27th March – A conservationists nightmare? A Great Grey Shrike eating a Sand Lizard.   Leave a comment

Great Grey Shrikes are scarce winter visitors to the UK from northern Europe involving perhaps under a hundred individuals. Although they arrive mainly in November and depart in late March to early April, I have always found them to be easiest to find in March, whether this is due to additional birds that have wintered further south passing through the UK or is merely an artifact of my birding schedule is open to debate (earlier in the year I might be looking for wintering wildfowl, later for spring migrants on the coast).

I have seen at least one Great Grey Shrike annually in all but seven years since I first moved to Dorset in 1978 (although many of those were in the New Forest), almost always on heathland or young conifer plantation. They can however be very hard to pin down, showing well for while then flying a long distance to the next feeding area, or seemingly disappearing for long periods only to emerge on top of small conifer for all to see. Such was the bird that has been hanging around the Sugar Hill area of Wareham Forest. Today I made my fourth visit to the area and after an hour or so of searching saw it well.

Great Grey Shrike complex has a circumpolar distribution (known as Northern Shrike in North America) with some populations reaching as far south as the Sahel region south of the Sahara. However there have been several recent attempts to carve it up into a number of species. First all the southern forms were split off as Southern Grey Shrike, then the Iberian population was found to be genetically distinct and considered a full species by some, then the migratory population of Central Asia was split as Steppe Grey Shrike and most recently a completely different arrangement based on molecular methods has been proposed (but not yet universally accepted as the genetic groupings do not correspond to plumage characteristics). Currently the IOC, whose list I follow, accepts just three species, Great Grey/Northern, Southern and Steppe Grey, but fortunately I have see all the proposed ‘species’ in that study!

 

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Wareham Forest is a large area of coniferous plantation to the west of Wareham that was first planted after WW1. After widespread harvesting now contains a lovely mosaic of habitats, small areas of deciduous woodland, heathland and boggy area that were never planted, cleared areas and recently replanted conifer belts. Great views over the forest can be had from the Iron Age hill fort of Woolbarrow.

IMG_1250 Wareham Forest

Rotational felling and in this case, burning of the brash, has given Wareham Forest a wide diversity of habitats. In other cleared areas the brash still lies on the ground ….

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… such as the area known as Oak Hill (not that there are many oaks there now) where I finally caught up with the Great Grey Shrike. I watched it for a while then it vanished only to return a short while later with a Sand Lizard in its bill, a bit of a conservationists nightmare as the Sand Lizard is an endangered species in a UK context.  Unusually for a passerine, shrikes are predators of lizards, small birds and even rodents as well as large insects. They often store their prey on thorn bushes (these days often on barbed wire) earning them the colloquial name of ‘butcher birds’ or as Margaret calls them ‘jacky hangman’.

IMG_1253-Holton-Lee

I later called into our ringing site at Holton Lee to collect a few guy pegs I had left in situ as we don’t intend to ring at this site again until next autumn. A herd of Sika were grazing on the edge of Lytchett Bay.

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There were plenty of birds still visiting the feeders including this Goldfinch and also a number of Lesser Redpoll.

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