Winter finches – coming to a feeder near you

An evening grosbeak COURTESY WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

An evening grosbeak COURTESY WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

By KATIE KOERTEN Gazette Contributing Writer

Published in print: Saturday, January 19, 2013

Who says spring is the best time for birding? Sure, the arrival of the first red-winged blackbird or the first phoebe is always highly anticipated as the weather gets warmer and days longer. Sure, in the springtime you get colorful warblers (if you can spot them), warbling their complicated songs. But I say winter is just as much fun for us bird lovers, because it means the hope of winter finches — birds that reside in the northern tundra for the summer months, and occasionally migrate here to the northern United States when conditions are right.

Winter finches are a diverse group, all belonging to the family called Fringillidae. They include birds of all shapes, colors and sizes, from the robust pine grosbeaks and evening grosbeaks, to the medium-sized purple finches, house finches and red crossbills, all the way to the tiny common redpolls, American goldfinches and pine siskins.

Why is this such a special group? Because it is not always guaranteed that they will show up. Winter finches are irregular visitors to our New England feeders, appearing some years but not others. Their visits seem to depend on the condition of the food supply where they live: If seeds of conifers and deciduous trees are plentiful, they stay put (for the most part), and if it is poor they migrate elsewhere, seeking alternate food sources. These occasional visits are called irruptions.

This winter has been one of those occasions. The severe drought throughout North America this summer contributed to a poor seed crop across much of eastern Canada, driving many of the winter finch species south for the winter. Canada’s loss is our gain in New England, however; most of these winter finch species have already been spotted at feeders in our region. Although many of these finches rely on the seeds of conifer trees, the black oil sunflower and thistle seeds in your feeder are just as tempting. Here are a few winter finches you might spot this winter.

Among my favorite irruptive species are the pine grosbeaks (Pinicolor enucleator). This is a large, robin-sized bird that will happily munch on berries for hours at a time. Mountain ash berry and crab apples are among their preferred food, and they will also feed on buds and seeds of both conifers and deciduous trees. The males are a streaky purplish red and the females olive brown. They are quite tame and can be approached at close range without being disturbed from eating their meal.

To my delight, I have already spotted an impressive flock of evening grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus) this year. A beautiful bird with a striking combination of black, yellow and white, their beaks are almost disproportionately large and conical, strong enough for breaking open the toughest of seeds.

The red crossbills (Loxia curvirostra) and white-winged crossbills (Loxia leucoptera) are a fascinating sight. Their remarkable beaks are curved and crossed, highly specialized for removing seeds from the tightly-closed cones of pines and spruces. Their beaks are also adapted for sunflower seed eating, so keep an eye out at your feeder this winter.

Pine siskins (Carduelis pinus) closely resemble goldfinches with brown streaking on their bodies. When I watch them chowing down at a feeder filled with thistle or sunflower seeds, their single-minded aim to eat as much as possible in one sitting reminds me of Thanksgiving dinner in my family. Upon approach by other individuals of their species at a bird feeder, they often stand their ground, flapping their wings and chirping aggressively. And while the other bird species scatter from the feeder at the faintest disturbance, such as a squirrel approaching or a human passing by, the pine siskins will remain, eating like there’s no tomorrow.

You may spot what looks like a pine siskin sporting a raspberry-colored cap and rosy breast. It’s not a siskin in disguise; you are looking at a common redpoll (Carduelis flammea). These vocal, chirpy birds cluster in flocks and prefer seeds from birch, alder and willow trees. Although their normal winter range extends as far south as Pennsylvania and New Jersey, redpolls will visit southerly feeders (especially those containing thistle!) and weedy fields in much greater numbers when their favorite seeds up north are scarce.

So watch for irruptive bird visitors this winter. Personally, I am crossing my fingers for pine grosbeaks.

Katie Koerten is an environmental educator at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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