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Winter Finches Are Stealing the Show

Though the weather is finally cooling down, the birding continues to heat up. The past few days have brought some nice additions to the winter finch irruption, new rarities, and new expected winter arrivals. At feeders and in the field, birds that weren’t here yesterday are still turning up all the time.

It’s winter finches that continue to dominate the headlines. Pine Siskins were the media darlings the last couple of weeks, irrupting suddenly southwards and turning up in yards, overhead, and in weedy fields in unheard of numbers. Videos were showing up in social media of startlingly big, noisy flocks of streaky little siskins covering back decks and feeders on the islands and in Provincetown, hinting at an over-water flight from the Canadian Maritimes.

As the siskin flight has begun to ebb, the next finches up have just begun to arrive. First, the siskin lookalikes known as Common Redpolls are just now appearing.  Also small, brown and streaky, with buzzy, goldfinch-esque calls, these northern finches have a red cap that is surprisingly hard to see when they are blending in with a flock of siskins. Occasional adult males will show red on the breast, but most we see this far south are younger and duller, so look carefully at those feeder birds.

Both siskins and redpolls like weed seeds and can be found working seaside goldenrods along barrier beaches or weedy fields and farms more inland, as well as in birches and spruces. But by following the wildlife-supporting messy-gardening principle and leaving the seed heads, you might see them in your perennial garden. In fact, of the dozens of siskins I’ve recorded passing over my house, I’ve only seen one in my actual yard, and it was feeding on a goldenrod seed head. A volunteer sent me photos of a flock feeding on purple coneflower seeds heads in their garden, perfectly demonstrating the benefits of skipping that fall cleanup.

Along with the redpolls, Evening Grosbeaks, husky, noisy, bright yellow finches of the northern conifer belt, have just started to appear in the region, with sightings at Cuttyhunk, Barnstable, and Wellfleet so far. They’re a difficult species to explain - unheard of in Massachusetts before the early 1900s, then a regular winter visitor, then very rare as a winter visitor, and now an increasingly common summer breeder in western Mass. Figure that one out. But this year we have a chance of seeing this now rare winter visitor again, perhaps even more so than the last flight year of 2018, this according to the finch-o-philes at the Finch Research Network, who have tracked the current irruption as far south as Florida already. These guys like tree seeds from maples and fruit trees and also visit hopper and platform style feeders with sunflower seeds.  Just be careful what you wish for – these are big, hungry birds.

It’s not even November and we already have siskins, redpolls, and grosbeaks – what’s coming next? Bohemian Waxwings? Crossbills? Get on the web or your favorite app to study photos and recordings of all of these species to make sure your search image is primed when they show up in your yard or on your next birding expedition. And whatever shows up, you know you’ll hear about on CAI, your station for all the finches, be they winter or Robert.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.