I found winter! Admittedly, after last week’s column, a number of readers told me where to look. As you may recall, I lamented the lack of Canadian invaders due to the mild winter so far. Common redpolls weren’t common. Northern shrikes stayed northern. Pine grosbeaks never came south. Bohemian waxwings were absent. Crossbills were few and far between.
That all began to change when temperatures dropped. Bohemian waxwings are now showing up in huge numbers in some locations. Watch for a cloud of birds feeding in a fruit tree. Even from the highway, I spotted one flock of 250 flying above Essex Woods in Bangor last weekend. At a distance, you can identify waxwings by their tight flock formations and bouncy flights.
Then I went to Grand Lake Stream last Saturday for a morning bird walk co-led by the Downeast Lakes Land Trust and the Fundy Chapter of Maine Audubon. It was minus-2 at daybreak, but the morning warmed to a balmy 6 degrees. By finch standards, that’s toasty. Hundreds of pine siskins were swarming around the village in full, cheerful voice. We estimated 300, but it was probably more than that.
About a hundred American goldfinches joined the din. Finches are persistently noisy, and all these guys were raising a racket. Picture this in your mind’s ear: siskins do a “PEE-you” call and a “zzzzrreeeeee” song. Goldfinches do a “potato-chip” call and warble a happy song. Those sounds were everywhere.
Interspersed in all this noise, some birds were doing a “jip-jip” call. Red crossbills. Lots of them. The village was alive with a cacophony of cheerful finches.
I have a thing for crossbills. When I first leafed through a field guide as a young boy, I was fascinated by these colorful birds with the scissor-like bills. I wanted so badly to see crossbills from an early age. I still do. There are two species in Maine. White-winged crossbills are a little more common, but red crossbills can also invade in big numbers. I was 37 before I saw my first red crossbill.
Crossbills are uniquely adapted to open cones. The tips of their bills cross, which enables them to snip and twist off conifer seeds. Cones in the east are relatively small, and the bills of eastern red crossbills are likewise small. In the west, where conifer cones can be quite large, the beak of a crossbill can be enormous. In fact, the variation is so significant that scientists are still puzzling over whether we have one species of red crossbill or eight.
Crossbills wander widely in search of food. When they find a good spot, they settle down. They even feed their chicks regurgitated seeds, which means that they can breed year-round. Despite the cold mid-February weather in Grand Lake Stream, some of the crossbills last weekend were singing territorial songs. I suspect they will be making crossbill whoopee soon.
Fun fact: Crossbills start feeding at the base of a cone and work their way up, twisting off the seed pods as they go. Their bills can cross in either direction, and they will spiral up the cone either clockwise or counterclockwise, depending on which way their bills cross. Baby birds start out with straight bills.
Eventually, they twist one way or the other. There is no apparent genetic predisposition towards crossing left or right, and it’s about 50-50 in the population.
Like most finches, crossbills like grit and salt from roads. The grit aids digestion. The salt — hey, it’s salt.
Finches also have an easier time finding food on logging roads when the surrounding forest is deep in snow. Thus, finches do what most birds won’t: gather on the road.
Most songbirds abhor landing on the ground. There’s danger down there, such as weasels, cats and foxes. But finches tend to feed in groups, and that puts plenty of eyes to work looking for danger. There is safety in numbers. Some members of the sparrow family do it, too, particularly dark-eyed juncos.
Thus, one of the joys of winter birding is to drive the plowed roads of the northern forest and watch for birds in the road. Goldfinches, siskins, redpolls, crossbills and pine grosbeaks all do it. Wherever one snow-covered road intersects with another, the turning traffic tends to churn up the dirt beneath.
That’s a buffet table for finches, and they gather in those spots, sometimes in astonishing numbers. Really, all you have to do is go into those woods, stop, look and listen.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.