I first catch sight of the bird as it flies low over the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge marsh. It is robin-sized, gray, and it flashes white patches in its dark wings as it beats purposefully over the reeds and broad snow covered pond. My first thought is mockingbird. But when it reaches the line of tall trees and swoops effortlessly up, up, up to perch on the tip of the highest branch, I know that this is my first Northern shrike of the winter.
Excited to find this uncommon visitor from the spruce forests of northern Labrador, I focus my binoculars on it. It has black wings and tail, a soft gray back and crown, and a finely barred white breast. But most noticeable are its black mask and the hooked raptorial bill that identifies this songbird as a predator.
As I watch, the shrike bends its head to look in my direction. Sighting something, it sails steeply down to a dogwood bush only twenty feet from me. Oblivious to my presence it stares at the ground where the fickle wind has cleared snow from a small area.
Suddenly the shrike drops to the ground and I can see it grasp something brown at the edge of the snowdrift. It beats its wings several times to provide the leverage to drag a big meadow vole out into the open.
But the exposed field mouse quickly breaks out of the clutches of the shrike and turns on its assailant. This is not an unequal battle as the mouse is bigger than the torso of the shrike and clearly outweighs its opponent. Fierce and aggressive, it springs at the shrike several times. The bird retreats before each of these onslaughts, but it fends off the mousešs thrusts with sharp blows from its hawk-like bill.
For a time the outcome appears uncertain, but then the mouse seems to tire and it stops its attacks. The combatants face each other for a long moment, but the shrike stares down its opponent and the mouse turns to dash for safety under the snow.
It doesnšt make it! In a flash the shrike springs to the mousešs back and digs its bill deep into the rodentšs neck. All is over quickly. The mouse twitches twice and then is still.
The shrike now grasps the big mouse with its bill and feet and takes off toward the woods. I continue to watch it until it disappears behind the trees. All that is left behind is a tiny pool of rapidly congealing blood.
Only now do I realize that I have been standing perfectly still through this entire drama. A chill sweeps up my back and the aching of my cold fingers becomes apparent. I must move on to prevent hypothermia in the biting cold. I trudge ahead, my snowshoes sinking into the very light snow with that squeak, squeak, squeak familiar to winter hikers.
But the episode is not quite complete. The trail along the levee leads to a patch of woods. There a single honeylocust still retains a few of its long seedpods. However, that is not what captures my attention. Impaled on one of the honeylocustšs big thorns is the body of the vole. On another is a junco. The shrike has cached its victims here for later feeding and has flown off in search of other prey. This behavior hanging its victims like carcasses in a butcheršs shop gives the shrike another name: butcherbird.
Now to my surprise a tiny chickadee flies up and begins to peck at the volešs stiffening carcass. Obviously any food source is to be utilized in the frigid temperatures of this winter.