November 26, 2012

Return of the Great Winter Finch Superflight

Evening Grosbeaks at our backyard bird feeder circa 1960.
The forecast is in, and it's going to be 'Evening Grosbeaks' galore this winter, not just according to Ron Pittaway's Winter Finch Forecast for 2012 ( yep, didn't make that up) but also by the hundreds of birders on line who can't seem to hold back their Grosbeak excitement. - As I seem to be re-kindling my interest in birds, suddenly, every bird blog and website is chattering about an abundance of Evening Grosbeaks. But why have we not seen them for so long and where have they been?

According to the American Birding Association website (ABA), the answers why Evening Grosbeaks started changing their habits might be many. There was a time, between the 1950's and the early 1980's when massive flocks of these colorful, parrot-like finches 'migrated' in the winter south, to the United States states and southern parts of provinces during  the winter, bombarding backyard feeding stations and driving up the cost of sunflower seeds. But around 1981, things began to change, and it seemed, no one knew why. For many of us, the sight of these striking creatures is just a memory, or as I am sharing here, memories in family scrap books, but for others, they are new denizens, as it seems, the more we learn about bird migration, the more mysterious it all gets, but one thing is for certain, nothing is as it seems when it comes to bird populations, and in the end, it always seems to be about food.

Nature is a fickle creature herself, which we are now learning as new studies are causing some scientists to theorize that other causes might be at hand, and such ideas as a rising spruce bud worm outbreak both in the east and in the west might be affecting such irruptions, but whatever the cause, the fact is this winter will be a record breaker for the species both in the east and in the west. The website eBird documents local sightings, and when I last checked this morning, a few dozen birds had been sighted near my home town, but not near my neighborhood.

the eBird website shows me daily reports of any species of bird which are sighted and entered in by site members. This is the November Evening Grosbeak data for my area in Massachusetts, and I can zoom in to street level if I need to.

This weekend well be dragging out the power tools and building tabletop feeders not for the squirrels, but for these rare visitors from the arctic which once were common winter visitors in the mid-20th century, but whom today, only periodically decide to migrate south. This year, for some strange reason, grosbeaks and many winter northern finches are traversing south - farther south than ever before, and as scientists and hobby birders are sharing on-line, they are doing this both on the east coast of the US and in the west - an unprecedented southern migrations, or to what they properly call an irruption.

There was a time, when I was a child in the 1960's when here in New England, the first blast of cold, winter weather was only one sign that winter was upon us. It also meant that one of the great joys of winter birdwatchers was about to begin - the winter migration of far northern bird species like Pine Grosbeaks, Evening Grosbeaks, Common Redpolls, Crossbills and Bohemian Waxwings. One of my earliest memories as a child was my father, who was an active birder his entire life, lifting me onto his shoulders so that I could spread wild bird food seed on the many table top feeders he kept in our back yard. So influential was this experience, that for many years, well into high school, I had plans of being a ornithology major, with hopes to attend Cornell.

One of my fathers illustrations from our local newspaper documenting a Forbush Bird Club field trip. The club is still active, and many  members have their own blogs. This might be from the 1950's. or even the 1940's ( I have many of these from the 1930's until the 1960's). My favorite items are the red felt Forbush Bird Club patches from the 1950's.

Recent chatter on the many birder blogs which I follow have raised my interest in birds again, mostly because many of these blogs are all talking about a recent influx of many of these boreal birds in our area.  In the bird world, something very exciting and rare is occurring Large movements of Pine Siskin, Red Crossbills and even Evening Grosbeaks are making an eastern push - which they are calling the Winter Finch Superflight! - the largest since 1997. The birdworld is abuzz. You see, one of the last great irruptions happened in the early 1980's ( with smaller ones after that), but there was a time when many area back Yard bird feeders were bombarded with the  gold, black and white squawking Evening Grosbeaks. In case you haven't noticed, they've been gone for many years.

Like father, like son ( well sort of - he was a better artist!).
I observed a flock of redpolls and pine grosbeaks when I was 18 in our yard, and I have some earlier ones which I illustrated for the local column showing red crossbills which decided to dine in one of our Hemlock trees when I was 14 years old. Yeah, I was a nerd even then.

Evening Grosbeaks were once the favorite bird feeder bird before the Cardinal started migrating north, and began appearing on dish towels, calendars and Holiday ornaments. Maybe now that gold and grey is back in vogue, the Evening Grosbeak stands a chance. There was a time when flocks of these parrot-like birds crowded onto backyard feeders preferring sunflower seeds and flat, tabletop feeder sans squirrels. This weekend, I hope to build a large tabletop feeder to see if perhaps I could attract some of these beautiful denizens of the north to our winter table.

Another sketch by my father showing various birding ventures. Also from the 1950's

This year it appears that another record irruptive year is starting, with significant sightings of Redpolls, crossbills and yes, Evening Grosbeaks appearing on on-line bird tracking sites like eBird, and hopefully, at some of our backyard feeders here in central Massachusetts.  Maybe now it's time for me to either join a birding club, drag out my dad's old Forbush Bird Club patches and paraphernalia, the old scope and binoculars which I have not used sine my early college days scoping for snowy owls on Plum Island, and brush up on my ID skills, since the last time I properly identified a kinglet from a kindbird what during my summer college jobs at the Ashby Bird Observatory where I spent many summers collecting migrating songbirds from three miles of mist nets and banding them. ( see, I was pretty serious about it!).

According to Matt Young from eBird, "So far we’ve already seen large movements of  Pine Siskin, Red Crossbill and Red-breasted Nuthatch (an honorary finch) on both coasts. All three have shown up farther south than typical. Red-breasted Nuthatches have been reported in central Florida and throughout the Gulf Coast states. Pine Siskins have smashed records at several sites including Hawk Ridge, Minnesota and Cape May, New Jersey. A flight on Long Island on 21 October yielded an amazing estimate of 20,000 siskins.  Purple Finches are already being reported well into the Southern Appalachians.
Evening Grosbeaks, that favorite feeder bird from yesteryear, looks to be making its largest eastward push since 1997-98. In recent years Evening Grosbeaks haven't appeared in Pennsylvania or Connecticut until November and December, with scarcely any even then, but this year made their first appearances at the end of September. Evening Grosbeaks have already reached Maryland, West Virginia and Delaware, and some should be expected into the Carolinas and perhaps the mountains of Georgia this year.

I sometimes think that there are more photos of bids in our old family photo albums as there are of people. Here, and Evening Grosbeak pair dining on our window feeder in the late 1950's.
After an unprecedented  Red Crossbill flight that materialized in August across the Northern Tier States, crossbills look to be on the move again. In the last two weeks both Red and White-winged Crossbills have been reported nearly daily at Whitefish Point in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and at Hawk Ridge in Minnesota. Migrating Red Crossbills have also been reported several times in recent weeks at Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania, with others in Massachusetts. "

November 25, 2012

Gifts for Plant People

1. Zinc Planters - Copper House Living - EUR 169.  They would need to be shipped from Germany, but these are nice and unique enough for year round decor in the potting shed.
2. String Bobbin Garden Trading, £10 Under twenty buck gift for the potting shed.
3. 'Gardeners I have met and liked' Notebook available from ShopTerrain - $14 The other titles ar eworth checking out, but this one is be far my favorite.
4.  Honey Tobacco Beeswax candle - Terrain, $14. Made from bees who smoked cigars.
6. Galvanized Door Mat - Garden Trading, UK - £32 Simplicity reigns.
7. Vintage Potato Sign - One Kings Lane , $199. This one is most likely sold, but snoop around the One Kings Lane site for interesting gifts.
8. Botanical Handmade Candy from Pappabubble -  From Pappabubbleny.com With flavors like orange and cardomon, lemon and lavender, strawberry and pine or pear and bergamot, it's easy to see why these hand pulled hard candies are a secret amongst many of us ( my fav? Their watermelon, salt and chili). $5.50 and up.

1. Toddland Knit Fjiord Bear Boxer Briefs - Toddland.com $18. Freak out your boyfriend with these boxers.
2. Toddland Lazer Bears Wallet  Toddland.com $24. Everyone needs a bear wallet.
3.Upper Penninsula Snowshoes - shop Terrain $98. Real gut snowshoes for decor or for racing.
4. Stanley Classic Flask - Urban Outfitters $28. To warm you up while bringing in the wood.
5. Trail Crew Soap (shown in Steep Ravine scent), Juniper Ridge.com $35.
  Juniper sap, tree pitch and other steam-distilled essential oils all pressed on vintage juice presses and distilled in converted whiskey stills ( you know the type - crazy copper pipes and steam). Try their Steep Ravine trail crew soap, or any of their other scents like Cascade Glacier, Big Sur Trail Crew Soap or Siskiyou Trail Crew Soap. 
6. Backpackers Cologne - also from the folks at Juniper Ridge comes wild plant distilled backpackers cologne - guaranteed not to attract bears. Distilled from conifer pitch and other wild plant ingredients. $85.

1. Japanese Tamamaki Twine - Japanese gardeners know good twine, and the best is made from the hemp palm. Hand made by a small multi-generational family business in japan, it is available from The Japan Woodworker -$10 - $18. Japanwoodworker.com.
2. Zinc Floral containers. In cream, available from Copper House Living. EUR 179. 
3. Wessex forge Haws watering can. In various colors and sizes, from Wessex Forge. I love Haws, but these colors take the classic to another level. Need to be imported, but always a cherished gift for a gardener. I keep three Haws cans, and I'll have them for a lifetime.
4. Ben Wolff Hand-Thrown Pots -  His dad Guy Wolff is well known, but his pots might be too expensive for most people, but I also like Ben Wolff'f hand-thrown pots. They range from $12 - $36 available directly from his studio at Ben Wolffpottery.com.
5. The Genus Lachenalia monograph by Graham Duncan - Kewbooks - $200. The book every plant geek is dying to get. It's on my list as there are only 1000 copies. The cost is high becuase these Kew Monographs are printed on the highest quality paper, and include color plates. This book is not tiny either, with 650 pages, it is practically a bible. Few books have bee written on the subject of Lachenalia, so bulb collectors are scrambling to count their pennies for this one.
6. Rubber Dramm Colorstorm Hose - $50 and up  Dramm.com
7. Bamboo Japanese Plant Tags - Alitags.com  $12. - $47
8. Alitags Plant Label Maker and Stamps - Alitags.
Stamp and make tags like the botanic gardens do. Only available from England.

1. Cornelis Souvenir Vase - Anthropologie $348.
2. Birchbark Straws - Terrain $8.00
3. Naturally Shed Color Blocked Deer Antler - Anthropologie - $60
4. Balsam Fir Incense - Terrain $6.00