If the Mayans were correct and the world just ended, you can stop reading this column. Today’s topic is about the winter birding so far and the promise of birding to come. An apocalypse is just about guaranteed to ruin the rest of the season.
But it’s been darn good so far. Every winter starts with the same question: What birds will irrupt into Maine this year? Each winter is different. Canadian breeders wander in search of food during the cold months and often as not, they wander here, especially when there is a food shortage up there. Maine’s fruit crop is good this year, although apples were devastated by the bizarre warm spell we had in March. Nonetheless, pine grosbeaks began descending on the berry crop surprisingly early this year. I started hearing them flying over the house in mid-October, which is well before I expected them. They have been largely absent for the last several years and we were due for an invasion.
Common redpolls were also overdue. They have been missing from Maine over the last couple of winters, but they arrived in November this year and the numbers are increasing. Maine is the most heavily forested state in the union, so seed-eating finches are birds that we can boast about. American goldfinches, pine siskins and common redpolls are closely related. All relish small weedy seeds and catkins. These three species are normally here in varying numbers each winter. When snow covers the weeds, goldfinches are most likely to head for warmer climes. In a hard winter, siskins will follow them south. In a typical winter, two of these three species are likely to be present at thistle feeders, and sometimes all three.
Even a fourth small finch is possible. The hoary redpoll is similar to the common redpoll. It is so similar, in fact, that there is some debate about whether the common and hoary redpolls are just different subspecies of the same bird. I’ll let smarter people figure that one out. Meanwhile, I am alert to the hoary’s possible presence in any wandering flock of redpolls. Although the two species of redpolls are difficult to tell apart, they are not impossible.
Scan the flock for a frostier-colored individual and then watch it more closely. Bear in mind that frostiness alone is not enough. Plumages vary greatly. First hoary clue: the breast streaks are much finer, sometimes almost nonexistent. Second clue: the bill is even stubbier than the common redpoll’s. The difference is slight, but since redpolls usually travel together, there are plenty of other birds to compare to your suspect. On a hoary, the bill has the appearance of being almost pushed into its face, as if it lost a bar fight. Third clue: hoary redpolls have a whitish rump, while common redpolls show uniform brown streaking down the back and across the rump. Most of the time, the wings cover the rump on a stationary bird and this field mark is not apparent. But when it flutters under the feeder, the telltale clue is momentarily revealed. Hoary redpolls are rare, so don’t be disappointed if the feeder flock doesn’t seem to contain one. That’s normal.
Crossbills are likely to be in shorter supply this year. Cone crops are cyclical. Most conifers produce cones one year, growth the next. The cone crop was extraordinary in 2011 and the crossbills seemed to be everywhere. Many lingered in Maine to breed over the summer. They devoured much of the available food supply. Since this year was a growth year for many spruces, I am hearing and seeing far fewer red and white-winged crossbills. However, there are still some around. They won’t be totally absent this winter.
It’s looking like another good year for owls. Snowy owls have already been reported in some of their usual places, such as Biddeford Pool and Scarborough Marsh. An immature snowy owl was spotted briefly in Port Clyde on Dec. 11. Two northern hawk-owls have also been discovered. One healthy bird hung around Fryeburg for a few days in late November, and an injured owl was recovered in Topsham about the same time.
Rare geese are becoming less rare. The pink-footed goose is a native of Greenland, Iceland and northern Europe. One spent a couple of weeks in Cherryfield around the Thanksgiving holiday. Cackling geese and greater white-fronted geese have become almost normal around Thornhurst Farm in Yarmouth. It looks like another good winter for birding. Unless you’re Mayan.
Bob Duchesne serves as a Maine Audubon trustee and vice president of its Penobscot Valley Chapter. Bob developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at www.mainebirdingtrail. Reach Bob at firstname.lastname@example.org.