During winter in Indiana, Snowy Owls usually get most of the fanfare as far as cool, rare, and irruptive birds are concerned. And true enough, we are currently experiencing another great year for them. However, on December 10th, the Hoosier state got a wandering winter bird that still has my mind literally reeling: Pine Grosbeak.
Usually confined to the upper reaches of boreal Canada or the tops of the Rockies out west, the Pine Grosbeak is a big, bright pink finch that specializes in eating large seeds. They are one of the “winter finches” that are eagerly awaited by many in the lower 48, but usually if you’re not in northern New England or the upper reaches of the Great Lakes, then you will be out of luck. That’s why this single bird was so remarkable. They’re not common at all once you get very far south of the 49th parallel. In fact, here is the eBird map showing all of the sightings for December of this year in the region surrounding Indiana:
Pine Grosbeaks, December 2014
This bird has so far been the only one seen (full disclosure: I did not see it, nor have I ever seen one of its brethren) in the area. And by area, I mean a radius extending roughly 1,000 miles around Merrillville, Indiana. Making this individual even more remarkable is the fact that it is just the fourth ever record for the state, and the first one seen since early 1981, an absence of almost 34 years. Needless to say, when I saw the report come in through my email, it took all of my will power to keep myself from skipping the rest of the work day and making the two-hour drive to go look for this bird. And it’s a good thing I didn’t, because it was gone shortly after lunch time and I would have definitely missed it.
But the fact that the bird was just there at all is not why I am blogging about it a week after the sighting. It’s the series of coincidences that had to happen in order for us all to know about it:
1.) The bird flew perhaps 1,000 miles or more from its brothers to get to where it was found.
2.) The bird actually survived the journey, despite who knows what untold dangers it encountered.
3.) The bird just so happened to land on a bird feeder in a residential neighborhood, where it was likely to be seen.
4.) Even though the bird only hung around for about four hours, the homeowner was at home and it actually was seen (and photographed).
5.) The person making the sighting was interested in birds.
6.) The person making the sighting was knowledgeable enough to know what he was looking at and that it was a big deal.
7.) The person making the sighting was plugged in enough to the birding community that he immediately shared it via email listserv and Facebook.
Basically, we had a perfect storm. Without any one of these factors, no sighting, no record, no excitement. The bird may still have been there, but nobody would have ever known. That leads me to wonder about what happened to it next. Despite my close watching, so far it has not shown up in my own yard. So where is it? Did it get killed by a hawk? A cat? A car? An idiot kid with a BB gun? Did it do a 180, turn around, and immediately fly back north where it came from? Or, worst of all, is it hanging out in a backyard in my neighborhood, where Edith and Vern just saw it and said to themselves, “Well lookee there, what a strange lookin’ cardinal!” (Just kidding, Edith and Vern would call it a redbird).
It is this last scenario that causes me both the greatest amount of pain but also hope. If one single Pine Grosbeak could have a series of such astoundingly improbable events lead to its discovery and sharing among the birding community, how many more incredible finds are out there, needing just the right timing or person to find them? This thought keeps me excited for birding, even when all of my surveys of the open country around my town haven’t led to my own damn county Snowy Owl yet.