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“Winter Finch” Invasion Underway


Winter Birding
Evening Grosbeak

Reports from Canada and New England indicate we have an exciting winter ahead.


The Boreal forests of the north woods have seen a widespread surge in the periodic abundance of a moth caterpillar called the Spruce Budworm. In years with an abundance of this highly nutritious and easily caught item, many birds are able to raise more young and some may have two broods.


Regardless of what these species consume once they leave the nest, at the nest all these seed and fruit consumers are fed only animal protein for quick body growth. Unfortunately reports from Ontario and Quebec note that the conifer seed production is very poor this year. The combination of a caterpillar boom and bust cycle and a regional drought has made life difficult to survive for this surplus of hungry birds. Fruit production of several trees up north is also poor this year.


Here in New England many winters go by with few or none of these irruptive birds. This year may be different and most welcome to local birders including those with active bird feeding operations. The term used covers “winter finches” and a number of other birds. We at Spark Birding avoided introducing you to these erratic northerners.


The most conspicuous of these are the large mainly yellow Evening Grosbeaks. Some winters one will see several dozen flocking to sunflower feeders. Joining the winter-plumaged goldfinches will be tiny striped pale brown Pine Siskins with a flash of yellow on the wing and very tin bills (for a finch). Through the mid 1990’s the rosy male Purple Finches and the heavily striped females came to our feeders. Since that time introduced western House Finches have replaced the Purples at feeders and invasive plant jungles. This year expect some Purple Finches.


Common Redpolls are small whitish finches with red crowns and rosy wash on breast. Flocks feed on alders with tiny pine-cone like fruits as well as feeding on ground at feeders. We may also find fairly large Pine Grosbeaks (the males are pink with white wing bars) gathered at fruiting crabapple and mountain ash trees. Two species of crossbills might be noted in ornamental spruces, the solid Red Crossbill and the rosy white wing-barred White-winged Crossbill.


Birds other than winter finches may also stream southwards due to the scarcity of plant foods and birds up north. Red-breasted Nuthatches with their toy trumpet call and black line through the eye (unlike our resident White-breasted Nuthatches) have already been moving south big time. We await fruit-eating Bohemian Waxwings with gray breast and white wing patches. Northern Shrikes that feed on small birds have hooked beaks and a black eye mask.


We are uncertain whether there might also be a few rare Northwoods owls emptying out of Canada. These might include the huge Great Gray Owl, the diurnal Northern Hawk Owl and the small fearless of humans Boreal Owl.


While the winter may be difficult indoors, it could be fascinating for you Spark Birders venturing out in our winter wonderland on pleasant days.