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The Quest For The Butcherbird: Part 4

First report from the shrike hide - maybe I should have installed a ceiling fan.

Day 6: Thursday 17th July


Yesterday had ended well, with the discovery of not only a fledgling red-backed shrike but also a family of hoopoes and some white admirals in the woods (see Part 3). I decide to set aside some time this afternoon to photograph the white admirals (my achievements are shown in Part 4), but for now I get on with my big task ahead, of photographing the shrike family.

It's 6am when I arrive at the site and it's already about 25°C. I'm dripping with sweat; I'm not looking forward to the early afternoon, when my tent will reach 40°C. My hide is hidden among some tall thistles, at the foot of the large nettle bush which cuts through the territory. I've used foliage to hide the outline of the tent, and have added this over the past couple of days so that the shrikes (fingers crossed) get used to it. About 12ft from me is the dead white tree, the shrikes' favourite perch, so I quickly go in, have a swig of water, and wait.

Not much comes by for the first hour - a pair of blackbirds strut about, clucking their presence to the whole field; a smart goldfinch chirrups, and a bold yellowhammer. The light is quite strong behind the tree and the sky is a little cloudy, so I play around with camera exposure to create clean silhouette effects (see top photo of the blackbird).

With most sunrises and sunsets in summer, there is usually a moment of mindblowingly gorgeous light. It can be any colour from salmon pink to velvet purple, and today it decided to be liquid gold. Begging for a shrike, or hoopoe, to appear, sidelit by the sunrays, I keep my eye fixed on the tree through my camera. Suddenly a new bird flits into frame. I hear its warbling before I see it - and I gasp. A moment passes as it dawns on me that I am looking at an icterine warbler, an incredibly rare migrant in Normandy. Remembering myself and realising this might not happen again, I take up the camera and get a single image of the moment in silhouette.

My heart is pounding but I don't have long to gather my thoughts before the first shrike flies in, chasing the icterine warbler off. Chek chek chek!, it calls. It's the fledgling. I'm surprised how defensive this young one is, but I suppose he's just curious. He's soon joined by his mum (below) and dad (title image).

I'm able to get a good look at the three together as they exchange cheks and tail-flicks (a show of familiarity). Although the downy chick looks a lot like the female, it has the faint mark of a black eyestripe which tells me that this is a male bird. In time he will look very different from his mum, with a blue cap, white cheeks and flush red body.

This is the only time I see the three together, and most of the next couple of hours, the parents go hunting for moths out of sight. The fledgling is at a stage where he can be left alone, but he is still dependent on a lot of meals from his parents. Dad comes back about forty minutes later with a juicy slug, which the fledgling greedily gobbles down. His mum meanwhile, in a tree just visible from my hide's gauze side-window, has given up hunting and seems to be getting tetchy at a hoopoe...hoopoe! I swing my camera around but in a split second the hoopoe has surrendered and beats off into a fruit orchard. Anything can seemingly happen here, and usually it's either when I least expect it or when there's nothing I can do about it.

It's 10:30am and swelteringly hot. This tent is like an oven, bottling up all the heat. The shrikes are moving off into other parts of the territory and, as I have observed this past week, will probably not return to this perch until early evening, so I can afford to go off for a while. As I think this, the fledgling comes back with his mum. As she lands, he runs up to her, begging for food. Something's not right. This isn't his mum. I take a second look through my sweat-drenched viewfinder. It's another chick! This one looks more like a female; in any case it's a younger and smaller bird.

I'm over the moon to see these two, and that the shrikes have chosen this field as their territory. Shortly after, I see no more of the adults or chicks, so head back home for lunch and an opportune shower before an action-packed afternoon of white admirals (see Part 4), lots more bird activity - and an unexpected encounter with an earlier star of this week...


After a wonderful shoot with the white admirals, it's time to check up on the shrikes. Most of their hunting was done in the morning when I was in the hide, so when I arrive, the parents seem sedate on their tree. No chicks to bother them for food, I suppose. Other parts of the field are blooming with life - hoopoes still coming and going, a singing nightingale (only the second I've ever seen here), the icterine warbler feeding by a pond by the roadside, and even half a dozen white admirals. Through the tranquil silence surges the cacophony of many frogs. And the annoying whine of mosquitos...

I pay one more visit an hour later just before sunset, but it's a short one as I'm out cycling with my parents, and I have left the camera for once at home. Plus the mosquitos and horseflies are getting horrendous. We cycle back home for dinner, passing a dogwalker who has stopped short by the roadside. He's prodding something with his foot whilst his dog cautiously sniffs it, and wrinkles its nose disapprovingly. We approach and see that their shared interest is fixed upon a hedgehog - possibly the same one I saw the other day (see Part 2). It has rolled up into a tight prickly ball, obviously terrified by the dog. Our presence can't be helping either, I think, so I walk off, hoping the dog-walker will get the message. With some reluctance, the dog tears itself away at a yank of its leash and they trot up the track.

In the low evening light, the hedgehog gradually stirs. Unharmed, it sniffs the air and bumbles purposefully towards the ditch. I'm thinking what are the chances of seeing this hedgehog again? and consider pedalling home at lightning speed to get the camera gear; but conscience tells me to at least watch and see if my presence disturbs it. I move very carefully closer. The shock of the dog seems to have passed, and it clearly has no clue I am here, or else doesn't care. On this basis, I do what I seem to always be doing this week - pedal, pedal, pedal, click.

Now veiled in black shadow, the country road is harder to navigate, and I feel that refinding the hedgehog will be a needle-in-a-haystack chore. But there it is - I hear it rustle and oink in the hedgerow, living up to its name. It makes towards the woods, and vanishes into the leaf litter with a little snuffle.

I've mentioned that I'm not used to using flash of any kind with wildlife, or of true animal-in-their-environment shots, and the fact that the sun has now set gives me an even greater challenge. I can help myself though - try to predict where the hedgehog will go, and set up a few metres ahead. I get one single photo as it comes into the open space where I'm kneeling.

I like the result, as it shows the habitat, but it's lacking a bit of intimacy. I am amazed at how quickly this fella moves as, no sooner have I taken the photo that the hedgehog speeds straight past me and over my foot! Biting my tongue, I seek a tree about ten feet ahead - surely it can't walk that quickly?! - and set up there. I take no risks, pre-setting a focus point based on where I hope the hedgehog might go, and lie down on the ground. Here we go... Snuffle, snuffle, snuffle, click!

Not bad, although the focus is slightly off. Most of my shots end up with the focus off, or poorly lit, and it's very hard keeping up with this little guy. But all this aside, there's the biggest grin on my face, as I can't believe this charming creature is happily carrying on its way without concern for me. I've got a lot to learn about using flash with wildlife, and photographing shrikes, but this week for me is about challenging myself. And, as I listen to the snuffles of my hog companion nudge the windless air of the country night, it's about enjoying wildlife.

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