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The winter finch forecast

Evening Grosbeaks
Jerry Gabby
Evening Grosbeaks

What a difference a cold front can make — as I write this, it finally feels appropriate to discuss winter birds. One particular group of winter birds is as unpredictable as New England weather, and equally fun to discuss — it’s the winter finches. I’ve been waiting for the onslaught of fall rarities to peter out a bit before issuing the annual winter finch forecast for the Cape and Islands, and this nip in the air is telling me the time is right.

Winter finches are a loose collective of songbirds — some finches, some honorary finches — who breed across the sprucey boreal forest belt and, as in the redpolls, up into the Arctic dwarf shrub zone. All depend largely on tree seeds and/or fruit year-round, and will irrupt southwards in years when crops fail for their preferred foods, things like seeds from spruce cones and willow catkins, or mountain ash berries.

For many years, a biologist from Canada has polled his network of other biologists across these northern forests regarding the location of both birds and their foods, compiling it all into a detailed prognostication about which of these species may come south into the Northeast this year. This “winter finch forecast” was started by Ron Pittaway and is now carried on by his successor, Tyler Hoar. As usual, I will plagiarize their work – er, I mean adapt their work for Cape Cod. For local birders, this year’s forecast is one of great hope.

Starting in late summer, you may have noticed more Red-breasted Nuthatches than usual, as our resident local birds were augmented by a steady influx of northern birds seeking better evergreen cone crops. Though not technically finches, these tiny and adorable refugees from relatively coneless northern forests offered a hint that it would be a good winter finch year overall. As late summer turned to fall, birders noted that the next expected finch was on the move — the Purple Finch. If you don’t know their sharp little flight call, you may have missed their migration — it doesn’t seem like many stopped at feeders this year. Don’t confuse them with their common backyard cousin, the House Finch. For a Purple Finch, look for a more wine-colored and husky finch, with the drabber females showing a distinctive, broad, pale eye stripe.

Next we saw a species with a weird history in the Northeast — the Evening Grosbeak — with a few individuals seen so far this fall from Falmouth to Nantucket and up to Wellfleet. Up until the early 1980’s, Evening Grosbeaks were common winter visitors to feeding stations, then they disappeared altogether. About four years ago, these big, bold, yellow finches moved east again, and we had a chance of seeing them in winter. These guys indeed visit feeders, gladly taking sunflower seeds from bigger hopper-style feeders, platforms, and trays.

In recent weeks we have also seen a few Bohemian Waxwings, the big unpredictable sister species to the more familiar Cedar Waxwings — look for their tall wispy crests and listen for their lower trilled calls among their smaller cousins, especially around fruiting trees, vines, and shrubs on the Outer Cape. And Red Crossbills, the fascinating finch with the Swiss-Army bill, have begun to move through in the last week or two, again mostly on the Outer Cape. Listen for their jip-jip calls as flocks bounce by overhead. The many subspecies of Red Crossbill could represent as many as a dozen cryptic species.

Red Crossbill
Ryan Schain
Red Crossbill

Charming little Common Redpoll should be around this year as well – look and listen for these streaky little goldfinch relatives on thistle-type feeders, in birches, in weedy fields, and especially moving down barrier beaches with ample goldenrod seed heads. A little finch with a tiny bill, red forehead, and streaked sides will be one of these Arctic willow specialists.

If any of these species perform particularly well, they may get their own full bird report episode later this winter. But overall the forecast is looking good for winter songbirds. So when you throw on that extra sweater or throw another log on the fire, make sure to throw another handful of seed in the feeder, because as the forecast gets chillier, it’s looking like this winter we’ll have a 100% chance of finch flurries.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.