What to See Now: Shrikes

YOTB_stacked_KIn celebration of the Year of the Bird, we will highlight some of the birds and their behaviors that you can observe at certain times throughout the year.

 

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A pair of loggerhead shrikes from the Pawnee National Grasslands. All photos by © Wayne D. Lewis/CPW.

Driving down County Road 57 on the edge of the Pawnee National Grasslands, I saw a flurry of avian activity on a barbed-wire fence just ahead. I pulled over to see three of the four birds had moved off a bit, leaving one little bird sitting alone. Well, “sitting” isn’t quite right, because its legs were sticking out at odd angles. “Resting” isn’t correct either, because there wasn’t much peaceful about the scene. The small brownish bird was “stuck.” I edged my truck a few feet ahead to try and get a better idea what species I was looking at, but that didn’t help. It’s hard to identify a bird when it is missing its head.

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This small bird had fallen prey to a group of loggerhead shrikes.

It wasn’t really a mystery at all as to who was responsible: Three black-masked culprits impatiently waited nearby — two just one fence section down and another above on a powerline. They had clearly ignored the posted “no hunting” sign. I waited a few minutes, hoping they would return to the scene of the crime so my camera could catch them doing other naughty stuff, but they all flew off, apparently not wanting to be seen with the victim. I put my truck in drive and headed about 1,000 yards ahead before making a U-turn to sneak back and snap some damning photographic evidence, but I was too late. In that short time, the butchers had spirited the victim away.

While the identity of the victim will never be known, the perpetrators were instantly identified as shrikes. Shrikes are gray, black and white, robin-sized songbirds. I picture songbirds as cheerful, friendly, Disney-like birds — and maybe shrikes are, too, when they aren’t impaling grasshoppers, lizards, mice and small birds (sometimes when the prey is still alive) on thorns, spines and the barbs of barbed wire. Birds as big as meadowlarks and robins fall prey to shrikes, and even the occasional bat is eaten. Since shrikes lack talons like those of raptors, they stun or kill their prey with rapid blows from their poweful, hawk-like beaks and they will kill vertebrates by biting through their necks. Their impaled victims may be consumed right away or cached for later consumption. The cache also marks their territories and helps in attracting mates. Thus, butcher birds, one of the shrike’s nicknames, is a very accurate and appropriate description. They are also called thornbirds (they use thorns in hunting and also nest in thorny shrubs and trees) and blockheads (because many think their heads are too big for their bodies).

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Loggerhead shrikes search for their prey from vantage points such as trees and power lines.

Although I could easily ID the butchers, figuring out the type of shrike was harder. There are only two shrike species in North America and both can be found in our state. Colorado is home to northern shrikes, as well as their close relatives, loggerhead shrikes. Northern shrikes breed in Alaska and Canada, and their range dips down into northern Colorado. Loggerhead shrikes will nest in Colorado and can be found year-round in southern parts of the state. The Pawnee National Grasslands on the Eastern Plains is one of the areas where their ranges overlap. I reached out to Bruce Gill, an author and former biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and had him review my photos. “My guess is they are all loggerhead shrikes,” said Gill. “Northerns winter here, but don’t breed here. The ones in which the black does not extend across the bill are young of the year that have not yet developed adult plumage. Northerns breed far north along the Arctic Circle and Alaska.”

Gill, in his article “Butcher Bird” from the March/April 2013 issue of Colorado Outdoors magazine wrote: “Aside from contrasting distributions, several subtle physical characteristics distinguish adult loggerheads from northerns. At first glance, they look very much alike. But careful inspection reveals that northerns are slightly larger. The breast feathers of northerns are crisscrossed with very fine, wavy, contrasting dark lines. Breasts of adult loggerheads are mostly gray, lacking wavy lines.

“The black facemask of the loggerhead is broader than the northern’s and runs completely across the base of the beak whereas the narrower mask of the northern ends at the base of the beak. The hook on the upper mandible of the northern is also slightly longer than that of the loggerhead, but this characteristic is difficult to judge without side-by-side comparisons.

“Perhaps the most useful field-distinguishing characteristic from a distance is behavioral. The northern shrike has a habit of raising and lowering it’s long tail when perched, a gesture rarely used by the loggerhead.”

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Loggerhead shrike with the remains of a grasshopper. The author watched this bird remove the grasshopper’s legs and wings before swallowing it.

After some review, I determined that the culprits were loggerhead shrikes. However, the beauty of writing for blogs is that if I am proven wrong, I can quickly change the words on the screen.

“I’m not bad, I was born this way,” kept popping in my head as I thought about the scene I had witnessed. Bluebirds are often thought of as signs that happiness is on its way — unless you’re a cricket in its sights. Robins are welcome signs of spring — unless you’re a worm. Heck, even the little headless bird had been a very effective predator up until its untimely end. Don’t think of shrikes as avian Vlad the Impalers. Instead, think of them as the kindly butcher on the corner, just going about their business and providing for their families.

LOGGERHEAD SHRIKES


Wayne D. Lewis is the editor and art director of Colorado Outdoors magazine.

Fly Fishing Basics – Part I: Picking the right gear

Between great local fishing supply stores and a number of low-cost fly fishing outfits available online, there’s never been a better time to take up fly fishing. Howard Horton, Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Angler Outreach Coordinator, dispels the myths that prevent many from trying fly fishing. Learning to fly fish does not have to be expensive or intimidating. Howard walks through gear selection and rod setup, showing you exactly what you’ll need to get out on the water without breaking the bank.

Next Lesson – Part II: Fly Selection for Colorado

Now that you’ve got the basics on gear selection it’s time to pick some flies. Watch Part II: Fly Selection for Colorado to guarantee a great fly selection for your next fishing adventure.

What to See Now: Lark Buntings

YOTB_stacked_KIn celebration of the Year of the Bird, we will highlight some of the birds and their behaviors that you can observe at certain times throughout the year.

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Male lark bunting. All photos by © Wayne D. Lewis/CPW

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The author’s dog, Jake.

This post is brought to you by the Fuzz Brothers, my dogs Digger and Jake. Digger, a large Airedale, and Jake, a surprisingly tough mix of every little foofy dog I always said I hated, are not fans of fireworks. Not one bit. As the days neared the Fourth of July, their anxiety levels steadily rose. Despite the fireworks ban and extremely dry conditions, my neighborhood sounded like the battle scenes from an Avengers’ movie played in Dolby Surround Sound. So, to alieveate the poor dogs’ stress on the loudest day of the year, I decided to take them on an Independence Day drive to one of the quietest places in Colorado — the Pawnee National Grasslands. My other Airedale, Mary, would historically go on trips like these, but she is now old and mostly deaf, and so the fireworks don’t even register. Anyway, she would rather nap. Read more

2018 Colorado Outdoors Fishing Guide

2018 Fishing Guide - Magazine CoverThe 2018 Colorado Outdoors Fishing Guide is now available! With more than 9,000 miles of rivers and some 2,000 lakes and reservoirs, Colorado is an angler’s paradise.

This year’s guide features interesting and informative articles geared toward helping you make the most of your time on the water. The 2018 issue includes tips to help you catch more fish during the summer months. Learn about a fly that will catch fish anywhere in Colorado. From rivers to reservoirs and brown trout to walleyes, you’ll find tips and tricks to make the most of your fishing season. Read more

New camping options for last minute planners

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Tent camping at Cheyenne Mountain State Park. Photo by © Thomas Kimmel/CPW.

The ability to make last-minute camping reservations is coming to some of Colorado’s state park campgrounds.

My dad sends me a text on Friday: Hey, let’s go camping this weekend! Want to head up to Eleven Mile State Park, go fishing, and camp on Saturday?

Yes, yes, I do. I’ll see if I can book us a campsite.
Read more

Always Photograph Wildlife from a Safe Distance

Colorado is home to one of the most abundant and diverse wildlife populations in the world. From deer and elk to bighorn sheep and moose, more than 960 species live in our great state. While this makes for an exciting opportunity to view and photograph wildlife, it’s important that you act responsibly to avoid potentially dangerous human and animal conflicts. When photographing with their cell phones and cameras, people often get too close to wild animals. And these close encounters can result in serious injuries for both wildlife and humans. If an attack occurs, Colorado Parks and Wildlife is required to euthanize the animal – even if the attack was provoked because a person got too close. Please help us protect wildlife by taking some simple precautions. Read more

Castlewood Canyon Birding Adventure

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All photos by © Doug Skinner/CPW.

YOTB_stacked_KThe day after Governor John Hickenlooper declared 2018 the Year of the Bird in Colorado, I had the good fortune to join a group of birders that included CPW Resource Stewardship Program Coordinator Jeff Thompson and CPW Volunteer Karen Metz at Castlewood Canyon State Park. Beginning at sunrise, our group traveled to 13 different birding stations – each station associated with specific habitats – and spent exactly eight minutes at each location to survey what birds were present. Thompson and Metz do this survey work together three times each year and the work has been informing park management for the last eight years.

Read more

Congrats to the 2018 Photo Contest Winners!

Colorado-Public-Lands-Day-Logo-267x300The votes are in and the 2018 Colorado Public Lands Day Photo Contest winners have been selected! With hundreds of submissions, photographers around the state captured an amazing variety of photos – highlighting Colorado’s diverse landscape and recreational opportunities. We congratulate all of the winners and we thank one and all for sharing their images and participating in the voting for this year’s “people’s choice” winner. Please view this year’s winners below and continue the celebration by getting outside and enjoying our unparalleled public lands. Read more

The Be-THE-GUY (or THE GAL) Fishing-License Challenge

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Fishing is often a solitary endeavor, but it’s more fun when it’s not. Photos © by Wayne D. Lewis.

In the early 80s, for a group of gangly, basketball-loving young men in Golden, Colo., Pat Sanner was The Guy. He had the backyard basketball court, the basement sports cave, close access to a park for football and a mom who tolerated our group better than most. Sanner was genetically wired for sports: His father was Lynn Sanner, the sports director for KBTV (now KUSA) and host of “The Broncos with Red Miller,” the weekly Denver Broncos recap. I never met Lynn; Pat had lost his father right around the time my family moved to Golden, but you could see the impact the father had on the son. Read more

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