Published November 18, 2012, 12:00 AM

ALWAYS IN SEASON: Early winter brings unusual bird sightings

Last week brought the expected and the not so likely in the bird world. The first snowy owls of the season showed up, right on time. Most years, these birds are here by mid-November. So far, reports are encouraging, and it could be a good year for snowy owls.

By: Mike Jacobs, Grand Forks Herald

Last week brought the expected and the not so likely in the bird world.

The first snowy owls of the season showed up, right on time. Most years, these birds are here by mid-November. So far, reports are encouraging, and it could be a good year for snowy owls.

Rough-legged hawks are here, too. These are large, northern hawks that come south early in November.

The week also brought two kinds of grosbeaks and two kinds of crossbills.

These birds aren’t dependable here.

Of these, the crossbills may be the most unexpected. They’ve been seen throughout our region, with reports from north-central North Dakota to the Crookston area.

Many years are crossbill-free here, and the red crossbill is usually more numerous. This year has brought more frequent reports of white-winged crossbills, however.

The birds are alike in bill structure, an adaptation to taking seeds from conifer cones, especially spruces. The birds differ in coloration. Adult males of both species are red overall, often with shades of deep red and shades of pale red or pink. As their name suggests, the white-winged crossbill has prominent patches of white in the wings. The red crossbill lacks this feature, and so the wings are the easiest way to tell the birds apart.

Of course, you need to get a good look at the birds to see any of this, and that can be difficult. Crossbills are birds of the treetops. Spotting them often requires bending over pretty far, at least enough to cause neck pain.

Luckily for birders, though, both species are noisy, and their twittering betrays their presence.

Crossbills do come to ground and on occasion they can be quite tame. Mike Christopherson, the editor of the Crookston Times, told me he’d had a group of white-winged crossbills at his feeder. Some individuals actually allowed him to touch their backs and some sat on his hand.

Both crossbills are members of the finch family, and both nest across the forest zone of Canada and south in the Rocky Mountains and northern New England. Both are nesters in the Arrowhead of northeastern Minnesota; red crossbills range farther west, sometimes occurring in the boggy country not too far northeast of Grand Forks.

Grosbeaks also are finches and, like the crossbills, they are Canadian nesters that come south irregularly, probably in response to food supplies — though whether they are fleeing shortage or seeking abundance is much debated.

In my experience, the pine grosbeak is more common here, occurring in our area in most years, but often in very small numbers. Evening grosbeaks are more regular farther east. Only occasionally do they stray so far west as the Red River Valley and eastern North Dakota.

This is one of those times, however.

The grosbeaks can be separated from the crossbills instantly. They have large, conical beaks, giving rise to their family name.

Evening grosbeaks are yellowish in color with large, white patches in the wings and black markings on the head, resembling a mask. Evening grosbeaks are reddish fading to pink; they too, have white in the wings, but it’s not as prominent as in evening grosbeaks.

Both the crossbills and the grosbeaks present some identification challenges beyond separating the families and the species. They have a range of plumage colors, from the quite bright colors of the adult males to pale green, yellow or gray in females and juveniles. Some white-winged crossbills appear pale orange, and some red crossbills are very dark. The wings are reliable indicators of the species, however: prominent white patches in white-winged crossbills and evening grosbeaks, lesser white bars in pine grosbeaks and little or no white in the red crossbills’ wings.

Seeing any of these birds is always special. I have vivid memories of my first pine grosbeaks, seen one Thanksgiving morning soon after Suezette and I moved to Grand Forks more than 30 years ago. I saw my first white-winged crossbill on a bitterly cold day while we were still living in Mandan, N.D. A small flock of them settled in a spruce tree in front of our house, and I watched them from an upstairs window.

Jacobs is publisher of the Herald. Reach him at (701) 780-1103; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1103; or send email to mjacobs@gfherald.com.

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