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Welcome evening grosbeaks … and more!

By Hans Kunze
Special to The Spectator
A pine siskin eyes some berries in this summer photo by reader Janie Ferguson.

Evening grosbeaks have long been one of my favorite birds … birds that haven’t been around Western New York for decades!  

But this could be the year of change as several small flocks have been spotted over the last few weeks. Our readers have sent me several texts about their “special guests” telling me how excited they were to have them – if only for an hour or a couple of days. I remember growing up on the farm and seeing large flocks of evening grosbeaks descend on to our sunflower-filled birdfeeders. These yellow, black, and white birds from the north would empty the feeders quickly and we would have to refill them during the day.

I also remember my mother taking me over to Beaver Meadow Audubon Center in North Java to participate in a bird identification walk and seeing their feeders busy with evening grosbeaks. And when I went skiing at Swain, I would see them in the trees from the ski lift. All this was in the 70’s and 80’s. 

During the 90’s the winter presence of evening grosbeaks started dwindling rapidly and over the last couple of decades hardly any grosbeaks have ventured south from their northern breeding grounds. The food supply had improved up north with coniferous trees once again producing viable seeds to feed upon – erasing the need to migrate south for food.

About 3 or 4 years ago on Nov. 3 my wife called me at work to report that we had a small flock of grosbeaks at the feeder. I was ready to hop in the car and come home, but she informed me that they had already left.  They just stopped in for a snack. That’s what they traditionally did in the months of October and November decades ago … and are doing now in 2020!

So, does this mean we are really truly in for an evening grosbeak winter? Still very hard to say, but the chances are good with so many sightings already this fall. From past experience there were times they would show up in fall and disappear – probably going further south. Because later in winter we would see them again on their way back north. Often, they would stick around until at least mid-May and by this time would have congregated into huge flocks of 100 to 200 birds. I can still picture them scattered among our great big sugar maple treetops at the farm early in the morning, getting ready to descend to the feeders for breakfast. I also remember back then we were feeding mostly striped sunflower seeds and black oil was just starting to become more popular.

So, this may be what is called an irruption year of winter finches. Irruptions are heavy movements of bird populations to the south for the winter. Evening grosbeaks are members of the finch family with their stout seed-eating bills. They are relatives of the native sparrows, juncos, towhees, goldfinches, buntings, cardinals, and even crossbills. Two other northern species have also made their presence known around here – the pine siskins and the common redpolls. 

Pine siskins have been present since late September, having migrated here from the north. Close relatives of the goldfinches, they often flock together and share the nyjer feeders with each other, but also enjoy sunflower seeds. The siskin is a small bird with heavy streaking and an unusually pointed beak and tinges of yellow in the wings. They tend to make their way south on a pretty regular basis, but none were present last year. This fall they are everywhere. I'm very used to hearing their familiar high-pitched calls and thus think I have heard them just about every day that I have been outside since late September. A few are coming to the feeders. Very often they come through in mid fall and keep heading south, only to return in late winter and spring on their leisurely trip back north.  

The other northern finch that is present after a rather long void is the common redpoll. A flock of them has been feeding at Beaver Meadow Audubon Center. This a good sign. These small, very busy little red-capped, black-chinned birds usually travel in good sized flocks. They are fun to have around.

So, though it’s a bit early, you can see that the stage is set for a big winter finch migration and lots of fun and diversity at the feeding station. Will crossbills be coming? Maybe a rare pine grosbeak? Who knows what else will show up? That’s what adds so much fun to birding and winter bird feeding!

Whether we have an irruption of northern finches or not, the coming bird feeding season is going to be great fun for the whole family. I can’t imagine not having bird feeders - it would really make the winter boring! Make sure that your feeders are full and ready for the birds when the cold and snowy winter days arrive. Feel free to let me know what you are seeing. You can call or text me at 585-813-2676 with questions or comments as well. Happy Thanksgiving and thank God for the birds!

Special Note: Hans will be hosting a winter bird feeding clinic at the Genesee County Park on Saturday, Nov. 21 with at 9:30 a.m. Pre-registration is required and there is no fee. This is a great opportunity to learn several winter birds at the feeding station and others nearby on the Braille Trail just a little south of the Raymond Road winter Recreation Area parking lot. We will meet in the parking lot at 9:30. Simply call or text Hans at 585-813-2676 for more information and to confirm as space is limited.