Northern Shrike, Vesper Sparrow - a (relatively) rare 2-new-bird day

One of the last beautiful days of autumn! Normally I would go to the mountains to go hiking, see the fall foliage, sunset, etc., but today (Oct. 29, 2016) I had a different plan.

A Northern Shrike has been reported in my area. Sometimes, we get Loggerhead Shrikes here (this bird was initially identified as such), which is already pretty rare, but Northern Shrike? Very rare.

In the morning I made a trip to this area -- this is Sully Woodlands, a managed woodland/grassland habitat. After some searching, a few birders and I located the bird. Unfortunately, at the time the bird was far and backlit, all I got was pictures like this one:


Northern Shrike

Thus I "got" my new bird. But I am actually not a "real birder"; I like to observe birds and take bird photos. Although I photographed the Northern Shrike for the first time, the photo was not great and this was not quite satisfying.

In the afternoon I decided to give it another try. When I arrived at the location this time, before I even saw the Northern Shrike, I came across a Vesper Sparrow, although very briefly. Amazingly, I got my second new bird of the day. It has been a long time since I got two new birds on the same day in the area I am living in (when I go to foreign countries, such as Costa Rica , or other areas in the U.S., I do get multiple new birds on same days).


Vesper Sparrow

Soon I located the shrike again. This was birding/bird photography experience at its best: the bird was relaxed and accommodating; it allowed myself and a few other birders to get fairly close (although we maintained a respectful distance at all times). The late afternoon sun was soft and warm. The bird would fly to the ground and catch some insect prey and gobble it down; I even saw it regurgitate its food at one point (see the 3rd picture below).

I left before the sun went down, wishing the bird well ("Happy survival in the winter!"). "Real" birder or not, I know that this was one of the times that the birding experience was the most rewarding.


Northern Shrike


Northern Shrike


Northern Shrike


Northern Shrike


Northern Shrike


Update (12-4-2016): After more than a month of absence (I had been out of the country for most of November, to China and Taiwan), I finally made another visit to Sully Woodlands. The shrike was still there! The weather was getting colder, but I don't think that bothered it a bit; as long as there is enough food, this hardy little bird will survive. I hope it stays around throughout the winter and see it again.


Northern Shrike


Northern Shrike



I always found it fascinating to find similar birds in different regions of the world, or, as sometimes the case may be, different subspecies of the same bird (species). During my trip to China, I saw and photographed the Long-tailed Shrike in Sanya, Hainan Province. It is very interesting to see the differences and similarities of these related species:


Long-tailed Shrike (November 18, Sanya, Hainan Province, China)


Long-tailed Shrike (November 19, Sanya, Hainan Province, China)




Update (12-14-2016): I had a little bit of time during my lunch break so I stopped at Sully Woodlands again. As if on cue, as soon as I walked to the fields, the shrike appeared -- it flew to and perched on a short shrubby plant, barely a bit higher than the tall grasses in the field. Nonchalantly, it allowed me to get fairly close (but not too close) and snapped a few pictures. The precise time of my arrival was 2:04PM, and I snapped the first picture at 2:07PM. This was a good thing, as I was pressed for time (this was my lunch break after all). I watched it for a bit and left it in peace.


Northern Shrike


Northern Shrike




Update (12-22-2016): Another season (it is winter now)! I made a quick stop again during my lunch hours. At first, I did not see the shrike, but a Savannah Sparrow appeared under the bright noon sun in a shrub very close to me. I snapped away and got some good pictures of it. I thought to myself: "even if the Northern Shrike does not show up, now that I got this handsome fellow, I should be happy about it." Then the Northern Shrike showed up anyway, albeit pretty severely side/back-lit. I took a few pictures anyway, and that made my day.


Savannah Sparrow


Savannah Sparrow


Northern Shrike


Northern Shrike




Update (1-1-2017): A new year! On New Year's Day I made a visit to Sully Woodlands. Unfortunately, on this day I did not see this bird. What I did see, however, was a Barred Owl. Later, in nearby Manassas National Battlefield Park, I photographed a White-tailed Deer with sprouting antlers. This was a consolation enough.


Barred Owl


Barred Owl


White-tailed Deer




Update (1-12-2017): I made a brief visit to this location again and quickly located the bird. This was my first sighting of this bird in the new year. This was a windy day and the bird was all fluffed up. It is funny to see that the branch that it perched on seemed to go through the bird!


Northern Shrike


Update (2-18-2017): Yet another visit. But this time the bird did not let me get very close and my pictures were fuzzy.


Northern Shrike


Northern Shrike


Update (2-25-2017): On this day I stopped by Sully Woodlands again. The preceding two days were unseasonably warm, with temperatures in the high 70s! It was still beautiful in the morning on this day before the wind picked up (it would rain later and the temperature would drop by 30 degrees). What first caught my attention was a couple of singing Eastern Phoebes near the barn. These early migrants have arrived and spring is at hand; it also makes me wonder if the Northern Shrike will stick around for long.

But the Northern Shrike was there. In fact, I got one of the best pictures of it, in the beautiful early morning sunlight. I've seen and photographed this bird quite a few times now, but now, with the advancing season, every time I see it, I know it may be my last, for a while at least. Soon it will fly north, to its breeding grounds in in taiga and tundra. I bide it godspeed and wish it well!


Eastern Phoebe


Northern Shrike


Update (3-11-2017): A cold morning (26F) after a mild winter. At 7:45AM I arrived at Sully Woodlands and was immediately greeted by a few singing Eastern Towhees (although I did not get a good view at that time).

The Northern Shrike was still there. Amazingly, if it stays for another 10 days, it will have stayed the whole season! I first saw it in the burned fields. It was singing this morning -- the first time I observed this, although it was reported by other birders of its singing. Maybe despite the cold, its internal clock reminded it that spring is coming? It also reminded me that despite its viciousness, it is still a songbird.


Northern Shrike


Northern Shrike

I walked around the woodland, observing and photographing other birds. It was very birdy this morning, despite the cold. At one point, I saw a Northern Mockingbird -- one of the impersonators of the shrike (in coloration it is rather similar to the shrike although differs much in body shape, in the distance can be mistaken for the latter). It was chowing down juniper berries.

Just when I was about to leave, the Northern Shrike flew to a tree right next to the barn, allowing me the closest viewing of it to date (albeit amid messy foreground and background). I hope it stays out the whole seaon, but I really don't know; this also might have been be the last time I saw it. One of the Eastern Towhees also made a cameo, concluding this chilly, but fruitful morning.


Northern Mockingbird


Northern Shrike


Northern Shrike


Eastern Towhee


Update (3-21-2017): Here we were, already in spring, and I went out looking for the shrike again.

I arrived at 6PM. At first I did not see the shrike. I walked around the field, but the recent snow (now melted) and rain made the place muddy and slow going. I saw the usual suspects -- Northern Mockingbirds, Eastern Phoebes, Eastern Towhees, American Robins, etc., but no shrike.

Then I noticed a bird perched in a bare tree in the distance. It flew from the tree to the ground, apparently hunting some small animals or such, then flew back to its perch. It repeated this several times. At first I thought this was the shrike, but to my surprise, in my camera viewfinder with a telephoto lens I saw that this was an American Kestrel. Its behavior was quite similar to that of the shrike. I could not get close to the falcon, though, and only got a few blurry pictures.


American Kestrel

As I was wrapping up, I decided to walk around the stable one last time, and there it was, the Northern Shrike, perched in a tree, just like last time (in a different but adjacent tree). It was as if it had never left!

Thus, just like that, this amazing bird stayed throughout a full season. It still does not belong here though -- not in the summer anyway. It will need to find other Northern Shrikes in its breeding season, who knows how long it will stick around?


Northern Shrike


Northern Shrike


Northern Shrike

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