Back in June, a woodchat shrike turned up in Pembrokeshire. A few appear in Britain every – in spring they are often birds that have overshot (flown far beyond their breeding ground) during their spring migration, and in autumn they may be young birds doing a bit of exploring before migrating south for the winter. Two or three are seen in Pembrokeshire most years.
This one prompted me to look at my previous sightings, and inevitably that led to a trip down memory lane.
My first sighting was in the Doñana Natural Park, back on 3 March 1989. A woodchat shrike sitting on a small and distant pine tree, its back glowing chestnut in the bright sun. I don’t seem to have been too excited about it, probably because I was seeing so many new things there, and this was just a distant sighting through a telescope. There should be many more sightings to come.
It next appears in my diary in late March, in the Sierra de Ojén, the mountains just north of Tarifa, the most southerly point of mainland Spain. (Don’t confuse it with the town of Ojen, which is north of Marbella in the Parque National Sierra de las Nieves.) Now, this is part of the Los Alcornocales Natural Park, which didn’t exist until later that year. It’s probably the largest cork oak (Alcornocales) forest in the world, although some areas have been turned to agriculture, and there are pockets of other trees, such as the maritime pines that occur on the higher slopes, extensive patches of scrub, a few lakes, and of course some of the white-washed hilltop villages that Andalucia is famous for.
Anyway, more about the rest of los Alcornocales another time.
The Sierra del Ojen has quite a reputation for birds and we took the road that runs through the main valley. Our first stop was near an area of cork‑oak wood with limestone cliffs overlooking it and gorse scrub and rough grazing below. Raptors were immediately in view with griffons, buzzards, short-toed eagles and sparrowhawks. There were plenty of small birds too: stonechats, chaffinches, serins, corn buntings, and a jay.
A woodchat shrike favoured a tall fencepost as a perch, and allowed us to have a good look at him. He had a quite tapered shape with his head looking almost too big for his body, a slim belly and narrow tail. His underparts, from throat to tail, shone white in the sun. When he turned he showed his rufous cap, broad black eye‑stripe with white eye-ring, grey back and wings with white patches, and dark tail. He sang and called from his perch, flicking his wings as he did so and flashing the white patches. Every now and then he made a short foray to catch passing insects, bashing them a few times against the perch before eating them. He continued to sing as he flew across a field and out of sight.
A month later we were near La Roca de la Sierra, in the heart of Extremadura. These open plains dotted with holm oak trees (which provided the acorns on which pigs were fattened to produce the local ham) were a paradise for naturalists. April was warm enough to enjoy, but not so hot as to be uncomfortable – for us or the wildlife.
Woodchat shrikes were amongst the 92 species of birds we recorded during a week in the province. They often perched on utility wires, from where they would fly out to catch insects, or sometimes small lizards. Then we found two singing males, and a female that seemed to be the mate of one of them. The pair indulged in noisy courtship chasing through the lower branches of a tree while the other male continued to sing. Although her colours were basically the same as his, she looked duller and had virtually no face mask. Later we stopped to look at a head‑bobbing display from yet another pair.
We must have had more sightings during the next few weeks, but the species only occasionally appeared in our notebooks – once something becomes relatively commonplace, it’s easy to forget to take note of it. They breed throughout Spain and the southern half of France, except in the mountains. So, there were no sightings as we travelled through the Alps or in what was then Yugoslavia, although they do breed there.
By the time we got to Greece, the autumn migration was in full swing, and we began to encounter shrikes again. In the Axios Delta National Park woodchats, red-backed and great grey shrikes were often encountered in areas of scrub and farmland. Now they were in family parties – adults and youngsters apparently heading south together.
In March 2001 I returned to Andalucia, just for a couple of weeks this time. On the way back to the airport, we saw a woodchat taking a rest on a fencepost on its way north.
My visits to Crete have been as the assistant leader on guided trips. They’ve basically been botanical trips, but my role was partly to fill in the rest of the wildlife – birds, butterflies, herptiles, whatever else anyone saw and needed help to identify. In April 2002, the early morning birdwatchers saw a woodchat on the last day. Things were better in April 2004 when we saw woodchat on every day bar one, and we had many excellent views.
Desperate for a late winter getaway for some warmth and escape from work, we had a cheap package holiday in the Gambia in 2003. The bird list included woodchat.
Our 2004 trip was to Mallorca – somewhere I would normally avoid because of its label as a holiday resort. Actually, it wasn’t too bad. It was the off season, and most of the visitors seemed to be German cyclists. We stayed in the more out-of-the-way resorts with nature-watching on the doorstep. Woodchat is on our bird list, so I’ll have to try to dig out the notebooks to see if there is anything more about it.
In 2017 we returned to the Algarve, On the first afternoon, we took a stroll along the dunes to the supermarket. Zitting cisticolas, crested larks and serins amongst the birds. Then something different on the railway fence. A closer look revealed a woodchat – a migrant recently arrived. Cameras quickly out of the bags, and taking photos. The bird posed nicely, though kept its distance. It even caught an insect. Later there was another one in the willows by a pond. We also saw them at Quinta da Rocha and Cabo San Vicente.
2018 was similar, with sightings at Quinta da Rocha and Sagres
Two more sightings in the Algarve in 2019 – at Quinta do Lago and at Alvor – bring our European sightings up to date.
The 2022 sighting seems to have been my first in Britain. The bird frequented a bramble patch in sight of the road down to Elegug Stacks. The heat haze wasn’t helpful for photography, but we enjoyed watching the bird catching insects and often leaving them impaled on a thorn for eating later. At other times it just sat there, watching the world go by, and probably wondering what all these humans were doing looking at it through big eyes (binoculars, telescope and camera lenses).