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The Quest For The Butcherbird: Part 3

Report from Day 4 and 5 at the shrike site and woodland, where surprises of all shapes and sizes keep turning up.

I'm still on such a massive high after the earlier discovery of a hedgehog that between 10 and 6:30, the time when I head back to check on the second shrike site, I decide to focus on other wildlife in the garden. The weather is much cooler today, but despite this there's a fair amount of insect activity, including two new species for the garden - another White Admiral in the fruit orchard, and a stunning Golden-Ringed Dragonfly hunting in the wild meadow. The pond has also settled, revealing the punctuated movements of water boatmen and newts which now attract little birds like chiffchaffs and sparrows into the reeds.

Evening comes and I return to Site 2. On the way, I keep a wary eye out for late-flying admiral butterflies but, although I see none, I am rewarded with sightings of turtle dove and cirl bunting, a beautiful and rare yellow-headed bird with a black moustache. When I arrive at the site, both male and female shrikes are sitting atop a dead tree in the centre of their territory. They have a few favourite perches (map below; blue markers), but this one is perfect, being bang slap in the middle of a long thorny bush and giving a clear raised view over the whole territory. On one side is tilled land, and on the other is wild meadow full of bush-crickets and moths. Site 1 on the other hand, where I found the lizard larder, has few trees except those along the edge of the field. The foliage is also less dense and protective, so it is unlikely chicks are here, or that this is a long-term feeding site. If there is any breeding in the area, it will be on Site 2, in these dense bushes and secure cover.

Whilst I watch the shrikes from a distance, I am aware of another bird joining them. Wings patterned like a zebra, a pink face and crest - it's a hoopoe. It's quickly joined by a second bird, but something spooks them - the cry of the buzzard maybe - and soon they fly off. I can't believe my luck: I have seen a hoopoe near here before but these stunning birds are still like gold-dust in Normandy, being at the most northern tip of their breeding range and even rarer than the shrike. And it's clear that these two are a pair.

I speak to the farmer who owns the field and he confirms my thoughts. The hoopoes have bred in a pear tree in his garden for the past two years, and have raised one chick successfully this summer. As we talk, I am also aware of other chicks on his land - a family of green woodpeckers. I can't let these distractions keep me, but I am wondering if any of these families will interact with the shrikes (fledglings being very curious in everything) and won't be foolish enough to turn down other photo opportunities if they present themselves.

I make two more visits to Site 2: from 8:45 to 9:30pm to coincide with sunset, and again at 10pm to catch the end of the shrikes' day. Although both adults are here, I can't see any signs of fledglings, but I am greeted with the next best thing: one, two, three hoopoes! The young bird fleetingly lands in the shrikes' favourite dead tree, long enough for me to grab a record shot.

I stand back in awe, and as I consider my luck over the last few days, a new thought enters my head. This territory is full of breeding birds. I have to be very careful where I tread, and when, to minimise disturbance. It is clear I'm going to have to return early in the morning and sit in my hide for many hours if I'm going to get any images of shrike, or other animal, behaviour.

Day 5: Wednesday 16th July

It wasn't planned, but today is going to have to be another observation day. I still have five more days, and want to get this right, without causing unnecessary disturbance to the adult birds and their fledglings' feeding. Shrikes, like hoopoes, are very wary birds and, if they do have chicks, they will only wait until a potential threat (in this case, me) s gone before returning to feed. It may seem a slow way of getting photos but, at this crucial stage of growth for fledglings, I'm not taking any risks.

I therefore make regular checks at a distance: from 3 till 5pm, and finally from 8 till 9pm. In the hours in-between, I revisit the woods where I found the white admiral this morning, and am rewarded with three butterflies fluttering along the forest floor. The light is still strong at ground level, which is why they are drawn to the lower foliage where they can "sun". Around 6pm, the shade seeps in, and the butterflies retreat higher up to seek the late afternoon rays in the canopy. This will make an excellent photo opportunity when the shrikes are less active.

Returning to Site 2, the shrikes are now vocalising with clicking calls. It doesn’t have the urgency of an alarm call, and as both birds are together there doesn’t seem to be much purpose to them communicating. It gives me hope that there might be fledglings around.

At 8:30, I get the answer I need. From within the nettle bush, a fledgling emerges, clicking back. It's still a fairly young bird, with downy feathers, and dependent on its dad for food as it takes a bumblebee from his beak. This is what I wanted to see.

I wait twenty minutes after they fly off together, then quick as a fox move in to the field with my tent hide. At 9pm, I leave.

Alarm is set for 5am. Tent is erected. All's good to go!

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