Thursday, January 22, 2009

Boneyard Birds

Looking for birds in a cemetery is not as weird as it sounds. The tendency to plant lots of conifers and/or ornamental landscaping can lead to some pretty nice birding. Sure, etiquette is required (don't yell, don't run, and don't even think about it if a funeral is taking place), but all in all, it can be a pleasant experience.

For weeks, I have been reading about an influx of White-winged Crossbills into Michigan. I made a few tries for them at Michigan Memorial Cemetery (MMC) in Flat Rock but that did not pan out. So, following some reports from the Internet, Natalie and I headed off to another cemetery. While I didn't check the name, it is on Tyler Road west of Hannon Road in Wayne County. A nice place with some very old stones.

After driving the quarter mile loop through the place, Natalie spotted movement in what would have been the last tree. Sure enough, near the top of the tree, sat a White-winged Crossbill. Within a few minutes, we realized the tree was hoppin'. Yup, a "warp" of crossbills (that is what you call a group of them! I kid you not!).

Their name is based on, you guessed it, the fact that their bill is crossed (just like when you cross your fingers). Even more cool is the fact that there are "left-handed" and "right-handed" birds. One in every three birds has a lower mandible that crosses to the left instead of the right. In either case, the trait allows them to feed. They hold open the pine cone while they yank the seed out with their tongue. But they don't stop with one seed. Studies have shown these little buggers (smaller than a robin) can eat over 3,000 seeds per day. The ground under the tree was littered with gutted cones. With an appetite like that, it won't take long for a group to move in, blunder the local food source, and then move out. Perhaps that is what happened to the group at MMC.

To date, I have recorded them in Michigan, Ontario, and Alaska. My first White-winged Crossbill sighting? That happened waaaaaay back on January 6, 1996. I was in Toledo, Ohio. Can you guess the place? Woodlawn Cemetary.

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