Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Winter Finches Highlight Early Spring Day
April 07, 2012

By Steve Grinley

     Last Saturday, Margo and I did some birding around Essex County. After successfully finding a pileated woodpecker’s nest site that we were told about in Boxford, we went to the Topsfield Fairgrounds and found two American pipits and thirty Wilson’s snipe that had been reported earlier. A glossy ibis had also been reported there, but we didn’t see it.

     We then stopped at the East Street Swamp in Willowdale State Forest in Topsfield. There we found at least seventeen wood duck, a half dozen green-winged teal and a dozen ring-necked ducks. A kingfisher gave its rattle call as it flew in and perched on a dead snag. We heard pine warblers singing in the pines and we had great looks at a palm warbler, another early migrant.

     At Plum Island, we saw a pair of ospreys taking up residence at the platform behind the Pines Trail. We didn’t find the fox sparrow that we were looking for, but we did see a red-breasted nuthatch and a brown creeper, and we saw and heard purple finches singing in the Pines and also along the Hellcat Swamp trail. But, overall, there were few new spring migrants around. The shift of winds to the north and northwest a few days before had slowed the migration. Since the brisk northerly winds were feeling more like late winter than early spring, we decided on a change of scenery for Sunday, and headed out to western Massachusetts.

     We drove to Royalston, north of Athol and the Quabbin Reservoir, and near the New Hampshire border, in search of some of the winter finches that have been absent all winter in eastern Massachusetts. Royalston is a typical New England rural town with a church and a library in the center and a few large white houses lining the main street. A couple of those houses have bird feeders that traditionally attract redpolls, siskins and grosbeaks – when they are around.

     We parked near the Library and walked to the houses that had the feeders. We saw red-bellied, hairy and downy woodpeckers at the suet, song, tree and white-throated sparrows scratched at the ground, chickadees and titmice made brief stops at the feeders and blue jays were everywhere! Now we knew where all the blue jays had gone this year. The lack of acorns in our area caused blue jays to move elsewhere for food. Elsewhere was Royalston.

     Since there were only a few goldfinches around, we decided to head up the hill north of town in search of more finches. Just as we started out of town, we came across a large flock of finches, easily seventy-five to a hundred birds, feeding on seeds in the trees above. Margo spotted a pine siskin, and then another. I got out the scope and scoured the flock and spotted a couple more siskins.

     Further up the hill, we drove onto a dirt road to the home of Ernie LaBlanc, a fellow birder who had moved to Royalston ten years ago. He feed the birds there, and has always had a good selection of birds as a result. Ernie was raking his yard as we approached and he told us that there were evening grosbeaks and siskins at his feeders earlier. They had moved up the road during the morning and he told us where to look.

     We dove further up the dirt road and stopped at the last house along the road. There was an open field with a small pond across from the house, surrounded by woods. As we approached, we saw yellow-bellied sapsuckers, red-bellied, hairy and downy woodpeckers, and Northern flickers were calling. We then spotted a pair of pileated woodpeckers in the trees beyond. One flew across the field toward us and landed close enough for excellent binocular views. That is six species of woodpeckers in one spot!

     A pair of bluebirds was flitting about, feeding on the open grass. A raven croaked as he flew overhead. We then spotted several pine siskins in with a few goldfinches, visiting the edge of the pond and perching in a nearby apple tree. Then we heard, and quickly spied a pair of evening grosbeaks perched in the same apple tree in the middle of the field. I had forgotten how beautiful the male grosbeak is – yellow-gold color with black, and white flashes in the wings. A stunning bird indeed! We used to see them in large flocks in some New England winters. Large flocks would come in and clean out the sunflower in the feeders before we even got up!

     The evening grosbeaks range has shifted more west in Canada, so we don’t see the flocks that we used to. A few grosbeaks are still found in Massachusetts every year and Ernie had told us that they nest in his area, and they bring their young to his feeders during the summer. What a treat that must be! And reason enough for us to return to Royalston some summer’s day.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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