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ALWAYS IN SEASON: Fall often brings wanderers to our area

A varied thrush spent time in Memorial Park Cemetery last week. This appearance wasn't unexpected, but it was unpredictable. Memorial Park has been drawing unusual species to Grand Forks for many decades, many of them in late fall.

These weeks before winter's onset are the most chaotic of the year in the bird world. The period often brings wanderers and strays, and that is the case this year.

The varied thrush is evidence. This is a bird of the Pacific Northwest. The name betrays its relationship to the American robin, which is a member of the thrush family, and the two species show some similarities.

To begin, they are alike in body shape, both heavy breasted. Both are gray on the topside and some version of red on the bottom.

The robin and the thrush are ground lovers. The varied thrush is prone to scratching around in loose leaves, often under cover of an overhanging shrub. The robin prefers open spaces, especially lawns. Both tend to pose at an angle to the ground, tail down and head up.

Overall, this creates a quite similar first impression, but differences in plumage are telling. The varied thrush has a stripe across its breast, which the robin lacks, and the robin has a white patch around its eye, which is lacking in the varied thrush. These, plus the rather more lucent shade of the thrush's back and the greater brightness of its breast, serve to separate these species.

The brightness of the breast and the bar across it are reminiscent of the western meadowlark. It's a casual resemblance, though. Meadowlarks are blackbirds and not thrushes, and prairie birds not birds of lawns and cemeteries.

The varied thrush was not the only wanderer last week. Dave Lambeth, dean of local birders, reported an usual great-horned owl. It was grayer than local owls tend to be, and remarkably less wary. Both suggest an owl of the Arctic race. Like the varied thrush, an Arctic owl isn't unexpected in our area, but also like the thrush, it isn't predictable.

I didn't see either of these birds; I learned of both from the Grand Cities Bird Club's online notifications. If you're interested in seeing these, email me — address below — and I'll forward your request to the list's curator.

The flood of fall birds is proceeding at our place west of Gilby, N.D. The week brought Harris' sparrow, among the largest and handsomest of several sparrow species that pass through the Red River Valley on their way south in the fall. The Northern Plains act as a kind of funnel for Harris' sparrows, which nest north of the tree line from Nunavut to northern Manitoba. They winter on the Southern Plains, sometimes occurring as far north as southeastern South Dakota. In some years, a straggler shows up on local Christmas bird counts — but that really is unexpected.

A couple of other notes from our property: There have been an extraordinary number of pine siskins, sometimes 50 or more at the feeders at one time. Siskins are peripatetic birds, and large flocks aren't unknown. The difference this year is how long they've been around. I noticed them first in late August, and the crowd of them only seems to be growing.

Likewise, dark-eyed juncos have been abundant, more than in most years, I believe. On Wednesday evening I saw hundreds of juncos spread across the lawn foraging in the leaves that the wind brought down. At least one of them was a straggler from the west, an individual of the so-called Oregon race. I know this because it struck the kitchen window and sat stunned on the deck long enough for me to get a close look and to notice its brownish back and its reddish flanks. Recovering its senses, the bird flew off, apparently no worse for the experience.

The presence of so many of these birds suggests the coming winter might bring irruptions of northern birds. Irruption is a birder's term for an influx of birds out of range. It's widely used for the periodic appearance of such species as snowy owls and rough-legged hawks, as well as common redpolls and pine siskins.

So will be this be an irruption year?

That wouldn't be unprecedented, but it's not really predictable.

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