A male rose-breasted grosbeak.

Rose-breasted grosbeaks (Pheucticus ludovicianus) are not particularly uncommon, but I don’t seem to encounter them very often. My first recollection of a meeting took place about 20 years ago on the Backbone Ridge Trail in the Finger Lakes National Forest in Hector, N.Y. The forest there is a relatively recent phenomenon in the sense that it was nearly all farmland as recently as the 1930s. Between 1938 and 1941 the federal government bought up farms and let some of them go back to woodland and maintained others as grassland. The resulting patchwork of habitat supports a rich community of birds (and other plants and animals). The hedgerows in the fields, for example, are home to most of the brown thrashers that I have ever seen.

But I met the rose-breasted grosbeak in the forest proper, a woodland of second-growth deciduous trees that covers the ridge between Cayuga and Seneca lakes through most of the town of Hector. It is a forest that feels entirely different from the New England forests that I grew up with. For one thing, the natural floral community of the Finger Lakes region is more of a Carolinian assemblage—nearly all deciduous with a few pines here and there—compared to the Allegenian assemblage of central New Hampshire: a robust mix of deciduous and coniferous. In addition, much of the farmland of New Hampshire was abandoned after the Civil War, giving them a 70- or 80-year head-start on the forests of the Finger Lakes. Finally, there are few stone walls in central New York. The geology is sedimentary, and the Pleistocene ice sheets crushed the rock into silt and clay; there are very few boulders and cobbles lying around for farmers to drag to the edge of fields and pastures.

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