Thursday, November 29, 2007

Pine Grosbeak

One of the most exciting birds of late is the Pine Grosbeak, Pinicola enucleator, discovered by Matt Anderson back on November 21. The bird has been frequenting an area next to the Oak Openings Metropark in Lucas County, not far from Toledo. Displaying amazing site fidelity the likes of which we've not seen here before with this species - at least in modern times - it is still being found in this area. Many an Ohio birder has gotten their state or even life Pine Grosbeak because of Matt's find. And an amazing bit of birding skill it was to find this jumbo finch. The area in which it occurs is not exactly eye-catching, nor a spot that most birders would probably spend much time in.

I was fortunate enough to see the bird myself last Sunday. Shortly after arriving at the spot and joining several other birders in the stakeout, I heard the grosbeak calling not far off. A minute later it shot right over our heads and landed near the top of a tall Hackberry tree, offering us stellar views. It appears to be a young male, not yet in the full pinkish-raspberry hue of an adult.

This is the spot. A weedy semi-wooded edge choked with non-native plants. All that green understory is Amur Honeysuckle, Lonicera maackii, a Eurasian invader that is now prolific in many regions of Ohio. This bush fruits prolifically and the shrubs are decked with red berries. That's apparently what the grosbeak is gorging itself on. Pine Grosbeaks are largely frugivorous (fruit-eating), and it won't run out of fodder here for some time. The issue is the poor nutrient content of honeysuckle fruit. Like vegetative M & M's, they look great and probably are tasty to birds, but are deficient in lipids and proteins. It's likely that a diet of such fruit lacks the necessary substances to sustain birds well when the winter weather gets tough.

Here's our guy. Large and confiding, Pine Grosbeaks are known for their docility and often can be closely approached. The typical modus operandi for this bird is to fly in from the south, and alight in the top of this small Hackberry tree just to the east of the gate in the above photo. There he sits, surveying his kingdom for a few minutes while the assembled throngs of birders ooh and aah over him. Then, like a meteor falling from the sky, he dives straight down into the thickets, presumably to engorge itself on berries. You've got to be there at just the right time; a number of birders have either missed it altogether - as I did my first visit - or have had to wait hours before King Finch made an appearance.

Pine Grosbeaks are northerners, birds of the vast boreal forest. They rarely stage irruptions southward in any great numbers, and only very rarely venture as far south as Ohio. The largest Ohio invasion ever was during the winter of 1961-62. That winter, flcoks or individuals were seen in a number of laocales, including an incredible flock of 100 near Akron. At least one bird made it all the way to Cincinnati. Interestingly, that year they began to show up in November, right around the same time this bird did. The record is not quite clear as to the last confirmed Ohio sighting prior to this one; either 1987 or the perhaps the early 1990's. In any event, this Pine Grosbeak was a spectacular find and has thrilled many of us.

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