By Sergio Harding, DGIF Nongame Bird Biologist
On May 16 of this year, DGIF personnel, working with partners from the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, banded a loggerhead shrike in a pasture in Smyth County, VA. Shrike banding is being coordinated across multiple states in order to study the connections between breeding and wintering populations of this declining species. Although this was one of several shrikes banded in Virginia in 2016, this particular banding event was memorable because of a group of cows that had gathered nearby to watch us. A bull in the group started huffing at us just as we were getting ready to band. Bird in hand, we collected our equipment and retreated to the other side of a gate, away from any potential bovine interference. And so it was that this shrike got its leg bands, ‘Yellow over Dark Blue’ on the left, ‘Yellow over Silver’ on the right (YE/DB YE/SI, in banding notation). The bird turned out to be the female of a breeding pair with an active nest. The molt pattern in the wing feathers revealed that she was just in the second year of her life. We took some quick measurements and released her some minutes later. With evening setting in and our work completed, we moved on, with plans to revisit the site in the winter to see whether the bird would stick around.
However, circumstances brought this bird back into our lives a lot sooner than expected. Last week, a biologist from Wildlife Preservation Canada was reviewing footage from a trail camera. The camera was set up to monitor a release site for captive-bred loggerhead shrike in Ontario, Canada, where the species is endangered. And there, on an image from August 29, was the Virginia bird, sporting its ‘YE/DB YE/SI’ bands. The release site is over 550 miles to the north of the site in Smyth County where we had banded the shrike. This is not the first documented case of a long-distance dispersal by a loggerhead shrike after the breeding season. However, the fact that the shrike traveled northward was completely unexpected.
This news capped an already exciting week related to loggerhead shrike: an attentive citizen scientist captured footage in Augusta County, VA of a banded, captive-reared shrike that had been released in Ontario in late August. This marked the third banded Ontario shrike documented in Virginia within the past 5 years, firmly establishing a link between the Canadian province and our state while simultaneously defying the odds of re-sighting this many banded birds. This reciprocal ‘exchange’ of shrikes further highlights these connections between populations, while also raising interesting questions. Because shrike do not spend the winter in Ontario, we expect that our Smyth County bird has already moved back south by now. Will she return to her site in Smyth County for the winter? You can be sure that we’ll be there looking for her, with high expectations and eyes wide open.