Well, here I am back in Britain, getting reacquainted with old bird-friends and the spectacular dankness of the season. We’d just about got to that nice crispy leaf fall phase of the autumn in the States, which was marvellous, and I must write more about the latter phase of our trip. In the meantime, here’s a quick tale from these relatively soggy shores. Yesterday I was fortunate to be a guest of the Great Bustard Group for the morning, of which I hope to tell more if I become involved. (For now I feel you should know: bustards like mustard. And cheese. Who knew?) Finding myself passing close to reports of a fairly settled juvenile red-backed shrike on the way home, I sniffed an overdue life bird, and called in at Weather Hill Firs in Wiltshire.
It’s a spot on the eastern side of Salisbury plain, at least half of which is covered by the largest military training area in Britain. Some central areas are quite sensibly closed to the public, but provided you observe warning signs and red flags on the fringes of the plain you can pretty much go anywhere. Which is quite fun, really, I recall in particular the thrills of a previous visit on which I drove my Micra up a tank track and parked up outside a mock Afghan village.
This time, as advised, I left my car closer to the road, and walked in. Initially no shrike was to be seen, though it was indeed ‘shrikey’ terrain: long rough grassland, studded with fence posts and thorn bushes suitable for hunting and butchery. Instead, a swift military helicopter was circling the end of the treeline, the growl of its engines growing and subsiding with each loop. At the culmination of one lap, it dropped into a field downhill, until all I could see of it was the blur of its rotor and a single blinking navigation light. It was unnervingly close, both to the ground and to me. I could see gun-toting troops peering out of a side door as it rose again. Nothing like this had happened on our previous trip to Salisbury Plain.
I suspect that they were simply practicing quick drop-offs in hostile country, but so often did the pilot seem to buzz me that I thought for a while I might be the target, and that until I moved off the plain the helicopter would continue to haunt me. Maybe my scope and tripod looked suspicious, or I was being used as stand-in Taliban. But eventually my tail moved off. I watched it diminish to the horizon, and at almost the same moment I could no longer hear the dull whir of its rotors I caught sight of a small reddish-brown bird perched prominently on a blackthorn. From the posture it was unmistakeably a shrike. I paced closer, carefully, an excellent view of my first red-backed shrike unfolding in the eyepiece of my ‘scope.
I watched for a good while as the young shrike did nothing much but hang out on its bush-top perch, scallop-patterned juvenile feathers gently ruffled by the wind. The bird was obviously content in the area, which means it probably has a higher tolerance for helicopter noise than I do! After ten minutes or so, and following no obvious cue, a flick of its tail sent it swooping downslope. I followed tentatively – wouldn’t do to disturb a long-staying bird, after all – but couldn’t see to where it had flown. At this point I was torn. Military activity seemed to have subsided, and the plain was peaceful for a moment. I could almost imagine the Salisbury Plain ‘Peace Park’ that my increasingly pacifist tendencies wouldn’t mind seeing established one day: grasslands preserved in perpetuity, warlike disturbance at an end. But my stomach rumbled. Lunch was calling.
What I didn’t know was that manoeuvres in the area were only just getting started. Turning my head at a sudden roar of propellers, I was stunned to see a massive transport aircraft approaching low across the plain. A long strand of some sort began unfurling out the back, opening into a small parachute, and was followed by a metal construction, a bridge maybe, probably ten times the size and weight of my car. It dropped rapidly into a field, probably 500 metres away – but it felt a lot closer. I was still taking stock of this impressive and somewhat terrifying display of hardware deployment when I heard the familiar twin thud of a Chinook’s rotors approaching overhead (we live within a short flight of RAF Odiham). Clearly the main battle front was closing in, and it was time for me to beat a retreat.
Retreat I may have, but having found and enjoyed watching the bird, and survived everything the British Army could throw at me, it was with head held high that I marched victorious back to the Hatmobile. You’d think I should know what pride precedes: I promptly slipped on a mud slick, fell sideways, and landed with my legs and scope tripod flailing in a pale brown puddle. Call it Salisbury Plain Training Area 1, Hatbirder 1.