Sunday, March 17, 2013

The butcher-bird, my new nemesis

A spiky tree for a sneaky shrike

A nemesis bird is a wily little fellow with a grudge against you. Although you can't think what you might have done to offend him, as he has consistently refused to make your acquaintance, he makes a point of hiding whenever you are near. You know that his grudge is not against humans in general, as other birders see him everywhere. For everyone else, the nemesis bird pops up at regular intervals, singing in local parks, perching from wires, stopping by bird-feeders. But the only way it would show up in your back yard is if you were out of state for the week.

In other words, everyone has seen your nemesis bird except you.

As with much else about birding, the criteria for nemesis status can vary from person to person. One birder might call "nemesis" after dipping out three or four times; for someone else, they might have been seeking their target for decades. I personally place a species on my nemesis list if I have dipped out three or more times, after going out of my way to look for the bird, and it is a bird that, for some reason, has piqued my curiosity. There are many gull species I've never seen, for example, but I wouldn't call them a nemesis, for though it would be nice to see them (a life bird is a life bird), gulls really aren't my thing.

Likewise, there are still several warblers I haven't "gotten" -- Kentucky, prairie, mourning, Connecticut, cerulean -- and while I adore warblers, these aren't nemeses because my expectation of seeing them, on any random outing, isn't that great. I'll go somewhere just because someone saw a cerulean, or what have you, in the vicinity; but as warblers flit about as they please, I'd actually be more surprised if it was still hanging around.

My first nemesis was a particularly devious fellow, the yellow-headed blackbird. I had scoured the marshes of northern Illinois year after year, hoping to see one, only to be foiled at every turn. This particular nemesis had taken umbrage at my whole family, as neither of my parents could find one either, resulting in my father declaring that he didn't believe they really existed. But then, lo and behold! Last spring all three of us were finally victorious at the Hennepin-Hopper wetlands, and all was well with the world.

That is, until I began searching for shrikes. I don't know why finding a shrike in Illinois should be that difficult. I have seen two species of shrike in other states with no problem, the northern shrike in Minnesota on my first (and second) visits to the Sax-Zim Bog, and the loggerhead shrike in both Texas and Arkansas. The Arkansas shrike just flew up and landed in a tree at the Holla Bend preserve, taking me completely by surprise.

I am actually quite fond of shrikes. They are handsome birds, mostly white and gray with a black Zorro mask across their eyes. And they are especially interesting to a horror-movie buff such as myself, as they have the distinction of being a predatory songbird, with the particularly nasty habit of impaling their prey on spikes. (The loggerhead shrike at the World Bird Sanctuary in Missouri is named Vlad.) The Latin name of the northern shrike, Lanius excubator, means "butcher watchman," and they are sometimes called, more colloquially, "the butcher bird."

Illinois is fortunate because we actually have the opportunity to see both species of shrike; the loggerhead, though state-endangered, comes here to breed, while the northern enjoys the relative balminess of our winters. I have been unable to see either type, as I posted about in my ill-fated search for the loggerhead at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie last summer.

As for the northern shrike, not only have I missed it on winter trips to such places as Goose Lake Prairie and the Green River Conservation Area, but this winter, it has consistently turned up in my own home county of DeWitt. After learning of each sighting, I rushed out the next day I was able, and always got results such as this account from my Bird Journal reveals:

January 27, 2013 -- Looking for a shrike along Highway 54

Several passes along the stretch of road where the shrike was seen. Day: cloudy, ominous. Saw: cardinal (1), American tree sparrow (1), crows (5), starlings (3), Canada geese (8--flyover) Did NOT see: shrike.

But today I had yet another chance to foil my nemesis! Yet another northern shrike had been seen right outside the entrance of Mascoutin Recreation Area along Clinton Lake, a place I am quite familiar with. If the shrike was still there, I would find it! So quicker than you can say, "nemesis bird," I was on it.

As soon as the sun popped up -- or rather, sluggishly slumped over the horizon -- around seven o'clock, I was heading down the road, still chugging my third cup of coffee as if it were my life blood itself. (Though a real handicap for a birder, I am not a morning person. And as for daylight savings time...don't even get me started!)

The first thing that struck me was how the weatherman is a lying sack of dog turds. For the second day in a row, the forecast was for partly cloudy, high in the 40s, winds 10-15 miles an hour, and for the second day it was cold as all-get-out! Yesterday was just cold (and foggy; partly sunny my you-know-what); today was cold and windy. Seriously, the weatherman ought to be publicly flogged for the lies that he tells. But, moving on....

The second thing I noticed was a complete lack of shrikes in the vicinity in which one had been seen. I made a couple of passes in my car, then decided to get out and do a more thorough search on foot. As usual, the causeway before Mascoutin was filled with intrepid fisherman, and I pulled my car up beside theirs.

This area of Clinton Lake often has a particularly creepy effect of fog rising off the water, as the power plant keeps the water temperatures warmer than the air throughout the winter.

I had never explored the fields across from the entrance to the park; but they didn't say "No Trespassing," so I scrambled up the hill and wandered around. It looked like great shrike habitat: open fields filled with spiky, thorny trees. On a cloudy late winter day, almost devoid of birds, it seemed a bleak and forbidding landscape.

There was plenty of open area for a shrike to seek his prey, and plenty of thorny trees to impale it upon. But as for the shrike? It seems he was on strike. So after an hour or so of walking along the road and the adjacent fields, I decided to see what other birds might be in the area.

As I returned to my car, I saw juncos, American tree sparrows, and a fox sparrow scrounging along the side of the road. It was the first time I'd seen a fox sparrow acting like that. Really, how undignified!

fox sparrow

After that, I headed towards the beach area. The wind was vicious, and the only fowl hardy enough to brave the choppy water was a lone pied-billed grebe. However, I did see a pair of bluebirds (one can never see too many bluebirds), and my first-of-year Bonaparte's gulls plying the air over the water. They are so graceful and buoyant that it's hard to believe that they're gulls. Compared to them, their cousins the ring bills are positively chunky; and as for the herrings, let's just say it's like comparing a ballerina to a sumo wrestler.

I was kind of hoping to catch a glimpse of a loon or scoter, but besides the gulls, the only signs of life were fishermen, so I decided to walk the Houseboat Cove Trail again. Granted, I had just walked the whole thing the day before, but as one of my favorite quotes, from the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, goes, You can't step into the same river twice. Which I take to mean: today's birds won't be exactly the same as yesterday's.

Mostly, I had the same round-up of species: red-bellied, hairy and downy woodpeckers; black capped chickadees; northern cardinals; common grackles; blue jays; red-tailed hawks; white-breasted nuthatches.

Tufted titmice are always a treat to see:

tufted titmouse

As are song sparrows:

song sparrow

I did not see a flicker, as I had yesterday; but I did see year-bird golden crowned kinglets, crowns and all, so hooray!

The pond that was full of ring-necked ducks and a few token redheads still had the same:

a pond full of ducks

And, like yesterday, as soon as they saw me, they all took off:

...flying away

There were still plenty of American coots in the oxbows of the North Loop:

American coots

But as for the fifty or so wood duck that I espied yesterday, not a single one remained. Still, unless we get another drought this year, this swampy backwater at the far end of the trail just shouts, "Prothonotary warbler"! One of my favorite birds (and not at all a nemesis). Note to self: come back in a month or two!

On the return trail, I caught a glimpse of a bird flying away from me, and pulled my binoculars up in time to see a pair of white "circles" on an otherwise mostly gray, jay-sized bird. Hello, first for DeWitt County northern mockingbird!

By this time, I'd spent nearly five hours in pursuit of birds. My face was chapped from the wind, my eyes were dry, and the shrike was still nowhere in sight. Which way to go?

Much as I hated to admit that I'd "shruck out" again, I decided to go home. My birding motto is, always quit while it's still fun. And that's what I did.


  1. Oh, no! Someone has cursed our family again! Dad and I, too, are seeing listings on Michigan Tech's birder-l of shrikes here, there, and everywhere. What we are NOT seeing are shrikes! And every birder with a feeder in the UP is apparently swatting crossbills out of the way as they refill the trays, but not us. Still...we do have a bazillion redpolls and chickadees to eat us out of house and home. Let's hope one of us soon sees a shrike (and a crossbill) to break the curse! Great post, and photos! How I long to see a tufted titmouse! MOM

  2. Well, come on DOWN! And I can almost guarantee you a tufted titmouse!

    And as for the shrike business...did we, or did we not, finally see the yellow headed blackbirds? Persistence will always prevail!