I was just thinking that this winter and our yard specifically was a bit boring nature-wise of late. With no snow we can't see any winter mammal tracks. The only mammal sightings include gray and red squirrels chasing each other. Visitors to the bird feeders mostly include the regular foursome: American goldfinch, white-breasted nuthatch, tufted titmouse, and black-capped chickadee, with the occasional gatherings of juncos and mourning doves and sometimes a pair of downy woodpeckers and red-breasted nuthatches. The last unusual sighting was the barred owl on December 10th.
This morning was sunny and windy and the usual birds were at the feeder. Then, as I was talking with my parents on the phone and looking out my home office window at mid-day, a different bird landed on the feeder, stayed for just a few seconds -- too quick for me to get my bins up -- then flew around the house out of sight. Darn. Credit goes to my parents for calling about then. I was looking out the window as I often do while on the phone with them -- we often compare notes on what is coming to our respective feeders. My mother was quick to say she should let me go so that I could watch the bird, but alas it flew off too quick so we kept talking.
Despite just seeing the bird for a few seconds I am certain it was a northern shrike! The nice thing about birds in winter here is that there aren't a lot of different species. The resident birds are easy to sort out. Then the list of irregular winter migrants, such as the dozen or so pine siskins that were here a few weeks ago (that was another nice winter sighting in the yard), is not long. The list of really irregular visitors is even shorter. The northern shrike fits on the last list.
The northern shrike breeds in Alaska and northern parts of Canada. In winter it migrates south into the U.S, but it is not a common visitor to these parts. Like the pine siskin, it is considered an "irruptive" winter visitor; its winter movements are thought to be related to the availability of its favorite food - small rodents, especially mice. If they are around, shrikes are most often seen in semi-open country - places with a mix of grass and shrubs and scattered trees. We live in a rather forested area, although there are some fields nearby and we cut our wild prairie in the backyard this fall, so maybe the shrike was seeing something of a tundra-like landscape in our neighborhood.
Shrikes also take small birds. This shrike today was going for one of the foursome at the feeder, but had to fly off with an empty beak. My quick i.d. of this bird as a northern shrike was based on several clues. The bird was fairly big, about the size of blue jay, but a little less plump. The northern shrike -- and this bird -- has a gray head and back, black wings, long black tail, black mask behind the eye, and a distinct hooked bill. The size, the color, and the bill were noticeable even with the naked eye. There is another shrike sometimes seen in the Northeast -- the loggerhead shrike -- but it is quite rare and a bit smaller.
This week of winter is looking up now, thanks to the shrike. And a BIG snowstorm is coming (we hope!) on Wednesday.