What kind of year for winter finches? What’s a winter finch?
By Fred Wooley
Early September, I saw my first-of-the-season Red-breasted Nuthatch, one of my favorite birds.
Diminutive compared to our more common year-round White-breasted Nuthatch, the Red-breasted is also set apart by its rusty-red chest and distinctive eye stripe and the fact that it spends a bit more time on branches than the trunk-clinging White-breasted.
As fall moves into winter, local bird enthusiasts (especially those who bundle and keep birding) smile at the Red-breasted Nuthatch’s perky penchant for poking and probing bark crevices while giving a high-pitched “beent, beent, beent.” But the question for birders is “Will this be a good winter finch year?” [And the question for the rest of us is “What is a winter finch?”]
Because of similarities in size, behavior, and range movement, Crossbills, Redpolls, Goldfinches, and Pine Siskins may be lumped together with Red-breasted Nuthatches and Purple Finches in the “winter finch” category. Most eat buds, seeds, and tiny insects and tend to travel in groups nomadically, with populations varying from year to year.
A handful of “winter finch” species breed in summer primarily up north in coniferous and mixed forests, flying south in late fall and winter to find winter homes here.
Some say the Purple Finch is the true winter finch since it summers only in southern Canada, lives year-round in northern Michigan, and comes to our area only in winter. While the House Finch’s head and chest are covered in pinky red, you can identify the Purple Finch by its heavier, deep burgundy color on its head, chest, sides and back. [Well-known ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson says it looks like it was “dipped upside down in raspberry juice.”]
Kenn Kaufman’s Birds of North America identifies “winter finches” as the two species of Crossbills (White-winged and Red), two species of Redpolls (Common and Hoary), and the Pine Grosbeak.White-winged Crossbill and Common Redpoll are our more likely winter visitors.
Crossbills’ bills-that-cross facilitate prying for seeds held beneath the scales of pine and spruce cones, their main food. Look for them in ACRES preserves featuring coniferous trees, especially spruce. I like to check out the tall evergreens in Fremont’s Lakeside Cemetery, completely surrounded by the Ropchan Wildlife Refuge. [You can look for them in the conifers on the Robert C. and Rosella C. Johnson Nature Preserve adjacent to the ACRES Office in Huntertown, Indiana.]
Other winter finches that are not as particular for conifers often accompany Goldfinches. One of these is the Common Redpoll, tinier than other finches, heavily streaked on the side, cherry wash on the chest, black chin, a tiny red-maroon cap — what a delight when these show up! [As you notice Goldfinches on most preserves over the winter, be on the lookout, too, for its showy companion.]
Pine Siskins are similar to Goldfinches but more slender, sporting light streaks and a yellow wash on wings and tail, with a wheezy distinctive “zzzzzziiiiiiiiiiiiip!” Pine Siskin like pine seeds, and in winter, thistle is tempting.
So what kind of winter finch year is 2016-17?
Will you watch for birds in the preserves? Whether you consider yourself a birdwatcher or you occasionally notice a few species, you can help support ACRES by reporting your sitings. As an indicator species, birds and their population numbers reflect the health of our natural areas.
You can use The Cornell Lab of Ornithology‘s eBird website to document bird sitings on the preserves. Submit your observations from our preserves at ebird.org, noting the date, species, count and location:
“January 4, 2017, White-winged Crossbill, 2 count, ACRES’ Wing Haven nature preserve.”
We look forward to learning about your observations from our preserves. Thank you and happy trails!
ACRES member Fred Wooley is a naturalist, writer and land preservation/restoration enthusiast. He and his wife Jackie live on part of an old farm overlooking an extensive fen in northern Steuben County.