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Finches arriving in huge numbers


As I sit at the computer to write this week's column, there are about 100 pine siskin devouring the niger and black oil sunflower seeds on offer at the feeders in my garden. It is almost possible to sit and watch the seed levels fall in the feeders. With that number of birds, many are feeding on the ground.

Since Jan. 1, the finches have arrived in huge numbers. The pine siskin joined the American goldfinch and house finch which were already frequenting the feeders. There are usually smaller numbers of common redpolls in the feeding frenzy.

Such an invasion of birds that normally would winter at higher latitudes is termed an "irruption." Irruptive North American species which might occur in Northumberland include Bohemian and cedar waxwings, pine and evening grosbeaks, black-capped and boreal chickadees, red-breasted nuthatch, pine siskin, common and hoary redpolls, purple finch and red and white-winged crossbills.

Since my last report, a definite irruption of pine siskin has been observed locally. Pine siskin nest in the boreal forest. If the forest's seed crop is adequate, they will also winter there.

We haven't had such large numbers of winter finches for a number of years. Pine siskin are about the same size as a goldfinch, but they are streaky where the goldfinch is plain. They have splashes of yellow

on their wings and tail. This winter, away from feeders, pine siskin can often be found feeding on the cones of white cedar. They also feed on the seeds of other conifers, birches and alders and on weed seeds.

Amongst the siskin are smaller numbers of common redpoll. These are also streaky finches, just a bit larger than the siskin. Redpolls have a little splash of red on the forehead (the poll) and a black chin patch. The males can have a bright pink rosy colouring on the breast. This species breeds in the taiga and, like the siskin, irrupts south in search of food.

Birders always search flocks of common redpolls for the few elusive and less common hoary redpolls. Hoarys have much less streaking and are generally of a paler overall appearance than commons.

Away from feeders, common redpolls can be found feeding on the seeds of birch trees, as was the flock I found on my block a week ago.

As well, the area is enjoying a irruption of white-winged crossbills. Thanks to the Cobourg readers who sent me pictures of a couple in their yard. It is difficult just now to go for a walk anywhere where there are white spruce trees without finding a few white-wings. They frequently perch on the very highest tip of white spruce where they look a bit like Christmas tree ornaments.

As their name suggests, they have a bill that is crossed at the tip. This is an adaptation to pry seeds from spruce cones.

Northumberland saw a flight of white-winged crossbills in mid- July. At that time the spruce cones weren't ripe and they didn't stay. Perhaps they remembered that there were lots of cones here and came back in late October when the seeds had ripened. This winter, any white spruce that still have cones can almost be guaranteed of a visit by white-winged crossbills.

This species is highly nomadic, wandering throughout North America in search of prime feeding areas. It may nest at any time of the year, even in very frigid temperatures, if there is enough food available to raise young. Once nesting is initiated, the female does not leave the nest. The male feeds her, and later the nestlings, at the nest. This is a good strategy if eggs are laid in minus-20-degree Celsius weather.

Raptors (birds of prey) may also irrupt south in times of food shortages. Many readers will remember the winter of the great gray owls in 2004-05. This winter is a winter of snowy owls. As a bird of the Arctic, it prefers open areas.

Several reports have been received recently of snowys perched on houses, barns, silos and utility poles in open agricultural areas. Also, as a bird of the Arctic, they are used to long hours of daylight and are often active during the daytime.

Local birders are really enjoying this invasion of northern birds. They happen relatively infrequently and save us the expense of trip to the north, even if the expense in bird seed is substantial.

Elizabeth Kellogg can be reached at

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Nature Notes