It’s cold up north. Of course, it’s always cold up north in the winter, and yet many bird species stay in those colder latitudes as long as they can find enough food.
These species breed in the boreal region and normally spend the winter in Canada and more northerly states. Every few years, though, a shortage of food drives them south.
“Winter” finches and other species show up across the region, giving birders an excuse to bird through the normally quiet winter months. The mid-Atlantic states and even some southern states then enjoy what is known as an irruptive year.
It’s happening this year – early and in big numbers.
Finding them requires some planning.
This is targeted birding; they do not appear everywhere. You will need to know where they have been seen by others, and what to look for.
For instance, the White-Winged Crossbills and Red Crossbills actually have bills that are adapted to prying open pine cones, so they are going to be found in stands of pine and hemlocks. Evening Grosbeaks are often found at feeders. A casual walk through woods and fields will always produce some resident species such as sparrows, Cedar Waxwings and the like, but it takes a bit more effort to find these irregular specialties.
A look at e-bird will show you the regions where they have been reported in the past along with recent sightings. Supplement this information with local bird reports which can be found on the website of the American Birding Association.
A knowledge of the local parks and other open areas is very helpful to learn where the right habitat is found. For instance, in their Arctic breeding range, Snow Buntings nest in rocky crevices.
They seem to like the rip-rap found along shorelines and indeed, this year, they’ve been spotted amongst the rip-rap on the Chesapeake Bay coast (as in my photo for this blog). In winter, they typically migrate to open habitat such as sandy coasts and prairies, so it is a good bet that you will find them along the mid-Atlantic beaches. Bundle up for that one!
Here are some of the birds you should look out for:
Purple Finch. Probably the most common “winter” finch, seen most years. It is similar to the House Finch, but the reddish-purple color extends down the belly of the bird and is also seen on the rump (above the tail). It is often found in wooded areas, perched high up, but they do come down to eat seeds.
Pine Siskin. Already present in large numbers. Look around feeders and in pine trees.
White-winged Crossbill & Red Crossbill. These two species can be seen together, always at the tops of pines or hemlocks. They generally stop for only a few seconds before moving on – so knowing their call is essential for getting onto them quickly before they fly away.
Evening Grosbeak. These have been seen at feeders by a lucky few! If they are regularly returning to a feeder, and you want to see them, remember to ask permission first before peering into someone’s yard!
Snow Bunting. Found mostly on the coast: right on the water’s edge or in dunes and fields close by. This year, they have been seen further inland, probably thanks to Superstorm Sandy. They are sometimes by themselves, but often in flocks.
Horned Lark. Not really an irruptive species, but a great bird, so as long as you are out birding, look in fields with corn stubble. They are very well camouflaged, but do fly around revealing their presence.
Lapland Longspur. An occasional visitor to the east, look for them at on the coastal dunes with the Snow Buntings or when you find the Horned Larks. One or two might be hanging around with them!
Common Redpoll. – Found mostly in fields, usually flying high over calling. They also visit feeders. They are a tough bird to see because they seldom sit still.
(Photo: Snow Bunting. Credit: Timothy Boucher/TNC)