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.
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…