Friday, December 7, 2012

Nomads of the North

My first view of the great eastern boreal forest was from 33,000 ft up  traveling home from a visit with my family in Germany. Down below lay a dark green expanse interrupted only by the distant glitter from bogs, lakes and and snaking rivers.  Far and wide in between  straight roads as if laid down with a ruler were the only signs of  human presence. This is still the home of billions of birds who are moving south only when their food supplies are running low. Every year winter finch forecasts are being published based on the seed crop supply. Click here to see this year's forecast. 

A couple of weeks ago when out with my dog I saw three plump birds with taupe undersides, two white wingbars and rusty caps feeding on a crab apple tree. At first I didn't recognize them but then "rusty" clicked in my head: female Pine Grosbeaks!  In Dec 2007 I had photographed a flock in a road-side crab apple tree. The majority were females but I was lucky to  also see a male as males often stay behind.

Since then I have seen many reports of sightings on the Mass, NH and VT state birding listservs. So it's starting to look like a true irruption. 

Just the other day a large flock of about 30 birds appeared in Turner's Falls in the crab apple trees along an urban sidewalk gorging themselves on the fruit. They were all females, or immature males, with no adult males in sight. A light snow was falling. I took many photos but ended up deleting most of them since the birds in the trees were just dark gray shadows against a brilliant white sky. But many were feeding on the sidewalk and allowed me to come very close.

Drinking from a puddle

The Evening Grosbeak, nominated as the 2012 ABA Bird of the Year, is at home in the coniferous and mixed forest of western northern US and Canada. With their massive bills they are masters at cracking nuts and seeds. They used to be common visitors at winter feeding stations in the East but in the last decades their numbers have plummeted. See Laura Erickson's ABA blog post on  "What is happening to Evening Grosbeaks?".

 I first saw the bird just after I had moved from Kansas to Western Mass in 1980. I was renting a condo with a balcony looking out on  a patch of swamp and coniferous forest. I had put our sunflower seeds in a tray on a table for flock of House Finches and one snowy morning I vividly remember a flock of large yellow, white and black birds swirling around the balcony with a great deal of commotion and loud noise and making short work of the seeds. Fascinated I kept refilling the tray. 

Since then I have seen them only on rare occasions. With their imposing presence,  their bold colors and massive beaks, they always strike me as being somehow larger than life.

Crossbills are true boreal nomads. They are totally dependent on the seeds in spruce and pine cones, and appear wherever their food supply is plentiful. Their oddly shaped bill allows them to pry open the scales of cones to extract the seeds. Rarely do they show up at backyard feeders.

Immature White-winged Crossbill at feeder

Recently I drove to Salisbury Beach State Park to see the Crossbills reported there. The pine trees there were bursting with cones. Chattering flocks of Crossbills were lofting up, then settling down again on a different group of trees.  White-winged Crossbills were in the majority but I also saw several Red Crossbills.   

Adult male White-winged Crossbills look rosy as if dipped in red wine whereas immature males are peach-colored. 

Females are unobtrusively gray and olive, and have, like the males, white wing bars

Red Crossbills come in various shades of brick red  with white undertail coverts. They lack wing bars. There appear to exist at least 10 types distinguishable only by their call and size of bill.

The Purple Finch is a moderately common winter visitor in the lower US. Its natural foods are coniferous  and deciduous hardwood seeds. When these are in short supply it turns up in larger numbers at feeding stations.

A note about finches:  Several years ago I found a small flock of dead  House Finches scattered on the dirt road in front of my house. They seemed to have been hit by a car but how and why? I found the answer in Ron Pittaway's Winter Finch Basics:

"Road Kills: Thousands of finches are killed by cars in some winters when they seek the salt and sand put on roads. They have no fear of cars. If you see finches on the road, slow down, flash the lights and tap the horn. Be careful not to confuse other drivers."

The Snowy Owl lives and breeds the Arctic tundra but is an occasional winter visitor in the contiguous US. Last year we had an unprecedented Snowy Owl invasion. A much larger number of young owls than usual had fledged and outgrown the local food supply. The young owls had to migrate south or starve. They showed up as far south as Texas. Many probably did not survive and few, if any, made it back to the Arctic.

One morning a young (you can tell as mature owls are almost completely white) Snowy Owl showed up at a local cornfield. It sat immobile for much of the day, only occasionally turning its head.  Later on it flew briefly up into a tree and at dusk settled on a partially submerged tree in the West River. Eventually it left to parts unknown. 


PBS recently showed a mesmerizing video on Snowy Owls on their Nature program. Here is link to the full-length video.

Happy Winter Birding and Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

White-winged and Red Crossbills in Salisbury Beach State Park

A couple of weeks ago on a beautiful warm day I drove to Salisbury Beach State Park at the mouth of the Merrimac River to see the Crossbills that had been reported there. The pines on the park's camp ground were studded with thick round cones that were bursting with seeds. I watched as flocks of Crossbills were flying short distances from tree to tree. 

Most of them were White-winged Crossbills. Red Crossbills were present in much smaller numbers. They are recognizable by their brick-red color with white only  on their undertail coverts. The color on the White-winged Crossbills is more purple, as if dipped in red wine, very similar to the Purple Finch's.  However it was easy to mistake one for the other if you just saw them from the front and didn't see their wings. They are messy eaters; many of them were feeding on the ground picking up dropped seeds. The "cross bills" refers to the peculiar shape of their bills which are well suited for wedging open the thick cone scales to extract the seeds.

The following photos all show White-winged Crossbills, the flashy males as well as the more subtly colored olive and gray females. The paler pinkish birds are immature males.

I got only a few photos of the Red Crossbills, all males.

The crossbills are included in this year's report on the winter finch irruption. For a very informative updated report see Tim Schreckengost's post on Thermal Birding.

 Happy Thanksgiving! 

-- and thank you for visiting my blog. I am also thankful for all the wonderful birds I was able to see this year. I hope everyone will participate in their area's Christmas Bird Count. We owe it to the birds!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

One of the world's great migrations: neotropical warblers and other songbirds

We may have seen pictures of huge herds of caribou migrating or wildebeest fording a crocodile-infested river on the Serengeti plain, but few people are aware of the hundreds of thousands of migrating song birds passing overhead as we sleep, birds that spend two thirds of their lives in the neotropics, in Central or South America.   On quiet nights if you have good ears you may hear the faint high-pitched sounds of the passing birds. Turning recordings into spectrograms may help with individual identification; yet almost nothing is known about the character and composition of these flocks.

Most migrants stop in the morning to feed and rest and then resume their journey at dusk. It's a perilous journey with many obstacles. Most song birds live about two years with about 85% of the mortality occurring during migration. For example the tall glass towers in Toronto form a lethal barrier for birds coming south across Lake Ontario from the northern wilderness.

The multitudes of migrating birds are most easily seen on weather radar. The Wordpress Badbirdz Reloaded site provides a good primer. There are several ornithologists that chart the nightly migration progress on their blogs. Drew Weber of Nemesis Bird is one of them.

In New England by October most of the warblers have left, but there are still a few stragglers. The highlight of my recent walk was seeing an Orange-crowned Warbler, a life bird for me. Among the sparrows skulking through the underbrush I glimpsed a small bird with a delicate beak. Pishing brought it to the surface.

The name is really a misnomer. The orange on its crown is almost invisible except in a certain light.  

It's a late migrant that may stay into November and may even turn up during a Christmas Bird Count.

The Palm Warbler is another such species that is still around in NE. I took these photos in early October on the West River Trail:

On the same day I found a female Blackpoll Warbler, a species usually found in the higher altitude of the White Mountains - see previous post. 

Blackpoll Warbler undertake the longest migration of any warbler according to BNA online.  Their route takes them south across the Atlantic Ocean, a route that averages 3,000 km and may necessitate a nonstop flight of 88 hours.

One of the most common warblers in the Northeast, the Yellow-rumped Warbler often stays into November:

The Ruby-crowned Kinglet is another late migrant

When substantial numbers interrupt their migration because of unfavorable weather, we have a fallout, an event much appreciated by birders  Last year we had both a spring and a fall fallout of Palm Warbler. Here, In the fall, they settled in a harvested cornfield for a day.

Sometimes a bird gets blown off course. This happened two years ago in November when a Townsend's Warbler, a western species, showed up in a road-side weed patch in SE NH staying there for more than a week. Eventually it left. Its ultimate fate is unknown. 

It's ironic that these lost vagrants, most of them unlikely to survive, provide the greatest thrill and attract birders from great distances. 

If you like to read more about bird migration here are two remarkable books:

Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds by Scott Weidensaul

Songbird Journeys: Four Seasons in the Lives of Migratory Birds by Miyoko Coco Chu

Happy Birding!