Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Winter finches invading our area

By Steve Grinley

     I was coming home from an appointment just after noon on Monday when I received a call from Phil Brown of Essex. “I have a red crossbill at the grove in Salisbury” was his message. I had just missed the Salisbury exit, but made a U-turn and headed for the Salisbury Beach State Reservation and to the pine grove at the north side of the campground. When I arrived, I parked behind Phil’s truck and proceeded into the grove. I walked all the way through, checking out the tops of all the pines as I went. Not only didn’t I find the bird, but I didn’t find Phil either, so I called him on my cell. He was out on the road so I headed out there.

     He had just lost sight of the red crossbill, but we studied the trees for several minutes and soon we found it perched atop a tall pine. This brick-red bird with dark wings was prying open pine cones with its crossed bill to get to the seeds. Often these birds are in flocks, but there was just a single bird that day. The crossbill then flew suddenly out into the campground, and we watched it light on a tree. We followed it as it moved to a couple of different trees. As we watched, and called other birders, it disappeared behind a branch, and we lost sight of it again. Other birders began to show up, but we could not relocate the bird, even after hours of searching.

     As we walked through the campground, there was a large flock of about a hundred snow buntings that flew overhead, heading for Plum Island. Several other buntings, junco and a field sparrow were moving about the campground. Phil located a young northern shrike on the way to the boat ramp, and we stalked the bird so that Phil could get a picture. As we watched it, it started to compete with the resident mockingbird. Each would go at the other as if to prove who was the bigger bully. Soon the mockingbird gave up and let the shrike stay. Then, amazingly, a house finch flew within a couple of feet of the shrike and then sat there. Now, those of you who are faithful readers may remember my story, years ago, of the shrike that plucked and wrestled a house finch to the ground at my store feeders. So we thought it brave of this house finch to sit for five minutes, or so, as the shrike eyed it well. But this was a first-year shrike, and probably had not “graduated” to small birds yet, and this may be the first time that the house finch had seen this infrequent visitor and didn’t recognize it as a predator. To our amazement, the house finch flew off without incident. This has all the makings of an excellent “winter finch” year.

     In addition to this red crossbill, a white-winged crossbill was seen elsewhere a couple of weeks ago. A pine grosbeak was seen at the banding station on Plum Island earlier this week, and redpolls have been heard flying overhead on Plum Island and other locales. Pine siskins are at feeders in Essex and Gloucester and evening grosbeaks are visiting feeders in Boxford and Concord. Boreal chickadees have been reported in western Massachusetts, and birders have been making the hike up Mount Watatic near Ashburnham to see a gray jay take handouts of bread and peanut butter. The last time that I saw a gray jay in this state was more than 30 years ago at a feeder in Topsfield. Back then it was called a Canada jay. I hope to make the trek to see this bird this weekend.

     Many of our winter finches, and other boreal species, are irruptive species. When food supply dwindles farther north, these birds move into central and southern new England in search of food. This often happens in cycles, and it has been several years since we have had a lot of winter finches pay us a visit. Pine siskins, common and hoary redpolls, white-winged crossbills, red crossbills, purple finches, evening grosbeaks and pine grosbeaks are all lumped into this category of irruptive species that may invade our area in search of food. Other boreal species such as northern shrikes, boreal chickadees and gray jays also visit our state infrequently. But some years, they do make an appearance and this seems to be one of those years, especially with so many early reports of these birds. Most of these birds will come to a feeder, so do be on the lookout. They are fun to watch, except, maybe, the shrike, which may present some unwanted drama!

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
Celebrating 2
4 years of service to the birding community! 
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