Why unusual birds are appearing in Michigan right now

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If you are an avid bird watcher, chances are good that you will travel a fair distance at some point to see birds that you have never seen before.

But sometimes you get lucky and these birds come straight to you.

This is the case for many Michigan birders today, as the lower half of the state is currently experiencing a sudden influx of boreal birds that don’t typically call it home for the winter.

In ecological terms, the phenomenon is known as “eruption” – a sudden increase in the population density of a species. In the world of birding, this typically involves moving species that overwinter in the north to locations further south during years of low food availability in the northern coniferous forests.

It started at the end of August with higher than usual numbers of Red-breasted Nuthatch, a tiny and arguably adorable bird whose incomparable high-pitched horn-shaped calls could suddenly be heard ringing through the pine forests in parts of southern Michigan.

A red-breasted nuthatch, photographed in Hell, Michigan. | Photo by Brian Barnabo

Next come the cheerful raspberry-colored purple finches and pine siskins, a striated-breasted songbird with a preference for thistle seeds.

But the real treat for bird watchers in this year of irruption so far has been the appearance of the Evening Grosbeak, a heavy, noisy chaffinch with splashing yellow and black plumage. In Michigan, these birds can usually only be found in the north, and yet this year has seen them flock to the south of the Lower Peninsula, where, to the delight of local bird groups, they are spotted. feasting on black oil sunflower seeds in the backyard. feeders.

“In some areas, this is the biggest eruption in about 20 years,” said Ben Winger, curator of birds at the Museum of Zoology at the University of Michigan. “It’s really fun because at first they come in, and a few lucky people grab them at their feeders, and then all of a sudden they’re everywhere.”

The year of the outbreak could very well bring other rare birds to new places in Michigan, Winger said. Just this week, a handful of Red Crossbills, so named for their unusual crisscrossbills, have been reported outside of Ann Arbor – a rare sighting this far south of the state. Some birders believe two other northern species, the red vulture and the pine grosbeak, may be next.

Breakouts themselves are not that rare, as they are largely based on the boom-bust cycles of these birds’ northern food sources, such as pine cones and birch seeds. But the size and scope of an outbreak can vary. Sometimes only a few species crawl south; sometimes, like this year, there can be half a dozen. And the weather for the birds here is unpredictable – they can stay all winter or just a few days – which makes their glimpse very special for local bird watchers.

Emily Tornga knows this feeling. Michigan bird photographer (Instagram handle: The Peck Bridge) drove from his home near Grand Haven to northern Minnesota for the chance to see several species of birds for the first time, including evening grosbeaks.

But this year the grosbeaks have come to him.

“It’s really cool when they visit you in your hometown,” she said. “In addition, there is a certain pride that such a diverse number of birds come to see you in your neighborhood.

This irruption coincides with a renewed interest in bird watching. Many Americans, feeling locked in during the pandemic restrictions, have embraced the hobby as a safe and socially distant outdoor activity. Sales of binoculars and bird feeders increased this spring, as did downloads of popular bird identification apps.

In a tough year, with the dark and cold winter around the corner, this sudden appearance of so many new, fresh feathered faces has been a cause for celebration in Michigan birding.

“It’s an exciting year to be a bird watcher,” Tornga said. “Winter is a time when all the migrants leave, so you miss seeing the warblers and summer birds, but there are actually a lot of birds that come here, and they are really beautiful and exciting to see. . “

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