I got up before dawn and looked outside my kitchen window to see if Northern Cardinals were up early and at the feeders. Nope, no cardinals.
I did, however, spot two dark lumps on the ground under my feeding trays (full of millet and cracked corn). Rabbits. I left them to eat in peace, while I fixed a cup of espresso and turned on the TV. Not much on the network news - just advice on how to salvage an overcooked holiday dinner. (I kid you not).
I turned off the TV and stared out the kitchen window. It was still dark, but I could see the birds starting to move around. I put on my boots, jacket, hat and gloves, then went outside to sweep and shovel a path to the feeders. (We've had a record-setting amount of snow this December).
I filled the tube feeders with sunflower hearts and took the peanut butter cup feeder down to clean and reload it. Minutes later, I was back outside, standing right in front of the pole, ready to put the peanut butter feeder back on its hook.
That's when it happened.
I heard the sound of wings and felt the air move by my right ear. Startled, I looked up and caught a flash of gray and white feathers, now hovering by the maple tree. Then the bird with the gray and white feathers (and black mask) was gone - and along with it all the birds at my feeders.
Who was that masked bird? A mockingbird on steroids? No, kemosabe, it was a Northern Shrike!
Yep, the predatory songbird flew within inches of my face.
I presume the shrike was heading for a landing on the double-arm pole from which my Droll Yankees tubes and peanut butter feeder hang. We both happened to arrive at the same time. Or it could have been that the shrike was after one of the "tame" chickadees scolding me from its perch on the pole.
I've spotted a shrike using that pole for a perch several times in the past week, but I haven't been quick enough to get my camera up and focused.
The near-collision fly-by did it for me. Today would be the day I'd get a photo of that shrike. I vowed to stand in front of my kitchen window with my camera until I did.
It turned out to be a very interesting morning.
The shrike made at least a dozen passes at the feeders, but didn't land anywhere near its "normal" perch on the shepherd's pole. My photo set-up was all for naught. Most of the time, I didn't see the shrike at all - just the other birds' reaction to it. And when the shrike wasn't around, I watched a yard full of songbirds frantically eating seed, suet and snow.
How do the birds recognize shrikes as predators? It may be "learned." What do they do when a shrike shows up? I watched chickadees and Downy Woodpeckers "freeze" in place. That strategy probably works better when they're on a tree limb or trunk. Perched on a pole, they're so obvious.
The Hairy Woodpeckers, goldfinches and sparrows exploded into the sky.
Bluejays bolted, then hung around to watch from the relative safety of the spruce tree.
It took 4 hours to get the photo at the top of this blog. Not a great photo, but good enough for identification purposes.
I assume this shrike has been perched in a tree with an unobstructed view of the feeders. With a little luck, and a better angle - using the Prius as a photo blind - maybe I'll get a better photo of a Northern Shrike this winter.
I've seen both our "winter" shrike, the Northern, and our "summer" shrike, the Loggerhead here in the Lower Chippewa River valley. According to Robbins (Wisconsin Birdlife), Northern Shrikes have arrived as early as September, but they're more likely to arrive in late October and show up at bird feeding stations in January and February.
Loggerhead Shrikes nest in Wisconsin, but their numbers have dropped precipitously. According to the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas, only a handful of them nest in Wisconsin. They're listed as endangered in the Badger State (habitat loss and pesticides may play a role in their decline). Look for them in February and March. I've seen them along R107 in Meridean. Loggerheads migrate south in October.
Check out this website for tips on how to identify the two species.