Red-Backed Shrike

Late spring along the Suffolk Coast in England

Published 10:00pm Sunday, June 15, 2014


Yes it was raining when I arrived. It’s seems as if it’s always raining in England…well almost always! But it’s green, very green indeed. The countryside is a patchwork of fields and hedgerows dotted with villages with the horizon broken by church steeples. Very picturesque, especially if the sun comes out from time to time.
I arrived in Suffolk on a late May afternoon, way past the peak of spring migration. The first Barn Swallow usually arrives in the country in early April with numbers peaking during the first week of May. European Cuckoos peak a little later in May, while Spotted Flycatchers tend to arrive back from their wintering grounds in Africa in late May.
It was already late May by the time I walked around Minsmere Bird Reserve on the coast of Suffolk.  Bank Swallows were feeding over the wetlands and breeding in the earthen bank near the visitor center; Greater Whitethroats and Willow Warblers were singing from the Hawthorn bushes in the coastal scrub and a pair of European Stone-Curlews had a well-hidden nest in an overgrown field. Despite the fact that some of the migrants had barely arrived, the spring breeding season was in full swing. To sit in one of the well-used blinds was to have a window into the busy world of colonial nesting birds. Black-headed Gulls and Pied Avocets were all incubating their eggs only to all fly up in a noisy crowd to chase away a marauding Herring Gull. This aerial predator is after any unprotected eggs and chicks but with all of the attention of all of the nesting birds it is unlikely to cause more than some temporary chaos in the colony.
There’s always additional activity at the periphery of all the bird action- small numbers of waterfowl feed quietly as one or other of the pair is usually on eggs in the nearby undergrowth. These include the spectacular black and white Shelduck, the modestly colored Gadwall and the bright Northern Shoveler. As well as more common species, such us Mallard and Tufted Duck, these and several other species of ducks are common breeding species in this part of England.
Minsmere Bird Reserve is often considered the flagship reserve of the one of Europe’s largest conservation groups, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). This large reserve along the Suffolk coast is a maze of woodlands, marshes, coastal heathland and vast shallow pools of brackish water adjacent to the shingle coastline and is a “must visit” for any interested bird and nature enthusiast in the area. As it was still theoretically spring and as a very “good” bird had been reported a little farther down the coast, we decided to hike down in search of our quarry. Needless to say we were not alone as at least six others had the same idea. We walked down to the bushy area where the bird had been reported and yes, there it was, perched atop a blackberry tangle; a very attractive female Red-backed Shrike. She had obviously come in a day or so earlier and was resting prior to re-crossing the North Sea back to Southern Scandinavia. A smaller relative of our North American Loggerhead Shrike, Red-backs are common breeding birds throughout most of Europe and every year the population all moves south to winter in Africa. A few pairs historically nested in the UK, but as the country is on the edge of the Shrike’s range, the population ebbs and flows from year to year.
Coastal Suffolk is one of those places where you can really escape and go back to nature. Vast tracts of the coastline are protected and wildlife has the chance to thrive. It’s always a delight and an honor to visit such places, especially in the spring.

Simon Thompson: Simon Thompson has lived in WNC for the past 20 years. He owns and operates his own birding tour company, Ventures Birding Tours.
He and Chris also own and operate the Asheville Wild Birds Unlimited Store. For more information on any of the birding activities in the area, drop by the store or check his website at

Minsmere Bird Reserve


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