With only six records since 1954 Pine Grosbeak makes a mockery of its label of irruptive species, at least as far as Britain is concerned. With only a single twitchable record this century, at Easington, East Yorkshire in 2004 only present for a mere two and half hours before disappearing never to be re-found, a whole generation of British birders are yet to catch up with the biggest finch on home soil.
Recent reports from Scandinavia combined with the current weather system have however raised hopes that this year might be the year that we finally get one or more Pine Grosbeak on the mainland.
The first whisper this autumn that filtered through of Pine Grosbeak came on 2nd November when Julian Bell reported a single calling as it flew over his house the previous day, a new species for his garden list in Øygarden, Norway. Julian has subsequently had further sightings of three individuals on Saturday 6th November and a single on 8th November.
Mid-evening Saturday brought news to birdguides, again from Norway; 60+ Pine Grosbeaks had been seen earlier in the day at the island of Utsira about 10km off the coast off Norway and 70-80km north of Stavanger. The observer reported them flying off west! Further reports have subsequently surfaced of significant numbers including several flocks over the weekend in Stockholm and 70+ on the island of Orksar in Sweden. One observer in Sweden has suggested that the berry crop there is poor and has been reduced significantly by the large early movement of Waxwings that are currently rampaging through Britain.
Irruptions into Europe of Pine Grosbeak are thought to involve birds from Russia. There is a clear breeding range overlap with Waxwing and wintering numbers in the northern part of the range are linked to the availability of winter berries. If the berry crop across Scandinavia and Russia is poor this year this may increase the chances of individuals from the current movement making it across to our shores.
Half of the records since 1954 (admittedly only three individuals) have occurred in the first 10 days of November, all on the East Coast (Isle of May 8th November 1954; East Malling, Kent 2nd November 1957; Easington, East Yorkshire 10th November 2004).With a strong easterly airflow sweeping across Northern Europe and over the North Sea, we may be seeing the optimum conditions for an arrival.
Pine Grosbeak as a thrush sized, long tailed finch should be unmistakeable. A double white wing bar on blackish wings combined with the crimson red upperparts of the male or the orange yellow of females and immatures ensuring they stand out in a crowd.
Pine Grosbeak (male) copyright and courtesy Stewart Ho.
The flight is powerful and undulating with the long-tailed appearance obvious in silhouette.
Whilst they regularly use many trees and shrubs such as birch, alder and willow, in winter in Europe it is often found in towns and parks where supplies of berries are present. In winter in Alaska it has been recorded roosting with Cedar Waxwings; perhaps an extra incentive to keep checking the southbound flocks of Waxwing that are seemingly plundering every berry bush at the moment. Like many northern species Pine Grosbeak can be fairly confiding and approachable.
Of course movements in Scandinavia have happened before and none have been found in Britain but it would be in keeping with some of the great ‘invasions’ we’ve seen this autumn of other northern species such as Lapland Bunting, Red-flanked Bluetail and Waxwing if a Grosbeak gave itself up and did it in style.