Winter good for unusual birds

Red-bellied Woodpecker

The Red-bellied Woodpecker is rarely found in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Published Jan. 20, 2013, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Winter is good time to spot unusual birds.”

2015 Update: To find out if there are any interesting irruptions this winter, visit the Project FeederWatch website: http://feederwatch.org.

By Barb Gorges

Last winter, snowy owls irrupted. Meaning, there were sightings all across the northern tier of the lower 48 states. Apparently, more owls fledged than usual and there weren’t enough small rodents to go around in their Arctic winter territories so they headed for more productive habitat.

This year in Cheyenne, it’s the seedeaters that are irrupting, or at least coming down from the mountains.

My first inkling was the Steller’s jays I saw at a friend’s, up on the north edge of Cheyenne, enjoying the pine-juniper windbreak and the birdfeeders. They are dark blue with black heads, unlike the usual blue and white blue jay. Five made an appearance for the Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count Dec. 22, as they have eight out of the last 38 years.

Named for Georg Steller, the first to find this bird and describe it for science while serving as the naturalist traveling with Vitus Bering in 1740-42 to what became Alaska, Steller’s jay is found in western mountains down to Central America.

Both its usual plant (seeds, nuts, fruits) and animal (small vertebrates) foods must be in short supply in nearby mountains. Even if the Birds of North America lists cookies and other picnic provisions as preferred food, don’t be tempted. Give them black-oil sunflower seed.

Making its first-ever appearance on the Cheyenne bird count was the pygmy nuthatch. A flock was noted several weeks before on the west side of town and we were able to re-find it. The five individuals were mixed in with white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches and mountain chickadees, all in the same pine tree.

The pygmy nuthatch is another mountain species, but it seldom comes down. It needs dead or partially dead trees with cavities, not just for nesting, but also to stay warm. Studies show families, even whole flocks, will pile into a cavity when it’s cold. The birds at the bottom stay the warmest, but the entire space will be several degrees warmer than it is outdoors.

There must be empty food caches and a dire lack of frozen insects to pick out of the bark of mountain pine trees for pygmies to leave their known hollow trees for an urban area where we keep dead wood to a minimum.

I was thrilled to see evening grosbeaks on the Guernsey-Ft. Laramie Christmas Bird Count on Dec. 29. They were at a feeder between Guernsey and Hartville, looking like over-sized goldfinches. Another mountain species, they expanded their range east from the Rockies in the mid 1800s. It’s thought that the planting of box elder (their favorite seeds) and ornamental fruit-bearing trees, and the invasion of spruce budworms, led them on.

Today they are not quite so common back east—the reason they were brought to attention as the 2012 American Birding Association Bird of the Year. They are well known for their irruptive behavior, usually every other winter. We’ve had a handful of them on each of nine Cheyenne CBCs over the last 38 years.

The range map for common redpolls in Douglas Faulkner’s “Birds of Wyoming,” shows that every winter they will show up in the northeast corner of Wyoming. They breed in the Arctic. This year, they are all over the state, according to multiple reports on the Wyobirds e-list, with 24 present for the Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count.

Redpolls too, seem to show up at bird feeders on alternate winters. If you are familiar with house finches at your feeder, scan them closely for redpolls, slightly smaller, streaky brown birds with a small red spot on the forehead and sometimes a wash of pale pink on the breast.

On their home turf, redpolls eat the very small spruce and birch seeds. At your feeder, small seeds like white millet would be a good replacement.

In his report of the Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count, compiler Greg Johnson said the rarest sighting was a red-bellied woodpecker, a species of the eastern U.S., particularly the southeast. The first ever recorded sighting of one in Wyoming was in Cheyenne in 1992. Then there were two other sightings of single birds in eastern Wyoming in 1993 and 2002, followed by three sightings at the Wyoming Hereford Ranch outside Cheyenne in 2002, 2006 and 2008.

Irruptive is not the explanation for the appearance of this woodpecker in Cheyenne. Lost is more like it, though lost seems to be coming a regular habit. Officially, the term is “vagrant.” This individual may have gotten caught in some weather in October and was lucky enough to find Mike Schilling’s feeder, where it has been since.

There is only one way to see species uncommon for Cheyenne and that is to look. A well-stocked feeder helps, but the best way is to get outside and keep your eyes open. And when you see some unusual bird, tell someone.

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