Red-Backed Shrike at London Wetlands Centre

As we were down in London anyway, we decided to take a trip to the WWT London Wetland Centre. I’m going to blog about the visit properly tomorrow, but wanted to share the very exciting sighting made there.

Something I’ve always meant to write about here is the role luck plays in birding. If you are not a dedicated twitcher, willing and able to trek up and down the country to see specific birds, then you are relying on opportunity knocking. Yesterday, opportunity kicked the door down!

We weren’t in London to visit the centre. There’s the first stroke of luck. When we arrived, we had two choices as to which half of the centre to do in the morning. South, or West. I was inclined to go West, but as my companion wanted a cup of tea first, we went to the cafe. Which led us South. Which meant we went West in the afternoon. Stroke of luck #2.

I turn all communication devices off when I’m out birding, so I had no way of knowing that as we entered ‘Wildside’ at around 3pm, the net had been a-buzz with news of a very cool sighting. But as we walked in, right by the door, I spied men with spotting scopes, always a sure sign something is up. As we walked up, I heard someone behind me say “Oh, there it is, in that bush”. I trained the binoculars on the bush, and sure enough:

"Stand and Deliver"

“Stand and Deliver”

The distinctive bandit mask of a Shrike. I’ve only ever seen one Shrike before, and that a dubious half-sighting of a Great Grey in Spain. I’ve never seen one well, or in the UK.

The next question was, what species? Most birdwatchers are very helpful, and I could just have asked someone. But I always like to get the ID for myself wherever possible. Given the pale colour my first thought was “Great Grey”, but the slightly buff-pink breast put that thought out of my mind. Lesser Grey or Isabelline were possibilities, but with the size Red-Backed seemed most likely. Sure enough, it made a little twist and:

"Prince Charming"

“Prince Charming”

Bingo! There’s the red back, and that wonderful contrast between slate-grey head, black mask, and red back. A charming male Red-backed Shrike!

We wandered on after drinking it in, and were lucky enough to spot it twice more before we headed off. The tills of the centre ringing merrily as birders flocked (scuse the pun) to see it.

"King of the Wild Frontier" (getting desperate now...)

“King of the Wild Frontier” (getting desperate now…)

I wasn’t looking for it, I thought the really exciting birds would all be to come next week, but Scotland has to go some way to beat such a fabulous little bird.

Shrikes are fascinating things, known as ‘Butcher Birds’. They have a lovely little habit of implaing the food they catch on the spines of bushes. Not so bad for this insectivorous Red-Backed, slightly more gruesome when it’s a Great Grey with a larder full of lizards!

Anyway, I’ll have a two part special on the London Wetland Centre tomorrow.

Erm... "Ant Music"?!

Erm… “Ant Music”?!

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9 Responses to Red-Backed Shrike at London Wetlands Centre

  1. Emily Heath says:

    What stops other birds coming along and stealing items from the shrike’s larder, do they protect their territories well? Perhaps there’s the worry that the shrikes might impale thieves too!

    • David says:

      It’s a good question. I’ve certainly seen pics where Great Grey Shrikes impaled other birds!

      I think they tend to secrete the larder in denser bushes, but then they’ll also use barbed wire. I guess territorial protection does most of the work.

      • Emily Heath says:

        Eek – impaled birds! Why have they become so rare, was it habitat loss, or hunting, or a combination of things?

        • David says:

          They were quite a target for egg collectors, which became a huge problem when the breeding population really declined. But in general it’s likely to be habitat-linked. The good news is they have bred the last couple of years, so there may be a recolonisation if we’re lucky/careful. They have had to have the single nest sites on 24 hour monitoring as illegal egg collectors would raid them.

          • Emily Heath says:

            I don’t understand the appeal of destroying life by collecting eggs. A living bird is a thing of beauty; an egg taken away from a nest is lost potential. I hope the shrikes can recover.

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I welcome thoughts, comments and questions, so please feel free to share anything at all. Thanks, David

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