 summers. I also know their favourite perches - which telegraph wires they like to use, how high up in the dead oak tree they sit - so I'm quite confident that if I can get good views anywhere, this is the place. The one problem with the site is that, being on a hill leading to the main road to Livarot, there is a windy road running down through the shrikes' territory with a fair amount of blind traffic. Not a problem for them - on the contrary, roadkill makes an easy fast-food meal (meal on wheels?) - but for me it's not so ideal.

 

Things look good for the shrikes this year, with the wild meadows abuzz with insects. When we - my parents and I - drive down early afternoon, we are greeted by a familiar sight: a male shrike perched on his favourite wire. It look good as we see a female one wire over and, what I want to see, a fledgling. However, it doesn't stop there. Another one, and another, and another. Four fledglings! That makes a record six for Shrike Shicane, and nine for the past 24 hours. To give some context, this is about 1/20th of Normandy's population, and the number of vagrant birds that pass through the UK each year.

eror Dragonfly and some Beautiful Demoiselles, a gorgeous iridescent satin blue. A sizeable Spotted Longhorn Beetle rutpela masculata also makes a striking find, and all in all I find three species never recorded before in the area, in addition to a couple of Ringlet butterflies. I'm hoping I might find some true forest specialists, such as the White Admiral or Purple Hairstreak, rare canopy dwellers with shining velvet wings. Speaking of insects, I return to the second field by the woods at 6:30pm, (consistent with yesterday, and, in addition to seeing the female shrike by herself, there is a plethora of butterflies and dragonflies in the bordering nettle bushes. Up in the canopy I glimpse a huge Emp

 

Back at the cottage in the evening, there is much activity - my first ever mole wanders across the lawn, dragonflies cruise by the pond, and gasps all over the hillside as Germany scores a winning goal against Argentina. 

 

Day 3: Monday 14th July

 

It's a late start today after world cup celebrations with neighbours. Like the past two days, I'm going to use today as an "orientation day" - get to know what wildlife is around and how it's behaving, before I take any photos. This is important for wildlife photographers, and saves a lot of time and wasted effort. It also makes the whole business of taking photos very enjoyable as I spend lots of time simply enjoying nature and trying to understand the things around me. 

 

This morning it's the pond that gets my attention. It's suddenly teaming with newtlets, which must have been hidden yesterday under all the silt, and at least five species of dragonfly. Although I've got much work to do if I'm going to photograph shrikes, I allow time for a quick survey of the garden and find 11 butterfly species and a stunning Jersey Tiger moth within a few minutes. 

Off to the shrike sites. First it's Shrike Shicane, which as expected is rather quiet in the morning. Things should pick up as the temperature rises. Shrikes are sun-loving birds which winter in Africa, and it's still a little too cool for them. I try the first site after lunch, when the temperature is a few degrees warmer, and find the single male perched exactly where he was on Saturday. Nothing in the next field over. Most of the day is spent revisiting these three sites, determining when the birds are most active, and identifying flight paths, hunting routes and possible larders and nests. I am also interested in the way light falls on their perches, and what times of day would work best for photography. It's a game of skill and chance, so these three days are very valuable for solid observation. 

 

My last survey is from 6:30-7:30pm, and I am rewarded with two very promising sightings. Firstly, on Shrike Shicane: two adult male shrikes. A good indicator that there are two families on the hill, and a significant record if this is true. Secondly, at the first site: the male, on a barbed-wire fence, in the middle of his territory. I'm happy enough that this seems to be a resident bird, but when I look through my binoculars I'm delighted to see that this fence is more than a perch - he has speared a lizard onto one of the barbs and is now picking at it. A larder! This is better than I could have hoped for and another good sign of chicks nearby. 

 

We speak to the farmer who manages the land, and he permits me to erect my camouflaged tent hide in the field. Amazing news to end the day on, as this will allow me to get much closer views of this very wary hunter.  

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