The Butcher Watchman and the Cackler

It is not often that I get two life birds in California in one day but bird migration in the winter can always bring surprises.

A very unusual songbird had been found on January 12, in remote Napa County on the northern edge of Lake Berryessa. The bird was unusual for two reasons. First that it vacates it’s northern breeding grounds and winters in southern Canada and northern United States. A few strays wander into California making it a rare winter visitor. The second reason this bird is unusual is that it is a predatory songbird that preys on large insects and small birds and rodents. Its scientific name is Lanius excubitor, which translates to butcher watchman. It is also known by the nickname, “butcher bird” for its habit of impaling its prey on thorns and barbed wire fences. In North American this bird is call northern shrike and in Europe it is the great grey shrike.

In any case this was a bird I had struck out on for years and now early on a Saturday morning I met my fellow member of the Shrikeforce Expedition 2016 and headed to the beautiful curvatous, oak-studded hills of north eastern Napa County.

Our destination was the Eticuera Creek Day Use Area. The shrike had been seen from the parking lot. Upon arrival there were three birders scanning the area. They had just had the bird which was good news but it hadn’t appeared in the last ten minutes. It had been seen in a  pair of valley oaks that crowned a low green hill. We searched the bare branches without success. I then followed the line of the hill downslope, pausing at every snag and branch to look for the shrike. I stopped at a lone small tree, nothing. Then I was distracted by a kestrel and a crow, dive bombing a red-tail in an oak across the road. I returned to the scanning the hillside starting again from the twin oaks down towards the small tree, and that’s when I saw a bird. It looked like an oversized paler version of a western scrub jay perched in the upper left hand side of the small tree. I pointed the bird out to the other birders and their scope view confirmed: juvenile northern shrike! Life bird No. 497!

To commemorate this life bird  I created a spread which I started in the parking lot with a field sketch (lower left). Once at home I needed a font that would be menacing enought to represent this predatory butcher bird. I found the font in my much used Dover book Rustic and Rough-Hewn Alphabets by Dan  X. Solo. I chose Personality Script because the shrike has a killer personality. I then wanted to sketch an image of the shrike, which I found on ebird, taken on the day it was found by the birder who found it. I included a quote from the Bible: Pete Dunne’s Field Guide Companion. I also included a map (not to scale) of Northern Lake Berryessa and the parking lot area.


My second lifer of the day was picked up on the way back at Las Gallinas Wildlife Ponds (see previous post). This lifer I have seen before but prior to 2004, it was considered a subspecies of the Canada  goose. It is now recognized as it’s own distinct species and given the name cackling goose.


As if the Avian Gods hated my car enough I returned to Marin to find that a large flock of American robins and cedar waxwings gave my brand new car a new “paint” job. But in the end it was worth it for a northern shrike and a flock of cacklers!


One thought on “The Butcher Watchman and the Cackler

  1. This is a great post! Solid writing, I really enjoyed it. Wonder who the other member of Shrikeforce 2016 is? He must be a really good birder too. Cheers.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s