Birders flock to Mount Magazine to see a 'life bird'
Reverse migration brings a western bird to Arkansas' highest mountain.
Thursday, May 10, 2012 - 22:42
Photo: Michael Linz
Every spring the Mississippi Flyway reliably delivers bird species such as painted buntings, rose-breasted grosbeaks and prothonotary warblers to Arkansas. This year an unexpected migrant from western North America, a gray-crowned rosy-finch (Leucosticte tephrocotis), arrived at Mount Magazine State Park.
Why has this particular sighting caused such a stir? For the majority of birders in this region, it is an opportunity to see a "life bird" — a species that they have never seen before. Typical summer range for the gray-crowned rosy-finch is high-altitude sites in the Brooks, Rocky, Cascade and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges. They can also be found in the high mountains of the Aleutian and Pribilof islands. The species' winter range includes lower altitudes in these same areas, as well as some locations in the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota and Nebraska. It has never been recorded from Arkansas.*
Don Simons, an interpreter at Mount Magazine State Park, first spotted the single bird on the morning of May 6. He posted his sighting on The Birds of Arkansas Discussion List (ARBIRD-L) around 11:15 a.m. that day, and word quickly spread. Dr. Dan Scheiman, bird conservation director at Audubon Arkansas, said he and his wife were en route to the park by 1 p.m. that afternoon.
"We arrived at 2:50 [p.m.], and within 10 minutes the bird showed up at its usual spot." So far it has only been seen near the visitors' center parking lot. Gray-crowned rosy-finches forage for seeds and insects in open areas with low-growing plants. In their typical range, they frequent meadows, shrublands, roadsides and rocky slopes. This migrating bird was attracted to the abundant food supply and open ground at this relatively high-elevation location.
Mount Magazine boasts the highest point in the state of Arkansas. Signal Hill has an elevation of 2,753 feet above mean sea level. According to Scheiman, "Mount Magazine is one of the first high points a bird will come to when flying across the Great Plains towards Arkansas."
I asked Scheiman what could have caused this bird to fly towards Arkansas. "Some populations of the gray-crowned rosy-finch are migratory. This bird's internal compass is off, and it traveled in the opposite direction that it was supposed to migrate. This is called reverse migration."
There is no way to know if this bird will ever find its way home or how long it will stay in Arkansas. The most recent sighting was the morning of May 11. Those interested in adding this unusual-to-these-parts species to their life list can find directions to Mount Magazine State Park here. They should also join ARBIRD-L and keep an eye on the Audubon Arkansas and Arkansas Rare and Unusual Bird Reports Facebook pages. They all post regular updates about this and other rare bird sightings in the state. On May 10, they reported a lesser goldfinch (Spinus psaltria), a western species that rarely visits Arkansas, at a private residence in Benton County.
Photo: Robert Herron
* To be accepted as a state record, this sighting must be reviewed by the Arkansas Birds Records Committee. The group has not announced a final decision yet.
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