Autumn birding and the butcher bird

rb-flyShetland’s currently enjoying something of an Indian summer – warm, mostly sunny days continue to be the norm rather than the exception. The last summer to be this protracted was the infamous ‘barbecue summer’ of 2009 – while the rest of Britain endured ceaseless rain, Shetland basked in long, balmy months that bled seamlessly into autumn. So too this year.

barred-warbBirding around home last weekend was therefore a thoroughly pleasant endeavour: t-shirt weather and, this late in the year, no midges to impede my progress. What there were however were some good scarce migrant birds. Saturday kicked off with a Barred Warbler gorging itself on flies (and the apples I’d put there to attract insects) in my garden. These large warblers have genuine presence and don’t tolerate other birds in their temporary territories – I watched this individual harass and chase away a female Blackcap, a Wheatear and several Meadow Pipits.

Yesterday was a peach of a day. My first walk around the Skaw peninsula in the morning soon yielded a gorgeous, delicate Red-breasted Flycatcher – initially heard only in deep cover, chacking quietly to itself like a distracted Wren, it soon came to the edge of some rose bushes in order to live up to its name, flycatching actively in the warm sunshine.

shrike-mice-img_8036This was followed by my first Yellow-browed Warbler of the autumn, an unusually unapproachable and flighty individual that wouldn’t allow a close approach. It was almost as if it had been spooked by something… and maybe that something was the day’s final quality bird, a smart and actively hunting Red-backed Shrike that, given half a chance, wouldn’t think twice about predating a tired Asian warbler that wasn’t paying close attention to imminent threats.

shrike-bees-img_8030The warbler may have avoided falling foul of the shrike, but other prey items were less fortunate. In nearby bushes I found an extensive larder – 8 bumblebees (comprising mainly the Shetland subspecies of Moss Carder with just two Northern White-tailed) and two mice. Shetland’s mice are, technically, the Wood Mouse found across the rest of the UK, though ours live out in the fields and hills and the synonym Long-tailed Field Mouse probably better suits them. We’re a little short on woods here…

shrike-mice-img_8041All of these unfortunates had been impaled on sharp twigs – the bumblebees in no particular manner, but the mice had each been skewered through their napes. This was a vivid demonstration of the behaviour that earned the Red-backed Shrike, when once it was a common British breeding bird, its colloquial country name of butcher bird.

shrike-bees-img_8027Did anyone else read “The Animals of Farthing Wood” by Colin Dann when they were growing up? It was one of my favourite novels as a young boy, though the chapter in which the mice and voles from Farthing Wood succumb to the butcher bird was never an easy read for one as squeamish as me. Latterly I was aware that the shrikes the author described were dying out as a breeding bird in Britain. That made me feel sad too.

Back in the present and I was delighted to watch this bird actively and successfully hunting, and stocking a temporary larder. Later in the afternoon one of the mice had been consumed, leaving just a scrap of velvet fur and a smear of blood on the twig upon which it had been stored. Our butcher bird is just a temporary visitor blown in from Scandinavia, but it’s welcome to pause a while, to rest and to gather strength before migrating onwards.

More than that – it’s a welcome sight for me too.



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