Saturday, December 08, 2007

December Birding at Pheasant Branch

Sunrise over the Drumlin

I expected to find the Northern Shrike that has taken up residence at Pheasant Branch Conservancy, but there's nothing like a surprise. The temperature was a whopping 3 degrees Fahrenheit this morning – a veritable heat wave compared to a few days ago. The sun was just starting to come up over the drumlin when I arrived, so I snapped a quick photo of it. I walked north on the trail a short distance up a hill for a panoramic view of the prairie. Scanning the perimeter with my binoculars, I quickly located the shrike about 300 yards away perched in some thicket at the northern edge of the field.

A Northern Shrike in the distance

I wondered how close I could get to the shrike. Naturally, I didn't want to disturb it while it hunted, but I wasn't entirely satisfied with the view from this distance. I proceeded down the trail, came around the corner and saw the shrike had moved about 100 yards closer in my direction. While keeping an eye on the shrike, I prepared my spotting scope for digiscoping. The metal adapter was already so cold that moisture on my fingertips froze on contact – it burned at the touch. The camera controls were stiff. Once ready, I crept up on the shrike until I was close enough to take a few images and a video of it. But then something happened I didn't expect.

Looking for a meal

As I stood there watching and photographing the shrike, it flew off from its perch along the trail and I thought it might be coming in my direction. I put my binoculars on it – yeah, it was definitely flying toward me. Oh my... I let go of my binoculars allowing them to rest on my chest. The shrike was about to pass directly overhead by mere feet, but to my utter astonishment, it stopped and perched about 10 feet away from me on my left, just above my line of sight! I froze. The shrike made a series of soft chur-chur-chur vocalizations – it was so cool listening and admiring it in such intimate detail. I was frozen (two ways) and didn't move a muscle. I stood motionless and held my breath as I watched the bird become interested in something close by. Finally, the shrike dove into brush about 30 feet behind me.

I quickly turned just as it pounced into a clump of dead vegetation; first on top, then below – it was definitely chasing something close the ground. Suddenly, it flew back up about three feet above the patch and hovered as it let out a couple of intense shrieks, almost as if out of frustration. Once more it dropped into the tangle of sticks; brief action followed by a sudden calm. I walked a few steps closer and saw the shrike come out to the edge of the brush with a mouse in its mandibles. With its catch secured, it flew off to the opposite corner of the prairie, but it didn't take long before it resumed hunting again. After witnessing such an amazing spectacle of nature, I decided to let it be.


I left the prairie, got coffee and decided to spend the rest of the morning birding along the stream corridor. Many of the usual birds were present, including Carolina Wren, Tufted Titmouse, White and Red-breasted Nuthatches, etc. I checked a spot where I thought there might be Great Horned Owls roosting and found two of them slumbering the morning away. Eventually all three of my camera batteries succumbed to the cold – the charge seems to last half as long in freezing temperatures. I went back to my car, unloaded the spotting scope and tripod, and then continued birding the eastern section of the stream corridor, eventually crossing Century Avenue to explore the north trail. The most surprising find of the outing was a Common Grackle eating at a platform feeder hanging from a window at one of the condos along Pheasant Branch Road. I also found two Eastern Bluebirds that really looked like they would rather be someplace warmer. After five hours of hiking trails through snow, I started to get a little fatigued and decided to call it a morning. I'll never forget that Northern Shrike…just wow!

Birds at Pheasant Branch – 12/08/2007:

Canada Goose
Red-tailed Hawk
Rough-legged Hawk
Ring-billed Gull
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Barred Owl
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Northern Shrike
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
Black-capped Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Carolina Wren
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
American Tree Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Lapland Longspur
Snow Bunting
Northern Cardinal
Common Grackle
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

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