#799: Northern Shrike

Saturday’s Kings County Christmas Bird Count was great weather and spectacular birding. 132 species, only three short of our alltime record. Three of those were species never before seen on a Kings County Christmas Count: a Barrow’s Goldeneye at Jamaica Bay, a Red Phalarope of all things in Erie Basin (between the Ikea and the Fairway!), and a Black-and-white Warbler I spotted in Prospect Park (not unusual for Brooklyn but shocking for this time of year). Add in the continuing Northern Shrike at Floyd Bennett Field, and there were three life birds to chase on Sunday. With choices like that, where to start? I guess you have to go for the rarest of the rare: the Red Phalarope. This is an ocean going bird rarely seen from land, and it’s not that easy to find on a pelagic trip. I’m not sure whether it’s ever been spotted in King’s County before. So at 7:00 AM I hopped in a Mini Cooper and headed down into Red Hook to look for the Phalarope.

As I arrived at the tip of Van Brunt Street, Shane Blodgett was just leaving. He hadn’t found it there and was driving over to IKEA to scope from the other side of the basin. I walked up and down the promenade, but didn’t find it. I then drove over to the IKEA myself. Steve Walter also showed up at IKEA, but none of us could locate the bird, so one-by-one everyone gave up and decamped for Floyd Bennett Field to look for the Shrike.

At Floyd Bennett Field, An American Kestrel was incredibly cooperative. I found six Hooded Mergansers and a Common Loon in Dead Horse Bay. There were also some nice House Finches, a couple of Northern Flickers, and lots of Northern Mockingbirds that look vaguely shrike like if you aren’t careful. I also ran into Tom Preston, Rafael Guillermo-Campos, Rob Jett, and Heydi Lopes, all of whom were out looking for the Shrike; but none of us found it after a couple of hours of searching. Strike 2.

Around noon, I gave up on the Shrike and headed down the Belt Parkway to Jamaica Bay for the Barrow’s Goldeneye. There were over a thousand ducks on the far side of the West Pond, mostly Ruddy’s but with a few American Wigeons and Scaup mixed in. However if there were any Goldeneyes there, Common or Barrow’s, I couldn’t pick it out. Strike 3. I’m out. The wind was blowing, and it was cold, so after multiple scans across through the duck raft through my scope, I gave up and headed home around 1:00. Whiffed Again. I thought with three staked out birds I really had a shot, but you just never know.

Then, just as I was getting ready to turn onto Eastern Parkway (almost all the way home in other words) my cell phone goes off in my pocket. I pulled off to the side of the road, and miraculously managed to get the phone answered before it went to voicemail. It was Shane and the Shrike had reappeared right where it had been the previous day on the Christmas Bird Count. They had found it about midway between the two locations we’d previously been looking. Damn bird! I wasn’t sure exactly how to get back to Floyd Bennett form that location, but my GPS knew and soon I was speeding down Kings Highway to try one more time. 25 minutes later I arrived back at the runway from which the Shrike had been seen. Rob, Heydi, and Shane had left but several other birders were there; and they told me that the Shrike had been making regular appearances every few minutes for the last hour. I walked down the runway, and about kept scanning the southeast tree line looking for anything perched. And yes! There it was! No, damn it. That’s a Mockingbird. Back to the scanning the tree line. Hey! Something moved! And it’s grey! And it’s a…damn it another Mockingbird.

Then I turn around and notice the group behind me is looking at something on the Northwest side of the runway. I turn around and look right at a bird that’s so backlit it could be anything. But before it flies away, I get my scope on it for about three seconds and sure enough, it’s a Northern Shrike. And after last year’s miscall with the Loggerhead Shrike at Jones Beach, I’ve made sure I know what I’m looking for in advance. In my head I check off the field marks in about half a second. Narrow dark mask with white markings around eye? Check. Large bill with obvious hook? Check. Paler gray above? I don’t know. The bird was too backlit and without a direct side-by-side comparison, it’s hard to distinguish such subtle shading; but the hooked bill and white around the eye are good enough to make the ID. #799 Northern Shrike!

I’ve got 11 days left to make 800 this year, but there are no obvious candidates. The only places I’ll be for the next two weeks are New York City and New Orleans, but I’ve already seen everything that’s regular in either location at this time of year. I tell you, I’m really missing those last two birds I could have seen if I hadn’t been incapacitated in the truck on my last day in Panama and the Green-tailed Towhee I missed repeatedly in Texas. But all I need is one rarity. The New Orleans CBC is coming up on Boxing Day. It’s had some great rarities in the past including my life Mangrove Cuckoo. There’s still time yet. It could be worse. I could still be trying to find 10 more rarities this year like John Vanderpoel. :-)

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