Friday, February 01, 2008

Lanius excubitor

Went for a walk the other day. The first hawkless walk in a long time, with Xtin, to Wicken Fen. Aka: rewilding, with a teashop. Billions of wigeon, oodles of shovelers, and so on and so forth. A very cold evening, so we've turned our collars up and hunch our shoulders as we trudge back to the carpark via the hides. I hesitate outside the last one. I can hear voices in the hide, and I confess here and now that I hate, in a painfully British way, walking into occupied bird hides.

But we go in, and it isn't a scary experience; there's a boy of about six sitting on the bench, looking out of the observation window, and his father, too, and they are clearly loving their afternoon out in the fens.

“Someone showed me.." says the father to Xtin and me, "the great grey shrike up there" — and with the there, he points at a speck right at the tip of a tall dead tree in the patchwork of lagoons reflecting the evening sky upwards to burr everything dusty orange and rose. "Apparently they’re really rare.”

They are. I am delighted. I knew the shrike had been wintering here; indeed, that it had been here for a couple of winters. But I'd not seen it before. And I was surprised because I expected it to be lower. It must be a good fifty, sixty feet up. I’d only seen shrikes in hot places, shrikes with their toes around low thorn bushes in baking garrigue, hunting in hot air sizzling with crickets. Never perched crows-nest high. Up there, this bird is plump and round with a stubby tail, all near-sillhouette; you can’t see its head. It looks like a malevolent blue tit.

Of course, it wouldn't look malevolent unless you know what shrikes do.

“Shrikes, Daniel” says the man, turning to the small boy, “catch birds and frogs and then they …. “ he considers, briefly, “impale them on thorns on thorn bushes”
“So they die?” says Daniel
“Yes. And then they come back and eat them.”
“Coooool!” says Daniel, with infinite relish.

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