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.

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

Unexpected Visitor!

Pine Siskin - North American Range Map

This is a range map for the Pine Siskin. The closest they’re supposed to be to here this time of year would be northern Minnesota or the Black Hills.

My office has been under construction for nearly 2 months now, and my temporary office is, uh…not ideal.  It’s an open cube, shared with 2 other people, 6 feet from the bathroom doors.  Lovely…and hard to work when you’re used to your own office with a door you can shut.  Because of that, I’ve been working at home most of the time.

I had an unexpected surprise today while working at home.  I went into the kitchen to get a drink, looked out the patio doors at the thistle (niger) feeder, and saw a Pine Siskin.  June 2nd?  A Pine Siskin in southeast South Dakota?  It wasn’t even something on my radar, so I had to do a double take, and check it out at close range just to be sure.  Pine Siskins are something you’d only expect in the winter around here, and even though they can be pretty locally common, I rarely get them at my feeders.

The map above shows the supposed range for a Pine Siskin.  Strange!  A nice surprise, and actually after checking my eBird list for the year, I hadn’t seen one yet this year. June 2nd…not the date I’d expect to see my first Pine Siskin here!

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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