A news item appearing last week in local media, including this newspaper, made for a nice little
diversion from the relentless onslaught of stories surrounding our late January cold weather. It spoke of a certain rare bird-a brambling (Fringilla montifringilla)-making daily appearances at a rural property north of Detroit Lakes. From far and wide, hundreds of people have made the trek to this remote northwest Minnesota home to check the remarkable Eurasian finch off their life list, according to reports.
Last Wednesday, NDSU Asst. Professor of Rangeland Ecology, Torre Hovick and I added our names to the growing roster.
There had been a similar incident in 2004. A brambling showed up in winter at an Otter Tail County house and I ended up driving over and seeing it. Last week, given the less-than-perfect driving conditions and the very cold temperatures I was less than enthused to make the hour drive to see a bird I'd already gotten. But with little else going on and a friend eager to see it, I found myself getting bundled up and grabbing binoculars. If nothing else it would be a welcome antidote to a touch of cabin fever. Plus Hovick volunteered to drive, what's not to like?
We pulled into the driveway at 8:15 a.m., and began the wait, watching the feeders and nearby trees. Lots of purple finches, American goldfinches, pine siskins, black-capped chickadees, and a few redpolls were zipping in and out. At 8:40a.m., the brambling appeared capping off a successful hunt.
Just why this species, whose normal breeding range covers a broad swath of northern Europe and Asia, should appear here is a mystery. Yet it has several times. Nearly every winter a handful seems to show up in the Western Hemisphere. It is thought a few birds cross the Bering Sea during fall migration and continue south into North America.
Which brings me to the greater point: while a bird found out of place is considered rare, some species just have a knack for geographic deviation.
There are multiple reasons for birds straying of their normal ranges. Weather events can be strong determinants in ushering birds away from the normal. The tracks of Atlantic hurricanes, for instance, are monitored closely by bird watchers due to the amount of seagoing birds usually found far inland in the wake of such occurrences.
Inexperience is also thought to be a factor. Most out-of-range birds found by observers are juveniles lacking the knowledge and history adult birds acquire to determine appropriate flight paths.
Hitchhiking is a proven mode. There are numerous documented instances of birds riding ships across the oceans and depositing themselves in their new environs. These are called "ship-assisted" arrivals.
Hobbyists and the pet trade supply us with another category of rare birds. Either by deliberate release or escape, a large number of exotic birds got here this way. South Florida, for instance, is now home to a large number of exotic parrot and parakeet species.
Yet some species appear to simply carry a gene for wanderlust or at least a strong primitive desire to gallivant. To the point where I ran across a rating system some years ago categorizing species by their known propensity to roam. Large long-winged birds like gulls are a given with their ability to cover long distances. It's the smaller birds, like the brambling, that I find curious.
I can think of a similar example of the top of my head. The fork-tailed flycatcher is mostly a South American bird that typically ranges as far north as the Yucatan Peninsula. But every year, it seems, there are reports of this species as far north as Canada. It has a very high "wander" rating.
As for why some birds do this, well, I'll leave the definitive word to the grandfather of American bird watching, Roger Tory Peterson, who, in beautiful and succinct fashion, once said, "They have wings and tend to use them."
As head scratching as these globetrotters are, the fact some species stray far from their usual haunts provide bird watchers all over with infrequent but golden moments of excitement. Even more so this time of year when the only news a person hears is of mail delivery being suspended or the cancellation of local sporting events.