Wild Side: Finches, both true and otherwise

Hoping for a winter of ‘irruption.’

A male evening grosbeak, Coccothraustes vespertinus. —Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Winter has hit us suddenly and hard this year, with a series of coastal storms and an early onset of cold weather. One could whine, but of course that does no good; better is to try to enjoy what winter provides.

For birders, foremost among those seasonal treats would be the arrival of winter songbirds, hardy species that replace our summertime breeders and bring a little color to the muted landscape. Most prominent among this group of visitors would be the so-called winter finches — gregarious, colorful, seed-eating birds that wander unpredictably in flocks, descending from the north in some seasons to our latitude, and sometimes far beyond.

Several other species — the tiny golden-crowned kinglet and the red-breasted nuthatch, for example — are not finches but merit honorary winter finch status in my book by exhibiting similar inscrutable patterns of movement.

Already this season, one very nice find has turned up in the true finch department: Catherine Deese found and photographed a small flock of evening grosbeaks at her feeder, a solid record for this gorgeous species, which is regionally fairly common but quite rare on the Vineyard. (In my 21 years here, I’ve encountered exactly one.)

Short-tailed and roughly the size of a cardinal, the evening grosbeak is pretty in any plumage but absolutely eye-popping as an adult male. Largely yellow, such males have black tails, black wings with bold white patches on them, and prominent yellow “eyebrows.” Females and immatures are much duller, but show a similar pattern. All ages and sexes have tremendous conical bills (these take on an amazing lime-green color on males in breeding condition). Overall size and the presence of this whonking schnozz help distinguish female evening grosbeaks from smaller female goldfinches, about the only possible source of confusion I can think of.

Sociable birds, evening grosbeaks typically show up in flocks comprising mixed-age classes and sexes, so you can usually count on the presence of unmistakable males to help identify this species. Industrial-scale seed eaters with a particular penchant for sunflower seeds, these birds sniff out feeding stations with alacrity and demolish vast quantities of seed in a remarkably short time before moving on. It is a pleasure to watch their mighty beaks methodically shucking sunflower seeds.

Evening grosbeak normally breeds to the north of us, mainly in southern portions of Canada and in the Rockies. There are only a few breeding records for the Bay State, and historically, the species was largely restricted to the Northwest and quite a rarity in New England. Its distribution has broadened over the years, though, and in some years (sometimes for periods of consecutive years), the species can be a fairly common winter visitor in southern New England. As a kid growing up in Lexington, in the mid-1960s, I saw these birds fairly regularly at our feeding stations, turning up on Christmas morning several years in a row.

Whether it’s a preference for northern conifer habitat or an aversion to crossing water, evening grosbeaks don’t much like the Vineyard. And while those particular birds Catherine Deese observed could be in Maine or Ohio by now, they, or some of their colleagues, may still be around, since one sighting of this species often marks their arrival in numbers.
The season had already proven to be fine one for red-breasted nuthatches, tiny, tree-hugging birds with gray backs, reddish underparts, and a bold white eyeline that helps distinguish them from their larger and generally more common cousin, the white-breasted nuthatch. The species has been plentiful here since late September, and can turn up anywhere on the Island.

Learn to listen for their distinctive call: a nasal and almost annoying “yank, yank, yank,” sometimes described as sounding like someone tooting persistently on a toy tin horn. Present here virtually every winter and an occasional breeder on the Vineyard, this species should be familiar to every Island birder. If you don’t know it already, this is the year to get acquainted, since they’re pretty much inescapable this season.

And while I’m unaware of any Vineyard records yet this season, pine siskin is another true finch staging a broad incursion into our region this year. About the size of goldfinches, and sounding rather like them as well, siskins are slender, striped birds with an atypically narrow, pointed beak for a finch. Like goldfinches, they love thistle seed and are common visitors at feeders. Odds are very good they’ll turn up here this winter, so keep an eye out.

While the reasons behind seasonal finch invasions, called “irruptions” by ornithologists, are not fully known, some combination of population size and food availability is surely involved. I don’t know if it’s possible to predict in advance whether a winter will be an “irruption year.” But once this process has started, it’s a large-scale and obvious one, bringing colorful avian activity at the time when we need it the most.