Nice winter birding

Yeah, a month since a post. It’s been a bad month on multiple fronts, wasn’t in much of a mood to bird, rockhound, or blog. It HAS been a really nice year for some of the more uncommon winter bird visitors in South Dakota though, so this morning I went out and about, just around Brandon and Sioux Falls.

A nice morning! The highlight were a number of White-winged Crossbills. They are a nomadic species, found in one place one year, gone the next. They are pretty rare visitors to our neck of the woods, but one place they can occasionally be found is Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Sioux Falls. It’s an old cemetery, with some really huge, old spruce and other evergreens. The spruce have a really thick crop of cones this year, which is what attracts the Crossbills.  A really busy morning for birds in the cemetery, not only the rare White-winged Crossbills, but scads of Pine Siskins, and at least a dozen Common Redpolls as well.  There are entire winters that go by where I don’t see those 3 species, so it’s been a really nice treat this winter.

Some photos, including a few from around the yard recently…

White-winged Crossbill - Loxia leucoptera

A White-winged Crossbill hanging out in a spruce tree. They were really active this morning, moving from tree to tree in mixed flocks with Redpolls, Pine Siskins, and a few nuthatches. The problem was their preference to forage near the top of the massive spruce trees! I had to be patient to get one low enough for a photo.

White-winged Crossbill - Loxia leucoptera

Another White-winged Crossbill, foraging in the same place as the previous photo.

Northern Cardinal - Cardinalis cardinalis

The male Northern Cardinal that visits my yard every day. Like clockwork, both a male and a female show up in the last 20 minutes of daylight, and occasionally at other times as well.

Common Redpoll - Acanthis flammea

A Common Redpoll eating the seeds in the catkins that dangle from my paper birch in the back yard. They LOVE paper birch catkins, and already this winter have pretty much finished all the catkins of the tree. This is only the 3rd winter (in over 20+ years in Brandon) where we’ve had Redpolls visit.

Northern Cardinal - Cardinalis cardinalis

The female Northern Cardinal that always visits in the evening.

Pine Siskin - Spinus pinus

One of the scads of Pine Siskins in my yard. I’ve occasionally had 1 or 2 come to the feeder in winter. I’ve NEVER had them like this. They have been by far the most common bird in my yard, even outnumbering all the goldfinches that love my thistle feeder. There have been times I look out and there are 50 or more, hanging out in my paper birch, and foraging at my feeders.

Common Redpolls are Back

It was a over a month ago when I saw three Common Redpolls feeding at our thistle/niger feeder.  It was only the 3rd winter (in 24 here) that we’ve had Redpolls in our yard, and given it happened so early, in early November, I was hoping for continuous visits by Redpolls all winter long. That certainly would make a dreary South Dakota winter a little brighter, but alas, I only saw them for a couple of hours that day, and then they disappeared.

Until now.  I looked out the kitchen window, and there 15 feet in front of me in a paper birch, were about 20 Common Redpolls.  Finches seem to love the catkins on our paper birch, as I’ve seen American Goldfinches, House Finches, Pine Siskins, and now Common Redpolls feeding on them. Interestingly they were only interested in the catkins, and ignored the big finch feeder just 20 feet away.  It’s been a great winter for winter finches, as while the Redpolls were feeding on catkins, there were about 8 Pine Siskins mixed in with Goldfinches on the thistle feeder. Hopefully they don’t disappear again…would be nice to have them around this winter.  Some photos:

Common Redpoll - Acanthis flammea

Common Redpoll - Acanthis flammea

Common Redpoll - Acanthis flammea

Common Redpoll - Acanthis flammea

Common Redpoll - Acanthis flammea

Unexpected surprise at the feeders – Common Redpolls

Common Redpoll - Acanthis flammea

From the big Redpoll invasion of 2013, a Common Redpoll sitting on a sunflower head in our yard. This week on Halloween, we had our first Common Redpolls since 2013.

We’re at a part of the season that isn’t a lot of fun for a birder in South Dakota. As the calendar flips from October to November, we’re fully entrenched in the “dry season” for birding, where both bird diversity and bird numbers are far lower than in the warmer months. Most of the smaller water bodies in the area are starting to freeze over, and while there are still some waterfowl and gulls hanging around the open water in the bigger lakes, it won’t be long before they too depart for the winter. Nearly all of the insectivorous birds too have long left the state, leaving us with our typical winter mix of species.

Dark-eyed Juncos are now found scattered throughout my yard.  A welcome addition to an otherwise dreary winter in the yard, but…when the Juncos are around it’s a sign that winter is starting to arrive. In addition to my House Sparrow hoards, I’m also getting an occasional surprise sparrow species, such as the Harris’s and Lincoln’s Sparrows that have periodically showed up in the yard. I am now getting regular visits from three woodpecker species (Downy, Hairy, and Red-bellied), another nice presence during the winter months. But overall the species that dominates my yard right now are American Goldfinches.

My wife bought me a huge, tall thistle (niger) feeder many years ago, and it’s always been a star attraction in my yard. The goldfinches will use it all season long, disappearing occasionally for a few weeks at a time, only to come back in full force and stay for long periods of time. Lately, as the weather has gotten colder, the finch feeder has been standing room only, with every available perch often full during the day. The goldfinches may not be in the brilliant yellow summer plumage, but the activity and quiet chatter is nice to have around.

Hoary Redpoll - Acanthis hornemanni

A Hoary Redpoll, a pale, beautiful, wonderful surprise later in that winter of 2013. The two that hung around my yard for several weeks are still the only two Hoary Redpolls I’ve seen in South Dakota.

On Halloween this past week, I was working at home when I came downstairs to grab some lunch.  As I was letting the dogs out into the back yard, I couldn’t help but notice some oddballs in the American Goldfinch hoard that scattered when seeing the dogs. Most of the flock landed in my very large River Birch at the back of the yard, and at first I thought the oddballs were just House Finches.  But after the dogs finished their business and came back in, I was very pleasantly surprised to see a handful of Common Redpolls scattered in with the Goldfinches that were returning to the feeder.

We’ve been in South Dakota for 24 years. In those 24 winters, there have only been 3 occasions where I’ve had Redpolls in the yard. One of those occasions was a “one-night stand”, where a few were at the feeders briefly and then disappeared. But from January through March of 2013, my yard was inundated with Redpolls, to the point that Redpolls actually outnumbered the ubiquitous Goldfinches most days.  It was a snowy and long winter (they all seemingly are), but having the Redpolls around made it seem a little less gloomy.

Much to my surprise, the Common Redpolls weren’t even the best surprise that winter. One morning my young son looked out at the feeders and said “what’s the white one?”  He saw a bird among the Common Redpolls at the finch feeder that was obviously different. I went over and looked out, and was rather shocked to see this wonderful, pale Hoary Redpoll mixed in with the Common Redpolls. A life bird, all from the comfort of my cozy sunroom window!

We had one, and then two, Hoary Redpolls stay around the yard for several weeks before disappearing, along with the rest of the Common Redpolls. We haven’t had Redpolls in the yard since, until this Halloween day! I’ve got a glimpse of one Redpoll in the days since, as my finch feeder has returned to being dominated by goldfinches, but I’m hoping the Redpolls are still around, and plan on staying around for the winter. It would bring a VERY welcome splash of color and diversity to our limited suite of winter birds in South Dakota.

Predicting that next winter finch irruption

Pine Siskin - Spinus pinus

A Pine Siskin, a regular but unpredictable visitor in winter in South Dakota Research shows that southward irruptions of boreal finches such as Pine Siskins may be predicted from recent seasonal climate records.

Not a lot of time this week to blog, as I’ve been in pretty intense meetings all week for work.  However, it was through those meetings that I became aware of this interesting research paper.  Birders are always wondering when that next great “irruption” of boreal bird species will occur.  On occasion, boreal finches such as Common Redpolls, Pine Siskins, and Crossbills will move southward in great numbers from their boreal forest stronghold.  The thought is that such irruptions occur when poor “mast” production occurs, with lower conifer seed numbers than normal.  The birds thus move southward in search of food.

It’s not just boreal finches that are subject to occasional southward irruptions.  One of the greatest birding experiences of my life was during the huge boreal owl irruption into northern Minnesota over a decade ago, when Great Grey Owls and Northern Hawk Owls were seemingly “dripping off the trees”.  Those irruptions are thought to be due to a similar driving force…a loss of a primary food source…with periodic crashes of small rodent populations driving the owls southward in search of food for the winter.

The paper below (click to see it) gives an assessment of climate data to potentially predict when a finch irruption would occur.  The species studied here is the Pine Siskin, but the authors note that it may also apply for other boreal finch species that depend on conifer mast.  Cool study…

More coming next week!  Given I’m still in meetings the rest of the week and have family obligations all weekend, it’s likely the next blog post won’t come until Monday!  Click below for the study…

Predicting finch irruptions with climate information

Time to edit the website again…

Hoary Redpoll - Carduelis hornemanni

A Hoary Redpoll in my crabapple tree. For now, I can still count a Hoary Redpoll as its own species, as the AOU committee decided to hold off on a proposed action to merge Hoary and Common Redpolls into one species. Which means for one more year, I can proudly proclaim that I’ve had a rare Hoary Redpoll in my yard.

It’s damned hard trying to keep up with all the official changes on the American Birding Association’s (ABA) North American birds checklist! The ABA list is generally based on the checklist from the American Ornithological Union (AOU).  Every year, the AOU Checklist Committee considers formal proposals to change the checklist, with recommendations coming from scientists who have published research and other materials that may support a checklist change.  Every July The Auk (the journal for the AOU) publishes the changes for the year.  And every year, I either ignore those changes, or spend several months delaying any related changes to my website.

Ever since I started my website more than 15 years ago, I’ve been working on having individual species pages for each species seen in North America.  Especially when a new species is added, I try to keep up and edit my checklist and summary pages, but I admit I’m behind in doing so.  If it’s simply adding a new species (for example, if an exotic species is now established enough in the U.S. that the AOU considers it a new, permanent species in North America), it’s easy enough to add a page.  I’m fairly caught up with those changes. What’s a major pain in the butt is trying to keep up with the “order” changes.  Every year, they make changes in the official “order” that species are listed in the checklist. The AOU checklist is presented in a “phylogenetic order”, using DNA and other information to “rank” species according to their origin and where they are on a evolutionary tree.  Basically, more “ancient” species are listed first, while species more recent in origin are listed last. On my pages, for example, I still have finches “ranked” very near the bottom.  However, in recent years finches have received a “promotion”, and are now higher on the phylogenetic order list.  It’s a major change moving things around on my master species page, thus the order changes that have occurred in recent years are those changes least likely to be represented in my checklist and species pages.

Here we are in mid-December, a mere 5+ months since the latest updates, and I’m finally taking a peek at the changes.  Looks like I have more work ahead of me on my website, particularly if I want to update the checklist order.  Some highlights of the changes for the year:

  1. Scrub Jay species — I have a new species on my life list, thanks to a new species split!  The Western Scrub-Jay has been split into two distinct species, the California Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma californica) and Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii). The California species is found from Baja California northward into Washington state, and is darker with richer colors, while the interior species is found in the dry interior of the southwestern U.S. and is paler in appearance.  When a species is split like this, it’s sometimes hard to know which of the new species you’ve seen, but fortunately I have photos of the former Western Scrub Jay from both California and Arizona, meaning I’ve seen (and photographed) both new species!
  2. Leach’s Storm-Petrel split —  The Leach’s Storm Petrel has been split into 3 distinct species.  Given a pelagic species such as a storm petrel isn’t exactly native to South Dakota, it’s not one I’ve seen, but alas, it still means a needed change on my website.
  3. Changes in scientific names — I won’t pretend that I understand why scientific names of species are sometimes changed.  Most of the changes this year are for shearwater species, but I saw they also changed the Sandhill Crane from Grus canadensis to Antigone canadensis. 
  4. Substantial changes in the phylogenetic order — Of course.  Sigh.  A hard one to keep up with, and once again this year, these are changes I’ll likely ignore on my website. Especially once you’ve been birding for a while and have used the same field guide for years, it’s tough even in your own mind to mentally adjust to a different “order” of species.
  5. Redpoll species — My “best” yard bird without question was a Hoary Redpoll that showed up 3 or 4 winters ago. That winter was the only winter I’ve ever even had Common Redpolls in my yard, but one day my son looked out at several redpolls on our thistle feeder and asked “what’s the white one”?   It wasn’t exactly white, but there was a Hoary Redpoll that was very obviously different than the Common Redpolls around him.  For years it’s been speculated that the Hoary Redpoll really isn’t a different species, that it’s just a plumage variation.  The AOU committee decided for now to hold off on lumping the two into one species, so for now, my best yard bird still holds!!

Predicting that next invasion of winter finches

Common Redpoll - Acanthis flammea

A Common Redpoll, one of several “northern finch” species that sporadically invade the conterminous U.S. With this study, perhaps those irruptions could be predicted in the future.

It was 2 winters ago that we had an incredible redpoll invasion.  I’d never even had one in my yard before, and we’d lived in South Dakota for 20 years.  However, in the winter of 2013/2014, we had Common Redpolls around for several months.  A real thrill when one, and then another, Hoary Redpoll showed up at my feeders and stayed for a couple of weeks.

Such events are always a surprise, and it’s not just Redpolls.  Both Red and White-winged Crossbills are equally unpredictable winter invaders across the U.S., as are Pine Siskins and Evening Grosbeaks.  It was generally understood that large movements southward in the winter were due to poor seed crops for pines and spruces further north.  A new study from the University of Utah attempts to explain the winter invasions, based on climatic variables. First, the study finds that favorable climate patterns tend to shift across the continent. When one region is favorable to seed production, other parts of the continent are more likely to have unfavorable conditions for seed production, resulting in periodic movements in birds as they key in on areas with the most food resources.

The other climate finding is that it may be possible to predict irruptions to south up to two years in advance!  Seed production itself tends to be correlated with favorable conditions 2 or 3 years PRIOR to the actual growing season.  So, for example, if 2015 has unfavorable climate conditions in much of Canada, it may mean reduced seed production in 2017, resulting an increased likelihood of a southward irruption of northern finches. One of the things I love about birding is the total unpredictability, as you never know what you may see when you head out, but it would be cool to be able to anticipate a great winter finch season.

One final aspect of the work I like…they relied very heavily on eBird data.  A GREAT resource, but one that really isn’t being used for research nearly as much as other, more established monitoring programs like the Breeding Bird Survey.  If found the eBird data to be invaluable for the bird/climate/land-use study I published, and I think you’ll see more papers like this finch study use eBird data in the coming years.

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