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Earth Matters Expect visitors from the boreal forest this winter

November 17, 2018

Red-capped. Raspberry. Maybe even, grandly yellow and black.

Those are the colors that may mix with the grays, the blues and browns and browns at backyard bird feeders in the winter days to come.

“It’s a good year to be attentive to your feeders,” said Patrick Comins, executive director of the Connecticut Audubon Society.

For by most reckonings, it may be a really good year for winter finches in Connecticut. Some are already showing up.

“We’ve had purple finches already,” said Eileen Fielding, executive director of the Sharon Audubon Center, which is owned by Audubon Connecticut. “It looks like they’re staying.”

“Two of my customers in Brookfield have already seen evening grosbeaks,” said Margaret Robbins, owner of the Wild Birds Unlimited store in Brookfield. “I haven’t seen them in 30 years.”

Winter finches are the assortment of birds that live in the great boreal forest in far northern Canada.

They include purple finches, which, in the words of Roger Tory Peterson, look like a sparrow dipped in raspberry juice.

There are also common redpolls — small streaky, black-and-white birds with bright red caps on their head. In rare cases, a hoary redpoll — pale gray, but with the same red cap — will mix in.

The state can also see pine siskins — small, sparrow birds with a sharp beak and flashes of yellow feathers on their wings.

Most spectacularly, there are evening grosbeaks — birds the size of catbirds or starlings, but bright yellow, black and white plumage.

Most years, they stay up north, feeding on evergreen cone crops, as well as birch tree seeds. But every few years, those seed crops, which rise and fall according to their own cycles, crash.

To survive, the birds fly south to find food and there’s an irruption — a flood of winter finches on the Connecticut scene. That seems to be what’s in store this year.

Sometimes, these birds show up at a feeder for a day or two, then keeping heading south.

Ken Elkins, director of educational programming at Southbury’s Bent of the River Nature Center, which is owned by Audubon Connecticut, said that in October there was a push of pine siskins stopping at the center’s feeders for a quick nosh.

“We also had a good two or three weeks of purple finches,” he said.

Right now, they’ve moved on. That could change. If these birds find a reliable source of food, they can hang around.

“Seven or eight years ago, we had pine siskins nesting here,” Elkins said.

Or, they could not show up at all. Last winter, there was a huge southward flight of red crossbills — beautiful seed-eating birds with the tips of their bills crossed — into the Midwest. They never moved east into Connecticut.

Comins said he’s hoping for a good redpoll showing this year. They often show in sizable flocks later in December or in early January.

“I’m really excited,” he said. “We haven’t seen them in years.”

Evening grosbeaks used to commonly seen in Connecticut in winter, with their flocks moving in and cleaning a feeder of sunflower seed in quickstep time. But in the 1980s, they exited the scene and are in decline in Canada.

One reason for their rise and fall may be because of an invasion of spruce budworm — a highly destructive insect pest — in Canadian forests in the 1970s. Lots of budworms meant lots of food for grosbeaks and lots of babies. When the Canadian government stepped in to control the infestation to keep the forest healthy, grosbeaks numbers declined.

But Comins said it may also be that the grosbeaks tried heading south, then gave it up as not worth the trip.

“It could have been a failed experiment,” he said.

If they — and the redpolls and the purple finches and the pine siskins — make the scene this year, they’ll be welcomed into backyards across the state. As wonderful as the usual suspects are —whether juncos or chickadees, blue jays or cardinals, downy woodpeckers or mourning doves — it’s nice to see new faces.

“It’s great see to see the regular birds,” Robbins of Wild Birds Unlimited said. “But different birds are entertaining. It’s like ‘Yeah!’”

And Fielding of the Sharon Audubon Center said seeing them means realizing these birds have flown hundreds of miles from a very wild place to the well-stocked Provision State.

“All of a sudden, you feel like you’re in Canada, in the boreal forest,” she said.

Contact Robert Miller at earthmattersrgm@gmail.com

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