The Woodchat Shrike Lanius senator can be found all around the Mediterranean, including many parts of North Africa, and its range extends East into Iran. Within this range it is not hard to find and enjoy, with the latter aspect based on its fine colouration. It also used to be a rather common bird in the South of Germany, but the German population has crashed and collapsed (almost?) completely during the last 50 or so years, from 500 pairs in the 1950’s to around 30 pairs in the late 1990’s. If it still breeds in Germany at all, which it might do, it is so rare by now that pairs do not get reported to anywhere except to the relevant nature conservation authorities. Those Woodchat Shrikes that do turn up in Germany each year, and there might be a handful of records, must therefore now be regarded as very rare “migration overshoots” or – as tragic as it may sound for a (former) breeder to the country – as true vagrants.
I thus noted with much delight last week on the fabulous site ornitho.de (the German equivalent to eBird) that a female Woodchat Shrike had been found roughly 100 miles east of Heidelberg, and that she had been hanging around in the same area for a few days already. More importantly, I had a business trip to Bavaria scheduled for Saturday (yesterday) which would lead me to within 3 miles of the shrike, so a plan to go and see it was impossible to avoid.
The platform ornitho.de allows the observer to enter their data based on a grid cell system of roughly 1,000 x 800 yards in size. All you have to do is zoom into the map, click a blue dot in the centre of the relevant grid cell (which will automatically generate the geographic coordinates) and enter your data. You can also position a marker to point out where exactly a certain bird is within the grid cell, but this requires a few extra clicks and most observers don’t bother. The grid cell is small enough to usually allow someone else to find the bird anyway, and observers often add a few comments to describe the location. This was also the case for the Woodchat Shrike. I had the grid cell, and then found the following remarks by another observer:
“Stationär im Bereich der Weide und der angrenzenden Sträucher und dem Schilfgebiet.”
Which roughly translates to “Stationary in the area of the cattle pasture and the surrounding bushes and adjacent reed bed”.
This was going to be easy. Cattle is mostly kept in housings in Germany (sadly), and cattle out on a pasture is a rare sight in our landscape. Therefore, all I had to do was find the – presumably only – cattle pasture in the grid cell, make sure it had a reed bed nearby, check the bushes and get my shrike.
I found the grid cell – no problem.
I found the only cattle pasture in the area – no problem.
It had bushes and a reed bed nearby – no problem.
But even after one hour, I did not find the shrike – problem.
Returning to my map, I noticed that the cattle pasture I had been searching was actually 300 m outside the marked grid cell of the shrike. What on earth? Could it be the shrike was somewhere entirely different? Possibly on a pasture where the farmer had taken the cattle off just prior to my visit?
Well, the only way to find out – and more importantly: find the shrike – was to take the map, look at the exact border of the grid cell, and search the landscape within systematically, regardless of other birders’ comments.
I started my systematic search for the shrike in the far north-eastern corner of the grid cell along a farming road through an extensive grassland, dotted with groups of willows and reedy drainage ditches. It did look good, except for the fact that there was no cattle to be seen anywhere.
The starting area of my search
The meadows were as nice and birdy as meadows can get in western Bavaria at the beginning of August, with a flock of Common Buzzards and a few Red Kites soaring above, Whinchats everywhere, a singing Skylark, and even a few Meadow Pipits, likely early migrants. But you see – none of them were a female Woodchat Shrike.
Even in small flocks of seven, White Storks do not resemble a female Woodchat Shrike.
And so I walked, paused, scanned the bushes, walked, paused, scanned the bushes, scratched my head, walked, paused, scanned the bushes. For more than an hour. Then suddenly – finally …
Ahead, top of bush, centre right: Shriiiiiiiiiiiike !!!!
Come on, run – closer – it’s gonna fly!! Quick! Sort out those flippin’ legs of the tripod NOW! Line up the scope, stupid! You’re too slow, it’s gonna fly! HURRY, it’s gonna fly!! No, no, I got it, I’m on it, just let me adapt the focus a bit, turn it slooooowly, wait, wait, YUPP, it’s the …
… female Red-backed Shrike. Dammit.
That was it. You may not be aware of this, but with a German breeding population likely exceeding 100,000 pairs, even a female Red-backed Shrike does not resemble a female Woodchat Shrike.
I was ready to call it a day and forget about the shrike. Well, maybe try the cattle pasture once more? Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, I was finished here and it was back to the car first. And so I started to walk back, through the meadows, heading for a large willow tree surrounded by reeds that I had passed on my way into the meadows before. And somehow, these three words kept flashing by in my mind as I walked:
Pasture – Reeds – Willow – Pasture – Reeds – Willow – Willow – Willow …
And just when I was about 20 yards away from the willow, something hit me very hard on the forehead!
Here’s a screen shot of LEO’s online dictionary, giving the English translation of the German word “Weide”:
“Stationär im Bereich der Weide und der angrenzenden Sträucher und dem Schilfgebiet” therefore roughly translates to “Stationary in the area of the willow – not cattle pasture – and the surrounding bushes and adjacent reed bed”. And there I was, a mere 20 yards in front of a willow with surrounding bushes and a reed bed nearby.
I stopped in my tracks. I readied my equipment. I proceeded in sniper fashion, slowly and carefully, peeking at a small bush right behind the trunk of the willow, and – no, I am not making this up:
The female Woodchat Shrike