Friday, January 24, 2014

Jan 24 (Day 24) - Northern shrike steals the show! Special guest appearance by Winter wren!

Philadelphia produces! I was able to locate the previously reported but inconsistent Northern shrike at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge (Tinicum, informally) today. It took 4 hours of careful searching, but, as is usually the case with birding, persistence paid off! The refuge was about 5 miles from where I stayed last night, so it was a very short ride on the bike to make it there this morning. The area is actually located just adjacent to Philadelphia International Airport (I-95 separates the two areas on the map below).

Tinicum was one of the first areas I birded as a youth. I would usually get shuttled down there by a birding companion, Peter Hill, and his father. While productive birding can be had at Tinicum during all seasons, we specifically trekked to Tinicum to see wintering waterfowl. It was us usually possible to find a nice assortment of teal, pintail, mergansers, and shovelers. Unfortunately, there was not a duck to be seen today as the impoundment and adjacent creek were completely frozen. The nest box below is intended for cavity nesting wood ducks. In many respects, today felt more like birding in the Hoth System than on planet earth. If you are unfamiliar with the Hoth System, may I suggest a weekend viewing of The Empire Strikes Back to bring your Star Wars knowledge up to the speed at which it will need to be to fully appreciate the blog this year. 

I arrived at 8:30 and spent 15-20 minutes yattering with the very friendly Refuge Manager, Gary. Gary knows this refuge better than anyone, so when he took out a refuge map and said, "Look for the shrike in this area" I paid close attention. Apparently, the bird had been seen in the very back of the refuge. That meant I had a chilly 3 mile walk ahead of me. As I walked out of the visitors center a tiny brown bird flew across the path. A quick glance with the binoculars confirmed my initial suspicion that it was a Winter wren (#117). This is a fairly common winter bird in the Mid-Atlantic region, but since they are small and sneaky, they are easily missed; They are more often heard than seen. This is the type of bird that you see all the time except when you actually need to find one for a big day or big year. These birds can come back to haunt a birder if they are not picked up when there is an opportunity. This is one less bird I need to worry about moving forward. I will at some point need to find the species from which Winter wren was recently split, the Pacific wren.

The sun was out and there were quite a few birds flapping about along the trail that surrounded the impoundment. Sparrows, woodpeckers, creepers, and Carolina chickadees (#118) abounded. There was also a very active Bald Eagle patrolling the area around what appears to be an active nest. I had great looks at Belted kingfisher, and I finally tallied red-winged-blackbird (#119) for 2014. I met another birder, David Allen, on the trail who was also looking for the shrike. We chatted a bit and then he headed off in the opposite direction. I continued along the trail and did several laps of the area where Gary had said the bird had been seen. I later bumped into another birder, Zach Millen (see photo). We spent half an hour searching for the shrike without success. We had just about resigned ourselves to heading off to another area of the refuge when I commented that it is really hard to leave this area since the habitat looked so perfect. We hesitated for a few seconds as we tried to decide what to do. Not 5 seconds after this, Zach saw a bird fly into a treetop right in the middle of the area that I was lamenting leaving behind. It was the shrike (#120)! My intuition and Zach's keen eye combined to nail down a really good bird for me and a lifer for Zach. Those who read this blog everyday will know that I basically conceded this bird 3 days ago, so this was a tremendous pick-up. As usual, patience paid off, and, as usual, luck had a huge amount to do with it. A very distant, digiscoped shot of the shrike can be seen below.

Shrikes are some of the coolest birds around. We have two flavors of shrike in North America, Northern and Loggerhead. The Northern is, no big surprise here, the more northern of the two. It is a slightly heavier bird and often has a faint breast barring that is missing from most loggerheads. Within their respective ranges, Northern shrike is much harder to find, particularly towards the southern end of its wintering range (i.e Philly).

Although they are not classical birds of prey in the vein of kites, hawks, eagles, falcons, owls, and so forth, they do eat other animals such as mice and small birds. Our two shrikes are fairly small birds, about the size of a robin or cardinal, and they thus dot no possess the strength to easily kill their prey. The have, however, evolved a remarkably efficient way of doing just this. Shrikes often impale their prey on thorns, snapped twigs, or even barbed wire fences. Here is an example of a sparrow-ka-bob! Shrikes are pretty cool, huh?

There is a bit more snow forecast for tomorrow (1-2"). However, it is the wind that could make things really interesting. Right now the plan is to get up really early and head south and west into Delaware to make at least a few miles. There is a Best Western in Wilmington (~26 miles away), and I have a place to stay in Newark DE (~40 miles away) as well. Hopefully I can make it to one of those places!


  1. Nice work, dude! Keep it up. Not long now until the riding feels a LOT more comfortable.

  2. Thanks for the shout-out, Dor! Looks like you are having an amazing year thus far...looking forward to following your progress in the coming months. Good memories of getting shuttled out to Tinicum by a (very accommodating in retrospect) father. Fun times!