Winter finches have arrived! They’ve been expected, and the reports from around the state indicate that they are here. Birds that breed in the boreal forests of Canada and winter in those forests, are on the move and are being seen in widely through the Northeast.
During Monday’s snowstorm, I was continually distracted from my Christmas baking by the need to take photographs through the kitchen window. There were more Common Redpolls at my bird feeders than I have ever had - a flock of thirty to forty feasted on my largess throughout the day. On at least one occasion, redpolls occupied the six perches on the thistle feeder, the nine perches on the sunflower feeder plus the rim, and lined the mixed feed seeder. Another eighteen crowded the platform feeder. Two squeezed onto the window feeder, while others waited in line impatiently. With the camera set next to the window, I frequently interrupted my baking to snap off another batch of photos.
Mixed in with the redpolls were goldfinches and siskins. An Evening Grosbeak showed up around noon. And all of the neighbor residents came by - chickadees, titmice, cardinals, doves, pigeons, jays, nuthatches, downy and hairy. Judging by an increased noise level around noon, there may even have been a Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s Hawk in the area for a while.
It is the winter finches that have bird watchers in a mode of heightened anticipation. And they’ve been that way for at least a month, maybe two. One of the grandaddies of Vermont birders posted a message on the VTBird listserve last weekend that said simply - “Redpolls finally!” With reports of Common Redpolls coming in from all over, he had been feeling frustrated that he had missed them.
Redpolls generally appear in notable numbers in the Northeast every other year. There were very modest numbers in the winter of ‘05-‘06. Looking through my records, I had a couple at my feeders briefly in early January, ‘06. I have never had the flocks like I had early this week.
What’s happening? And why have birders been expecting it?
Ron Pittaway of Ontario Field Ornithologists makes a prediction each year about the movement of birds during the winter. He collects information from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources about food sources in the boreal forest and then does what most in the birding community are unwilling to do: make predictions. His late September predictions for this winter put bird watchers in a state of agitation.
Finches are seed eaters in the winter, and throughout most of Ontario and western Quebec, coniferous and deciduous trees had a very poor seed crop. Here is one of Pittman’s predictions: “There will be a big flight of redpolls into southern Ontario and bordering United States. Seed crops on white birch, yellow birch and alder are very poor in most of Ontario. Expect redpolls at bird feeders this winter.”
I began to wake up to what was happening in mid-October when Pine Siskins started appearing at my bird feeders in significant numbers. Some years, they barely appear at all. But cone crop failures caused most Pine Siskins to leave Canada’s boreal forest in the summer. The energy expended in long flights is high. This year, with the shortage of food, the expense of not traveling south is even higher. I suspect that many siskins have continued to roam southward, but I also expect that they will be seen regularly throughout the winter and into the spring.
In mid-November, my spouse returned from a late afternoon walk along Augur Hole Road and casually mentioned that there was a flock of Pine Grosbeaks feeding in some cherry trees. At the same time, a neighbor called to share bird reports. I passed along the grosbeak report. Fifteen minutes later when I drove along Augur Hole Road looking for the grosbeaks, he was there on his bike. Neither of us had seen this boreal species for several years. The tame flock of twenty-plus birds allowed us to approach within a few feet of where they were feeding.
When I finally found Pittaway’s prediction report, I read: “[The Pine Grosbeak] will irrupt south of the breeding range because crops on native mountain-ashes (rowan berries) are generally poor in northeastern Ontario and across the boreal forest ... After irruptions, Pine Grosbeaks return north earlier than other northern finches. Most are gone by late March.”
Other finches which are likely to be moving southward because of the seed failure are Purple Finch, Red Crossbill, White-winged Crossbill, and American Goldfinch.
Flocks of Common Redpolls should be checked carefully for Hoary Redpoll. An adult male Hoary is sometimes described as a "snowball," and is said to be fairly easy to identify, but females and first year Hoarys are very difficult to identify.
There are other passerines which are also affected by the seed crop failure. Red-breasted Nuthatch is likely to seen more often than usual. The year-round Red-breasted Nuthatches are likely to be joined by those from further north.
Bohemian Waxwings are already being reported with unusual frequency. Like the Pine Grosbeaks, they like mountain-ash berries, and there are few of those in the Bohemian’s normal home range. They will sometimes join the large nomadic flocks of Cedar Waxwings, but we should also be alert for flocks of just Bohemians.
It has been several years since a Boreal Chickadee has been reported in southern Vermont, but this could be the year. Gray Jays in Canada are on the move. I know of no reports of Gray Jays as far south as southern Vermont, but if they need food, they may wander far out of their normal range.
Northern Shrikes are being reported frequently. Most birders know the Northern Shrike as a predator of songbirds, but in winter their prime food source is the meadow vole. The meadow vole population in the Hudson Bay lowlands, after an abundant summer, suddenly crashed in October and November.
The abundance of meadow voles during the summer meant that northern owls had a great deal of breeding success. But now those owls, like the shrikes, will be looking for food. Significant movement of owls has been reported throughout the Fall. Northern Saw-whet Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, Boreal Owl, and Great Gray Owl, - all might be expected.
This is a good time to spend time with a copy of Sibley’s Guide to Birds. This guide presents the most illustrations of plumage variations. Study these possible winter visitors. Then expect the unexpected. If you are unfamiliar with the birds, be cautious. If possible, take a photo. Be alert.
The predictions, and the reports so far, point toward a winter of very good birding.