Saturday, December 29, 2018

29 December 2018: Nemesis no more!

I left home at 4:45 AM today and went owling up Smith Valley Rd. Screech-owls have been found there in past years, but not this year... including today. All I heard in 1.5 hrs was one Barred Owl! It was a reasonably nice morning (er, pre-dawn) to be out regardless, with very little wind and not much traffic, although I was pretty cold by the time I made it back down the valley.

As the sky lightened, I biked over to Veterans Memorial Park in West Salem, where Gwen was seeing a shrike early in the spring and thought she heard it again a few weeks ago. I tried for it at least once in the spring and once this fall/winter with no luck, and the same thing happened with the shrike she found at the Mathy Quarry, so Northern Shrike had become a bit of a nemesis for my year list.

Today I spent over an hour in the area where the shrike was supposed to be ("Puppy Lane," as you might recall from the spring), slowly walking the short loop trails and keeping my eyes peeled. Eventually I figured it was a lost cause - maybe there wasn't even a shrike there at all this winter - and started birding my way through the park to the bike trail, which I planned to take home. The bike trail turned out to be a skating rink, thanks to our recent freeze-thaw cycles. I'd already taken a (pretty gentle) fall in the dark this morning on a surprise patch of ice (those linear ruts that result from someone biking on slush will get you every time), and didn't feel like doing that all the way home! So I turned around to head back through the park and out to the main highway, where I could take a paved bike path most of the way home.

Of course, that meant I would have one more shot at seeing the shrike. I walked my bike back through the park, looking and listening carefully. After I'd passed Puppy Lane, I turned around for one last look - last chance for a shrike for the year! Still nothing. But when I turned back around to keep walking, a bird-shape blob in the top of a tree caught my eye. I'd already identified a bird-shaped nest, a piece of white plastic, and a clump of leaves in the tops of nearby trees, and I was pretty sure this blob hadn't been there earlier. That meant it might actually be a bird. I put my bins on it, and yes, it was a bird - it had its back to me, but I could clearly see gray sides and black wings, with a bit of white splash visible even on the folded wings. There's only one thing that can be this time of year! Northern Shrike for #238! A moment later it turned a bit and gave me a great profile view of its black Zorro mask and hooked bill. Lovely bird.

I looked down to pull out my camera, and when I looked back up, the bird was gone. I'm guessing it flew away from me (the direction it was facing) out into the marsh, of which I could never get a clear view. I tried for another half hour, as it would have been great to get a photo of what might be my last bird for the year! Altogether I spent about 2 hours in the immediate vicinity of the shrike, and I saw it for only 15 seconds. I was very lucky to be looking in the right direction at the right time!

As a sad substitute for a photo of the bird itself, here's a view of the spot... 


The shrike had been sitting in the top of the tallest tree on the left. Yes, it was snowing, contrary to the forecast - luckily it didn't accumulate, or I might have had to head home much earlier, as I didn't have my snow/ice tires.

The park was pretty quiet, bird-wise, with only 17 species on my list. I enjoyed watching a Pileated fly around and forage on dying ash trees and a few Red-breasted Nuthatches twittering at each other. I checked the pine trees for owls, too, but with no luck. 

When I'd initially given up with no screech-owls or shrikes for the day, I decided that I was still glad I'd gotten out to give it a try. Lack of sleep, bone-deep cold (only for an hour or two), and tired out-of-shape muscles (darn flu) were all worth it. I might not see anything if I go birding - but I certainly won't if I don't go! Of course, it all seemed much more worth it (and I felt much less tired) after seeing the shrike! 

The forecast looks decent for the next two days, and it sounds like my colleagues and I will still be on furlough on Monday (and beyond) - so we'll see if I can scrounge up any more FOGYs for the end of the year...

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