Northern shrikes are winter visitors to area

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By Sylvia Brockner

Late winter brings strange weather into this area. This year, January brought much warmer weather than usual, giving everyone spring fever. February thus far has turned out to be colder than average and has brought back-to-back snowstorms with scarcely a break in between.
The only thing that you can be positive about is that it will change. Whatever it is like at the moment, it probably won’t be the same 10 minutes from now or tomorrow. Usually our mornings dawn clear and bright because the skies often clear overnight, however, even that is not a certainty.
My bedroom window faces east, so most mornings I am awakened by the morning sun, blue sky, bright sunshine and what appears to be the start of a perfect day. Today was no exception, however, by 9 o’clock, the sky was changed to gray and little snow showers were dancing through the valley.
It was strange weather. If it had been above freezing, I would have called it mist, but it was bitterly cold, and tiny snowflakes were drifting in the air. They were very small and barely visible to the eye. Only when I looked directly into the streak of sunlight coming through the cut between the mountains could I see them at all. When backlit in this manner, they shimmered in the air like golden diamond dust. If it had been warmer, there would have been mist, which would have eventually dampened the ground. Since it was so cold, nothing became damp. They just danced up, down and sideways on the air currents, evaporating long before they reached the ground.
Tonight, it is still cold, and the brave weathermen are predicting snowstorms along the mountains for the next 36 hours with the greatest depths being south of us. It is not latitude that decrees our weather but altitude, and all this mountain snow is what makes a drive south on U.S. 285 on a beautiful spring day such a remarkably beautiful trip.
I called the Rare Bird Alert today, and there are still a great many unusual gulls on the open water and a few ducks. This indicates that a few of the early migrants are beginning to move north, but it is still too cold for a major movement.
There was no mention of the snowy owls or the roadrunner, so we can only wonder if the deep snow that fell last week either caused them to move or perhaps their demise if they couldn’t find food. Otherwise, they may still show up if it warms up a bit.
There is nothing new or unusual at my feeders other than a slight increase in dark-eyed juncos and pine siskins, which may indicate a slight spring movement, or it may just mean that birds that have been out eating in the wild have come in to the feeders because of the deep snow.
One of the winter birds that should be looked for this time of year is the northern shrike. This is one of the gray, black and white birds that seem to flaunt the very colors of winter. There are two species of shrikes in North America. The loggerhead shrike is here all summer and nests here; the northern shrike is here in winter. Most loggerhead shrikes leave this area and move south for the winter by mid-September, and about that time, the northern shrikes begin to move in from the north to winter here.
Since a few loggerhead shrikes may remain here in an open winter, it is possible to have them both here in winter. Summer records are almost always loggerhead shrikes, but winter records have to be carefully studied because the differences between the two birds are very slight and difficult to see. Shrikes are often seen along the meadows on Blue Creek Road and such places as the meadow on Upper Bear Creek and Elk Meadows Park.
About two-thirds of a shrike’s food is insects, but when this is not available, they eat lizards, toads, frogs, mice, voles and small birds. They have very weak perching feet, not the talons and sharp claws of other birds of prey. Therefore, most of their prey is killed by beating it with their beak. When they have more food than they can eat, it is often hung on a thorn or barbed wire and eaten within a few days. This has earned them the name of “butcher bird” because they hang their meat, not because they are any more or less murderous than other birds of prey.
Shrikes are more plentiful on the plains where they are most at home in the short grass prairie habitat. They are declining because their habitat is also declining as it is turned into pasture, farmland or housing developments. Shrikes always have several perches around their territory where they sit and watch for food. These perches are often out in the open where they can see better to watch for food, thus giving us a better chance to watch them.
They are an interesting addition to our bird population. The loggerhead shrikes return in early spring, so you have time to study the northern shrike now. That way, you can tell them apart when the loggerheads arrive.