Rarity finders: Steppe Grey Shrike in Gloucestershire


Having been on my local common (Chipping Sodbury, in Gloucestershire) every morning for the previous two weeks in the vain hope of finding another patch Wryneck, I chose not to visit on 29 August. Six others were up there looking and had found the usual Common Redstarts, Yellow Wagtails and Northern Wheatears.

It was a nice sunny afternoon, the wind was still blowing from the east and there had been two Wrynecks apiece in Gloucestershire and Wiltshire. So, with nothing better to do, I decided to give the common another go. Chipping Sodbury is a large area of open scrub that is grazed by cattle in the summer months. There are several intersecting hedges, some larger trees on the border with a golf course and a nearby farm, plus a small fishing pond.

A quick walk around the perimeter and to the pond produced nothing more than a couple of redstarts and several Yellow Wagtails following the cattle. The main area of scrub, where I have found Wryneck in the past, had another three redstarts, two Whinchats and a few Common Whitethroats. The area north of this scrub, which is sparsely covered, has been favoured by chats in the last couple of years. Without using my binoculars, I could see two male redstarts and a male wheatear sat with its back to me on top of a distant bush. The wheatear looked very pale and strangely large …

Moving closer and now using my binoculars, I could see that it was in fact a shrike! Having seen two Woodchat Shrikes and found a female Red-backed Shrike on the common before, I always hoped for a Great Grey Shrike here one winter. However, it was still August, and this shrike was remarkably pale. It dropped to the ground and returned to the same bush but this time sideways on. Luckily there was nobody else nearby to hear my reaction! This was either a first-year Lesser Grey Shrike or a Steppe Grey Shrike.

The Steppe Grey Shrike proved a one-day wonder at Chipping Sodbury Common (Mark Coller).

Hindsight is a great thing but for some reason, rather than confirming its identification, I decided to run back to my car, drive a mile down the road and collect my camera. On the way I called a few local birders telling them to get to the common. Within 10 minutes of leaving I was back, very out of breath and camera in hand, but the shrike was gone. I started to realise my error and really should have clinched its Identification first …

A few frantic minutes later I relocated it sitting on top of a low bush. I grabbed a few record shots and posted one on the South Gloucestershire and Avon Birds WhatsApp group to let as many people know as possible. Now I could regain my breath, relax and watch this stunning bird. It was a very pale grey shrike with soft pinkish buff flanks and upper breast, a pale pinkish-grey coloured bill with a dark tip and edge. It had large white primary patches, pale lores and a narrow black mask below and behind the eye. These all pointed to my conclusion that it was a Steppe Grey Shrike, a bird I had only seen once before at Swindon Sewage Works back in October 1993.

Its identification was soon confirmed by BirdGuides. It was feeding well and I watched it catch several bees and a Field Cricket while other birders started to arrive. For the next hour my phone was constantly called and messaged with people wanting directions and updates. I think some 60 birders came to see it but there could have been more. The shrike showed very well, as shrikes tend to do, sitting on prominent perches and doing short feeding flights. It was still present at dark when it appeared to roost in one of its favoured bushes.

The bird had large white primary patches, pale lores and a narrow black mask below and behind the eye (Craig Lewis).

I was back on site at 6 am the following morning, searching with around 12 others, but the shrike had clearly departed overnight.

Written by: Mark Coller

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