Wednesday, 2 September 2015


Diminutive - but both fierce and intelligent

A RED-backed shrike which spent the whole of August Bank Holiday (and longer) in Cleethorpes, North East Lincolnshire, attracted plenty of interest.

Its chosen habitat was an area of scrubland, thought to be owned by ports company ABP, on the coastal side of Blundell Park - home of Grimsby Town FC.

Judging by its plumage coloration, it was probably an adult female or a juvenile.

The bird was first detected by John Nelson who has a history of coming up with gems - including great grey shrike and white-spotted bluethroat - on this particular patch which he knows well.

Subsequently, the sighting was posted on the website of  Lincolnshire Bird Club by a member, Dave Bradbeer.

Although smaller than a starling, few  birds have as fearsome a reputation as the red-backed shrike.

Also dubbed  the "butcher bird", it sometimes impales its prey - usually insects such as grasshoppers but sometimes small birds or rodents - on a  thorn known as a "larder".

So it was with this particular bird.

As perching points, it mostly seemed to favour hawthorn, buddleia, mountain ash saplings or one of the security fence concrete stanchions on the edge of the neighbouring  factory - but never the buckthorn which is widespread on the site.

 Then, at 11.20am on September 2, the shrike  was spotted in flight with what appeared to be a large insect in its bill. Moments later, it temporarily settled low down in the bush of a wild rose before flying off.

Subsequent inspection of the bush revealed a bumble bee impaled, back first, on a thorn.

The incident was a reminder of  the intelligence of the species - not only its save-it-for-later feeding behaviour but also its capacity to remember the location of its larder.

Soon after 5pm the same day, the thorn "larder" was again inspected - the bee’s corpse had gone.


Only one or two pairs of red-backed shrikes are thought to nest in the UK, and the Cleethorpes bird will probably have blown over from the continent on its migration to tropical or southern Africa.

 But writings of yesteryear reveal them once to have been so plentiful that they were quite regularly trapped, kept in cages as  pets and sometimes shown at bird exhibitions.

Writing in 1909, ornithologist and  trapper Sumner Birchley  describes them as "generally common" in southern and midland counties, especially  Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Berkshire.

He wrote: "In a rough hedge surrounding a large meadow, I knew of no less than five nests.

"I had many a good catch, but not before, in most cases, having had  taste of their formidable bills, often fetching blood, so great was their pinching power."

Mostly Birchley  would use a net to trap the shrikes, but on one occasion he resorted to using sticky lime on a twig from which, after perching, one  luckless catch  was unable to break free.

He continued:"The result was marvellous for he was caught in an instant, but I am sorry to say he lost his tale  in the melee."

As well as being illegal, such conduct now would be regarded as barbaric  and unethical. Even the though of it is enough to bring a shudder to the spine.

But times were different then. It is just possible that Mr Birchley even thought he was doing the shrike a favour in providing it with food and board  - albeit the accommodation being  a tiny cage in a shed in his garden. 

* Photo, above, of red-backed shrike by Pierre Dalous via Wikipedia)

Reached via railway crossings at  Fuller Street or Suggitts Lane, the scrubland  is close to Blundell Park whose floodlights are seen in the  background

Another view of the site - this time with a factory backdrop

The wild rose bush where the shrike made its larder

The impaled bumble bee - it was probably consumed later on the day it was caught

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