Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Jizz

I was out in the yard this morning to split some kindling before the rain started again and resoaked the wood when I heard a call I didn't know, loud and insistent, reminiscent of the call of a great-crested flycatcher, but that was neither likely nor quite right, and coming from the fields just beyond the fence line. I walked up--fortunately wearing my glasses (I'm just a little near-sighted, don't really need glasses to split kindling), but no binoculars. There was a largish bird (blue-jay size) at the top of a tree, calling, and turning as I walked over so that I couldn't see the back of it. Look as I might, I couldn't make out much of anything against the grey sky. So, sure that this was something interesting, I took the chance it would stay and walked back to the house for the binoculars.

It did stay! When I got back for a better (magnified) look I could soon see that it was a shrike. This was a possibility that had crossed my mind because of its general size and shape, and I was pleased to realize it. But since it's only the first of November, a little unnerved too. There are two shrikes possible here, but unlikely to be here at the same time: the northern shrike and the loggerhead shrike. The loggerhead is a species at risk--a breeding pair was found in my Atlas square, just down the highway a kilometre or so (not by me), so I know that it is possible I might see one. This is a little later than I'd expect to though, but not by all that much, I guess. I see northern shrikes every year, just once or twice, and usually in late winter or early spring. They don't breed here, but might hang out here for the winter. Because of the status of the loggerhead, I feel the identification of a shrike is a weighty matter, hence unnerving. (Here's a link to an Ontario Field Ornithologists' page on this identification.)

Reading the field guides, checking the other resources, it is clear that distinguishing these two birds is no picnic. One's bigger than the other--great, if you've got one in each hand. The black bar through the eyes is a little differently shaped in the two species--oh, with some overlap. In the past I've thought it was a hopeless task to distinguish between these two in the field. And I've never been certain of shrikes I've seen late enough in the spring that it might have been either. But today, looking first at the bird, then at the pictures in Sibley, it was clear as day to me that the bird I saw was a northern shrike. Why? Well, what I would say if pressed is that it was the size and shape of the beak--but really it was the jizz. I could see the whole bird, not just the field marks I tried to focus on, and even though I've probably never seen a loggerhead shrike, certainly not that I knew, I knew that this bird was my old friend the northern.

Now maybe if I see a Loggerhead next year, I'll know it too.

2 comments:

Kingfisher said...

I envy you this dilemma. Seeing a Shrike (of any variety) is on my top ten wish list for birds. Do other people have a wish list or am I getting weirder and weirder?

Cindy M. said...

neat sighting- won't be long and our 'butcherbirds' will be here. I find shrikes fascinating with their efficient predator beaks, but inefficent songbird feet/talons. They always seem a bit incomplete to me in that sense.