Eastern Loggerhead Shrike

-by Alisa Samuelson —

I spent the second week of June on Manitoulin Island and in Grey and Bruce counties not so much wandering, as on a targeted reconnaissance mission.  A mission to not come back from a week spent surveying sights with historical records of shrike sightings without making any new sightings.  Sadly, I failed this mission, but any birders know that luck plays a huge factor in spotting rare birds and I apparently saved up all my luck for one day in particular in Grey County, which I’ll detail shortly.  I also was lucky enough to meet some great people along the way and see some other beautiful sights.  For my first month working at Wildlife Preservation Canada as a LoyaltyOne Young Conservation Leader for 2017, I was both excited by the opportunity and daunted by the prospect of undertaking a week-long survey by myself.

My first few weeks with Wildlife Preservation Canada were passed at the Carden Core breeding area, which is where I spend most of my working days.  Just like the Napanee core area, we survey sites where eastern loggerhead shrikes are known to have been sighted in past years and monitor the individual or pairs of shrikes which have been located.  Prior to this season I had only seen wild northern shrikes, the northern cousins of loggerheads that can be found in southern Ontario through the winter.   Loggerheads were new to me though, so becoming familiar with the colouration, flight pattern, and behavior of wild loggerhead shrikes was essential if I was to try and find them in areas where they are much less abundant.  Loggerhead shrikes are remarkably stealthy and fly low to the ground, so there is not a lot to catch your eye except a bright patch of white from their breast when they’re perched and looking for prey.  Lots of other birds can trick you into thinking they are a shrike in the proper lighting, as well.  Eastern kingbirds are the usual culprits in this disappointment, but even dull female eastern bluebirds have gotten my hopes up more than once.  The passing flash of a white wing patch can make your heart stop, only to realize it is a blue jay rather than a shrike.  Most of my week surveying Manitoulin and Grey-Bruce was composed of this surge of excitement and hope while rushing to look through my binoculars or scope, followed by a sigh and a sense of derision from whichever bird had fooled me that time.

An Eastern Kingbird – very different from a Shrike upon closer inspection!

On Manitoulin I was able to stay at a beautiful property owned by the Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy (EBC), a member of the Ontario Land Trust Alliance (OLTA), which is dedicated to protecting the biodiversity and ecological integrity of the province.  Some employees from the OLTA and EBC were also staying at this property and in addition to sharing their meals and experiences with me, they welcomed me on a bat survey intended to locate species at risk like the little brown bat.  I intended to only go along for the beginning of the survey, as I had to be up before dawn to fit in a few more site visits before catching the ferry back to the Bruce Peninsula, but became so enthralled that I didn’t realize that it was nearly midnight when we finished.  I didn’t regret that for a second, even when I was exhausted the next few days.  I did regret not spotting any ram’s head orchids which were in bloom that week, but the sheer volume of yellow ladyslippers along the roadsides of both Manitoulin and Bruce County was breathtaking, so I can’t complain.

Yellow Ladyslipper Orchids

In Grey-Bruce I continued my search, which involved meeting with an avid birder and member of the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation.  I not only received information on shrike sightings throughout the reserve, but the history of the area and some teachings from Nature.  My “lucky” day in Grey County started out with a chat with a friendly farmer who called out to his neighbor that I was working his dream job.  Later in the day, I drove down an unclaimed road towards the coordinates of a historical shrike sighting.  Half of the roads I drove down on Manitoulin Island were unmaintained and there are plenty in the Carden area which can be thoroughly flooded out; I had made it down all those roads unscathed, so I didn’t even think to worry about this one.  I quickly realized I should have though, because there was about an hour where my dream job felt like a nightmare.  This single-lane road had no place to turn around and a clay hill with a stream running down it, moistening the clay and making it thoroughly impassable for my 15 year old crossover.  After trying repeatedly to get enough momentum to make it up the hill without overcorrecting and hitting the trees lining the road (and coming maddeningly close to success) I accepted defeat and promised my car that if the engine kept running I would give it an easy retirement.  I managed to back out for about two kilometers, over hills which were not easy to drive down never mind reverse up, before finding a spot barely wide enough to make a nine-point turn and correctly orient myself.  I still cannot believe that I managed it, and intend to keep my promise to my trusty vehicle.  I hope that the only excitement from my July trip back to this region will be spotting a shrike that evaded me in June.

After the exhausting highs and lows of travel, Carden has been a welcome reprieve.  Most of our solo shrikes have found mates and some of the fledglings are beginning to leave the nest and explore, under the ever-watchful eyes of their parents.  On my first site visit back in the area I managed to capture the following video and it’s safe to say that I am happily back to living the dream.

Loggerhead Shrike Fledglings Video

Fledgling eastern Loggerhead Shrike in Carden