To refresh your memory, here are the photos from January’s Bird Quiz. The bird was seen in Colorado during the month of December. Don’t read any further if you want one last chance to identify this bird.
All right, I admit this is tricky. I posted the first image on Monday, then realized by Tuesday that the bird was awfully small in the photo and an enlargement would help. So I cropped more tightly and added the results. Even so, the light was poor when I took the picture, so it’s noisy (it was very overcast that day). Not the best view, but then again, we can’t always have perfect looks at the birds we find.
Time to get down to identifying this cute little guy. We can easily see that it’s a black, white, and gray bird. It has a black band across the eyes, and if you look closely, you can see a wicked hook at the end of that sturdy beak.
There are three perching birds with this general size, shape, and color pattern. If you’re a beginner, finding them means thumbing through the field guide. If you’re more familiar with the options, Northern Mockingbirds, Northern Shrikes, and Loggerhead Shrikes are what should come to mind.
All three of these species have the black eye mask and colorless plumage. However, mockingbirds have wing bars, not a black wing, and they lack that business-end beak (see photo). We can rule them out.
As I poked around various commentaries on shrikes, I came across the statement, “The two species of shrikes are usually widely separated by range and season, and identification of most individuals is fairly straightforward.” Well, that may be true in some places, but not here in Colorado. Loggerhead Shrikes are here year-round, and Northern Shrikes join them for the winter. I saw this bird in December. Based on range, it could be either one. We’ll have to look carefully at the bird.
Most field guides place both shrikes on the same page, which helps in comparison. Northern Shrikes are an inch larger, but that rarely helps in the field. The young birds are quite different, with immature plumage persisting in the Northern Shrike through the entire first winter, while Loggerheads look like adults by the end of the summer. If it still had baby feathers, we’d know it was a Northern, but this bird is an adult.
When asked about telling shrikes apart, most experienced birders start with the eye band. It’s thicker on Loggerheads. Northerns have a thin white spacer between the black band and the gray head, running from the eye to over the beak. This ovten gives them a white top to their eye. It’s a minute detail and often hard to see with binoculars—or in a photo taken from a car parked across the road!
Another feature is the breast—it’s lightly barred on Northerns, not so much on Loggerheads. Also, Loggerheads have a whiter throat, but again, in cloudy weather, is that white or gray? And finally, Northerns have a larger hook at the end of a longer bill.
Here’s another shot of the same bird. Does it help?As far as I can tell, this bird has a thin black eye band with a thin smear of white over the front of it. It definitely has barring on the breast. The bill has a scary-sharp hook at the end. I’m guessing it’s a Northern Shrike, but I wouldn’t bet my firstborn on it.
To help you further, here are a couple of Loggerhead Shrikes for comparison. The one on the left may be a first-summer bird, as the photo was taken in September.