Great Grey Shrikes (Lanius excubitor) are fantastic birds about the size of a thrush with grey, white and black plumage and a short hooked bill. Unusually for their size and not being true raptors these little bruisers are actually predators of prey such as small birds, small mammals, reptiles and insects. These Shrikes are rather scarce in Britain and only appear here during the colder months, they breed in central and northern Europe and the more northerly populations migrate westwards and southwards in the autumn, some ending up spending the winter on our heaths.
Numbers fluctuate from year to year depending on the breeding season success in places such as Norway and Denmark and the weather conditions there, but in my native Sussex we can expect to find around 6 or 7 on average each winter in the depths of the countryside, often it is less than this and occasionally it is more. I have previously seen this species on a West Sussex heath in December and in a river valley in East Sussex a few years ago, both sightings were distant and fairly brief.
Ashdown Forest is one of the best places for this species in the county, not surprisingly considering it is prime habitat for them with plenty of perches to watch for prey and lots of scrub and open areas full to bursting with edible rodents and passerines. There was one long-staying individual at a site on the forest last year in fact but I unfortunately managed to miss it despite searching for it (even more galling was that it was seen there the same day). Great Grey Shrikes tend to start turning up during October and indeed one did appear at the same Ashdown forest site as last years bird just a few weeks ago, it has been present ever since and earlier this week I went in search of it.
Having researched thoroughly beforehand what area it was frequenting I set off onto the forest armed with my binoculars and a telescope, which had been recommended as it could be fairly distant. Setting up my scope at a good vantage point over the heathy area it was reported to be hanging around, I set about scanning every bush and tree for the unmistakable grey and black bird.
I was expecting a bit of a long wait and had prepared myself to be patient, but barely five minutes after arriving I spotted the shrike perched in full view atop a leafless birch sapling. For the next ten or so minutes it flitted over the heath, perching on various trees and swooping down into the heather at unseen prey, it often sat in the open for a good while, allowing me to get my scope on it and check out its gorgeous bandit eye-mask or its long, grey and white tail that it swayed side to side constantly.
All this time it had been quite distant, however after a getting some good views I risked trying to get a little closer by walking along a path that passed close to the area it was hunting in. Suffice to say I managed to get easily some of the best and closest views I have ever had of this species, it perching at one point in a bush barely 40 or 50 metres away. I managed to see it chase after a passing flying insect (unidentified but maybe a wasp) which it managed to snap out of mid-air with a display of some nifty flying skills. I also witnessed the shrike get mobbed by a very brave female Reed Bunting which energetically flitted around it and perched in the same bush – bear in mind that the shrike could easily catch and eat a bird of that size.
A really memorable and fab encounter, I would like to add that I am indebted to my dear and lovely mother for driving me up there and for sharing the experience with me, despite me warning her of the risk that we could end up standing in the cold staring at empty gorse bushes for an hour.