For the Birds: Winter finches arrive on the scene

Photo by Chris Bosak A purple finch eats seeds at a feeder in New England, Nov. 2018.
Photo by Chris Bosak A purple finch eats seeds at a feeder in New England, Nov. 2018.




There has been a lot of talk lately about winter finches. There usually is this time of year.

I have read accounts of people seeing big flocks of pine siskins. Siskins are probably the most common winter finch that irrupts into the middle and southern parts of New England sporadically in winter.

Winter finch is not an official term with a clear-cut number of species that nicely fits the category. Rather, it is a general term used for members of the finch family that breed up north and typically spend their winters up north, but irregularly move south during the winter as food sources dictate.

The species most commonly associated with a winter finch irruption include pine siskin, common redpoll and purple finch. Larger finches, such as pine grosbeak and evening grosbeak, are also species seen at backyard feeders throughout New England during the winter.

But birds do not even have to be finches to fall into the loose category of “winter finch.” Often, the red-breasted nuthatch is lumped into the category due to its great abundance at feeders some winters and being a no-show during other winters.

So far this winter I have seen a lone female purple finch at my backyard feeding station. That has been the extent of my winter finch season so far. The nature of a winter finch irruption, however, could mean a sizable flock of pine siskins can show up and empty out my Nyjer seed feeder at any moment.

I did see a few red-breasted nuthatches on a recent trip to northern New Hampshire, but that is part of their breeding and winter grounds, and would not fall into the category of a winter-finch sighting.

Admittedly, it took a minute or two to identify the female purple finch that has been visiting my yard. It was clearly something different, so I knew I had to lock down an ID as soon as possible.

Female purple finches are streaky brown in plumage. It didn’t have the look or feel of a sparrow, so I eliminated those possibilities immediately. It looked a lot like a house finch, but was more heavily streaked and slightly larger and plumper overall. The thick bill further eliminated any sparrow possibilities and after very briefly considering the female rose-breasted grosbeak, I was able to nail down the ID as a female purple finch.

In the past when I have seen purple finches, it has usually been a pair so getting an ID was easier because I had the more colorful male to observe.

For whatever reason, regardless of how great a winter finch season it is throughout New England, my yard typically does not drive in a lot of these birds. While I’ve read about several backyards being ambushed by pine siskins already this season, I haven’t seen a pine siskin in about 10 years. That species typically irrupts every three or four years.

If nothing else shows up at my feeders all winter, I still have my regular feeder birds and my female purple finch. And I’m good with that.

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