Northern shrike

The northern shrike has a specialized bill with a hook on the end designed for eating small mammals and other prey with ease.

Yesterday while making a beach run for shorebirds, a surprise turned up. It was perched on one of the eagle perches in the dunes. It was very small, but looked interesting. Closer inspection with binoculars and camera, revealed it to be a northern shrike. I have seen northern shrikes here before, but generally at Tarlatt or in the trees along the edge one of the Oysterville fields. However, seeing it on an eagle perch in the dunes is not that unusual when I began to think about it. It prefers open areas with perches for hunting. The location/habitat fit the bill!

According to the field checklist of birds for our area, the northern shrike is uncommon both in the fall and winter and is, on occasion seen in the spring. According to one recently published field guide, it is a winter visitor to the Northwest, but its population size varies from year to year depending on the availability of prey.

Northern shrike

Northern shrikes are pretty — but also deadly — little birds.

The northern shrike is about the size of a Robin. In adult breeding plumage it is pale gray above and white below. It sports a narrow black mask, has a large hooked tipped bill and black wings with white patches. Its tail is long and black with white outer feathers. Juvenile birds often visit the Northwest too. A juvenile northern shrike tends to be brownish gray overall, but often appears to be just brownish in color. Its mask is generally more of a brown color than black. The white wing patches may not be as noticeable as they are in the adult.

Northern shrike

This northern shrike used the bird nesting boxes at Tarlatt as a vantage point from which to hunt for its prey.

Their favorite prey consists of small mammals and birds. The northern shrike keeps a larder such that if it is able to successfully hunt for more than it can eat at the moment, it hangs the extras on the thorns of trees, on barbed wire, and will sometimes just wedge the extras into a crevice or crook of a bush or tree. While it tends to hunt from perches the shrike will also hover in the air as it searches an open area for its prey. Its habit of impaling its groceries on thorns or barbed wire, I think, is how it got its nickname the butcher bird.

Bird watching becomes more exciting with every day. Who will show up unexpectedly next? Will we see a snowy owl this year? Will we see a few sandhill cranes? It is time to keep our eyes and ears open. We might just see a northern shrike of one of our other less common fall and winter visitors.

“Common Birds of the Long Beach Peninsula” by Kalbach ad Stauffer is available from the Chinook Observer, Bay Avenue Gallery, Time Enough Books and the LB Peninsula Visitors Center.

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