For the Birds: Readers report sightings and lack thereof

Photo by Chris Bosak Ablack-capped chickadee grabs a sunflower seed from a Christmas decoration during the winter of 2016-17 in Danbury, Conn.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A black-capped chickadee grabs a sunflower seed from a Christmas decoration during the winter of 2016-17 in Danbury, Conn.

Readers take over as we settle in for a nice holiday break.

Merry Christmas, everyone, and keep those bird sightings, observations and questions coming.

Susan in Nelson (N.H.) is one of the lucky birdwatchers to have seen evening grosbeaks this year. The handsome yellow, black and white bird has been spotted throughout New England in larger numbers than normal this fall. Susan lives at high elevation and has been hosting the grosbeaks since late November.

Evening grosbeaks, like many birds, unfortunately, are somewhat of a rare sighting in New England these days. They used to be more common in our region, but now a sighting is cause for celebration. I haven’t seen any at my home yet, but I did spy one during my early November trip to Pittsburg, N.H.

Lida in Harrisville sent some great photos of much larger birds that visited her backyard feeder. The photo shows two wild turkeys on her deck — not far from the glass door — eating from a platform feeder.

Ken in Swanzey and Sandy in Keene shared a concern: Where are all the birds.

Both have had plenty of birds at their feeders in the past — even the recent past — but suddenly the birds stopped showing up.

Ken writes: “Our two feeders are normally jammed with at least eight species of small birds. It is not unusual for me to have to fill each feeder daily, such are their fall appetites. And, then, a month ago, gone! Nothing!”

Sandy shared: “About a week before Thanksgiving we stopped seeing or hearing any bird activity. Post-Thanksgiving, we have spotted just a few. This is not typical of years past.”

It’s a question I get fairly often at different times of the year. The typical responses I hear others give is that the feeders may be dirty, a cat or a hawk may be lurking nearby, the seed may be old, or maybe the birds have found another feeding station nearby.

Those reasons, or a combination thereof, may be the cause for the disappearance of birds from some backyards. I doubt they are true in many cases, however. My guess is that the feeders are clean, the seed is fresh, predators are coming and going as usual, and there are plenty of birds to occupy all the feeders in the neighborhood.

So, what is it then? My response is typically that there is no simple answer and that the birds will eventually return.

Nature has its cycles and is just as unpredictable as it is predictable. We can do all the studies and research we want, but we’ll never have all of the answers. That’s part of what makes nature so fascinating to us.

It can be frustrating for sure to look out the window and not see the number of birds you typically see. It can also be concerning. I wouldn’t worry so much about a short-term dearth of birds at your feeders, however, frustrating as that may be.

It is important to take note of these slow periods — as Ken and Sandy have done — because when short-term turns into long-term, then there’s cause for real concern.

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For the Birds: The siskins come at last

Photo by Chris Bosak Pine siskins visit a feeder in Danbury, Connecticut, fall 2018.

A wise man once said: “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.”

Just kidding. That was me writing two weeks ago about the hot start to the winter finch season. The wise man part is up for debate.

At the time of that writing, a female purple finch had been my only out-of-the-ordinary sighting at my feeding station. A week later a few fox sparrows showed up. I know fox sparrows are not finches, but they can fit loosely into the category of winter finches because of their sporadic visits to New England backyards.

Then last week, true to the sentence at the top of this column, the pine siskins showed up. It started out with two siskins sharing the tube feeder with a group of goldfinches. The next day, I counted three siskins. The third day, about 20 siskins showed up and occupied every perch on the tube feeder and a nearby hopper feeder. The spillover Continue reading

Pine siskin vs. American goldfinch video

Here is a video I put together on the current pine siskin (fall 2018) irruption. Also a description on how to tell siskins and goldfinches apart. Subscribe to my YouTube channel by clicking here.

More and more siskins

Photo by Chris Bosak Pine siskins visit a feeder in Danbury, Connecticut, fall 2018.

It started out as two yesterday morning. Now there are more than 20 pine siskins at my backyard feeding station in Danbury, Conn. That’s often the way it goes with these winter finches: The visits start with a few birds and they multiply and eat the host out of house and home. Not that I’m complaining …

Every perch on the hopper is filled and the rest are on a nearby hopper feeder or on the ground. They are eating Nyjer and sunflower seeds. 

Siskin irruption hits home — finally

Photo by Chris Bosak A pine siskin eats Nyjer seeds at a feeder in Danbury, Conn., fall 2018.

After reading about pine siskins being seen throughout New England for several weeks, I woke up this morning to three of them at my feeding station. Pine siskins are one of the winter finches that irrupt from the north into New England and points south in sporadic winters. (Related post may be found here.)

Pine Siskins are often confused with goldfinches because they look fairly similar and prefer Nyjer (or thistle) seeds. Siskins are a bit larger, more sleek, more streaked and have a longer, pointed bill. The heavy streaking, especially on the sides, and yellow wing and tail markings are the best clues to differentiate the species. The male siskins have more prominent yellow markings. 

So today I celebrate that the siskins have arrived. The birds, however, have a very healthy appetite and Nyjer seed is not cheap, so we’ll see how I feel if their numbers multiply. I’m sure I’ll continue to be inspired by their presence. After all, it’s been about 10 years since I was a part of one of their irruptions. I think I can splurge once a decade on them. 

Here is a photo of them with goldfinches. Note the differences in plumage. The goldfinch is on the lower right. 

Photo by Chris Bosak Pine siskins visit a feeder in Danbury, Connecticut, fall 2018.

For the Birds: Fox sparrows back in force

Photo by Chris Bosak
A fox sparrow perches on the snow in Danbury, Conn., Nov. 16, 2018.

Here is the latest For the Birds column: 

Last week I wrote about winter finches and how birds that aren’t even finches can easily be lumped into that broad category.

I mentioned a few examples and, of course, as soon as I hit the “send” button, an example that I failed to mention showed up in my backyard. It was a fox sparrow. Well, more specifically, two fox sparrows.

Fox sparrows aren’t finches, naturally, they are sparrows, just as their name suggests. But because they are small (relative to all birds) and show up at feeders throughout New England sporadically during certain winters, I think they can be mentioned under the very broad and nonspecific category of winter finches.

Winter finches, just to review quickly, are the northern birds that show up at New England feeders some winters, only to not be seen again for several years. Pine siskin is the prime example and this year seems to be another good year for siskins. Continue reading