Winter Finches

Every early November we brace ourselves in hope that this will be a “finch winter,” and that several species including Pine Siskins, Common Redpolls, White-winged and Red Crossbills, Purple Finches and perhaps even small numbers of Evening Grosbeaks will be lured to people’s feeders.

Wisconsinites are very fortunate to have Ryan Brady of Washburn, Wis., professional birder, recorder and communicator clue us “southerners” in about what we might expect to experience with finches this winter. Google “Wisconsin Birders Network” for more information.

Brady recently had this to share with Wisconsin birders: “The Redpolls are now coming in big fashion. Since I typed this message on Nov. 6, staff at Hawk Ridge in Duluth have tallied a phenomenal 15,663 southbound Redpolls in just four days, including 8,435 on Nov. 9 alone.”

The female Common Redpoll lacks the red breast of the male.

Brady wrote on Nov 6th: “Pine Siskins are staging a huge flight across the eastern U.S. and are widespread in numbers across most of Wisconsin, with bigger numbers in the north. This fall Hawk Ridge in Duluth has tallied nearly 45,000 southbound Siskins to date.

“Common Redpolls are making a move into northern Wisconsin but lowish numbers so far – sounds like a lot are sitting in northern Minnesota and southern Canada right now and should push when weather worsens and natural foods become scarce.

“Purple Finch numbers were huge this fall as well, though have dwindled in the north as the birds have moved south.

“Evening Grosbeaks are moving around now in small numbers across the north, though nothing to get overly excited about quite yet. Could just be local breeders, which do tend to move around this time of year.

“Red Crossbills – mostly Type 10s – have been wandering the state since late June and continue to do so, again in relatively small numbers.

“White-winged Crossbill numbers have been very weak. Same story for Pine Grosbeaks and Bohemian Waxwings.”

Ron Pittaway of the Ontario Field Ornithologists in Toronto made this report on Sept. 22: “General Forecast: The winter’s theme is a ‘mixed bag’ of finch movements. For example, some species such as Purple Finch will go south while White-winged Crossbills will likely stay in the boreal forest in widely separated areas where spruces are laden with cones. Common Redpolls should move into southern Canada and the northern states because Birch seed crops are thin to average across the north.”

“Tree Seed Crops: Key trees affecting finch movements in the boreal forest are Spruces, Birches and Mountain Ashes. Spruce cone crops are variable in Ontario. Crops are excellent around southern James Bay and very good to excellent west of Lake Superior. Crops are mostly poor elsewhere in the province such as Algonquin Park in central Ontario. The heavy Spruce cone crop around James Bay extends east in a broad deep band across north-central Quebec into the Gaspe Peninsula.”

“East of Ontario cone crops are generally poor in the Atlantic Provinces, New York State, New Hampshire and other northern New England states. West of Ontario cone crops are poor in the Boreal Forest in Manitoba and Saskatchewan but improve westward with average crops in southern Yukon and excellent crops in Alaska. Birch seed crops are poor to average in the Boreal Forest. Mountain-ash berry crops are very good to bumper across the boreal forest, but crops are low in northeastern Ontario and poor in Newfoundland.”

“Last winter many Purple Finches stayed in the boreal forest because of bumper crops there. This fall most Purple Finches should migrate south of Ontario because many coniferous and deciduous tree seed crops are much lower in central and northeastern Ontario. When Purple Finches leave Ontario in October and November, they return in mid-April to mid-May to breed. At feeders Purples prefer sunflower seeds. Old-timers remember when Purple Finches were much common than they are today.”

In one backyard about 50 years ago where I was banding, I banded more than 600 Purple Finches in three weekends. (This will be elaborated in a future story.) The principal cause of the decline may be the absence of large outbreaks of Spruce Budworm.

“Expect a moderate to poor flight south this fall of Common Redpolls because Birch seed crops are variably poor to average in the boreal forest. At bird feeders Redpolls prefer Nyger seeds, so be prepared.

A few Evening Grosbeaks were reported in far northern Door County in early November.

“Pine Siskins were observed in numbers this summer around southern James Bay and in southern Yukon. They will move east and west this fall searching for areas with excellent spruce cone crops. Siskins should winter in Alaska and north-central Quebec where spruce crops are excellent. However, those that fail to find adequate cone crops will probably wander south where they will frequent bird feeders with Nyger seeds in silo feeders. Siskins are often detected by their wheezy ‘clee-ip’ call, which is the best way to identify them in fight.”

We’ve recently been observing one lone Pine Siskin at our two platform sunflower seed feeders. It appears to be in good health, and perhaps may lure others in to the feeders. In past winters we’ve enjoyed upwards of 75 or more Common Redpolls and always marvel at their unusually wonderful tameness. They rank high on our list of favorites!

In recent years there has been a generally easterly movement of Evening Grosbeaks in North America which has greatly limited their numbers here. In past winters it wasn’t uncommon for us to estimate 300 or more of these “big-beaked” gluttonous finches at our feeders. Little wonder we ended up buying 44 fifty-pound bags of sunflower seeds (That’s more than one ton!) one winter. It was when I began banding them that I realized how hard they could bite! On many occasions they literally made me bleed! They didn’t merely nip you, but grabbed a finger, hung on for dear life, bit hard and squeezed with all their might! Ouch!

Have your seed supplies in good order! Here’s hoping the finches are on their way!

The Brussels Christmas Bird Count will be held on Sunday, Dec. 14, and the Sturgeon Bay Christmas Count will be on Saturday, Dec. 20. Call or email Roy and Charlotte Lukes at 920.823.2478 to let them know if you want to help count either at your feeders or away from home with a field party. If you want to count at your feeders you have to live within the 15-mile diameter circle of each count.