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Winter finches

By Donald Attwood


Evening grosbeak populations have declined in recent decades but this year more are expected to visit from the northern woods.

In November I walked up the path through the Clarke Sydenham Nature Reserve in Hudson, seeing very few birds until I veered off toward the edge of the golf course. Suddenly a bunch of robins, juncos, cardinals, and chickadees were flitting around.

If you’re a birder, when chickadees or robins cross your path, you take a second look because less-common species sometimes forage in mixed flocks. In this case, two robins half-hidden in the shrubbery turned out to be Evening grosbeaks.

Evening grosbeaks are not quite robin size with short, conical beaks (like other finches and like cardinals) for cracking seeds. The males are spectacular – yellow and white with black accents on head, wings, and tail. They live year-round in the northern coniferous forests, but in winter they sometimes irrupt southward in search of food. Information on food supplies compiled by observers in the north helps predict which years they may show up, and this year is expected to be a good one.

It’s been years since I saw Evening grosbeaks, so in late October, I was thrilled to spot a handful in Jack Layton Park (Hudson). The next day, digital notice boards began lighting up with sightings all over our region. Some have been seen at backyard feeders. If you have a feeder, especially a platform feeder, be sure to stock it with black-oil sunflower seeds. They often come in flocks and devour all the seeds. You won’t want to miss this.

Since the 1960s, Evening grosbeak populations have been dropping sharply, perhaps due to logging and other extractive industries that reduce boreal forest cover and degrade its quality. This year, many are said to be heading our way; their population has rebounded thanks to an outbreak of spruce budworm in the north. This recovery illustrates the economic value of Evening grosbeaks (to the logging industry) as voracious predators of spruce budworms.

After seeing grosbeaks near the golf course, I saw a flock of Common redpolls high in a tree, eating birch seeds. Redpolls are small (about goldfinch size) and another irregular visitor from the north. In past winters, they’ve occasionally visited our backyard feeders. Like Evening grosbeaks, they come in lively flocks and, with their reddish caps, add a touch of colour to the scene. They prefer thistle seeds (the tiny, dark, thin ones) but also enjoy sunflower. Their early appearance in these parts may presage larger numbers as winter sets in.

Other finches that normally stay in the north may also visit. Pine grosbeaks (nearly robin size, the males mainly reddish with grey wings and tails) have been spotted in our area, and I’ve seen a pair near Le Nichoir. In winter, they seek mountain-ash berries in the north, and the crop this year is said to be good, but some may come looking for sunflower seeds.

Like Evening grosbeaks, Purple finches have benefitted from the summer outbreak of spruce budworm, and many are said to be heading our way. The male looks like a sparrow dipped in raspberry juice and has a fine singing voice.

Red crossbills are also expected to come south as the crop of white pine seeds runs low in the north. Their bills have crossed tips, useful for prying seeds from pinecones; the males are mainly reddish in colour. All these northern finches are attractive and uncommon here. In their home ranges, they seldom encounter people, so they are a bit less wary than most birds.

Aside from finches, other northern birds may visit here in the sunny south. Recently I saw a flock of Bohemian waxwings – handsome grey, crested birds, a bit smaller than robins – that travel around on irregular winter circuits looking for berries. Those here now may have come from northern Manitoba. Later arrivals might possibly arrive from Yukon. (Two Januaries ago, I saw my first flock eating buckthorn berries beside Brisbane Road.)

One or two Snowy owls may visit our region, as they did last year, hanging around the open fields near Saint-Clet, watching for rodents. Some years, these owls irrupt south in large numbers, often due to scarcity of prey animals, such as lemmings, back in the Arctic tundra. For similar reasons (decline of prey in their home ranges), we might be visited by a Great Grey owl, a Northern goshawk, or even a Gyrfalcon. They all serve as reminders that life goes on in winter’s darkness.

For questions or comments, contact donald.attwood@mcgill.ca

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