Common Redpoll (Photos by Don Reimer)
Common Redpoll (Photos by Don Reimer)
Significant memories tend to linger on the mind — a January flock of tiny finches scavenging the seed from our homemade bird feeder and from the snow-glazed ground in New Harbor some six decades ago. My mother and I watched intently through our large south-facing kitchen window. We carefully studied the red-capped, black-chinned imps as they squabbled and quibbled over individual seeds. A rosy pink hue shaded the chests and sides of the male members. From my childhood GOLDEN GUIDE bird book, we knew we had Common Redpolls in our yard. We also understood they had traveled very long distances to reach the Maine coast.

As another winter approaches, birders and feeder watchers alike anticipate the arrival of winter finches. A diverse group of wanderers, these boreal forest dwellers are tailored for a nomadic lifestyle in the rugged far north. In years of northern seed crop failures, bands of finches are said to “irrupt” or move southward in search of winter food.

Two main types of irruptions occur — one in the fall and one in late winter. In years of copious seed and cone production in New England, fall “superflights” occur as multiple species move well south of their normal ranges. During far northern cone bonanzas, finch populations may shift like a pendulum between upper Eastern Canada to Alaska.

A second type of irruption happens in later winter once food resources are exhausted farther north, forcing birds to fly in our direction. Cones and tree seed production follow somewhat predictable patterns too. Eastern white pine has bumper crops every three to five years; white spruce is on a two- to six-year cycle with poor crops in between; eastern hemlock and white birch produce good crops about every second year.

Canadian biologist Ron Pittaway’s 2017 finch forecast looks slightly more promising than last year’s. Thus far, small flocks of Pine Siskins and three Evening Grosbeaks (all females) have visited my Warren feeders. Grosbeak populations surged in the 1970s and ’80s when spruce budworm outbreaks were widespread, but those numbers plummeted in following decades. This showy iconic finch is now rebounding as another budworm cycle is under way across Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick.

Some Pine Siskins are predicted to irrupt south this winter and a portion will probably head for Western Canada where spruce crops are abundant. How to attract siskins to your yard? Siskins prefer nyger seeds in silo feeders.

Two species of crossbills, Red and White-Winged, are evergreen cone specialists. Utilizing their uniquely twisted bill to pry open cone scales, crossbills harvest the seeds with their tongue. We can anticipate a scattering of both species this year across southern Canada and the northeastern US. Both crossbill species increasingly seek feeders with black oil sunflower seeds when conifer seeds are scarce.

Purple Finches are currently moving south in numbers. They love black oil seed. A few Pine Grosbeaks are also being reported along the coast. These large, plump finches favor ornamental fruit trees and lush red patches of roadside winterberry. Russet-tinged females and immature birds usually outnumber the pinkish-red adult males.

The movements of three passerine species, though they are not finches, are often linked with boreal finch movements: Blue Jays and Red-Breasted Nuthatch movements are larger than usual this time.  The jays are seeking various wild nut crops and the nuthatches focus mainly on cone seeds. With bumper crops of mountain-ash berries farther north, Bohemian Waxwing numbers may be low this year.