Red-backed shrike

The Guardian - - WEATHER - Stephen Moss @StephenMoss_TV

The first sign of au­tumn ap­peared the mo­ment we ar­rived. A spot­ted red­shank, re­splen­dent in its dusky breed­ing plumage, stop­ping off on my Som­er­set coastal patch as it headed south from its Arc­tic nest­ing grounds.

But the start of July is far too early for any song­bird mi­grants. So along with my com­pan­ion Daniel, whom I met on our very first day at gram­mar school, al­most half a cen­tury ago, I sim­ply en­joyed the fine weather, and its as­so­ci­ated mar­bled white and meadow brown but­ter­flies.

As we reached the River Par­rett, a flock of lin­nets flew up into a bram­ble bush. I like lin­nets, es­pe­cially when the males show off their splen­did pink breed­ing plumage, so I lifted my binoc­u­lars to take a closer look.

And then I saw it. A larger bird, with a rus­set back and grey head, fac­ing away from me on the same bush. As it turned to re­veal a black ban­dit mask, I heard my­self yelling “red-backed shrike!”

Amaz­ingly, it was – a splen­did male, perched sen­tinel-like in the July sun­shine. Mo­ments later, it flew down and dis­ap­peared. For­tu­nately we re­lo­cated it fur­ther along the path, and watched in de­light as it sal­lied forth to grab large, juicy flies from a con­ve­nient cow­pat, be­fore re­turn­ing to perch amongst the pink and white bram­ble blooms.

If you awarded a prize for the most strik­ing Bri­tish song­bird, a male red-backed shrike would surely be a clear con­tender. With its dove-grey head, black mask, white throat, rus­set back and del­i­cate, peachy breast, it is un­doubt­edly beau­ti­ful. But like all shrikes, it is also as­ton­ish­ingly charis­matic and grace­ful. They may be small – some­where be­tween the size of a spar­row and a star­ling – but with that hooked beak they look rather like a minia­ture rap­tor. In­deed, given their car­niv­o­rous diet I have al­ways won­dered why we don’t cat­e­gorise shrikes as birds of prey. Once – just about within liv­ing mem­ory – the red-backed shrike was widely found in south­ern Bri­tain, where peo­ple called it the “butcher bird”, from its grisly habit of im­pal­ing its vic­tims onto thorn bushes. But dur­ing the twen­ti­eth cen­tury the species be­gan to de­cline, un­til by the time I be­gan bird­ing in the 1970s it had vir­tu­ally dis­ap­peared.

I re­mem­ber see­ing what was then the last Bri­tish breed­ing pair, in a car park in the Suf­folk Brecks, al­most thirty years ago. Since then, in a Lazarus-like res­ur­rec­tion, a few pairs have bred on Dart­moor and in the north of Scot­land, though their sta­tus re­mains pre­car­i­ous.

Ev­ery au­tumn, red-backed shrikes reg­u­larly turn up along the east coast, mostly young­sters on their first mi­gra­tory jour­ney head­ing south from Scan­di­navia to win­ter in Africa. But what was this splen­did male do­ing in Som­er­set at the start of July? Was he a failed breeder from fur­ther north, or might he even have nested nearby – maybe some­where on Dart­moor or Ex­moor?

Ei­ther way, dis­cov­er­ing the shrike was one of the high­lights of my bird­ing life. Yet I would swap all the ex­cite­ment of the find to see the red-backed shrike re­turn to its for­mer glory as a com­mon and wide­spread Bri­tish bird.

Pho­to­graph: FPLA/REX/ Shutterstock

Male red-backed shrike with spi­der prey in its beak

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