Girton village website - Nature

Girton Birdwatch - June 2006

Red-Backed Shrike

It seems odd to be sitting here preparing June's Birdwatch when it is only April 29th, but we shall be going to Crete for a couple of weeks on 1st May and probably shan't be back in time to submit copy, so hence the rush. Apologies if you submit sightings and nothing appears or I apparently ignore you. Mind you, it isn't necessary to go all the way to Greece to discover 'exotic' birds, as a Little Egret was seen on the road between Histon and Girton the other week (D.H.). There are plenty of Egrets in Crete, of course, but I don't expect to see Griffon or Lammergeyer vultures over the village any day soon! There's a slightly better chance - although still a slim one - of encountering another rare bird, relatively common in Crete, around here and that's the Red-backed shrike. Its larger cousin, the Great Grey shrike, was possibly spotted in Histon over the winter (J.H.). The grisly habit of impaling their prey on barbed wire or thorns has earned these birds the name of 'butcher-birds'. Although the diet of the Red-backed shrike is primarily made up of beetles and bees they will often take young birds also. It used to be possible to come across a thorn-bush 'larder' of forgotten surplus food collected by this rapacious little bird (it's about 7 inches long)..The male has a chestnut back, pale blue-grey crown and rump and a black stripe through the eye; the female is duller with a brown back and head and a lightly barred breast. The shrike resembles a very small hawk in its hunting technique, sometimes perching on a bush or pole, sometimes hovering and sometimes gliding swiftly along a hedgerow, before pouncing on its prey. The Red-backed used to be the only shrikes to breed regularly in Britain, especially on the open heaths of Norfolk, Suffolk, Surrey and Hampshire, and 30 years ago they were still hanging on in these areas with about 80 breeding pairs. Since then their decline has been rapid and they are probably extinct as a British breeding bird. Ornithologists have been puzzled by this seemingly irreversible decline; climate change in north-west Europe, towards warmer, wetter summers, and the usual suspect - increased pesticide use - have been implicated, but these alone don't explain declines in 19 other European countries. In this country part of the decline has to be put down to the depredations of egg-collectors: the shrike has unusual and beautiful eggs, the ground colour of which may range from greenish, olivaceous, pinkish, buffish, creamy to almost white, with differing amounts of dark red, purple, grey or brown blotching and speckles, this variety proving well-nigh irresistible to egg thieves.

A bird that you are much more likely to see, especially if you walk around the Girton Wood or Ten Acre field, is the Red-legged partridge. There have always been plenty of these birds behind the hedges on NIAB land but they seem to have taken a liking to 'our' territory and I'm disturbing them a lot lately (or perhaps I'm just getting up earlier in the morning!). This isn't a native bird - being introduced from France over 200 years ago because over-shooting had drastically reduced numbers of our own common 'grey' partridge - but is now more numerous than the indigenous bird over much of eastern England. The Red-legged is easily distinguished from the smaller Grey partridge by black and white eye-stripes, rich chestnut barring on grey flanks, and the lack of the dark horseshoe mark carried on the breast of the grey. However, so many Grey partridges have also been imported - predominantly from central Europe - that it is now quite difficult to regard that bird as a genuinely native wild species. Indeed, one of its alternative names is Hungarian partridge. Cocker and Mabey quote a game-keeper who believes that the differences between the two birds may be taken to epitomise stereotypical notions of national beauty: ' people, whenever they get an opportunity to see the (native) bird closely, comment on its subtle, understated and very 'English' beauty. This is especially evident when in contrast with the gaudy colours and bold patterning of the 'French' partridge'. Be that as it may, both birds may be seen in the fields surrounding the village. As a rough rule of thumb the Grey partridge is the more sociable bird, and in late summer and autumn the adults and young form 'coveys' of up to 20 birds; the Red-legged is seldom seen in anything other than pairs.

I thought I saw a Spotted flycatcher in the Girton Wood at the end of April. I didn't have my binoculars with me so can't be sure. Seems rather early to me. There should be masses in Crete!

Ken Sheard, Ken.sheard2 at ntlworld.com