October 18th- great grey shrike, Pallas’s warbler, firecrest and short-toed lark

I have had a couple of days on the coast this week. Whilst racing around listing birds is not my preference I love to have a few days in the autumn experiencing birds arriving. Inevitably at this time of year, especially with a run of easterly winds it gives me the chance to catch up with unusual or new birds. I tend to restrict myself to sites within an hour and fortunately this includes a wide arc of the Yorkshire and Cleveland coast.

Friday saw me heading for Brotton, Hunley golf course to be precise, to sketch a Pallas’ leaf warbler. These diminutive warblers punch well above their weight when it comes to colour. The bright lemon yellows, white and green tones brighten the dullest autumn day. In fact sometimes I think the colours are almost enhanced on dull days as they appear luminous in the bottom of a dark hedge. I was fortunate to have prolonged views of this scarce Eastern vagrant for around twenty minutes as it fed along a well trimmed hawthorn hedge.

I was cashing in on someone else’s find to enjoy this beautiful bird. That’s how it goes in birding; I have found plenty of birds and shared them with others, including at least one Pallas’s warbler. My thanks to the finders of all the scarce species sketched in this post. As I sketched a hundred or so pink-footed geese flew over and curlew calls rang out from the nearby coast. The smell of damp leaf litter added to the autumnal atmosphere.

Yesterday, a chance to go birding with my younger son. We headed for South Gare near Redcar. We were particularly driven to see a reported great grey shrike. This species has always been a favourite of mine. The bold plumage always seems so crisp and clean. We first found the shrike atop a distant shrub alert and scanning for prey. The light colour of the shrikes back almost defied silhouette as it blended with the light grey sky behind. It was a “wow” moment! One those birds I used to dream of seeing as I flicked through books as a child, great grey shrikes never disappoint.

Several times it gave chase to smaller birds, probably goldcrests, it was just too distant to tell. These unfortunate crests have just arrived after a long sea crossing and are an obvious meal for the shrike. We watched mesmerised by this bird and would have been quite happy to go home after just that sighting, but just up the road two more treats awaited.

A firecrest fed in some scrub, especially elder, quite close to the road. We had wonderful glimpsed views of this stunning little bird. They move so fast, the mind takes snap shots, which I can hold to sketch. The bronze colour on the birds shoulders is extraordinary and shines intensely from the darkest cover. The makings on a firecrest are really exquisite and I was taken back to my first ever sighting of two amongst blackthorn on a dark January afternoon near Hungerford. Like favourite tunes sightings of birds can bring back vivid memories.

On the other side of the road a short-toed lark was feeding in an industrial rock strewn area. It took some finding, but find it we did and we had good views through the scope. It was a very attractive sand coloured lark, very good at hiding between rocks. Its usual habitat is very dry arid areas in Southern Europe.

So, I’ve had a few days of rather different species. I feel slightly detached from the local walks now, but there is an important link here. Many of the commoner species arriving on the coast will filter inland and it is nice to witness their arrival before they do so. Redwings are now quite common again over Gilling East and to have witnessed them arriving fresh from Scandinavia after their North Sea crossing enhances my enjoyment of the species.

We had a remarkable sighting before we arrived at South Gare. As we left Redcar, driving parallel to the beach a woodcock came over the top of the car, overtaking us, only a few feet above the windscreen. It flew off into nearby scrub. This bird had undoubtedly just made landfall after crossing the sea. Sightings like this really bring home the wonder of bird migration.

Great grey shrike sketched with a Sharpie pen.
Great grey shrike in a small oak tree.
Firecrest studies
Short-toed lark at South Gare.
Pallas’s leaf warbler near Brotton.

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