Jeff Green | Jan 31, 2008
Outdoors - January 31, 2008
Back toHomeOutdoors in the LandO'Lakes - January 31, 2008 Winter Finches Outdoors in the Land O'Lakes by Steve Blight This week we are pleased to welcome Steve Blight as co-writer of Outdoors in the Land o’ Lakes. Steve will share the work of writing the column with Lorraine Julien. Steve has a cottage on Bobs Lake and a 100 acre bush lot east of Sharbot Lake.He is an engineer by training, but a birder, amateur botanist and rock hound by avocation.He can frequently be found birding, botanizing and taking photographswhile roaming the rocks, fields and forests of Frontenac County -- which is as often as possible, but regrettably not nearly often enough.
Now that the end of January is here, people often begin grumbling about winter and start looking forward to spring. But mid-winter can also be the best time of year to see some of our most charming birds – the winter finches. Generally our winter finches are small to medium-sized nomadic birds that move about the countryside seeking food. Their movements are unpredictable as well – one year might bring scores of them to our feeders, fields and forests, while the next they may not show up at all. They often breed further north of our area, ranging well up into the boreal forest, and move south during the winter as far as the northern U.S. in search of seeds and fruit left over from the previous fall.
Pine Grosbeaks are medium sized winter finches that are a little smaller than Robins. The adult males have a raspberry red breast, head, back and rump, dark tail and wings with two white wing bars, and a large conical bill for crushing seeds and nipping buds. They have a soft melodic warbling song that helps identify them. The females and young are generally darker, with yellowish to reddish-bronze head and rump. I saw a small group of about five of these birds feeding on ash keys last fall on our property located south of Highway 7 and east of Sharbot Lake.
Common Redpolls are another winter finch than can be seen most but not all winters. These are busy, acrobatic little birds, a bit smaller than chickadees. Overall, they look like a small sparrow, but if you look closely through binoculars, you will see that both males and females have little dark red hats, or “polls”, thus the name. The males have more red on the breast and the rump than the females. They move about in noisy flocks, and can often be seen feeding on birch cones and on seed heads of weeds sticking out above the snow. I have seen them many times in yellow birch trees, with the little cone bits strewn on top of the snow a good sign that redpolls have been by.
Evening Grosbeaks are stocky, assertive birds – birds with attitude! On first impression, they look like overgrown goldfinches with their yellow, white and black plumage, but their size and heavy greenish-white bills give them away. The females and youngsters generally have more grey and much less yellow than the males. These birds seem to be less common today than they were a few years ago, but I was lucky enough to see a few flying overhead in early January near Maberly. Some people can be less than delighted when a flock descends on their feeder – these birds can devour sunflower seeds at a remarkable rate when they settle in for an extended stay.
Perhaps my favourite winter finches are the two species of Crossbills – the White-winged and Red Crossbills (photo left, note the crossed bill tip). These reddish, sparrow-sized finches have a remarkable adaptation to help them feed on their main food – evergreen cones. The upper and lower parts of their bills are curved and crossed at the tip to allow them to neatly extract the seeds from pine, spruce and balsam fir cones. These nomadic birds are so reliant on evergreen cones that when they find an area with a good cone crop, they may even settle in and breed in the middle of winter! But despite their reliance on evergreens, they are not above a handout – one winter I had a flock of 20-30 red crossbills set up shop at my feeder and proceed to eat sunflower seeds by the bagful, giving me a chance to get to know these adorable little finches (and the local seed supplier) quite well.
These are just a few of the winter finches that we regularly see in our area, but there are others as well, including Pine Siskins, Purple Finches, and the ever elusive Hoary Redpoll, which is a paler version of the Common Redpoll. So when late January and February arrive and your thoughts begin drifting to visions of Caribbean beaches, try getting out in the snow and search out some winter finches. If you are like me, watching a flock of these little charmers going about their day while ignoring the -20 degree weather is sure to sweep away those midwinter blues!