Nature's Notebook

Our big year for winter finches continues. The unabashed star of the show has been the pine grosbeak, a beautiful, robin-size bird that feeds on fruit in winter.

The flock that had been patronizing the crabapple trees in Norfolk has, as of this writing, apparently exhausted that food supply, but another (or the same?) flock has now descended on the crabapples in the parking lot of Kent Falls State Park on Route 7.

This species is sexually dimorphic, meaning that males and females have markedly different plumages. The male is suffused with rose-red, brightest on its head and rump; its wings are grayish-black with prominent white bars. The female is mostly gray, but is tinged with a lovely golden-buff color on her head and rump. This species’ calls consist of distinctive, mellow whistles.

The name "grosbeak" was applied rather indiscriminately by early ornithologists to any bird with a large bill (the literal translation of "grosbeak"). Of the four eastern birds we call "grosbeaks," two — the rose-breastedand blue grosbeaks— are sometimes considered "true" grosbeaks and are related to cardinals and buntings, while the other two — the eveningand pine grosbeaks— are actually large members of the finch family.

Making matters more confusing, the pine grosbeak has a stubby but not very "gros" beak, especially compared to its near cousin, the evening grosbeak, which has a massive bill.

No one knows for certain what drives certain birds, often referred to collectively as "winter finches," south in periodic "irruptions" that range from a few years to seven years to 10 or more years. Like other winter finches, the pine grosbeak is normally an inhabitant of the far northern boreal forest. (Another species making a big show in our area this winter is the common redpoll.)

The most widely accepted explanation for irruptions is a shortage of food supplies in the bird’s usual habitat, and observers noted last fall the scarcity of the pine grosbeak’s favorite foods in its home range. But it seems that no one anticipated the extent and duration of this year’s southward flight, which is being compared to or may even exceed what birders call the "Superflight" of winter 1997-1998. For birders, 2007-2008 has been a winter to remember.

Fred Baumgarten is a naturalist and writer. He may be reached at His blog is


Latest News

Fresh perspectives in Norfolk Library film series

Diego Ongaro

Photo submitted

Parisian filmmaker Diego Ongaro, who has been living in Norfolk for the past 20 years, has composed a collection of films for viewing based on his unique taste.

The series, titled “Visions of Europe,” began over the winter at the Norfolk Library with a focus on under-the-radar contemporary films with unique voices, highlighting the creative richness and vitality of the European film landscape.

Keep ReadingShow less
New ground to cover and plenty of groundcover

Young native pachysandra from Lindera Nursery shows a variety of color and delicate flowers.

Dee Salomon

It is still too early to sow seeds outside, except for peas, both the edible and floral kind. I have transplanted a few shrubs and a dogwood tree that was root pruned in the fall. I have also moved a few hellebores that seeded in the near woods back into their garden beds near the house; they seem not to mind the few frosty mornings we have recently had. In years past I would have been cleaning up the plant beds but I now know better and will wait at least six weeks more. I have instead found the most perfect time-consuming activity for early spring: teasing out Vinca minor, also known as periwinkle and myrtle, from the ground in places it was never meant to be.

Planting the stuff in the first place is my biggest ever garden regret. It was recommended to me as a groundcover that would hold together a hillside, bare after a removal of invasive plants save for a dozen or so trees. And here we are, twelve years later; there is vinca everywhere. It blankets the hillside and has crept over the top into the woods. It has made its way left and right. I am convinced that vinca is the plastic of the plant world. The stuff won’t die. (The name Vinca comes from the Latin ‘vincire’ which means ‘to bind or fetter.’) Last year I pulled a bunch and left it strewn on the roof of the root cellar for 6 months and the leaves were still green.

Keep ReadingShow less
Matza Lasagne by 'The Cook and the Rabbi'

Culinary craftsmanship intersects with spiritual insights in the wonderfully collaborative book, “The Cook and the Rabbi.” On April 14 at Oblong Books in Rhinebeck (6422 Montgomery Street), the cook, Susan Simon, and the rabbi, Zoe B. Zak, will lead a conversation about food, tradition, holidays, resilience and what to cook this Passover.

Passover, marked by the traditional seder meal, holds profound significance within Jewish culture and for many carries extra meaning this year at a time of great conflict. The word seder, meaning “order” in Hebrew, unfolds in a 15-step progression intertwining prayers, blessings, stories, and songs that narrate the ancient saga of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery. It’s a narrative that has endured for over two millennia, evolving with time yet retaining its essence, a theme echoed beautifully in “The Cook and the Rabbi.”

Keep ReadingShow less
Housy baseball drops 3-2 to Northwestern

Freshman pitcher Wyatt Bayer threw three strikeouts when HVRHS played Northwestern April 9.

Riley Klein

WINSTED — A back-and-forth baseball game between Housatonic Valley Regional High School and Northwestern Regional High School ended 3-2 in favor of Northwestern on Tuesday, April 9.

The Highlanders played a disciplined defensive game and kept errors to a minimum. Wyatt Bayer pitched a strong six innings for HVRHS, but the Mountaineers fell behind late and were unable to come back in the seventh.

Keep ReadingShow less