Mystery Shrike from Inner Mongolia, China

By Terry

Every once in a while, a birder comes across something that baffles.. It happens to me more often than I’m happy to admit. During a recent trip to northern Hebei and southern Inner Mongolia in China to check out the breeding location of satellite-tagged Amur Falcons (more on that later), Paul Holt and I found an unusual shrike. We never saw it particularly well – it was very skittish – and, given time constraints, we had to leave the site before we could secure the views that we would have liked and the quality of photos that would have helped..

Nevertheless, given that we were puzzled by this bird, I am publishing here our photos and a short video in the hope that someone can help us ID this strange-looking creature.

Shrike sp. (Nanhaoqian reservoir near Shangyi, Nei Mongol)(2)

Shrike sp, near Shangyi, Inner Mongolia, 10 October 2014. Note the scaling on the underparts.  Photo by Paul Holt.

2014-10-09 shrike sp

Shrike sp, near Shangyi, Inner Mongolia, 10 October 2014. The dark wings and pale wing bar are consistent with Long-tailed Shrike.

A short video can be seen here – Shrike sp, Nei Mongol

The video is a little over-exposed, making the bird appear paler than it actually was. Neither the video nor our (few) photographs really do justice to the following:

– overall coffee brown colour, slightly ‘greyer’ on the back of the head and very subtly more rufous on the scapulars

– tail mostly and conspicuously black with white on the outer-tail feathers. When alighting rather small, white, crescentic tips to the bird’s three outermost tail feathers were clearly visible

– narrow and rather faint scaling on the underparts (just visible in Paul’s photo)

On the first, very brief view, I instinctively thought it was a Long-tailed Shrike (Lanius scach). The black tail and wing pattern fitted this species. However we soon had some issues with this ID.

First, the overall colouration seemed wrong. Second, the scaling of the underparts didn’t seem to fit this species. Third, the white in the tail didn’t fit either. And finally, the range of Long-tailed Shrike – this would almost certainly be the most northerly ever record of Long-tailed Shrike in China (it is still a rarity, albeit one that’s increasing, in Beijing but it does breed in southern Hebei).

Personally, I also thought that the bird wasn’t big enough for Long-tailed (it’s a large shrike) and the tail didn’t appear long enough either but, in the absence of a direct comparison, this view is subjective.

So we are baffled. Is it just an aberrant Long-tailed Shrike? We think not. A hybrid? Or something else? Answers on a postcard, please…


11 thoughts on “Mystery Shrike from Inner Mongolia, China

    1. Terry Townshend Post author

      Thanks Rune!
      I think you are spot on and you are the second person to suggest a juvenile ‘sibiricus‘. The tail, wing and underpart patterns all fit. And I am not wedded to my impression of it being smaller than L. schack. I didn’t realise Great Greys could look so brown! Thanks again and give my regards to Danish birding!
      Cheers, Terry

  1. Grahame Walbridge

    I think Rune is spot on! Structure completely wrong for Long-tailed, tail way too short and not graduated enough. Head and bill wrong.

    It looks more like a GGS to my eyes. Juvenile sibiricus seems the obvious choice; combination of brown upper parts and uniformly finely scaled (brown) underparts. The wing pattern also looks good which you can make out on the left wing, along with the narrow wing bar.

    The face pattern is also good, combination of pale lores, restricted dark (brown) mask behind eye and rufous-washed super cilium/fore crown. It appears to show a pale buff-washed rump and you can just make out a paler scapular patch.

    I can’t make out precise tail pattern but structure looks good.

    As to size, I think schach looks bigger than it really is due to its long tail. Sibiricus is big but I would thought overlaps in size, though is heavier in build. I would have thought your concerns about size could be explained by the fact that you had nothing to compare it with.

    Grahame Walbridge

  2. Grahame Walbridge

    Had another look at the video and there doesn’t seem to be anywhere near enough white in the tail for any GGS subspecies. As Terry noted, appears to show extensive white in t6 and and least white tips to one or two other feathers, a pattern which better fits Long-tailed.

    Add to that ‘subtle rufous on scapulars’ and apparent size discrepancy and there are several features at odds with any GGS.

    A hybrid is plausible, various combinations of lanius have been known to hybridise, although I don’t know of any proven instances involving GGS. I think the fact that is a juvenile, combined with the quality of the images/video, makes it very difficult to call with any degree of certainty!

    Grahame Walbridge

  3. Terry Townshend Post author

    Thanks Grahame.. I very much appreciate you putting down your thoughts on this bird. Your thought processes followed a similar track to mine, albeit the other way around! Through a different channel I received some thoughts from Magnus Hellstrom who also thinks it’s a ‘sibiricus’ Great Grey. And after a scan of the web I found a picture of a juvenile ‘sibiricus’ which isn’t a million miles away from ‘our’ bird. See here: Leaving aside the possible size issue (which, as you suggest, can be explained by the fact that I had nothing to compare it with), I think we have the answer…. And apart from the plumage, another supporting fact is that a juvenile Great Grey is certainly more likely in Inner Mongolia than a LT (which would be a first for this northerly Province). Thanks again! Terry

  4. linosabirding

    I also think is a sibiricus juv. having studied several skins at Tring!

    to a different matter , Terry , could you please still help me in getting the photos of Lesser Kestrel from China at high res ?


    1. Grahame Walbridge

      Perhaps I overstated my concerns which were based solely on the ‘apparent’ amount of white in the tail in the video, confirmed inTerry”s brief description. I expect those rectrices are largely concealed beneath the central pair. As I said, I was not aware of any record on GGS hybridising.

      Everything else fits sibiricus which I too have examined at NHM Tring.

      As an interesting aside, I see a presumed 1st-winter Northern Shrike (borealis) was found on the Azores yesterday. A first for Western Palearctic (?), assuming the Finnish records relate to sibiricus,which seems more likely.

      Grahame Walbridge

    1. Terry Townshend Post author

      Thanks Axel! Lovely images and congratulations on running the excellent website that is Birding Mongolia! Terry


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