By Ed Poropat
For those interested in birds, 2022 has been a wonderful year so far for bird diversity. With excellent cone crops available locally on spruce, hemlock, and tamarack, many birds such as finches have reacted to the food abundance and irrupted into the region. We have been fortunate this winter to observe several species that don’t normally visit our area, adding pleasure and a splash of colour to the snowy landscape. Let’s meet a few of these feathered friends.
This relatively large, robin-sized bird is a denizen of the northern boreal forest. It is only observed here in winter, and only in certain years when food is scarce in the north. Although they eat seeds and will readily come to feeders for black oil sunflower seeds, they primarily react to fruit crops, particularly relishing mountain ash berries. When mountain ash fails to produce a good crop across the north, these birds move south in search of food. This winter, pine grosbeaks are a regular sight in Haliburton County. They often come down onto sanded roads to gather grit to help digest their food. The males are a spectacular rose colour, and even the “dull” females are lovely with their orangey heads and rumps. Look for them locally in areas with good crabapple crops remaining on trees.
This is another larger, spectacular finch with a massive, pale, conical-shaped bill. The males, with their bright yellow suits, and large white wing patches used to be a staple in the Haliburton region when I first moved here in the mid-80s, often visiting local feeders in large numbers. They are extremely gregarious and can be very noisy. When a large flock discovers your feeders, they can quickly drain a kilogram of seed, making them a bit of an expensive proposition! In the past few decades, however, these gorgeous birds have declined significantly in population, and are now federally tracked as a species of concern. They are known to benefit from spruce budworm outbreaks in the north and, again, move south to follow cone crops if the boreal region is lacking them. Look and listen for these birds around feeding stations and areas with excellent cone production.
These somewhat strange birds are common in the county this winter. They are frequently observed on roads, collecting grit, and often heard flying overhead giving their harsh “chet-chet-chet” calls. The males are somewhat like smaller and shorter tailed versions of pine grosbeaks, showing a rosy-red plumage with black wings and tail, as well as two white stripes on their wings. The females are duller, streakier, and exhibit a yellow hue. As their name suggests, white-winged crossbills are superbly adapted to chasing cone crops, and are able to “shear” seeds from cones by using their remarkably designed bills (one mandible crossing over the other). In addition to this amazing feature, crossbills will breed at any time of year if food is abundant. They are one of only a few species that will court and nest in mid-winter, as long as there is an ample food supply. Visit any areas in the county with lots of spruce trees, and you are almost certain to see this species this winter.
This is the other crossbill that occurs in our region. Although it bears the same, distinctive crossed mandibles as its white-winged cousin, the male is brick red in coloration and lacks white markings on the wings (the female is again yellowy coloured). In Haliburton County, it seems to prefer white or red pine stands, as opposed to spruce, hemlock, and tamarack. This may be because this species has developed a heavier, stronger bill, capable of shearing seeds from larger cones. Relatively recent research suggests that there are at least 10 different “types” of red crossbills, showing different bill sizes and emitting slightly different call notes. These may, in fact, end up being different species, each adapted to cones of certain tree types. Red crossbills will also come to roadsides and pick grit to ease digestion. Look for them in areas where pines are abundant and producing cones.
This diminutive finch is a winter visitor only in some years in Haliburton County. They are relatively common this winter, and can occasionally be observed swirling, tornado-like in massive flocks as they fly tree to tree in search of cones and seeds. Redpolls are arctic breeders and are known for their nomadic lifestyle. They, like many other finches, react to food abundance. When their preferred food (birch, willow, alder, weedy seeds) becomes scarce in the north, they push south. Redpolls are goldfinch-sized but are streaky, have a red cap, and a black mask and bib. They are regular visitors at feeding stations in some years, sometimes descending in hundreds to gorge on nyger seed. This winter, redpolls seem to be shunning feeders as there is abundant natural food in the region. Look and listen for them where tamarack, yellow birch, alder, or hemlock abound. They make a gentle “chit-chit-chit” call, like the resonating sound made by throwing pebbles on thin ice. They too often collect grit on roads, sometimes in enormous flocks, leading to high mortality.
This is another small finch that has a tendency to wander across the continent, not only in a north-south direction, but also east-west. Last year, pine siskins were almost non-existent in the Haliburton area. This year, there are many flocks roaming the region. Their dark, streaky silhouettes are a regular sight on roads this winter. Like redpolls, pine siskins are small and feed primarily on birch and tamarack. They have a distinctive, rising “shreeeeee” call they often emit while feeding in large flocks. Although they look somewhat like tiny, streaky sparrows, siskins have thinner bills and the males show a yellow wing stripe and tail base. They too can be regular visitors at nyger feeders. This winter has been interesting in that many of the flocks of finches have been multi-species. A single flock on a freshly sanded road can have crossbills, redpolls, siskins, and goldfinches intermixed.
Most people recognize the tiny goldfinch immediately. Even in its drabber winter plumage, the goldfinch is still a lovely bird with its subtle shades of yellow, brown, and grey. After a moult in late-winter, the males dawn a spectacular bright yellow coat, earning them the name “wild canary.” Goldfinches are one of our locally breeding species, and are frequently observed during the summer around the county. They have a distinctive, undulating, roller-coaster type flight. Some years, the American goldfinch can be scarce during the winter months. This winter, they are abundant, forming large flocks and feeding in weedy fields, on birch and alder catkins, and on tamarack cones.
So, as you wander around the county this winter, whether driving to work, heading into town for errands, or enjoying a ski or hike, keep your eyes and ears open and look for some of our beautiful winter visitors. Please slow down if you see birds on the road, and take a few seconds to enjoy the amazing diversity of avian shapes and colours that abound this winter.