Northern Shrike!

Northern Shrike

Northern Shrike

The temperature dropped by the time Saturday rolled around, and it was only -19°C when I headed out birding. I was eager to add some more birds to my brand new year list, and started off the morning with a walk at Old Quarry Trail, hoping that the trails would be much quieter first thing in the morning given the frigid cold. I still needed Pileated Woodpecker for my list, and was hoping to find a few other surprises such as Ruffed Grouse, Northern Goshawk, an owl, some winter finches, or even a Black-backed Woodpecker. Any mammals would be welcome, too, as Old Quarry Trail is a good spot to see White-tailed Deer and porcupines. When I arrived I set off on my usual walk along the northern-most trail. There were only two other cars in the parking lot, and for most of my walk I saw no one on the trail.

There didn’t seem to be much around at first, though I did meet up with a couple out feeding the deer, and we had a long chat. They have been feeding the deer for years now, and know most of them by sight. They told me that they had just seen a couple of bucks and were looking for the females, which should be out looking for food in the bitter cold. Normally they come up to the front of the trail first thing in the morning when the couple are out feeding them, then retreat to the dense woods at the back. Eventually we went our separate ways, and I never did see any deer on my walk, either males or females. I didn’t see any porcupines, either.

Old Quarry Trail

Old Quarry Trail

At first it seemed there were very few birds around, but once the sun rose higher in the sky they started to appear. I heard a Pileated Woodpecker calling and managed to spot two together at the top of a dead tree. Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers followed, as did both nuthatches, a Common Raven, and a steady stream of crows flying over. I decided to check the field near the hydro cut for robins and Bohemian Waxwings, as there are lots of berries in this area and I have seen waxwings there in the past. It didn’t take long to find a flock of robins, and I quickly realized there were over 30 individuals present! I spent some time trying to photograph them, and was happy when I observed a single Cedar Waxwing in the flock.

American Robin

American Robin

The best part of my outing came when I turned around in time to see the long, sinuous form of a Short-tailed Weasel dart across the snow and beneath a clump of shrubs. It was completely white, with a black-tipped tail, and almost completely blended in with its surroundings. I have no idea where it came from, and stared at the shrubs for a long time before realizing it wasn’t coming out.

From there I headed over to the Moodie Drive Quarry, arriving just in time to see six gulls take flight from the ice. I drove over to the landfill and saw about ten Herring Gulls flying around while the crows and a huge flock of starlings swarmed over the mound of garbage. Three Red-tailed Hawks, two Common Ravens, and a single chickadee were also present. After that day my year list was up to 37 species and my mammal list up to three: Short-tailed Weasel, American Red Squirrel, and Eastern Gray Squirrel.

The temperature rose again in the middle of the week, and I took advantage of the fair weather to head out to Hurdman at lunch on Wednesday. I had already added Barrow’s Goldeneye and Harlequin Duck to my year list, but hoped to see the Song Sparrow, Common Mergansers, Great Black-backed Gull, Golden-crowned Kinglet, and Northern Shrike seen there recently. The temperature was a few degrees above zero, and even better, it was sunny! Typically the mild days in winter are either raining or overcast, so this felt like a taste of spring.

For the first time in three visits I didn’t see the pair of Red-tailed Hawks soaring over upon my arrival, but when I checked the river I found four Common Mergansers resting on the ice – one male and three females.

Common Merganser

Common Merganser (male)

Of course they all took to the water as soon as I tried to get closer to the bank to shoot through the branches – even though I wasn’t anywhere near them!

Common Merganser

Common Merganser (female)

The male Common Merganser in breeding plumage is a dapper bird. I am usually able to get closer to the females than the males, so it was a treat to be able to get some nice photos of him. The green head is not visible in this image:

Common Merganser

Common Merganser (male)

I turned my attention to the goldeneyes diving in the middle of the open water, and saw the male Barrow’s Goldeneye. To my surprise, a further scan revealed a second one close by! I spent some time watching the two of them, as I have never seen two Barrow’s Goldeneyes together. It was fascinating to watch them diving fairly close together. I really wanted to get a photo of them, but the shrubs along the bank created too thick of a screen to find a large enough opening.

Just then I heard someone calling me, and I turned around to see Aaron up on the path. I quickly joined him, and he told me he had seen the Harlequin Duck and the Northern Shrike on his walk. I told him about the two Barrow’s Goldeneyes, and also mentioned the White-throated Sparrows hanging around the feeders. I hadn’t been there yet, but told him I had had at least two on both recent visits; he hasn’t seen them yet and was interested in locating them. For my part, I was happy to hear that the shrike was still around, as it isn’t an easy bird for me to get – they seem to show up sporadically, and for the past few winters I haven’t been able to find one faithful to a particular spot. I used to be able to find them along Carling Avenue and the dump fairly regularly, but not anymore.

We soon went our separate ways, as he had to get back to work, and I had a lot of ground to cover before I had to leave myself. I checked out the patch of open water near the 417 bridge and found the Harlequin Duck diving with a few Common Goldeneyes. It is now believed to be an immature male, and I wasn’t able to get too close:

Harlequin Duck with Common Goldeneye

Harlequin Duck with Common Goldeneye

This male Common Goldeneye was slightly closer:

Common Goldeneye

Common Goldeneye

From there I headed into the woods to check out the action at the feeder. Only the chickadees were busy eating, so I continued down the trail toward the dead-end. It wasn’t long before I heard the call of a White-breasted Nuthatch and the chip notes of a few White-throated Sparrows. I responded a few times – tssseet! – and eventually they began approaching the trail. Eventually I saw four of them – one in the dense branches of a shrub, and three near the feeder. I suspect there may be one or two more as I heard a couple of chip notes coming from deeper within the woods. Except for the ones gleaning food beneath the feeder, they were acting like Winter Wrens, ambling along tree branches in the densest part of the shrubs. I wasn’t able to get a decent picture of any of them, but none had the crisp, bold colours of a white-morph adult; all were fairly dingy, with some still showing the streaky chest of an immature bird. I checked each one in case a Song Sparrow was hanging out with them, but they were all definitely White-throated Sparrows.

Once I was finished watching the birds at the feeder I headed back to the buses. Then I stopped when I saw the large bird perching at the top of a bare tree along the river. It was a shrike – and it was a juvenile! To my surprise a smaller bird (a chickadee?) was bouncing around in the branches below it – did it not see the predator above it? I was able to get close enough to take some photos, and by that time the smaller bird was gone.

Northern Shrike

Northern Shrike

The adult Northern Shrike is a handsome gray and white bird with a black mask and black wings. Juveniles are browner, with noticeable barring on the chest, and often don’t have a distinct black mask. Northern Shrikes breed in the open country of the taiga and over-winter in open areas in southern Canada and the northern U.S., preferring areas with tall trees or shrubs for perching. They eat insects, small mammals, and birds, often killing more prey than they can immediately eat in order to store the food for later. Such prey is often impaled on thorns, spines, or barbed wire, which has led to the shrike’s nickname of “butcher bird”.

Northern Shrike

Northern Shrike

Shrikes are notoriously difficult to photograph as they don’t like humans getting anywhere near them – they almost always fly off once they realize they are being watched. I was happy that this one stayed put, and allowed me to walk along the path until I was in a position where the sun was falling on it directly. I was also glad I had enough zoom to photograph it, resulting in my best shrike photos to date!

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