Category Archives: Photo Essay

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.

What to See Now: Western Meadowlarks

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 male western meadowlark in the Pawnee National Grasslands. All photos by © Wayne D. Lewis/CPW.

While driving along a gravelly country road, I notice a squat shape sitting on a fence post bracing itself against a stiff Colorado breeze. To me, it looks a bit like a crude grade-school art project where the assignment is creating a bird by applying a chocolate chip beak and popsicle stick tail to an egg — a dull, mottled, grayish brown, grumpy egg. But then it raises up, exposing its bright yellow and black “V for varsity” sweater vest and bursts into song. If its melody isn’t the official song of the prairie, it deserves it as much or more than anything on country radio. Whether the song of the western meadowlark is cheerful or soulful is up to the listener, but the melody signals spring in Colorado’s grasslands. Read more

K9 Cash: A Nose for Natural Resources

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How long would it take you to locate a rare toad in the mountains of Colorado? How about spotting a federally endangered black-footed ferret hiding underground in one of Colorado’s many prairie dog towns? Both species are extremely rare and elusive, and are always on the radar of Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) biologists and wildlife officers. To get a leg-up on this challenge, CPW launched a K9 pilot program, enlisting a pair of highly trained working dogs who use their natural abilities to find what the human eye often cannot see. Read more

WHAT TO SEE NOW: GREAT HORNED OWLS

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 young great horned owlet shares its nest with its mother and two siblings. All photos by © Wayne D. Lewis/CPW

Nothing sparks the attention of a neighborhood like a new family moving in. On a quiet block of well-kept, mid-century homes, an unlikely pair took up residence in a penthouse condo formerly occupied for years by . . . red-tailed hawks?? Yep, these aren’t the typical new suburban arrivals, they are great horned owls. This pair, and especially their offspring, have united neighbors much more than backyard BBQs and block parties ever would. Read more

What to See Now: Red-winged Blackbirds

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 male red-winged blackbird. All photos by © Wayne D. Lewis/CPW.

If you cruise along just about any road in Colorado that passes through marshy or wet land, or hike by a lake or stream, you are likely to see red-winged blackbirds. Sleek and black, with bright orange, red and yellow shoulder patches, the males are what you will notice first — sitting on a cattail, wire fence or power line singing their conk-la-lee! song. Males sing to mark their territory and attract females, both of which they will aggressively protect. I once saw a red-winged blackbird repeatedly dive-bomb a belly boater that had ventured too close to its territory. Read more

Hands-On at the Hatchery

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Bellvue Watson Fish Hatchery.  All photos by © Doug Skinner.

When I was a kid, it felt as if every adult I encountered would ask, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I still remember being puzzled and somewhat annoyed by the question. How is a 10-year old supposed to know what they want to be when they grow up? But now, I rarely hear anyone ask that question anymore. I suspect that the question has become less common as a result of a continually evolving job market. Heck, many of the jobs we hold today were not even thought of when we were children. And for millennials and generation Z, the pace of change only seems to be accelerating. Today, the question almost seems silly. Read more

Grouse Getaway

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Greater sage-grouse display on a lek in northwest Colorado.  All photos by © Wayne D. Lewis.

YOTB_stacked_KIn the pre-predawn haze on a northwest Colorado prairie, every dark spot, smudge or blot you see is a greater sage-grouse — until the gathering light proves they’re not. As sunrise approaches, the “sage-grouse” become the rocks, sagebrush and clumps of dirt they actually are. But you know the birds are there because you hear them — everywhere. It’s not the distinct call of a western meadowlark (also heard in the mix) or other prairie bird, but much more otherworldly. It’s like the sounds the exotic-cute indigenous critters would make as they surround the Zachary Quinto version of Spock on some far-off planet in a Star Trek movie. Whether we know it it or not, the occupants of Mick and Nancy Sommer’s 4Runner are in a contest to see the first real greater sage-grouse. I end up taking bronze. Read more

2017 Colorado Outdoors Photo Issue Video

COLORADO’S HEARTBEAT

Each year, as the anticipation mounts for the photo issue, I find myself reflecting on the year and how intertwined our future is with our past. I am grateful for the abundance of wildlife, healthy habitat and our world-class state parks that provide the intersection of conservation and outdoor recreation. 

For more than a century, conservation work has been the primary mission of Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW). Nationwide, wildlife agencies were created to ensure the prosperity of both game and nongame species. CPW employees are dedicated professionals who work passionately for Colorado’ resources every day. And the agency is fortunate to be supported by dedicated sportsmen and sportswomen who cherish Colorado’s parks and wildlife. Read more

Shedding Velvet

COVER-buck-shedding-velvet-Wayne-D-Lewis-DSC_0128This time of year, most outdoors-obsessed Coloradans grab their cell phones, Nikons, Canons — anything with a lens — and head to the mountains in search of Instagram-worthy photos of changing aspens. Local TV forecasters show detailed maps of peak times in peak areas, guiding caravans of leaf lovers into the hills. For them, the official signs of the change of season are mountains painted yellow and gold.

I, however, wanted to chronicle a different sign of the season — one more interesting to orange-clad hunters: that of mule deer bucks shedding their antler velvet. During the first few weeks of September, a few times a week, I would leave work and head to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge in northeast Denver hoping to find bucks lit by the golden-hour light. At the Arsenal, they have decent populations of both mule and white-tailed deer, but by the time I started this project, the whitetail bucks had all shed their velvet.

Andy Holland, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife big game manager, thinks that the peak date for mule deer shedding is Sept. 15. “But it varies,” he says. Read more

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