Eastern loggerhead shrikes are one of Canada’s most endangered songbirds. In the past, they could be found from Manitoba to New Brunswick. Now, however, there are fewer than 25 breeding pairs, restricted to two small isolated pockets in Ontario: the plains of Carden and Napanee. The cornerstone of Wildlife Preservation Canada’s recovery program for this little bird is breeding birds and releasing their young to boost the wild population. Within just a few years of launching our field breeding program, we saw one of the released birds successfully migrate and return to breed with a wild shrike. This achievement was a first for a migratory songbird conservation breeding effort and brought international acclaim to the program. Since then, we’ve seen many birds returning to Ontario, often breeding and contributing more young birds to the wild population. Ashlea Vehldoen, WPC’s Carden Shrike Biologist, reports on this season’s progress.

We have had a really great couple of months! Both June and July came in like a lion, with torrential rain, heat waves, lightning and thunderstorms and heavy winds pelleting us and interfering with monitoring and surveys. It was possibly due to the inclement weather that we very sadly confirmed our first nest failure of 2022 at Carden. We had high hopes for this nest as our May 31 nest check revealed five eggs, but as the weeks went on, we never heard any begging chicks and the parents never quite seemed to be foraging and returning to the nest with food as frequently as we expected.

This triggered a second nest check on June 13, which revealed one freshly hatched chick and only two remaining eggs of the five that were laid. We were very hopeful that this nestling would make it, but it seemed altogether too young given that there were five eggs on the 31 of May. Things took a sad turn when on June 16 we monitored the nest tree for almost two hours without seeing a single adult on or near the nest. In fact, there were no adult shrike anywhere in the area, so we began to suspect that the chick may not have made it.

A new-born shrike, left, and the spotting scope we use to monitor nests, right.

A final nest check was conducted and revealed two remaining eggs, but the hatchling was gone. As part of our protocol, the eggs of a failed nest are collected and kept for further research by WPC, so on the 21st of June, an egg collection was made to collect the two remaining eggs. Once they were safe in their packs, we candled the eggs using a cellphone flashlight to reveal completely empty eggs – duds! – with no indication of life ever having begun within them. It may be that the female laid them before fertilization, or something else entirely could have happened. We look forward to learning more about what may have happened to this nest. It is also possible that this pair may return to the nest site to re-nest, but only time will tell.

Candling eggs with a cellphone flashlight. Sadly, this revealed they were duds, with no indication of life having begun.

After this nest failed, our other nests were fledging and it wasn’t long before we began seeing single adult birds around, too. Interestingly, on the same day we learned of the nest failure, a new shrike was found a few kilometres north of the failed nest in a site we hadn’t seen one before. We had some amazing views of what was an unbanded shrike (likely a female) perching and preening from hawthorn bushes in a perfect little Alvar meadow.

Another single bird was reported to WPC by a local birder in mid-June. An investigation into this sighting was conducted the following week by our team and the bird was refound, exactly as described! At first the habitat didn’t look ideal – walking along the roadside I noticed that the grass was long and there weren’t too many hawthorns, but when I turned back to face the direction I had come – BOOM! – there it was, sitting on a power line in the exact location the landowner had reported it. As dumbfounded as I was excited to see yet another new bird, I tried to see if the bird had bands, but it was covering its legs and it was difficult to tell. Then a truck went by and spooked it off the power lines and it flew southeast across the road and right between a pair of dead trees.

I was flabbergasted that one bird could be so exact and habitual in its movements. It has been reliable ever since the first sighting and there was even a *surprise* we found in July in the same area!

The bird, as seen through a spotting scope, reported by a local birder, sitting on a power line exactly in the area described.

After I had finished my monitoring on that same day, I checked in with JP, shrike team member, and she confirmed another single shrike at the site she was monitoring. This was a bird that I had only caught fleeting glimpses of (she had never seen it!) previously – which put on a great show for her. It was initially seen during the second week of June, just up the road from another nest we had been monitoring.

When I first saw this single shrike, I was only able to catch the flash of grey, white and black flying in a typical shrike pattern, low above the ground in a straight line and swooping up into a hawthorn at the last moment, hopping up into the branches, and disappearing. Anyone who has tried to find shrikes knows they can be quite difficult to spot, so looking for those key features can help you recognize them at a glance. Since the first sighting, we’ve seen it a number of times, but always alone and we have not been able to find its nest.

Where was this bird in May? We may never know.

Little solo shrike, not seen until the second week of June.

Despite having a difficult time finding shrike other than our known pairs across the Alvar, we did find four single adult birds in June and four in July. Rain frequently prevented us from surveying and certain sites could only be surveyed from the roadside limiting our potential for finding additional shrike. Three of the birds found in July were present at sites we’d previously visited several times without ever finding shrike. Another of the new birds was found in a site where we only recently gained permission to access, which was an added bonus since we hadn’t been able to see the whole site from the roadside and would have likely never seen the bird based on where we found it!

One the shrikes we spotted in July.

Even more exciting than finding the single shrike, we discovered that two of the birds we found were not just in fact ‘single’ birds, but parents, too! In mid-July, JP went to one of our newer monitoring sites and found the adult shrike usually there and heard a begging call coming from a shrub nearby. When she searched for the source of the begging call she found a single juvenile! Later that session, JP saw the adult feeding the chick and we were both thrilled to learn that somewhere close by there must have been a nest that we were unable to find earlier in the season.

Lastly, on the 28th of July, we went to survey one of our new single birds and found it also had chicks! We saw two 15-20 day-old fluffy little fledglings begging from the adult (another likely female) and following it from shrub to shrub albeit a little clumsily. This means there was a nest in this site for at least a month and a half that we didn’t find until the fledglings left the nest.

Some of the questions that still remain about these mysterious new birds are – where were they before we found them? Where were their nests? Do they have a partner in another area? Are there more chicks in an area nearby?

We will keep surveying and will hopefully find out!

Seen through a spotting scope, an adult bird, above, and a juvenile, below. Photo: JulieAnn Prentice

Shrikes need our help, but we can’t do it without support from people like you!

One of the more difficult aspects of field work is only having access to certain sites where we have the landowner’s permission to survey. In the cases of our new birds found, all of the sites were those to which we did not have access and could only see part of the site from the roadside. The benefits of having access to a site include being able to do a more thorough search than we could from the roadside and often reveals more shrike than if we didn’t have access.

Shrikes prefer flat, open areas of short grassland with scattered trees and shrubs that offer nesting sites and hunting perches. Shrikes can often be found in alvars: unique habitats consisting of shallow soils over limestone bedrock, resulting in naturally short grasslands.If you are a landowner with potential shrike habitat in the Carden or Napanee areas or know someone who is and you would like to give us permission to search for shrike on your property, please get in touch with WPC and let us know. Our staff can help you determine whether your property is suitable for hosting loggerhead shrike.

Ashlea Veldhoen

Carden Biologist – Eastern Loggerhead Shrike Recovery Program

Ashlea Veldhoen has been working with birds in various capacities including captive wild birds in an educational setting, wildlife rehabilitation, bird banding stations and as an ornithological research technician where she first learned to do nest searches for pairs of semipalmated plovers in Churchill, MB with Dr. Erica Nol. Ashlea has two diplomas in Ecosystem Management Technology from Fleming College and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Environmental and Natural Resource Sciences from Trent University. When she is not chasing shrikes on the Carden Plain, she enjoys dog walks, birding and gardening for nature at her home.