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Northern visitors spice up an otherwise bland season

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In the winter, 2013 edition of Living Bird News there appears an article titled, “Superflight,” by Hugh Powell. Truth is I had never heard the word, much less knew of its meaning. Once fully defined by the author, however, it makes perfect and simple sense. From the magazine:

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“Every couple of years, food scarcities send one or a few irruptive species south of their normal ranges -- redpolls in one year, for example, and siskins or red-breasted nuthatches in another. But that’s not a superflight. It’s only once a decade or so that climatological patterns and bird numbers combine for a superflight that sends six, seven, or eight northern species deep into the central and southern United States.”

Why address this subject now? Simply, we are currently in the midst of such an infrequent event, one which has played out before us like a welcome winter dream over the past few months. I’ve seen no less than eight of those “northern species” myself this winter, a personal best.

Included in this mix are multiple sightings of a bird which had bedeviled my every attempt at locating it in Cass County in the past, the pine grosbeak (Pinicola enucleator). Perhaps the least difficult bird to add to my county finds had been this one. Nearly every local bird watcher I know had checked it off their “wanted” list yet it had eluded me. I was always a day off, sometimes even less. Years ago I had been walking a wooded area south of Fargo in late fall, only later did I hear of a visiting birder who found a handful of pine grosbeaks in the exact location shortly after I departed. It continued like that with me and Cass County pine grosbeaks. Until this fall.

It was a crisp morning following the Thanksgiving holiday and I was attempting to burn off some extra turkey and stuffing by walking through Elmwood Park. A light coating of frost covered everything, but the lack of wind made for a pleasant outing. I found myself approaching the American Legion field from the south along the pedestrian trail when I heard a faint but persistent flute-like song about 100 yards ahead. Upon reaching the source, a single male pine grosbeak sat atop a box elder tree and continued singing. The long wait was over.

This beautiful northern finch is one of the largest of its family. Were it placed on a football team, it would likely be an outside linebacker, long and beefy with a thick-set neck. Males are a splendid light rosy red, have a chunky dark beak, dark wings with two white wingbars. Females and immature have a variable olive-to-russet colored head and rump while the rest of the body feathers are gray.

The species enjoys circumpolar distribution in its preferred nesting habitat of open coniferous forests, such as that found near the treeline in taiga or mountainous areas, most often near water. Of the northern birds known to displace south in winter, this one stays closest to its home ground. Therefore, those living in the southern part of the country have little chance of seeing this gem without traveling north.

Pine grosbeaks enjoy a reputation for being extremely tame and approachable. Perhaps this is due to lack of human interaction in their remote breeding areas. In any case, the bird’s slow unwariness is not lost on Newfoundlanders, who know it locally as the “mope.”

There is still time to try and see this northern visitor without traveling to northern Minnesota although it might take some work. It isn’t known as a regular feeder visitor, so don’t wait for it there. Instead, look for activity near the tops of ash or box elder trees where the birds feed on the dry “helicopters” (seeds). Crabapples are another possibility. Pine Grosbeaks will grind up the small apples to get to the precious seeds, spitting out the apple pulp in the process.

One can always listen for them as well. The male’s beautiful song sounds like it borrows its richness from the rose-breasted grosbeak and its tempo (quite fast) from the purple finch. Once heard, it is nearly unmistakable.

Late winter can be frustratingly long for those wishing for spring. This winter, however, has been more tolerable for bird watchers due to the abundance of northern oddities like pine grosbeak. Powell writes, “Superflights are the stuff of birding legends.” I’m not sure it’s been legendary, but this season has certainly been notable.

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