Pine Siskin (Photos by Don Reimer)
Pine Siskin (Photos by Don Reimer)
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With the approach of the winter season, birders are quick to pose the perennial question: Will flocks of northern finches visit Maine this winter? Finch movements are linked to cyclic abundances of cone and seed crops across immense stretches of boreal forest from Alaska to Newfoundland. Let’s check out this year’s annual predictions from Canadian biologist Ron Pittaway. These forecasts are based primarily on forest conditions around Ontario Province but have fairly direct correlations to the tier of Northeastern states.

General indicators predict an “irruption year” in the East this time around, with likely finch invasions into Maritime Provinces, New York and New England. The birds in question include two species of crossbills, Evening and Pine Grosbeaks, Purple Finches, Redpolls and Pine Siskins.

Sizeable numbers of other non-finch species, Bohemian Waxwings, Red-Breasted Nuthatches and Blue Jays also press southward in years of northern food scarcities. We are already noticing increased numbers of coastal nuthatches and jays seeking out acorns and beechnuts. Bohemian Waxwings are frugivorous birds that are strongly attracted to winterberry and ornamental fruit trees. Typical arrival dates are late December or January. Waxwings’ skills at juggling and handling crabapples and other small fruits are worth the watching as they hang acrobatically to feed.

As a young child, I witnessed flocks of fidgety Redpolls swarming our feeders at home. It was magical to view the pinkish-red caps and breasts of the males contrasted against the stark snow-covered ground. And realizing these tiny wanderers had traveled from so far away was especially intriguing to a Nature kid! Redpolls are often found in large, weedy fields and stands of alder and birch. Given their stubby, compact bill structure, they focus on nyger seed at feeders. Brown-striped Pine Siskins share a similar passion for nyger seed, as well.

Purple Finches are now moving south. They are distinguished from similar House Finches by a uniform rose-red head and body and V-notched tail. These finches will enjoy your black oil sunflower seed. Another voracious consumer of black oil seed is the colorful Evening Grosbeak. If these noisy, enchanting finches discover your feeders, be prepared to refill the feeder trays on a regular basis! With their dramatic yellow-and-black patterning and thick, greenish beak, these birds are reminiscent of tropical climes rather than their true boreal origins. Populations have declined in central and eastern Canada in recent decades.

Pine Grosbeaks are anticipated in moderate numbers. Compared with Evening Grosbeaks, these large, reddish or russet finches are often silent and easy to overlook as they forage on crabapples. They are tame and approachable and become occasional victims of autos as they gather grit and salt at winter roadsides.

Perhaps the most nomadic of finches are the two species of region-hopping crossbills. Using their specialized twisted bill tips (with some right-billed and left-billed individuals) to pry open cone scales, crossbills favor mature coniferous forests.

Red Crossbills are a global species that forages in flocks. Individual groups in certain regions show variations in bill sizes related to specific cone preferences, with larger-billed birds choosing trees with larger cones. Eastern populations appear to favor white pine and hemlock cones. In the US, as many as 10 vocal forms are recognizable by their distinctive “call types.”

Hardy White-Winged Crossbills pursue an adaptive lifestyle that is based on securing adequate wild food sources. When sufficient spruce cone crops are found, even in mid-winter, these birds may settle briefly to build nests and raise young. Probable nesting activity occurred in the spruce forests of Monhegan Island last spring.

Like all types of forecasts, the winter finch outlook is not set in stone. We know, however, that these feathered nomads will brighten and enliven some bleak winter days if they descend on Maine.