36 Months Later

I started seriously birding in January, 2013.  I entered a year-long photo contest with a few friends and people who would end up being great friends - bird dorks, really.  Who knew I would become one of them!

So here I was, in a brave new world, learning the birding ropes.  It was so much different than my herping background.  I could write an entire book on that, but I'll keep it short.  It turns out that in birding people practically share everything!  Herping is a big world of fake secrecy where nobody shares anything until you are part of the in-crowd.  *It's dumb, really.  But the bottom line is, in herping you aren't supposed to share locality information while in birding, you are EXPECTED to share a spot down to the very branch.  I loved it, actually.

Anyway, my first chase was for a Northern Shrike in Assunpink WMA, about a half hour away from me.  I had no idea what I was doing and failed.  I didn't think it was a big deal.  I still wouldn't - any excuse to be outside is never disappointing.  

Fast forward three years and here I am 365 species into my birding career, yet - no Northern Shrike!  One had been reported for a few weeks within an hour's drive.  But it seemed every free day I had also had warm temperatures.  Any chance at December snakes trumps practically every other opportunity, thus no shrike-chase materialized.  Until Monday...

I had the morning free since I had my kids an extra few days, thanks to Christmas.  They would all sleep til at least 10:00, as long as I wasn't waking them.  I decided to let them sleep since I dragged them out of bed the morning before at 5:00 to bird in Bombay Hook.  I woke up early and got on my way. 

South Branch WMA at sunrise.

Pulling up to abandoned farm buildings and silos, my mind screamed milksnakes!  Just look at this set-up:



I began birding.  I hung around the structures for a bit hoping the shrike would fly in.  It didn't, but a few sparrows kept me busy.  

White-crowned Sparrow

White-crowed Sparrow

After a while, I started to head down the muddy path, already feeling defeat as my time was limited and the place was big.  A Fox Sparrow popped out and then disappeared.  Here's a photo from another time, as I didn't secure a picture this time.

I was now a bit down the path from the silos.  I'm sure every person who has come in search of the shrike has looked for Barn Owls here, but no dice - at least for me.

South Branch WMA 

I headed back knowing full well I was looking to the right too intently.  The bird could easily be to the left, in the blinding sun.  I forced myself to squint all the way back, but no shrike.  As I arrived back by the house I heard bluebirds turalee and starlings chatter and show off a killdeer impression.

I still had a half hour before having to leave, but was feeling like I didn't allot enough time.  I looked into the sun once more, and there before me at the top of a lone tree right near the very point in which I started the search, stood a bird silhouette.  My experience didn't know the shape, but my instinct did - it was the shrike!  

Shrike silhouette

I circled the tree slowly, as far away as the vegetation would allow, in hopes that I could get a look at my newest lifelist addition in the sun.  I did, briefly, but it was awesome!  The hooked bill may as well have had "predator" tattooed down it.  This was truly a wolf in sheep's clothing.  A predatory songbird.  A bird who seizes prey, bites through its neck, and often collects more than it can eat; impaling it on nearby thorns or anything sharp at its disposal for later consumption.  This passerine has captivated me from the second I learned of its behavior.  And finally, it was in my sight!

Northern Shrike

I watched it for two minutes before it flew off into a distant treeline.  It shared branches with Eastern Bluebirds for a brief second, displaying how large it was in comparison.  Its size surprised me.  I was able to grab a photo with a starling - a bird many are familiar with, in case someone is curious to the size.

European Starling and Northern Shrike comparison

It was bird #321 of the year and life bird #366.  I'm a stat-addict, but in this instance the numbers didn't matter.  The bird was a fantastic animal and I'm glad I took the time to...

...step into the outdoors.