City Wilds




I noticed the season’s first pine grosbeak on Nov. 15, the bird’s presence brought to my attention by its sweetly whistled song. To my sensibilities, a pine grosbeak’s warbled melody has a cheerful—or at least cheering—quality that inevitably lifts my spirit.

Though distinct, the grosbeak’s voice came from a distance and I never did spot the singer. Still, it was a worthy enough encounter to merit a mention in my home nature journal, accompanied by the sketch of a small smiley face. Clearly I welcomed the grosbeak’s arrival in my part of town.

For those not familiar with pine grosbeaks, I’ll mention here that they’re among a half-dozen or so common finch species to inhabit various parts of Alaska. The biggest of those finches, they’re a little smaller than robins and slightly plumper, with thick, dark stubby bills that are ideal for eating seeds. Like many birds, males are the flashier gender, their heads and bodies a bright red, except for wings and tail. The more drab females are primarily gray, with yellowish to orange head and rump areas.

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I figured other grosbeaks would follow, as they always do, and I would get to enjoy their company through the depths of winter, much as I relish the presence of bohemian waxwings. Both species are seasonal residents of the Anchorage Bowl but unlike most other part-time avian residents, which tend to show up in spring or early summer, these two come to town long after summer has ended, at least partly because the city is a reliable source of food during winter’s leaner months.

While thousands of waxwings have swooped through Anchorage this winter, it seems that few grosbeaks have come to visit. Or, if they’ve visited, they haven’t stayed around long, at least in my part of town.

Sadly, and to my surprise, I haven’t heard, or seen, another grosbeak since that brief November encounter.

Others who pay close attention to local birds have also noted low grosbeak numbers. Pat Pourchot, one of Alaska’s most knowledgeable birders, recently told me, “I have seen one grosbeak this winter!” in the Anchorage area. And Jane Tibbetts, who has an amazing array of bird-feeding stations in her lower Hillside yard (and is an avid wildlife photographer), reports that she too has noticed far fewer grosbeaks than normal: “Usually the grosbeaks arrive here in large flocks of 25-40, in December, sometimes November. This year I have only had a small flock of 4-5.” Those showed up much later than usual, in early January, and they’ve only visited Jane’s feeders a few times in the weeks since.

The observations of Pat, Jane, and myself are backed up by this winter’s Anchorage Christmas Bird Count, which took place on Dec. 15. The 155 participants counted only 97 pine grosbeaks, far below the long-term average of 409. Local CBC compiler Louann Feldmann points out that grosbeak numbers were even lower in 2009 (64 birds) and 2013 (80), but there’s no denying the species’ diminished presence in this year’s count.

Besides the low grosbeak numbers, Anchorage’s population of red squirrels also seems to be way down, at least in the places I frequent. Again, this is simply anecdotal information, but I’ve heard and seen far fewer squirrels this winter than normal, both in my neighborhood and in the forested areas that I regularly walk.

For the past several years, one of my habits (or obsessions) has been to note the various species of wildlife I observe each day and record them in my nature journal. With few exceptions, that daily list has included red squirrels—until recently. Since early November, I have sometimes gone two, three, or more days in a row without spotting (or hearing) a squirrel. In late December I failed to detect any squirrels for a full week. I suppose I could have found some if I made it my mission, but to not see or hear any squirrels on my daily walks for an entire week is not only unusual, but unique in my experience.

Again, I’m hardly the only one to notice this winter’s local paucity of red squirrels, as evidenced by my two main contacts for this story. In our online exchange of observations, Jane commented, “I have been delighted that we don’t have many squirrels this winter [raiding bird feeders]. There were so many the last three years, they drove us crazy. We only have two this year.” And in his email to me, Pat noted, “I too have seen very few squirrels . . . However I do have two red squirrels in my yard that are doing well on peanuts and sunflower seeds!”

So, what’s going on?

Well, I have a theory. Or call it a hunch. You see, the seeds in spruce cones are important foods for both red squirrels and pine grosbeaks. Especially squirrels. And last summer’s “crop” of spruce cones in the Anchorage area was, in my experience, a bust. It’s true I didn’t conduct any sort of formal study, so I suppose some might dismiss it as mere anecdotal evidence. But early last summer I did notice that spruce trees in my neighborhood had produced few cones. And when I began checking spruces in other parts of town and the forested slopes in Chugach State Park’s “front range,” nearly all of those trees too had few, if any, cones.

This, then, is what I’ve come to wonder: are the low numbers of squirrels and grosbeaks in Anchorage this winter connected to the dearth of spruce cones?

I’m pretty darn sure that’s true for squirrels. Not only do they depend heavily on spruce cones to survive winter, they’re highly territorial critters and would be competing with neighboring squirrels for limited food supplies. Some squirrels might get lucky, like those who have access to Pat and Jane’s feeders. But Jane’s observations suggest even supplemental foods only go so far. I’m guessing a lot of Anchorage-area squirrels have either starved or died in territorial disputes this winter.

For grosbeaks, the link is less straightforward. For one thing, though conifer seeds are known to be a major part of their diet, grosbeaks eat a wide range of foods, including fruits. So if they discovered spruce cones to be in low supply, you’d think they’d simply join the throngs of waxwings (and other birds) eating Anchorage’s abundance of ornamental-tree berries, cherries, and crab apples. Of course it’s possible that far fewer of them even bothered to come into the Anchorage Bowl this winter, because they were finding little of their favored food—spruce seeds—along the city’s edges. Grosbeaks are known to be far-ranging birds in times of scarcity and perhaps their search for nourishment took them elsewhere.

Perhaps something else is at play. It’s my understanding that Alaska’s pine grosbeaks nest in spruce forests. Maybe the spruce bark beetle infestation that has ravaged Southcentral Alaska’s spruce woodlands has harmed grosbeak survival.

Or maybe this winter is simply one of the periodic down years for grosbeaks in Anchorage, for reasons we can only guess.

I’d love to know what others think about this winter’s local scarcity of grosbeaks and red squirrels. Maybe someone disagrees there’s any scarcity at all. Or perhaps there’s been some other notable population shift—whether up or down—of a local species that I’ve missed. Send a comment to the Anchorage Press or contact me at the email address below if you have insights or opinions you’d like to share. I welcome other perspectives.

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at akgriz@hotmail.com.

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