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 Woodchat Shrike - Fact File
Lanius senator
Summer visitor to Europe (mostly Mediterranean area), only occurring here as a vagrant.
Typically open country with scattered trees and bushes.

Bold black, white and chestnut plumage of adult unmistakable.

19 cm (7.5")

Woodchat Shrike

Lars Jonsson's splendid field guide to the birds of Europe describes the woodchat shrike as an 'annual vagrant to Britain, April to October and especially May.'

Through the years I have enjoyed watching this attractive vagrant on two occasions: at Salthouse Heath and in Holme Dunes. A further opportunity a few days ago to see another one was not to be missed.

The venue was the base of the sand dunes not far from Waxham Great Barn. Here the distinguished visitor perched prominently. Main lookout post was a well-chosen perch at the top of a bush. From this vantage point the woodchat periodically swept in rapid flight to fencing wire, ever waiting and watching for the next meal.

Dropping to the ground it seized a bumblebee which was rapidly smashed into impotence. A woodchat's prey is mainly insects, beetles, damsel flies, dragonflies, grasshoppers, wasps and bees.

But diet extends to a selection of birds including warblers and even swallows, wheatears and nightingales. On occasions woodchats have been known to plunder the nests of other birds, which may explain the anxiety of a pair of stonechats nearby.

Woodchat shrikes have often been observed taking trapped small birds in mist-nets. A migrant shrike seeking temporary refuge aboard a ship soon began searching behind rope coils to seize fellow travelling willow warblers. Although the same size as a red-backed shrike, the woodchat gives an impression of being smaller and more compact. In bright sunlight the Waxham visitor displayed a black forehead and broad patch around each eye contrasted with a fiery chestnut-red cowl on the rear crown and upper mantle. While oval shoulder patches provided further distinctive field marks.

Olive groves and forests of cork oak are the Mediterranean environment of the handsome woodchat. Further north various types of open woodland are favoured.

A glance at a map shows the woodchat to be well distributed as a summer visitor in much of Europe. Winter is spent in Africa south of the Sahara in open bush country. It is rather surprising that so few 'overshoot' their range and are detected here in spring.

During the previous two decades a total of only nine woodchats have been recorded in the pages of the Norfolk Bird Report.

In 1993 an individual made a highly unusual stay of four weeks in the Weybourne-Kelling area. Overshooting is a well established phenomenon in other migratory species having a similar distribution to that of the dashing woodchat.

By Michael J. Seago

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Illustrations by Dave Nurney from - The Pocket Guide to the Birds Of Britain and North-West Europe By Chris Kightley and Steve Madge
© Pica Press and reproduced with kind permission.