If you live in northern Maine, you see Pine Grosbeaks year-round as this is the southern border of their breeding grounds. Those of us living in central Maine and northern New Hampshire and Vermont, if we’re lucky, will glimpse this member of the finch family only during major winter irruptions. (The rest of New England rarely sees a Pine Grosbeak.) It is an infrequent winter visitor in northern New England, irrupting less frequently and remaining further north than other boreal finches.
This is an irruption winter. Because of the dearth of mountain-ash berries and conifer seeds further north in the boreal forest, Pine Grosbeaks are seeking out crabapple and mountain-ash trees in northern New England.
A flock of Pine Grosbeaks will descend on a tree and strip it of its fruit in no time. Anyone who has watched these entertaining birds feeding knows that they are incredibly agile acrobats, stretching their necks and contorting their bodies in order to reach all available fruit. Once they grab ahold of a crabapple, they squash it with their short, conical beaks. They can look quite comical as the fleshy pulp accumulates on the tops and sides of their beak, as well as on the ground beneath them. The object of their desire and efforts is the seeds within the fruit, which they consume with gusto. If disturbed they will fly en masse to the tops of nearby tall trees where they remain until the perceived danger has passed and then return to continue feeding. (photo: female Pine Grosbeak in crabapple tree)
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Blue Cohosh, one of our early spring wildflowers, has diminutive flowers that open before its leaves fully expand. Like Wild Ginger, Blue Cohosh flowers are the color of rotting meat, which may account for the fact that flies are its main insect visitors. Flies tend to feed at a single flower until satiated, which is not conducive to cross-pollination, and thus most fertilization in Blue Cohosh is the result of self-pollination.
Native Americans treated a wide range of afflictions with Blue Cohosh, including gallstones, fevers, toothaches and rheumatism. The most common use of its rhizomes, or underground stems, was as an aid to speed and ease childbirth. Even today it still serves this purpose — 64% of midwives surveyed reported using Blue Cohosh to treat women before or during childbirth. It has, however, had deleterious effects on some women and has not been evaluated by the FDA.
Several members of the Finch family of birds periodically fly south of their range into southern Canada and the northern U.S. during the winter in search of food. Pine Siskins, Common and Hoary Redpolls, American Goldfinches, Red and White-winged Crossbills, Purple Finches and both Evening and Pine Grosbeaks participate in these irruptions. Whether or not these species extend their range further south in any given year has much to do with their diet and its abundance or lack thereof on their wintering grounds . According to Ron Pittaway’s 2016-2017Finch Forecast (http://ebird.org/content/canada/news/ron-pittaways-winter-finch-forecast-2016-2017/ ), many of these birds will have a difficult time finding natural food sources this winter in Southern Ontario and the Northeast due to poor cone crops. Some may head north or west, where crops are much better.
Even if there were plenty of cones in the Northeast this year and many Canadian seed-eating finches were headed south of their normal range, we might not see large numbers of Pine Grosbeaks. This is due to the fact that the Pine Grosbeak’s diet is not limited to seeds, but includes buds, insects and fruit. Most of these birds are staying north this winter because of an excellent crop of Mountain-ash berries across the boreal forest. They eat these and other fruits by biting through and discarding the pulp and crushing the seed (which gives them a slightly unkempt look). We will see some — there have been several sightings of mostly small flocks of Pine Grosbeaks in New England in the past few weeks, lingering just long enough to consume what European Mountain-ash berries and crabapples they can find. But those of us who see them are very fortunate this year. (Photo: female Pine Grosbeak eating crabapples.)
Thank you to all of you who so kindly wished me well. I’m sure those wishes are what hav me bright-eyed and bushy-tailed once again!
The birds most commonly associated with winter irruptions are the winter finches — Pine Grosbeak, Red Crossbill, White-winged Crossbill, Purple Finch, Pine Siskin, Common Redpoll, and Evening Grosbeak. Their food supply, or lack thereof, in the Canadian boreal forests where they normally overwinter, determines whether or not they will be seen as far south as the U. S. Key trees affecting finch movements in the boreal forest are spruces, birches and mountain-ashes.
Common Redpolls feed primarily on the catkins (seed-containing fruit) produced by birch and alder trees. When catkin production is low further north, as it is this winter, Common Redpolls leave these areas and irrupt into areas where food is more plentiful. (Photo: male Common Redpoll)