In Search of Winter Great Grey Shrikes

Ramsley Reservoir, Derbyshire, 5th November (Russell Slack Thursley Common, Surrey, 18th November (Jerry O'Brien)

Always a dramatic sight, a Great Grey Shrike going about its business on a crisp winter's day can always be guaranteed to capture the attention of any birder. The composition of a lowland heath, with the shrike atop its chosen observation post in the watery winter sunset is an experience to savour.

Numbers vary from year to year, with the Wintering Atlas suggesting a wintering population of perhaps 150 birds in the mid-1980s. Nowadays, the wintering population has dwindled to perhaps 20-30 birds, possibly less. Recent mild winters have presumably contributed to its rarity, as severe winters appear to have become a thing of the past. However, birds frequently return to favoured wintering sites in successive winters and often linger for protracted periods of time allowing patient observers their reward.

In the autumn most early birds arrive on the east coast or the Northern Isles, the first birds this year doing so on 21st and 25th September when a multiple arrival involving five birds took place. October revealed 13 more chance encounters with black and white sentinels for their lucky observers. Typically, many were brief, with most birds noted in the east and Scotland; birds in Powys and Shropshire were the most westerly recorded.

Throughout early November there have been a further four brief sightings, but perhaps up to eight other birds have been recorded at a number of locations across Scotland and England for a period of days now, allowing many observers the opportunity to see this beautiful shrike. No doubt more are out there waiting to be found, as many potential wintering sites are poorly watched or difficult to access. Surprisingly, for such a conspicuous bird they can be devilishly difficult to pin down, often appearing to disappear before your eyes – like the ghost of a lowland heath!

The following birds have been recorded over the past week or two, and appear to offer a fantastic opportunity to sea a wintering Great Grey Shrike.

Nottinghamshire: Farndon (to 15th November at least) - Present to the west side of the village and viewable from Long Lane at SK773530.

Surrey: Thursley Common (to 15th November at least) - Present for its second day today, but tends to roam widely. Park at The Moat car park at SU900416 and walk out along boardwalks to view the area.

Clyde: Fannyside Muir (to 14th November at least) - Showing well along the road from Abron Hill to Arns at NS802755, by Crowbank Farm, often in the stand of small pines to south of road.

Staffordshire: Cannock Chase (to 14th November at least) - Present at the southern end of the Sherbrook Valley favouring the burnt area below White House car park SJ994161

Dorset: Wareham Forest (to 13th November at least) - Present in an open area at SY909925 in Wareham Forest.

Derbyshire: Leash Fen and Ramsley Reservoir (to 11th November at least) - Generally elusive and ranging widely, but it has been seen on a couple of occasions in the small conifer plantation opposite the reservoir on the Leash Fen side of the road and also at SK292747 on the Ramsley Moor side.

Hampshire: Black Gutter Bottom (to 10th November at least) - Park at Turf Hill car park SU211176 and walk west towards the pine plantation at SU202173. The bird favours the area of heathland to the left of the main track looking across towards Black Gutter Bottom.

Essex: East Mersea (to 4th November at least) - At Langenhoe Marsh and visible across Pyefleet channel at approximately TM045168. Walk west along the sea wall from Cudmore Grove car park (TM066152) to the 3rd stile past the oysterbeds.

Remember, success with these birds is not always guaranteed and please keep disturbance in these areas to an absolute minimum and respect landowners' property. Some of these birds may already have moved with no further sign of three birds since last weekend, but the Clyde and Nottinghamshire birds seem to offer the greatest opportunity for success.

Written by: Russell Slack, BirdGuides