Ample food sources lead to bumper crop of pine grosbeaks this winter
By Joan Collins
Things quiet down by late summer and fall as many of the Adirondack breeding bird species head south. But as winter arrives, birds to our north irrupt into our area delighting local birders and bringing tourists to our region. Each year, the mix of irruptive birds is different. All these movements are based on food sources.
The “Winter Finch Forecast” is published each year in September by an ornithologist in Ontario. He predicts northern bird movements based on tree seed crop ratings collected from birders in northern states and Canadian provinces. It’s a challenging puzzle. I rate the trees in northern New York each year for him. This year, there is a bumper ash tree seed crop and lots of fruit sources in the Adirondacks. These wild foods tell me that we could see bohemian waxwings, and evening and pine grosbeaks if they are lacking preferred foods in their northern areas, which is indeed the case this winter.
Pine grosbeaks are large members of the finch family. The male is a lovely raspberry red color with dark wings that have two white wing bars, while the female is yellowish. They are irregular irruptive species in the Adirondacks that we don’t see as often as other irruptive finches. They breed in the palearctic in subarctic coniferous forests—from eastern Asia to Scandinavia, and in the Nearctic in subarctic and subalpine coniferous forests —including Alaska, across Canada, northern Maine and the Rocky Mountains. I’ve observed them in open coniferous forests on their breeding grounds in the highlands of Cape Breton and on the Gaspe Peninsula.
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In winter, they are primarily frugivores, favoring small fruits. They also eat buds and seeds, and while they are mostly vegetarian, they do catch insects to feed to their young. Like other finch species in winter, they can often be observed eating grit in the roads.
Pine grosbeaks are social birds that form winter flocks. These birds of remote coniferous forests on their nesting grounds are more frequently found in busy downtown areas feeding in ornamental fruit trees in winter, unwary of people walking by on sidewalks.
I often hear their lovely vocalizations long before I see them because they are extremely slow-moving birds while feeding. You can drive past a fruit tree full of pine grosbeaks and not spot them since they blend in and rarely move. They are so slow that locals in Newfoundland fondly nicknamed them “mopes.”
Pine grosbeaks are sweet, approachable birds that perch close to each other, often touching, and appear to get along well with flock mates. Evening grosbeaks, on the other hand, are loud, aggressive birds that need their space even in a flock.
In January 2017, a Washington D.C. birder wanted to escape inauguration weekend and go birding in the Adirondacks, and pine grosbeaks were on his never-before-seen list. That winter the grosbeaks had amassed in Montpelier, Vt. so we headed there. The five Montpelier exits off Interstate 89 were closed and the traffic was backed up for miles—the women’s protest march was held that day and participants headed for the state capital in great numbers.
On I drove until we could get off the highway and my companion navigated to Montpelier on back roads. We were driving next to the protesters when I spotted a pine grosbeak flock in a fruit tree. I quickly parked and we leapt from the car with scopes to observe the beautiful birds right next to all the marchers.
Women, staring at us as they marched, asked what on earth we were doing. We told them all about the pine grosbeaks and why the fruit-lovers were in Montpelier. I believe we provided an unusual interlude for many of the marchers. On our drive back to the Adirondacks, my D.C. companion said he would never forget the experience in seeing this new “life” bird.
I hope readers get to observe the lovely pine grosbeaks this winter.
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This article first appeared in a recent issue of Adirondack Explorer’s magazine.
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An important note – especially with Pine Grosbeak and Crossbill irruptions – be careful when approaching bird flocks “gritting” on the roadway. They are not accustomed to fast-approaching cars and are easy to run over if you don’t give them a “brake”. Some people give them a toot on the horn to warn them, but this is not always reliable. They have virtually no “road sense”, so approach slowly when it is safe to do so.
I have had several flocks of Pine Grosbeaks in Piseco, but they are feeding on seeds on deciduous trees (ash?), or gritting in the road, and flush very easily. Unfortunately we don’t seem to have a single crab apple tree in this part of Hamilton County, lol! They also have not showed up at feeders (yet). Such a great bird!
In my area, many crabapples and dogwoods did not flower or produce fruit this year because of a frost or something. These trees also have THEIR cycles. I hope the grosbeaks can find sufficient food on their winter vacation!