Isabelline shrike  expecting the unexpected

On the morning of Sunday 1 October 2000, a group of over 60 birdwatchers made a crossing from Texel, where the annual Dutch Birding bird week was being held, to Vlieland to search for a possible Lesser Kestrel Falco naumanni reported on the previous day. The trip was well organised. I particularly enjoyed the ride over the Vliehors, an almost seven km long sandbar at the western tip of the island. The truck that takes tourists across is called the ‘Vliehors Expres’. After a few hours of searching it started to rain and the group split up. Many waited in the nearby Hotel Posthuys for the return trip, which was planned to leave at 18:00. Meanwhile, birders on the Dutch mainland were twitching an ‘isabelline shrike Lanius isabellinus/phoenicuroides’ at Castricum.

At about 17:00, Rob Verburgt called to inform me about another crossing back to Texel, one hour earlier. He had, however, just missed the Vliehors Express to the jetty. Luckily, it was still coming my way. On board were already 16 birdwatchers and about 40 tourists. I found a spot in the middle. When I was just getting comfortable and dry, the truck suddenly stopped, troubled by some sort of technical problem it seemed. I then noted Bart Brieffies, Peter Meininger and Peter de Vries at the back, frantically looking and pointing. Peter Meininger shouted: “Isabelline shrike!” and all three jumped out of the truck. Others stood up, wormed through the crowd and did the same. When moments later the driver was ready to move on, most preferred to stay out in the rain in the middle of the sandbar… The astonished looks on the tourists’ faces when the Vliehors Expres drove off were priceless!

The excited birdwatchers on that beach were Bart Brieffies, Johan Buijsman, Alexander Buhr, Gido Davidse, Rina Huisman and Kees Renes, Peter Meininger, Arjan Ovaa, Jans Sikkens, Pieter Thomas, Peter de Vries, Co and Monique van der Wardt and myself (Edial Dekker and Fransje Haakman and Frans van der Veen had hopped back on board). Sitting on the tide line was indeed a stunning adult male ‘isabelline shrike’ – a reality hard to take in. Scribbling down a description was no option because of the rain, so I made a sound-recording of our conversations instead. Part of it goes as follows:

Oh, oh, oh, what a coincidence.
Monique: Wat was the man doing? Was he…ahem?
Co: I don’t know. The truck was already leaving when I jumped out of it.
Me: Ehm, did I see some dark pattern in the central tail?
Co: Where is the bird now?
Me: It’s on the far right. I see white tips to the tail feathers.
Bart: Record some things, please!… A description.
Co: Yes, I am working on it with Roy, but there is not much progress.
I think I saw white tips to the tail feathers, as if they’re new. The tail colour is like that of a Common Redstart, I would say. Dark orange-brown.
Co: Monique, can you get the umbrella out of the backpack? You can stand under it.
Arjan: I don’t find it straightforward, I must say. Let’s make some photographs first. My field guide isn’t much help.
No, but it is all about first impressions, Arjan. The bird is so pale. While our bird, our Daurian on Texel, was much darker. It had a stronger… umm…
Arjan: Yes, but there is a difference… Spring and autumn.
You are right. I don’t know.
Arjan: If those photographs turn out well, we’ll definitely be able to identify the bird. And with a description too.
Go on, keep on describing it, guys!
Co: Now, where is that bird? Let’s see. I see ehm…
What an incredible find!
Co: Oh, oh, oh, was it you who discovered it, Bart? Well, let’s have a look. Where’s the bird?
It is much further to the right.
 Near Peter?
Me: Further right. Further right. There’s a shoe or something… There’s a shoe on the beach. Or… Um, I don’t know. It’s no shoe.
Co: I see a bottle with a yellow cap.
Monique: You have to look more to the right.
Very far right.
Monique: Yes… About there.
Me: There’s something blue and white. Litter.
Me: Just right of it.
Co: Ah, to the right. Got it. These white… um.
Me: The upperparts appear browner now, don’t they. Not so greyish.
Co: Indeed, brownish. Those um… those… There is some white. There is some white next to the um… coverts. It’s taking off again. To the right. To the right. Still flying to the right. Awesome. Its breast, belly and undertail-coverts are completely white. Perhaps with a very faint buffish hue, but almost white…
Are the breast-sides slightly more buffish than the flanks?
Did the driver not realise we had left the truck?
Rina: Look, the truck is already coming back again.
Pieter: What a remarkable event. Very remarkable.
I am still shaking. I can’t believe this bird is here.

Due to poor mobile phone reception at this remote location, spreading the news required some determination. When the Vliehors Expres drove by a few minutes later, on its way back to Hotel Posthuys, unfortunately, the shrike flew far away. Almost certainly the same bird was, however, discovered at the northern tip of Texel the next morning by Harm-Jan Wight, where it stayed for five days. It was accepted as the first Red-tailed Shrike L phoenicuroides for the Netherlands (van der Vliet et al 2001). The identification was largely based on Worfolk (2000), published a few weeks after our observation. The ‘isabelline shrike’ at Castricum was accepted as the third Daurian Shrike L isabellinus (van der Vliet et al 2002). I saw it on 3 October. 


This photograph was taken by Monique van der Wardt minutes after the discovery.

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Published 11 April 2018