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A Rare Northern Shrike Visits Pickering Creek

Birders have been flocking to Pickering Creek Audubon Center over the last couple of weeks to spot a rare bird.  A first year Northern Shrike was first spotted by Dr. Wayne Bell on January 29.

Dr. Bell, an experienced birder, first observed the Northern Shrike while conducting periodic monitoring of bird species at Pickering Creek.  As he scanned the area with his spotting scope from one of the wetland observation platforms, he got his first look at the bird perched in saplings before it flew across the recently restored wetlands.  After returning to the parking lot, he located the bird again and observed it on and off again for a half hour – alternating between perching on exposed branches and diving into the underbrush.  At this time, he was able to take a picture of the bird through his spotting scope.

The Northern Shrike is rarely found on the Eastern Shore.  The bird breeds in the far northern reaches of Canada and northern Alaska.  During the winter months, it migrates into the northern parts of the United States.  However, it is rare to find it south of the New York-Pennsylvania state line. 

The Northern Shrike is a mostly gray songbird with a narrow black mask, black tail with white outer feathers, and black wings with a small white patch.  It’s most notable feature, however, is the sharply hooked tip on its stout bill.  They use this hawk-like bill to capture and snap the neck of prey, consisting largely of small mammals or other birds.  Since they lack talons, the Northern Shrike will then impale the captured prey on a thorn to hold it in place while feeding.

After spotting the bird, Dr. Bell shared his sighting with other birders in the area through the Talbot County Bird Club rare bird hotline.  He also reported it using eBird, a national database developed by Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology to capture bird sightings used by birders throughout the world.  Once reported through eBird, the sighting was identified as a state rarity on reports shared with these birders.

By the next day, birders throughout the state were visiting Pickering Creek to see this unique bird.  Most were rewarded with views of the bird as it perched high on exposed branches of sweet gums, sometimes near the parking lot, other times between the two wetland observation platforms.  A review of eBird reports shows that over 70 birders added the Northern Shrike to their bird list.  One birder came as far as Frostburg, MD, and another made the trip from North Carolina.

According to eBird, a Northern Shrike was last sighted at Pickering Creek in 2005, when it showed up in mid-February and stayed around for about a month.  The closely related Loggerhead Shrike can be found throughout the southern half of the United States.  While its range does not extend to the Eastern Shore, it sometimes makes a rare appearance.  It was last seen at Pickering Creek in 2011, where it generated similar interest from birders throughout the region.  The Loggerhead Shrike can be distinguished from the Northern Shrike by its thicker black mask, whiter breast, and smaller size.

Pickering Creek Audubon Center is open for the public to enjoy nature daily from dawn to dusk.  There is no admission to enjoy the Center’s trails this February.  To learn more about Pickering Creek Audubon Center, visit its website at http://pickering.audubon.org.  To learn more about the Talbot County Bird Club or subscribe to the rare bird hotline, send an email to talbotbirdclub@gmail.com.

Contact: Mark Scallion, National Audubon Society, mscallion@audubon.org, 410-822-4903

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