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In Our Backyard: Nomads of the North

The merlin, a large falcon, came out of nowhere like a high speed finch-seeking missile. It zigged and zagged wildly, chasing the smaller agile finches and vanishing as suddenly as it appeared.

This year has already seen an extraordinary number of unusual birds along our coast and foraging in our forests. Large storms, like Sandy, can blow migrating birds off course and into our area. But less dramatic changes can also send birds from other regions into our area. This year appears to be one in which northern birds have come south seeking more plentiful food crops.

One such bird is the white-winged crossbill. These small finches voraciously consume pine nuts, prying them from the cones with their specialized crossed bills. For a relatively new birder, such as me, their appearance this season is an uncommon opportunity to observe and photograph them, since they don't come every year.

Crossbills are nomadic by nature, following the seed crop from place to place. In some years the crop is good up north and they stay there. In other years the nuts aren't so plentiful to the north and the birds come south seeking better stands of trees.

Flocks of a few to hundreds of birds will move warily from treetop to treetop feasting on the pine nuts they pry from the cones. Getting a good look at these little finches buried in a 60 foot pine can be challenging. But one of their favorite foods is pitch pine nuts.

Pitch pines are found along the coast where the harsh environment supports groves of stout gnarly trees. One such place with a nice stand of pitch pine is Salisbury Beach at the mouth of the Ipswich River. With some luck I might get a nice close up show of crossbills in these shorter trees.

Salisbury Beach can be both challenging and rewarding in the off season. Sometimes there's only a cold, penetrating wind that chills to the bone. But at other times there's abundant sea life, sharp-eyed raptors and unusual migrants. This time, as I set off, I was hoping for cooperative birds and a sunny day in the 50s.

When I arrived there were already a couple other birders staking out a pine tree. This boded well and I made my way over, being careful to approach from behind them. If there were birds in the tree I didn't want to spook them by presenting a potential threat from a new direction. Rather I wanted to be seen as just another person in an already established group.

It didn't matter though, since while there were a couple people watching the tree, there weren't any birds in it. There had been, but as is so often the case, I heard about the wonderful looks they'd had just moments before.

The good news was that crossbills were around and making the rounds of the trees. This tree was popular, probably having a good crop of tasty nuts, so we waited for a flock to return. I often find it better to let birds come to you rather than chase after them.

It wasn't long before we heard a flock chattering noisily as it approached. It's not uncommon to hear them before you see them. A flock of 50 or so wheeled in the sky above us and dove into our treetop. It's amazing how so many birds can just disappear into the pine needles.

Even so, a few birds remained in view, clinging to florets of cones and extracting nuts. One bird generally stood atop the tree as a sentinel watching for predators as the flock fed. Often this was the best view of a dominant male in his hot pink plumage. High ranking yellow females were also found higher up in the tree with the better cones. Lower ranking and younger birds tended to be lower down, but sometimes provided good looks when they popped out of the foliage.

Red-breasted nuthatches and redpolls added to the furious mix of activity in the tree, pulling our attention here and there as they hopped from cone to cone. Suddenly the tree erupted as the flock took to the wing in a panic as a merlin made its pass in pursuit of dinner. The merlin, a large falcon, came out of nowhere like a high speed finch-seeking missile. It zigged and zagged wildly, chasing the smaller agile finches and vanishing as suddenly as it appeared. Too bad it didn't stay around to have its picture taken.

I stayed a bit longer and the crossbills came back and flushed and came back again in a skittish pattern that repeated throughout the afternoon. But as the sun got lower and the temperature started to drop, it signaled time to head home with pictures of crossbills and memories of the merlin.

For more pictures see Salisbury, 11/2012. Click on the "Slideshow" button in the upper right of the page for a full screen display.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Mary MacDonald November 19, 2012 at 05:56 PM
Great photos, Gary. I saw these birds doing a story a few years ago in north Georgia. Hard to believe they can fly as far as they can for food. Never saw them this close...thank you for the photos.
Garry Kessler November 19, 2012 at 10:10 PM
Thanks Mary. North Georgia. That would be a special year. The typical southern extent of the range for white-winged crossbills is more mid-Atlantic. The range for red crossbills does extend into northern Georgia though. They look very similar, but don't have the white wing bars. Either way they are fun birds to see.
Mary MacDonald November 19, 2012 at 10:31 PM
They must have been the reds... I remember describing their beaks. I never got to see them this close though. Incredibly hard to photograph birds!

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