Mope: to move slowly or aimlessly. Newfoundlanders gave the pine grosbeak the nickname “mope” in honor of its relative tameness. I found out why when I recently encountered a small flock feasting on berries.
For once I did not need the binoculars that I had left at home. True to their reputation, the pine grosbeaks allowed me to approach, affording views of their strong, thick, aptly-named beaks and their two white wingbars. The males’ red head, breast, and belly contrasted with the olive-green and gray females.
Although easily approached, pine grosbeaks that breed in subarctic and subalpine coniferous forests in Canada and Alaska are hardly “mopes.” When winter food is scarce in the north, these finches “irrupt” south into the U.S. in search of alternative sources of buds, seeds, and fruits. The last irruption occurred in the winter of 1998-99, when grosbeaks ventured as far south as West Virginia and Kentucky.
Pine grosbeaks that breed in the mountains of western United States are more sedentary. They are altitudinal migrants, moving down the mountains to lower elevations, where food is more abundant in winter. These populations are seldom encountered more than a few kilometers from their breeding habitat.
An unusual characteristic of all pine grosbeaks is the pair of buccal pouches in the lower jaw on either side of the tongue. This built-in luggage holds a paste of insects and vegetable matter that is regurgitated to young. Pine grosbeaks feed their young mostly insects, but this adaptation allows them to also provide vegetable matter in a digestible form.
In non-irruption years, a few pine grosbeaks still make their way into Vermont. They are most likely to be seen in roads picking up sand and salt, or in fruit-bearing trees and bushes. This week they have been reported in Huntington, Woodbury, West Brookfield, South Royalton, and Norwich. Are we seeing the beginning of a pine grosbeak irruption? Time will tell.
In the meantime, the big buzz in Vermont bird news this week is an arctic loon along the west shore of Grand Isle. If verified, this would be a first for the state, and birders are scrambling to document the bird. Other waterbirds on Lake Champlain include common loons, red-throated loons, horned grebes, red-breasted mergansers, Bonaparte’s gulls, white-winged scoters and black scoters.
Rafts of “several hundred” ducks were seen at Sandbar Wildlife Management Area, including ring-necked, wood, and black ducks. Other sightings include a red phalarope in Grand Isle, a male northern harrier hunting the fields in West Brookfield, and a vesper sparrow in Moretown. “Regulars” for this time of year are making appearances throughout the state, including rough-legged hawk, northern shrike, snow bunting, common redpoll, bohemian waxwing, fox sparrow, American pipit, and evening grosbeak.