This could be a good year to see some of the irruptive winter finches at your feeders, according to the annual Winter Finch Forecast report of Ron Pittaway of the Ontario Field Ornithologists. Finch species such as Pine Siskins and Common Redpolls and others leave their northern areas in the Boreal Forest in winter when there are low seed and cone crops. So who to look for at your feeders?
According to the report Pine Siskins will move east and west this fall searching for areas with excellent spruce cone crops. While there is a good spruce cone crop around James Bay and east across north central Quebec East of Ontario cone crops are generally poor in the Atlantic Provinces, New York state New Hampshire and other northern New England states. Pine Siskins like bird feeders filled with sunflower or thistle (Nyjer) seed.
Expect a moderate to good flight of Common Redpolls to leave their northern range, because birch seed crops are variably poor to average in the boreal forest. Redpolls eat sunflower and thistle (Nyjer) at bird feeders and can descend in numbers so put out multiple feeders. Many Purple Finches stayed north last year because of good seed crops there but this year expect many to migrate south of Ontario because of poor coniferous and deciduous seed crops in central and northeastern Ontario.
Pine Grosbeak, female
Who will not make much of an appearance? Pine Grosbeaks will not appear in any numbers since mountain-ash berry crops are excellent in north-central Quebec and northwestern Ontario and extending across the boreal forest to Alaska. Expect not to see many Red and White-winged Crossbills. They will stay north because spruce cone crops are heavy from James Bay across north Quebec into the Gaspe Peninsula. All three species and rare at bird feeders. Here's a basic guide to some of the winter finches and how to attract them to your bird feeders.
Purple Finch, males are red, female has a white eyebrow, American Goldfinch, winter, top.
Purple Finch — This is a large-headed, broad-necked, short-tailed finch that is a fairly common winter visitor to the eastern half of the US and along the West Coast. The male is strongly reddish on the head and body while the female is streaked white and brown and has a thick white eyebrow. One of the Purple Finch’s common calls is a distinctive sharp flat “pik.”
Common Redpoll — The Common Redpoll nests very far north and winters mostly in s. CAN; but in certain years may show up at feeders in northern states. It is a small, deep-bellied bird with a small head and very short stubby conical bill. It has a red patch on its forehead and a black patch on its chin; the male’s breast is suffused with red while the female’s is streaked brown over white. You may have just a few at your feeder or as many as 50–100! A common call is an ascending scratchy “jeeyeet.”
Pine Siskin — The Pine Siskin is a slim finch with a small head and fine-pointed bill. At first you might overlook this rather drab streaked brown bird until it opens its wings and reveals a bright yellow streak. It has a distinctive ascending buzzy call that sounds like steam from a boiling tea kettle — “zzzeeet.” Siskins can be in flocks from a few birds to a hundred or more and they can fill the room at your feeders and even eat on the ground beneath, cleaning up fallen seed bits.
American Goldfinches, winter plumage, Pine Siskin, far right.
American Goldfinch — These generally yellow finches live year-round in the northern half of US and migrate down into the southern states in winter. They are unmistakable in summer with their bright yellow body, dark wings, white wingbars, and orange bill. In winter, they are more drab with grayish to brownish body, dark bill, and variable amounts of pale yellow on the chin. Because of their dull winter plumage, some people mistakenly think that they do not have any Goldfinches at their winter feeder. A typical call in flight sounds like “potato chip, potato chip.”
Evening Grosbeak, male
Evening Grosbeak — Aptly named, this large finch has a huge deep-based conical bill, well-suited to cracking open the large seeds it likes, such as black oil sunflower and even striped sunflower which has a tougher shell. This bill is pale greenish in spring and summer and paler in winter. Both sexes have white patches on their black wings, seen in flight. The male’s body is a deep yellow and he has a dark head with bright yellow eyebrow; the female has a gray head and back separated by a dull yellowish collar. The calls of Evening Grosbeaks have been likened to the sound of old fashioned sleigh bells.
Here's how to attract finches to your bird feeders in winter.
1. The favorite seeds of finches are black oil sunflower or hulled sunflower (which is sunflower minus the shell), thistle (Nyjer) seed, and finch mixes which contain small seeds like thistle (Nyjer) and millet.
2. Offer black oil sunflower in sunflower feeders such as Stokes Select sunflower tube feeders, Stokes Select Large, Medium and Small Hopper feeders, Stokes Select 3 in 1 Platform and Red Platform feeders and Stokes Select Sunflower Screen, Mini Seed Screen and Giant Combo feeders. Evening Grosbeaks will eat striped sunflower which is a larger seed with a tougher shell.
3. Offer thistle (also called Nyjer which is an imported seed and not from our wildflower) and finch mixes (which contain tiny seeds), in finch tube feeders. Finch tubes have very small holes, which contain and disperse the finch seeds without having the seeds spill out. Do not offer finch seeds in regular sunflower feeders which have large holes, because the finch seeds will spill out! Put finch seeds in feeders such as, Stokes Select Jumbo Finch Feeder, Stokes Select Thistle Tube feeder, Finch Tube feeders, and Finch Screen feeder.
4. Finches are flock oriented birds so they will be more attracted to your yard if you provide space for lots of birds to feed. Put up multiple feeders mounted on Stokes Select Bird Feeder Poles.
5. Finches like to drink water. Provide clean water in bird baths, You can add bird bath heaters in winter although some feel it is better not to offer water in heated bird baths in the most severe winter weather.
The Yellow-headed Blackbird is in the very middle of the Starling and Brown-headed Cowbird flock, can you find it!
Western Grebe, (excuse the small photo but it was very, very far away off the NH coast)
We just saw these cool western birds on the NH coast! They're not rare if you are quite west of here, where their breeding range mostly is, but they're rare if you are on the NH coast! Sometimes birds, especially during migration times, fly out of their normal migration routes and wind up in unusual places. These birds were stopped by the coastline. These species have been seen in NH before. Lark Sparrow and Yellow-headed Blackbird (which is barely annual) are considered rare here. Western Grebe is the most rare, with only a handful of sightings before.
We recently went birding to try and find an Iceland Gull that had been seen on Lake Massabesic in NH. We dipped on it (birder talk for missed it) so, on this overcast gray day, we went to other birding spots in NH. We saw many Ring-biled Gulls, such as this Ring-billed Gull, 1st winter at the
Exeter Wastewater Treatment Plant, NH. It looked pretty barren there
but like home to Snow Buntings, birds of the far northern tundra who come down as a winter visitor to lower Canada and the northern half of the US. We found a flock of 38.
They just seemed to disappear into the rocky shore.
Their plumage colors make them camouflaged against the background of rocks and weeds, whose seeds they were eating. How many can you find in this photo?
Next we went to the Concord, NH, Community Gardens on Birch St. The dried weed and flower stalks had ample seeds for visiting sparrows, such as Savannah, Song, Chipping and Tree Sparrows and
this American Goldfinch perched on a sunflower heart!
The two most unusual birds we found there were this late migrating Bobolink
and a Nashville Warbler. (Last two photos are of birds taken in other places, but used to show you what they look like.)
When you go birding you may not always find your target bird, but instead see other cool birds! And that is the fun!
All above photos, Cackling Goose, hutchinsii subspecies
Cackling Geese create excitement for birders when they show up in the East, and there is one being seen in Maine now. Look carefully when you see a flock of Canada Geese, and maybe you can find a Cackling Goose! See my other blog post here. These geese, who mainly nest in the arctic, look like very small Canada Geese, but are a different species. There are 4 subspecies of Cackling Goose. It is thought that the subspecies who usually shows up in the East is the nominate subspecies, Brantahutchinsiihutchiinsii, (also sometimes called "Richardson's Goose", "Richardson's Cackling Goose" or "Hutchins's Goose"). The above are photos I took in western Massachusetts on 11/8/09 is of the hutchinsii subspecies (confirmed by experts). ID of Cackling subspecies emphasizes head and bill shape, with hutchinsii having a ratio of bill length to depth of about 3:2. This bird in my photo has a short bill, a short, steeply rising forehead, a rather flattened crown rising to a bit of a peak at the back of the head, all characteristics of the hutchinsii subspecies. Most hutchinsii also have a narrowing of the white of the cheek patch at the level of the eye, also visible on this bird. This bird also has a very pale breast, as have the majority of hutchinsii. The back and sides are also pale, the back does not appear darker than the sides. There's noticeable pale edges to the wing covert feathers, creating pale diagonal lines.
Cackling Goose, unknown subspecies
Cackling Geese cannot always be identified as to subspecies, as with the above and following photos of an individual I photographed in Ohio (east of Toledo) in May 2005. Several experts concur that this might be a hutchinsii subspecies or possibly an intergrade between the taverneri and hutchinsii subspecies, but it cannot be definitively identified. To quote the excellent article on Distribution and Identification of Cackling Goose Subspecies by Mlodinowetal. "though birds breeding on the continental Arctic slope from the Mackenzie River west are thought to be taverneri, the precise border between taverneri and nominate hutchinsii has not been defined, nor has the degree of potential or actual intergradation between the two (J. Leafloor, J. Pearce, D. Derksen, pers. comm.)."
This bird shows a more rounded head than the hutchinsii bird in my top photo, with a more gradual slope from the bill to the head, more characteristic of taverneri. Taverneri subspecies have "stout and somewhat triangular bills". The breast of this bird is pale. Taverneri are "typically medium-gray-breasted, becoming darker on belly/flanks" according to the article. However, sometimes they can have pale breasts.
Here's the neck fully upright in an alert posture of the goose. The head looks faintly flattened and there's white flecking at base of the black neck, suggesting a very thin white neck collar. The article estimated that only 2-5% of taverneri adults have a neck collar and that about 10-20% of hutchinsii can have a neck collar.
Here's another posture with the head looking somewhat flattened. Note that under the chin you can see a thin black line running from bill to the black neck, called a gular stripe. This is sometimes seen in a small percentage of hutchinsii, whereas 40-75% of taverneri have a gular stripe according to the article.
Here's another posture where the neck looks short.
Cackling Geese of the hutchinsii subspecies mainly winter along the Gulf Coast from southeasternLouisiana down into Mexico and also from eastern Colorado to eastern New Mexico through western Texas and into Mexico. Of the Cackling Geese that show up outside of their normal wintering range and stray to the East in small numbers, almost all reports have been of the hutchinsii subspecies. They have been reported from Indiana, Ontario, western New York, southern Quebec and Nova Scotia down to Virginia with a few reports to North Carolina, South Carolina and a few from Florida. Taverneri subspecies winters in mainly Washington and Oregon, although some may winter in the continent's center. There are few reports of taverneri in eastern North America. There's a record from Onondaga county, New York, Sept. 2004, Janesville, Wisconsin, Oct. 2004, Amherst, Mass. Oct. 2007 and maybe the same bird in Middlefield Conn. Nov. to Dec. 2007 for photos of this bird see here.
The other two subspecies of Cackling Geese are leucoparia and minima. Minima (called Ridgway's Goose) is the smallest and darkest of the subspecies and winters mainly in western Oregon and Washington and central California. Only a handful or so of reports for minima exist for east of the Mississippi and are for North Carolina, Illinois, Connecticut, Alabama, Virginia and Tennessee. Leucoparia (called Aleutian Goose) a medium-sized Cackling, has a broad, white, complete neck collar on all adults. It winters mainly California and a little in Oregon and there are no winter records for east of the Mississippi River that we know of.
So keep looking at Cackling Geese in the East, there may be other subspecies showing up besides hutchinsii. If you find them, let us know.
and the winner of a new pair of binoculars is...Diane!
We just had a very nice book signing and talk at the Toadstool Bookshop in Peterborough, NH. We talked about our new The Stokes Essential Pocket Guide to the Birds of North America, a national guide with large beautiful photos that covers 250 species of North American Birds. At the talk we raffled off a free pair of 8x42 Eagle Optics binoculars to anyone who bought the new book. The lucky winner was Diane, who is just getting into birds and what a nice combo to help her, the new book and binos! It was great to see several kids from the NH Young Birders Club there and one of them, Eleanor, helped pick the raffle winner! Hope they keep up their enthusiasm and learning about birds and hope our new book will help them.