Two Lifers in Ten Minutes

In my last post I said I was done writing about just my experiences, but I had no idea that today I would have seen two amazing lifers – new birds to add to my life list. The only way I know how to get rid of the birding adrenaline that is still coursing through my system is to write about what happened.

After I dropped Evan off at school and Marin off at daycare, I had a half hour to kill before I had to go to school for a Math League meet (my school is not in session most Mondays). I decided to watch the feeder activity since I rarely get to as I drive to work in the dark and get home late. Thanks to my wife’s efforts and some recent bird-feeding advice from local experts, our birch tree in front of our house is alive and literally moving with hundreds of birds of 11 different regular species (we’ve had 18 this fall/winter) that show up for a handout. Lately we’ve been invaded by dozens of Common Redpolls, a bird that winters here all the way from the Arctic. As I watched them attack the sunflower chips in the thistle feeder, I spotted one redpoll that was whiter/frostier than all the rest – the Hoary Redpoll. These redpolls mix in with flocks of the Commons and are very similar in appearance to them. They are rare; maybe only one or two out of a flock of 200 redpolls will be the Hoary. So, there is doubt in my mind, but I’m 95% certain I saw one.

As I was contemplating the subtle differences in redpoll species, a dark, large bird swooped down and landed on the deck right in front of the window. I went up to the window and looked down to see it. I expected a Bluejay. What I saw looked like a jay, but it was gray with black on its wings and a black mask extending behind its eyes! I had never seen such a bird. I figured I had it pegged as the Gray Jay. I was fumbling for my phone to get a picture of this cool bird just 4 feet from me when it flew off. Looking in the bird guide to confirm my identification, I found I was way off. The Gray Jay did not look like what I saw, and we are way south of its range. Flipping through the book, I found the bird that looked exactly like the one that came to see me. Unfortunately, though, there were two species that were nearly identical to each other – the Loggerhead Shrike and the Northern Shrike. Like the redpolls, they differed only subtly. I was not prepared for this encounter; I hadn’t studied enough to pick out the discerning details in that flash of a visit! It reinforced the need to study. Thankfully context saved me. Both shrikes live in Minnesota, but the Loggerhead is only here in the summer. The Northern, on the other hand, is a scarce visitor all the way from northern Canada in the winter. The Northern Shrike is a great addition to my life list, which will be coming soon.

I couldn’t believe I had seen two beautiful, rare birds from the Arctic out my living room window. I immediately called my dad to share my excitement, and then I had to wait five long hours to tell Evan. I can only hope that he, too, will someday be in the right place at the right time to experience these amazing birds.

I am hoping to find some pictures of these birds that I can use with permission for this post, but if you are curious, just do a Google image search for Hoary Redpoll or Northern Shrike.

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