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La Grande Observer Daily paper 10/24/14

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PINING FOR GROSBEAKS

Dick Mason

Staff Writer

Bird watchers are flocking to La Grande from Western and Central Oregon.

Why?

La Grande birder Trent Bray can cite at least 40 reasons.

Pine grosbeaks are now being spotted in the Grande Ronde Valley. Pine Grosbeaks normally are hard to find in Northeast Oregon — but not this winter.

Ten sightings of one to 10 pine grosbeaks have been reported by experienced bird watchers. And that's in just the past six weeks.

What's more, Bray recently counted a flock of 40 in one tree.

"I think that may be a modern record in Oregon,'' Bray said, noting that bird count records before 1950 are limited.

Bray is Northeast Oregon editor of Oregon Birds, a quarterly journal.

The pine grosbeak's surprising numbers in the Grande Ronde Valley is a hot topic among birders throughout the Northwest. Many have found out about this through an alert posted by Bray on a subscription Web site for Oregon birders.

Bray has met with 15 people who have come from Prineville, Portland and Salem to Union County to see pine grosbeaks. Some of these people had never seen a pine grosbeak before.

The Morgan Lake area, where Bray lives, is among those he lists as good places to now see pine grosbeaks.

Pine grosbeaks are found primarily in Alaska, the Northeast United States, the Rocky Mountains and Canada. They are not generally found on valley floors.

"It is a a high-elevation species.''

As an editor for Oregon Birds, Bray is responsible for documenting bird sightings in Union, Wallowa, Baker, Umatilla, Morrow and Grant

counties.

Normally pine grosbeaks come every year to Northeast Oregon. But their numbers are so low and they remain at such high elevations that they are hard to find. This is the first time in many years there have been so many in Northeast Oregon. People can count on seeing them and are thus willing to make long drives for the opportunity.

The proliferation of pine grosbeaks here has birders scratching their heads. Usually the species makes unexpected appearances in large numbers when there are harsh winter conditions. This does not explain their appearance in the Grande Ronde Valley since Northeast Oregon has had a relatively mild winter.

"It's a mystery,'' Bray said.

He noted that several white-winged crossbills, which are rarely seen in the Grande Ronde Valley, were spotted not long after the pine grosbeaks were first reported. This is significant since the white-winged crossbill is related to the pine grosbeak and likes similar habitat.

"I think that this (the appearance of both bird species) is related,'' Bray said.

Pine grosbeaks primarily eat snowberries and mistletoe that grows on ponderosa pines.

People who spot a pine grosbeak have a good chance of getting close enough to snap a photo. Bray recently got within 10 feet of a pine grosbeak while taking a picture.

"They are fairly tame. They are easy to approach,'' Bray said.

For information on locating pine grosbeaks in the Grande Ronde Valley call Bray at 963-2888.

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