Pine Grosbeak


The Pine Grosbeak shown in this print was photographed outside the visitor center at Heritage State Park:


Below, a field recording posted to the bird audio archive site Xeno-Canto:

One of my earliest birding memories is of my mother taking me to Hadley, in the early 1980s, to see a Great Gray Owl roosting in a farm field.

It was the type of rare sighting — a bird well out of its normal range — that brought birders from all over western Massachusetts and well beyond.

A similar script played out in Hadley this January, after reports of a Gyrfalcon surfaced. The largest of the falcons, the Gyrfalcon is a white, Arctic bird whose typical winter range ends several hundred miles north of Massachusetts.

As more confirmations of the bird came in, the section of Hadley farmland known as the “Honey Pot” became the end point of dozens of pilgrimages.

On the morning I made my attempt to spot the falcon, I arrived at the flood control dike on Cemetery Road just before sunrise. License plates from Virginia and Pennsylvania had already beat me there.

Over the next hour, cars full of birders from New Jersey and New York State arrived. A rumor circulated that one guy had come from Texas to try to add the falcon to his life list.

One person quipped: “I’m not sure who traveled farther to see Hadley — the falcon, or the guy from Texas.”

Soon, the scene at the sharp bend in Cemetery Road looked like this:

Birders from as far away as Virginia stand at Honey Pot road in Hadley, hoping to catch a glimpse of a Gyrfalcon. (c) Greg Saulmon 2013

Birders from as far away as Virginia stand at Honey Pot road in Hadley, hoping to catch a glimpse of a Gyrfalcon. (c) Greg Saulmon 2013

After several false alarms (a Merlin; a gull flying just far enough away to induce hope), I headed back to Holyoke.

There, I found that sometimes the most interesting birds you’ll see in a day are closer to home than you think.

In a tree outside the visitor center at Heritage State Park were two Pine Grosbeaks. They weren’t quite on the level of a Gyrfalcon — after all, their winter range winter range extends into Massachusetts, even if they’re typically found further north.

But for several weeks, much of the buzz on a local birding Facebook group was about several Pine Grosbeaks that could be seen near the visitors’ center building at the Quabbin Reservoir. Some said the birds were part of an irruption — a sudden influx of a species to areas outside its normal seasonal range.

I hadn’t found the time to drive out to the Quabbin, and I’d been hoping to spot some of the irrupting Grosbeaks in Holyoke. The birds, known for their patience with humans, were plenty happy to oblige my photo session.

And I only had to walk two blocks to see them.

Back in Hadley, some folks saw the falcon and some didin’t. But an interesting byproduct emerged: the Honey Pot section of Hadley, always known as a good place to bird, saw an uptick in the number of notable birds reported both anecdotally and through the eBird system, which compiles data through user-submitted sightings.

Nothing had changed habitat-wise in the Honey Pot that would suddenly draw more birds. What changed was the amount of birding pressure.

Suddenly, skilled birders from Hadley and its surrounding communities — as well as those who’d traveled hours for their shot at adding the Gyrfalcon to their life list — were focusing their attention here. All eyes were on this little slice of Hadley, and soon enough those eyes were spotting Snow Buntings, Long-eared Owls, a Northern Shrike and many more.

There’s no doubt that some areas offer extremely robust, important, and unique habitat. Expansive wetlands and grasslands, for example — critical to some birds’ survival — are few and far between.

But to some degree, our idea of what makes a birding hotspot is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I like to ask people where they think rare and notable birds are most likely to be seen.

The answers I get often include coastal sites like Cape Cod and Plum Island.

These are extremely productive birding grounds — but, when I consider the question, I arrive at no specific geography. Instead, I’d argue that rare and notable birds are most likely to be seen wherever the highest concentration of skilled birders is looking for them.

After all, no birds are reported in places where nobody is looking for them.

Putting an extra 50 or more trained eyes into the field in Hadley nearly guarantees that a greater number — and, quite possibly, variety — of birds will be seen.

It’s a question that makes me wonder: what sightings would surface if you had that number of experienced birders regularly visiting Holyoke?

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