A pine grosbeak dining on frozen berries.

A pine grosbeak dining on frozen berries.

Out There: Winter birds abound in the Creston Valley

An unusually large number of pine grosbeaks has been spotted in recent weeks, says nature columnist Ed McMackin...

It seems this is the year of the pine grosbeak, or perhaps the winter of the pine grosbeak. An unusually large number has been spotted in recent weeks. A road walk in Lister, soon after a snowfall, turned up about three dozen birds in groups of five to 15. Although in some groups there were less males, overall they seemed to be generally equal in number. The birds were feasting on buds and berries from bushes along the road. Another hunting party spotted some 70 pine grosbeaks.

They seemed rather comical in their feeding habit. (I guess their way of feeding may seem comical to us because we can’t or don’t do it that way, but to them it is just part of their usual bush manners.) They would fly to a nearby branch and bend it down to the point they couldn’t hang on any more and needed to try again somewhere else on the bush. Another time one would land and bend a branch down on a bird below and then they would both flutter to another branch. In spite of the “mishaps”, they were quite adept at reaching down below a branch and nipping off a bud or berry.

Pine grosbeaks, size-wise, are a bit shorter than a robin, about an inch; however, their beak is short and fat while a robin’s beak is long and narrow. That says something about their different menus, except in winter when robins will eat mountain ash berries and apples. Pine grosbeaks are winter visitors from far northern and high mountain spruce and fir forests.

It is fun to watch our winter visitors (humans excluded?); however, it is fun, even, just to find winter friends. People on the Christmas Bird Count did much of that. In spite of overcast skies, many surprising finds were made. One party had barely begun their search when a medium-sized, shortish-tailed, long-beaked bird (like a starling) was seen perched on the top of a tall fir tree. This meadowlark was indeed a surprise. They are rarely seen here in winter, but when they are, it is usually in or near a cattle feed lot. Here it seems they find chilly tidbits of frozen insects that the cattle have stirred up.

Meadowlarks tend to be found here when milder temperatures prevail, kind of like the trend this winter. Another area where you might find a meadowlark (and even a snow bunting) is along roadsides on the flats where they may be seen picking up gravel. Once I saw one perched in an old shed by a feedlot.

Starlings hang around cattle and feedlots, too. And they may, by their own presence there, attract birds of prey such as Cooper’s hawks and pygmy owls. Recently, a prairie falcon was seen going after starlings in one such area. Birds at feeders will not only draw predators like pygmy owls but also merlins, which are so fast that one hardly knows what flew by and scared all the birds.

Red-breasted nuthatches frequently come to feeders along with black-capped and chestnut-backed chickadees but this winter people have spotted several white-breasted nuthatches. Like their red-breasted relative they, at the opportune time, fly quickly to the feeder and grab a sunflower seed. Just as speedily, they head away to a favorite tree perch and extract the seed from the shell. At the bottom of the tree it is possible to find hundreds of fragments of sunflower seed shells scattered on the ground. Chickadees follow a similar routine leaving the evidence behind them.

Another couple on their third year with the bird count, and counting, said they thoroughly enjoy participating. In spite of gloomy, snowy weather their trip was highlighted by the spotting of a pygmy owl, not giving them the eye but giving them both eyes through some leafless branches. Just by looking them in the eye, isn’t it obvious they have better than excellent vision? Then a group of turkeys topped it off, for the couple, by posing, perching in some trees near Wynndel. That is the first time they saw that but, actually, most people haven’t seen them roosting in trees at all. Grouse roost in trees too and perhaps sometimes in winter, if it’s too breezy, they roost in a cavity under that snowy blanket. (When do birds use a blanket?)

Some people have had some disappointments counting birds but hopefully that will be compensated for over the remainder of the winter season. A keen eyed group went to spots where they always, always see kestrels — strung out like clothespins along the roadside power lines. What happened? None were seen! How are we to know? (How much does a person really know, anyway? What fraction of all that is out there and beyond, and beyond beyond does a person comprehend? Not even a fraction! Has one even figured their own self out?) Then there was the Steller’s jay, B.C.’s provincial bird, which didn’t make it to the count list for these people, although I am sure they were seen somewhere else.

Bird watching and wildlife watching provide a great outdoor experience. It’s a way to get to really know the area in which one lives. People coming into this area from over the mountains to the east, from the north of east or further east of east find, in some things, a real contrast to where they once lived and spent time outdoors.

The Christmas Bird Count has passed but you don’t have to wait until the next one to get out on something like that. You can be counted and counting in the Great Backyard Bird Count happening very soon. Whether your backyard is a bit of grass (or snow), a few shrubs and the neighbour’s back yard or even a barnyard, you may watch for a designated number of days and report all the birds you see. You might find something you didn’t know was there (like, if nothing else, fresh air). Remember, just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there! (For more information visit gbbc.birdcount.org.)

Best wishes in getting acquainted with your feathered friends and the out there we know so little about and of which there is lots left!

Ed McMackin is a biologist by profession but a naturalist and hiker by nature. He can be reached at 250-866-5747.

Creston Valley Advance