Country diary: in the shake of a shrike's tail

Horsey, Norfolk: The bird fizzed through the pouring rain, its long tail darts flickering brilliant white

By the time we made it back to the Nelson Head pub, my trousers were soaked from the knee down and rain had seeped through the zip on my jacket so that the jumper below, and even the shirt next to my skin, were as wet as if those parts had been washed.

We’d been in rain for three hours without relief. What was notable about this dour June spell was how it poured and poured, but evenly, so that it invested the landscape efficiently and without exception.

You could see it by scanning the horizon of a wheat crop as we walked, where every stalk, blade or spike had been minutely beaded with water. It was most striking, however, as you looked along lengths of the barbed wire that bounded the cattle-grazed field, where the lesser grey shrike we had come to see was to be found. The tines depended either side of the main wire in repeat pattern like bones on a clean-filleted fish and every single tip was blobbed with a glass drop.

In this green-soaked, uniform world, where the whole of the soundscape was just the rain’s even tattoo on plasticised jacket, the shrike created this aura of fierce singularity. The face mask was black. The long tail looked black. Down the back ran a shelf of military-grey feathers and around the white front was a belt of warmth tinged minutely rose.

The species breeds no nearer than northern Spain and is more at home on the arid steppes of Asiatic Russia or the bush-dotted pasture of Romania. It is, in truth, mostly African, living eight months a year by hunting beetles or grasshoppers among the thorn scrub and drylands near, or south of, the Kalahari.

Here in Norfolk’s green fields, it hopped from post to post. It dipped down from the wire for moths and bees. As it fizzed through the rain, the white wing bars blurred and the long tail darts flickered brilliant white. Then it would land and as we watched, our vision barred with the rain’s unending static, this little bird would shake and wreath itself briefly in a shiver of rain diamonds.


Mark Cocker

The GuardianTramp

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