July 20, 2017 — Rain in the night delivered morning temperatures in the 80s on Monday. Sipping coffee on the patio I was suddenly gripped by a thought: I’m wasting an opportunity. So, I gathered my gear and headed for South Mountain.
The Pyramid/Basura Trail parking lot had been closed last week, as construction crews paved the Chandler Boulevard extension. On Monday it was open again, so I parked next to the saguaro and strapped on my stuff. I was sad when the roadwork began, knowing it means more development and more of the casual encroachment that close-by housing brings. But traffic noise will be an improvement over the construction racket, and the road should be open soon.
It was 8 a.m. by the time I got going, a little on the late side for July. I saw only one other hiker, a guy about my age with what looked to be a heavy pack on his back. We talked. He was going to be on the trails all day in temperatures forecast to be around 100. The pack held 30 pounds of water, enough for himself and anyone he might encounter struggling with the conditions. He mentioned snakes; I shared which birds I hoped to see: flycatchers, hummingbirds, doves, maybe a shrike.
We parted ways where the Pyramid Trail branches east toward the mountain. I stayed on the track that leads to the old foundation. My plan was to leave the trail at the wash about a half mile ahead, and follow it back toward the road: basically covering my patch. I heard a Gila Woodpecker, and saw three Verdin. Widely spaced drops of soft rain were falling, just enough to make me cover the camera and binoculars with zip lock bags. It’s tough to watch birds when your stuff is encased in plastic bags, so I resolved to be content just walking.
Near the place where the Pyramid hooks east, however, I spotted three Northern Mockingbirds swooping and circling each other in the scrub. I pulled the camera from its cocoon to see what I could get. I’m struggling with settings right now, so I wasn’t expecting anything great, but I managed to catch them in midair. Even though the focus probably wasn’t perfect, I had high hopes.
I was enjoying the show when I noticed one of the mockingbirds had perched to the side. The swooping games were over for him. Then I realized he wasn’t a mockingbird at all, but a Loggerhead Shrike. The shrike is about an inch smaller than the mockingbird, but the coloration is close enough that you might confuse them, especially if you don’t expect to see shrikes — which I didn’t. In the photo above, look at the tail feathers. The tail feathers of the shrike, on the left, are tipped with white, looking a lot like some hummingbirds. The outer feathers of the mockingbird’s tail are all white. Shrikes also have a black mask over their eyes, clearly visible in the bird on the left. The mockingbird’s face is gray.
I always look for shrikes in this area. I rarely see them, but often hear them. Cornell’s All About Birds site says the shrike is “a songbird with a raptor’s habits.” It hunts insects, lizards and other birds, impaling prey on thorns or barbed wire. Nicknamed “butcher birds,” they used to be more common across the country but are now rare in the Northeast and Midwest. Log one more reason to treasure South Mountain.
When I have seen a shrike, the bird is usually perched at the end of a branch or atop a tree — almost always too far away for a photo. More often, I hear them. Something about their call reminds me of a phone ringing. Last week I followed one up the wash, losing him in the branches as soon as I caught up with him. Instead I had about five minutes to enjoy the beauty of a Mourning Dove, roosted in a mesquite.
Life took me other places yesterday, so I didn’t go through my pictures until today, and was excited to see that the mockingbird and the shrike were engaged midair. Maybe the shrike had threatened the mockingbird, although the mockingbird was too big to be prey. Perhaps the third bird was a juvenile or a mate that the adult mockingbird was defending — the bird on the right in the image at the top of this post certainly seems to be protecting the other.
Whatever the beef, it was not enough to chase the shrike away.