One of the main activities of spring is finding this year’s loggerhead shrikes. Shrikes are philopatric; they return to the same habitat patches year after year, so the easiest way to find a shrike is to go where they have been before. To establish our breeding pairs for the year, the shrike team conducts weekly surveys in areas previously known to have shrikes occupying it. One of the easiest way to spot a shrike is to first scan the area with your bare eyes. Loggerhead shrikes stand out on the landscape of the Napanee Limestone Plains with their bright white bellies and distinctive low flying. It’s surprising just how far across a field you can find a shrike this way. That being said, there are also many false alarms!
Here’s a list of the top five things, you might mistake for a shrike in the field
Why: Broken branches, gaps in the branches, tent worms; all of these can cause a stark white appearance against the greens and browns of the habitat if the light is just right! Shrikes tend to perch at the end of branches when foraging, so this combination of colour and location might catch your eye.
How to quickly tell the difference: Get out your binoculars or scope of course! If it’s staying very still, it’s probably a branch.
2) Eastern meadowlark
Why: Loggerhead shrikes and eastern meadowlarks share the same habitat! Both species are insectivors, so both fly in low swoops over the plains. The bright yellow bellies of the eastern Meadowlark may even appear white as they fly by. Eastern meadowlarks also like to perch atop cedars just like shrikes do.
How to quickly tell the difference: Eastern meadowlarks are noisy! They’re almost always singing or chattering away. If they are silently flying by, you can spot two distinct white vertical bars on the ends of their tails.
3) Eastern kingbird
Why: Eastern kingbirds have the bright white bellies and dark heads that you might confuse for the mask on a shrike, especially in poor visibility. They are also commonly found perching atop red cedars and hawthorns like shrikes.
How to quickly tell the difference: Get a look at its back or at least the tail. Eastern kingbird are a much darker slate grey compared to loggerhead shrikes. The tail has a stripe of white bordering the dark grey. The Eastern kingbird also have a high-pitched chattering song, and an aerial courtship dance where they hover in air.
4) Blue jay
Why: Though the white belly of the blue jay might give you a bit of trouble, blue jays from afar can sound like loggerhead shrikes. Unlike most passerine (songbird) species, the loggerhead shrike is usually very quiet and their songs are no exception. Most people are familiar with the loud “Jay! Jay! Jay!” call of blue jays, but blue jays can make a variety of other noises too. A blue jay call at the distance can easily sound like a loggerhead shrike nearby.
How to tell the difference: Blue Jays are very common and often in small groups (A group of blue jays are known as a party!). If you hear more than one bird, it is a blue jay.
5) Brown thrasher
Why: Brown thrashers are mimics and make all sorts of noises! This includes some that sound just like loggerhead shrike begging calls, alarm calls, and songs.
How to tell the difference: Once brown thrashers start singing, they don’t stop, and change up their sounds very frequently. Brown Thrashers perch at the top of tall trees and are very loud, making them fairly easy to spot.
The eastern loggerhead shrike is endangered with less than 30 breeding pairs left in Ontario! When looking for loggerhead shrikes, you’re sure to get many false alarms. Patience, a keen eye and ear are key, but when you find a shrike, it is so worth it.