I’d never seen a great grey shrike before, and I couldn’t get over its beauty

Nature notes: It stood out against the muddy green of the heather, the russet of the bracken

A A A

Encounters with wildlife sometimes trigger strong feelings in us. It’s especially true with, say, people who see for the first time in the wild the great beasts of Africa – the elephants, the rhinos and the buffaloes. Meeting the African megafauna in the flesh, as we might put it, tends to produce something unusual: a sort of intense awe, which is more than fascination (although that’s part of it), and more than fear (which can be part of it too); it’s an awe that tends towards reverence.  It has almost a spiritual dimension. For  me, anyway.

Over the years, I’ve thought about these feelings – I’ve written about them here – and come to suspect their origin lies in our distant past as hunter-gatherers; they are remnants of what our ancestors felt about the giant animals they regularly risked their lives to hunt and slaughter (and they came to worship them, painting their images on the walls of caves).

Remember, we have been workers with computers for one generation, and office workers for three or four, but we were farmers for four hundred generations, and before that, we were hunter-gatherers for perhaps 20,000, and the legacy persists.  I think that some of these dramatic  feelings from much earlier times about  the great beasts remain in us, even if  buried deep, and in Africa, they can emerge to surprise us.

So I think I see a reason why I have experienced powerful emotion on seeing a wild African elephant; but recently, I have experienced emotion every bit as powerful on seeing a single wild bird in Britain. This was a sighting 10 days ago on a common in Surrey, a sweeping piece of heath not  far from Guildford, and the bird was a  great grey shrike.

Shrikes are fascinating mini-predators, not much larger than blackbirds but hunting everything from lizards and beetles to other birds as big as greenfinches, and storing them in thorn-bush “larders”, on the spikes of which their prey is impaled.

In Britain we have one breeding species clinging on, the red-backed shrike, which went extinct in 1989 but has made a comeback: a few pairs have nested in  Devon and elsewhere in recent years. The great grey shrike, on the other hand, is strictly a winter visitor, and every year, about 50 of them migrate to Britain from Scandinavia, and take up territories across the country.

I’ve been looking for it for several years. To serious birders Lanius excubitor is nothing out of the ordinary, but I had never seen one, despite making several trips over recent winters to this very heathland, where they regularly appear. This time I went with a friend, Paul Stancliffe from the British Trust for Ornithology, a man with wonderful birding skills, who has seen everything, as it were, but who was as keen as I was on a shrike hunt. Naturally it was Paul who, after ages of us tramping the heath, eventually spotted it, perched on a burnt stump of pine; and when it came  into focus in my binoculars, I was taken aback: I couldn’t get over how beautiful it was. It is a quite exceptionally lovely bird, in a restrained palette of colours: an enchanting mixture of black, pure white and dove-grey.

I think its beauty was enhanced by its surroundings, for we saw it in what was still very much an autumn landscape, and against the muddy green of the old heather, the russet of the bracken, and the browns and golds of the oaks and birches, it stood out startlingly. (Paul said later that for him, part of the excitement was that here in these autumnal surroundings was  a sudden vision of winter). It was almost like a bright light, swooping about the heath, and occasionally, to our great delight, hovering, beating its wings for all it was worth, like an overweight bloke (such as myself) desperately peddling a bike uphill.

I cannot tell you how strong my feelings were, encountering and watching this bird. I was filled with an enormous gladness, an explosive elation, almost an ecstasy. It was an intense joy, like… well, start going down that road and you simply sound pretentious. But joy it was.

It wasn’t a vestige of some ancient emotion, as in meeting a wild elephant, I’m sure of that. It wasn’t a relic of some prehistoric shrike-hunter.

It was a feeling right from the here and now, a very singular feeling, and my life felt elevated and more worthwhile because of it; and I have thought, ever since, that I have hardly touched on the riches the natural world can supply us with.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Phillips Idowu, Stella McCartney and Jessica Ennis
fashionMcCartney to continue designing Team GB Olympics kit until 2016
Sport
Shinji Kagawa and Reece James celebrate after the latter scores in Manchester United's 7-0 victory over LA Galaxy
football
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
Farah returns to the track with something to prove
Commonwealth games
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism