Sunday 11 October 2020

Red Backed Shrike And Vigo The Bearded Vulture

When I first got into bird photography, I would drive all over the country in search of species to photograph and add to my extensive galleries. In recent years though, partly from my choice in a career, and earning less money than I did when working in the IT sector, I have been less inclined to go see rare birds, unless they really "float my boat".

Readers of this blog will know that I love raptors and any predatory bird, so when I learned of a red backed shrike not that far from home, I thought I ought to get out to see it.

Having seen several great grey shrikes over the years, and one rather lovely woodchat shrike, this would be the second red backed shrike for me, but actually the first one seen in the UK. I found one in Lindos whilst holidaying there.

This individual has been spotted in Sutton Park, in an area alive with birds and insects, and it was on the latter that the shrike was feasting upon. I quickly located the shrike in a crab apple tree, but it wasn't the best spot for a photograph. Sure I took some, just in case it flew off never to be seen again, but I hoped it would follow the same behaviour of the other shrikes I'd observed before, and have a loop around the area where it would go to feed.

Sure enough, after a while in the apple tree, the shrike took flight, and I saw which direction it went. I, along with a couple of other people, followed it, at a respectful distance. This was what I had hoped for, and the shrike proceeded to perch up on a number of bushes and trees, over a period of an hour or so, as it hunted in different areas of the park. All the while swooping down to catch insects, both from on the ground and from the vegetation.

The loop it was using was thankfully smaller than some I've seen in the past with the great grey shrikes, which can cover miles at a time. Then, when it looked like it was perhaps going to return to where it started, and I'd first seen it, it vanished into a thicket of gorse, and didn't reappear for over an hour. I guess that might have been where it had a larder, and was where it rested for a while.

Whilst the shrike was chilling out, I took the chance to grab a few shots of one of the common redstarts also feeding around the area. I also saw a spotted flycatcher, which was another first of this rather restricted year for bird watching.

When the red backed shrike finally resurfaced, it again went to the crab apple tree, and began the loop once more. By then though, I had amassed a few images, and decided to head home.

For a bird of prey fan, I couldn't possibly have failed to notice the sightings of the juvenile bearded vulture nicknamed Vigo, that had been roosting and feeding around the Derbyshire Peak District. And I had been very tempted to visit, but she was proving to be difficult to see at times. To my shame I decided not to bother going. I could probably have found time between little owl workshops, but the thought of driving up there, then walking miles and not seeing it was off-putting.

Then she left, and was seen around Norfolk. And most recently Lincolnshire. Whilst eating my breakfast I saw a report pop up on my phone from Bird Guides about the vulture being seen near Cowbit in Lincs, and I decided to see exactly where in Lincs it was. Then it dawned on me... I knew the area, having been there before for wildlife with my friend Ian. And it was only a two hour drive away...

Two hours, thirty minutes later I was driving towards where the sighting had been made, and I saw her. I was trying to get across a busy road, and I could see her flying with an unhappy band of corvids surrounding her. Most distracting when trying to drive!

Thankfully I was able to get across, park up and had the camera out in seconds to capture shots of the first bearded vulture I've ever seen in the wild.

One word for her. "Wow".

She was enormous, dwarfing the other birds around her, even large species like red kites and buzzards.

Then she vanished into a small coppice. Having taken a number of images against a bright sky, I decided to walk along the road a bit, so as the sun would be behind me if and when she flew again.

A wise move, as she broke cover, and flew across the field in front of me, then circled round behind, out of view.

That was when she flew right over my head. Way, way too close to fit her in the shot, so I chose to put the camera down and just admire her as she sailed over. Wonderful!

I had hoped on my drive up to simply see the vulture, but to have enjoyed such a view, without the need for binoculars was exhilarating.

She then powered off across the fields, and with the help of a band of very merry birders, we relocated her in a tree. Incredible that such a massive bird could simply vanish when perched in a leafy tree. I simply couldn't get a clear shot. And then she broke cover, and flew away again.

Following her to another tree, I could see her again, but by now the forecast rain was approaching, and the skies were very dark. Given how rubbish the light was when I was photographing her in the trees, I have to doff my cap to the sensor in my new mirrorless camera (Canon R5) at how much detail and colour was recovered from the images.

The rain started to fall, and she took flight again, heading into a private estate. The farmer / landowner, bless him, then invited a few of us first on the scene, to drive down a track to see if we could get a view. We did, but the rain was really starting to come down, and I thought it was probably wise to head home.

Two "twitches" and two fantastic results. Maybe I should get out more...?