Birding Trip Report: Great Grey Shrike at Cannock Chase, Staffordshire 12/11/2018
Journey to the Chase
The week leading up to the 12th was a long one for me work-wise, and as per usual I resembled the living dead once Sunday night rolled around. A trip to the Chase and the prospect of a much sought after bird served as the perfect tonic. So, despite being effectively dead on my feet, I made preparations. The directions given out by Bird News services simply said 'Park in Seven Springs Car Park, take the left hand trail for half a mile until you reach a clearing in Abrahams Valley' Perfect! I thought. I knew where Seven Springs was, and a quick perusal of a map of the area online revealed the directions to be concise and easy to follow. This should be nice and easy I thought, as I settled down to Shrike related dreams on Sunday night.
Cannock Chase is 16,000 acres of natural beauty that represents the closest one can get to wilderness in the West Midlands region. A vast expanse of semi natural oak and birch woodland, conifer plantations and lowland heath. Its one of the few places in the whole of the UK, where you can glimpse wild Deer, including the magnificent Red Deer, the largest land mammal in the whole of the British Isles. On any given visit it is entirely possible to walk for miles and not see a single other person, but on Monday 12th November 2018 the likelihood of a quiet walk was utterly impossible. The Great Grey Shrike had first been reported on the 2nd November and almost immediately my social media feeds were inundated with reports and an array of images of a bird that looked to be showing well.
Early next morning, I loaded the car up and proceeded to make the hour long journey from Birmingham, which involved venturing into the wilds of deepest, darkest Staffordshire. The journey itself, as you can well imagine was largely uneventful, although I did skirt around the City of Lichfield, home to one of the finest Cathedrals you'll ever likely to see. Its a truly awe inspiring feat of human architecture, with not one but three towering spires. Lichfield is also the birthplace of Dr Samuel Johnson, the first man to produce and publish a Dictionary of the English Language and served as the residence of Erasmus Darwin, an outstanding 18th Century Physician, but perhaps better known as the grandfather of Charles Darwin, yes THE Charles Darwin.
I arrived at Seven Springs Car Park shortly after 10 am and was amazed at just how busy it was for a Monday morning. I scanned the cars and quickly noted the ones with Wildlife stickers on, confirming beyond any reasonable doubt that I was in the right place. There were many other people there though including runners, cyclists, dog walkers and even a few people who were clearly performing a dog walking service, as one lady I saw was walking no fewer than 7 dogs at one time. Quite how anyone can walk 7 dogs at one time is beyond me, but I digress. I noted a few other birders emerging from their cars and proceeding to walk down the left hand trail either singly or in pairs, so without further ado I followed them.
The Location of Seven Springs Car Park, Cannock Chase
I followed the left hand trail through mostly mixed deciduous woodland for about 10 minutes, before the habitat changed to a mixture of open heath and conifer plantations. A fairly considerable number of birders had gathered in an area of conifers that had been cleared. In among the many felled trees were a few still standing dead trees, that looked to be the ideal perch for a hunting Great Grey Shrike. I pitched up my scope next to a few other birders who were either lazily scanning Abrahams Valley or chatting to their friends. I'm not normally the kind of guy who wades in with questions like 'any sign?' Instead I like the challenge of trying to find the bird for myself, but a scan of the Valley with both my binoculars and scope yielded little apart from a very showy Common Kestrel that was hunting almost right above our heads.
Despite my reluctance to ask questions, I couldn't help but overhear those that did. Apparently the bird had been showing reasonably well until about 10 minutes before my arrival when it had then flew over our heads and up Strawberry Hill, where it had presumably settled in the conifers that blanketed the Hill. At this point, I toyed with the idea of exploring the wider area in the hope of coming across the bird, but decided to stay put just in case it should return to what was one of its favourite haunts.
More birders arrived, and each one was informed of the situation either by me or others. A few birders commented that there was little chance of the bird returning to its former favourite haunt, due to the fact that a number of people clad in camouflage gear and carrying huge camera lenses had positioned themselves within just a few feet of one of the dead trees that the bird had been favouring. In fact, wildlife photographers had positioned themselves all across the valley from the top to the bottom where I was, ensuring that the Shrike's favourite perch was almost completely surrounded. To a simple birder like me it felt oddly surreal. I watched as the photographers shifted their positions slightly, spoke quietly to each other and even made hand signals to each other. I felt like I was watching a military manoeuvre and fully expected someone at any minute to shout 'Charge!!'
A few birders started filing away electing to explore the wider area in teams, but I still decided to stay. For roughly 45 minutes I had to be content with the same showy Common Kestrel seen earlier and the calls of Eurasian Siskins from the nearby conifers. As each minute passed, my hopes of seeing the bird began to evaporate, and dreams of seeing it were replaced with the nightmare of 'dipping'. Dipping is a birders' term, which basically means failing to see a bird that you have travelled to see specifically. Every birder has dipped at some point and its not a nice experience I can tell you. Even worse is being 'gripped', which is where you fail to see a bird but someone else does. The idea of somebody gripping me in this context was simply not worth thinking about. With the morning pressing on I came to the decision to stay until midday, by which time the call of duty, in other words my Jack Russell Marley would compel me to return home. I suppose I could have brought him along but didn't fancy the juggling act of trying to control a dog and carry a telescope at the same time.
With less than an hour left until my impending departure, salvation would come in the form of a gentleman who appeared behind those of us who had stayed. He informed us excitedly that he had relocated the bird on Strawberry Hill. It had apparently elected to continue its hunting forays from the branches of half a dozen dead Scots Pines that lined the hill's summit. A couple of birders who had seen the bird previously commented that it had been in the same place the previous Friday. The gentleman offered to take us to the bird and most of us took him up on it and thanked him. A couple of birders attempted to alert the photographers within the Valley but as far as I know none of them followed us.
The gentleman led us away from the clearing back the way we came before leading us off to the right, down a path that would eventually wind its way up Strawberry Hill, right up to the summit. At 32 I was the youngest birder there by a considerable margin so found the hill fairly easy to traverse and in fact had to contain my eagerness so that I didn't overtake our guide.
As we neared the summit, our guide told us to stop, and point our binoculars, scopes and lenses towards a line of long dead Scots Pines that rose eerily from the carpet of green. I scanned every branch of every tree hoping to pick the bird up, but to no avail. After a couple of minutes, I heard the cry: "There it is!" "Where?" came the reply from several of us, and the birder explained that it was low down, on a branch in the second tree along from the left.
Got it! I thought, as I located it in my scope. There was no elation or happiness on my part, just relief. I took a moment to admire my first ever Great Grey Shrike. It was actually smaller than I imagined, roughly the size of a Common Blackbird, but still the largest species of Shrike to occur in the UK. Its striking clean cut black, grey and white plumage made it incredibly photogenic, so I fished out my phone and attempted to take a record short by holding my phone up to my telescope lens. The first few attempts proved difficult as the bird departed its perch just as I adjusted my phone to the right position. Finally, when it had relocated to the fifth tree along, I managed to get a couple of satisfactory record shots.
Unbeknownst to me, midday had come and gone, but this was a bird difficult to tear oneself away from. Its long black facial mask and hooked bill were for me, the most striking features of the bird. Great Grey Shrikes are carnivorous birds hunting mostly insects, but will also take small mammals and reptiles. Shrikes in general are known as 'Butcher Birds' as they impale their victims on thorns in a way reminiscent of butchers storing their meat in a larder. They normally only occur in the UK during the Autumn and Winter, but most of these birds stick to Britain's east coast, making this individual a rare gem indeed. As a breeding bird, Great Grey Shrikes are found as far north as the Arctic Circle, as far south as France and as far east as Western Siberia.
I left the Chase at around quarter to one feeling a little guilty at having broken my silent promise to Marley but utterly relieved and happy to have finally seen a much sought after bird and the perfect way to start a week that would culminate in a return to one of my favourite places anywhere for birding, East Yorkshire.
© 2018 James Kenny