Two Rare Birds Seen this Summer


(This 911th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on September 7, 2008.)



A Spotted Dove in Amherst, New York


Birders tend to think in terms of two seasons: spring and fall. Those are the times when the number of species to be found is greatest, because that's when birds migrate through the region between summer nesting areas and winter retreats.


In a way the birds mirror the behavior of some of us - traveling north to cottage areas in summer, south to warmer climes in winter - leaving behind only a few of us lingerers.


In any case summer is when the excitement of the spring migration is past and activity is quieter. Quiet is the appropriate metaphor, because birds sing far less now that their testosterone-induced defense of territory and competition for mates has passed.


But there can be summer excitement for birders as well. This summer two species turned up that certainly excited me. I have already seen one and hope to get a chance to see the other soon.


The first species is the red crossbill. The last time I saw one of these birds was over sixty years ago when found a pair of them wintering in Durand Eastman Park in Rochester. I trudged through deep snow to find them feeding quietly in a leafless orchard tree.


Crossbills are birds of the far north and we normally do not expect to find them here in summer. But what occasionally happens is a number of these birds come south during a winter when there is a food shortage or overpopulation in Canada where they are normally permanent residents. Then some of them stay on and even nest here. That is probably what happened with the birds reported in Allegany County this summer.


The setting in which we would find those birds wasn't usual either. Crossbills are well named for their bills indeed cross like an X. They usually feed on pinecones, instead of using their bills as pinchers as do other species, in their case using them to pry apart the cone scales to reach the seeds between them with their tongue. Thus we usually find these birds in conifers.


Mike Galas and I set out one Sunday to see if we could find some of the red crossbills where they had been reported at a crossroads between West Almond and Phillips Creek in Allegany County.


We arrived at a lovely spot on a bright sunny day expecting only to be able to hear the birds if they flew by overhead. Much to our surprise, however, Mike spotted three of them apparently feeding on lichens in the top of a dead hardwood. We had a great view for a few minutes, but then off they went and we could not relocate them. A life bird for Galas and only a second observation for me.


Information about the other rare bird came to me over the internet. An Amherst reader wrote to tell me about an unusual pigeon that was coming to her feeder. She had looked in her bird field guide and identified the bird as a spotted dove.


A spotted dove in Amherst? This is a species that was introduced to the Los Angeles area from Asia in about 1910 and it now occurs in a few Florida locations as well.


But the spotted dove is very easy to identify. A little larger than a mourning dove, it has a very distinctive collar patch of black and white spots. No other North American pigeon has similar markings.


My correspondent had photographed the bird through her window and attached the pictures. There is no question that the photos are of a spotted dove. At her invitation I visited her home and saw the bird.


How did it get here? We can only guess. One real possibility is that this is a cage bird that has escaped. It seems quite tame although it doesn't allow close approach. If readers know of a lost spotted dove, I encourage them to get in touch with me.


The other possibility is that this bird wandered cross-country to arrive here on its own. I would like to think that is the case. After all, a number of cave swallows from Texas visited western New York a few years ago.-- Gerry Rising