News of a great grey shrike on the North York Moors had me packing my sketching kit and optics fast. The great grey shrike’s Latin name is wonderfully descriptive and frankly sounds very cool! Lanius excubitor means sentinel butcher due to its habit of hanging and storing prey on thorns and the obvious lookout posts it uses when searching for prey. Generally I don’t pick favourite species of bird, but if forced to choose the great grey shrike would easily make my top ten, right up there with swift, house martin, hobby, ring ouzel, hawfinch, pied flycatcher, spotted flycatcher and redstart, to name a few contenders that spring immediately to mind. Tolly my nine year old son came with me and long stints at the scope in the cold wind were eased for us both with a large flask of hot chocolate!
Great greys always seem to look pristine in gorgeous clean white, black and icy grey plumage. Often this plumage is puffed out in the cold which adds to the visual appeal. They are hardy, tough birds often wintering in exposed locations. Fortunately for birders they use exposed perches to search for prey which often means locating them is reasonably easy. Clear-fell areas of forestry plantations are a favourite habitat, where they perch on exposed dead stumps so often left by forestry workers.
On arrival there was a small group of birders huddled round their scopes. I prefer to search for the bird myself first and we soon found the great grey atop a dead larch, clean and bright against a dark grey green coniferous background. My mind drifted to previous ggs sightings. Remarkably in the 80s we had two records in our garden in Hungerford, Berkshire. The garden was near the edge of town but not particularly rural and on both occasions a shrike was seen to attack our garden finch flock which then consisted mainly of greenfinches. On the first occasion my brother and I were off school with chicken pox and I spent the day garden birdwatching, so our first ever great grey was as a direct result of a virus!
Very few great grey shrikes have been recorded in the British Isles this winter. Soon this bird will fly across the North Sea to Scandinavia or Russia where it will breed in similarly open country. The natural world is brought into very sharp focus for me at the moment. My mind, distracted like many by current affairs makes me consider our responsibility for all the species we share this planet with . This beautiful shrike with its link to Scandinavia and quite possibly Russia highlights the fact that the natural world knows no boundaries.