Sage Grouse

On a mild November Saturday I was loading the car for a trip to Spearfish Canyon to relive my disappointing July trips in search of the rare Mexican orange-billed nightingale-thrush. Interrupted in my preparations by a harsh, guttural single-syllable call from a treetop across the street, I grabbed my 10-power binocs to spot the vocalizing offender: an agitated northern shrike.

The two species of shrikes, aggressive predators, are seen occasionally but rarely in our neighborhood.  However, since they prey on songbirds, we more often see evidence of their visitations.

Sharp-shinned hawks (sharpies), bird predators too, are seen much more frequently, usually several times per year. They too decimate our favorite songbirds, like the Townsend’s solitaires, juncos and goldfinches, eschewing the pest starlings and English sparrows, both imported vermin. Expletives deleted.

Our berry bushes, raspberries, lilac blooms and general abundance of trees, together with multiple seed feeders, attract a lot of songbirds, which in turn attract predators. Predators also include cats, which are harmlessly live-trapped and turned in to Animal Control. Avian predators are part of nature’s cycle; domestic cats are not.

Not having photos of a northern shrike, I scrambled back to the car to grab my big telephoto lens, and camera and hustled back up the driveway to the neighbor’s yard. (I assume the neighbors are getting used to me wandering around everyone’s yard with camera and binoculars; no one has yelled at me yet.)

Pointing the camera to the treetop perch where I had last seen the shrike, I spotted movement and shot a couple of photos, but found myself mumbling that this bird looked a lot more like a sharpie than a shrike. What? But then I spotted the shrike, shot some photos, then the hawk solved the mystery, leaping from his perch and buzzing the shrike. The shrike — silent, stoic and stolid — stood its ground. The sharpie swooped again; the shrike stared it down. Startled,  I was too stunned to shoot the sharpie on its swoop; I stared dumbfounded. The sharpie was afraid to take on this stubborn adversary. After several tries the sharpie flew about 100 yards away, as the shrike triumphantly defended his tree. Finally disgusted, the sharpie flew away.

Shrikes are notoriously aggressive, I have read. They are about 10 inches long and have a slight hook to their bills.  Sharpies are 11 inches long, or longer, and have, in addition to strongly hooked bills, incredibly powerful hooked talons. I would have put my money on the Sharpie, but I would have lost the bet.

We got in the car and I told my spouse (who has lately taken to calling herself the Sage Hen) about this event, which seemed unbelievable to me. I thought a sharpie would make lunch of a shrike in a trice. She asked, if I were to write about this, what would be the moral of the story? I muttered something about Leslie Petersen should be proud that she stood her ground, but the conversation quickly turned to other topics.

We got to Spearfish Canyon, about 30 days late for seeing the fall colors, searched again in vain for the nightingale-thrush (which left about three months ago), swam the dogs in the creek, hiked to some waterfalls, saw no dragonflies, marveled at 68-degree temperatures on the 6th of November, privately admitted that maybe global warming might not be all bad, ate lunch, took some photos and came home.

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  1. Yes. The Rocky Mtn. Bird Observatory alertly posted a survey to determine how many people traveled this summer to Spearfish Canyon to see the Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, asking how they had traveled and how much money had been spent locally. This information can be exciting to local businesses. There were a lot of people in that canyon, many of whom traveled from far away.