It took only minutes before my latest bird forecast started to go haywire. Last week, I relayed a prediction that Canadian finches would invade Maine this winter. Then I went for a walk. I hadn’t ventured more than a quarter mile from my front door before I began to regret one of last week’s predictions.
Fifty years ago, Americans went to the moon. Today, we can’t even go to Canada. Thus, we rely on an enthusiastic group of ornithologists known as the Finch Research Network to tell us what’s going on up there. To recap, they observed that the Canadian crop of cones, nuts and seeds was not very robust this season, and that the U.S. should prepare itself for an invasion of hungry finches, as if 2020 wasn’t strange enough already.
Part of the finch forecast was that the crop of mountain ash berries was pretty good in Canada this year, and that berry-eating birds, such as pine grosbeaks and bohemian waxwings, would likely stay in Quebec.
They didn’t. I had barely begun my stroll before I heard a pine grosbeak calling from a neighbor’s tree. I stopped to look for it, but was promptly distracted by the reedy whistle of a Bohemian waxwing. The whistle of a cedar waxwing is familiar to many Maine birders. The whistle of a Bohemian waxwing is almost identical, except that it’s about a half tone lower. Not many people would notice the difference. I do, because birding-by-ear is my lone superpower. I would have preferred a superpower like invisibility, or maybe super-strength, or at least enough strength to open a pickle jar. It is what it is.
I got my binoculars on the waxwing just in time to confirm its identity when I heard a coarse creaking noise nearby that could only have come from a blackbird. I swiveled in time to see a rusty blackbird leap from a branch and alight on the edge of a vernal pool. For several minutes I watched it flip over leaves, searching for insects and other morsels. Rusty blackbirds breed in Maine’s northern forests, but this was the first one I had seen near my house in 20 years. They are becoming scarce and are generally seen only in migration.
My backyard sighting of a rusty blackbird was a stark reminder that anything can happen in November. Last week, a common cuckoo showed up in Rhode Island. These cuckoos nest in Europe and winter in Africa. This thoroughly-lost wanderer is only the third ever recorded on this continent. Although most of our songbirds have long since flown to the tropics, November is not going quietly.
But I digress. After predicting that we wouldn’t see many pine grosbeaks this year, I can report that I’ve been hearing them everywhere, including right over my garage. My erroneous pine grosbeak prediction was about as accurate as a presidential preference poll.
The rest of my finch forecast seems precise enough. I took a whirlwind trip to Katahdin Woods & Waters last Monday, just to see what was going on. Pine grosbeaks everywhere. It’s early for common redpolls to flee Canada, but I had several flocks of those, too. A flock of 18 evening grosbeaks flew over. Pine siskins were flying around and calling. I had both white-winged and red crossbills. In short, I had every possible finch in just a few hours. We are, indeed, being invaded.
We are not alone. As readers and news services shared last week’s column, I started to hear from feeder watchers all over the country, starting with my sister-in-law in western Massachusetts. She messaged: “I can’t believe the number of birds this year. I am filling four feeders a day and going through a 40-pound bag of black oil sunflower seeds a week! I’ve never seen so many birds at my feeders.”
I heard from readers in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Tennessee and Georgia that the pine siskins and purple finches were swarming their feeders. I heard from Florida that evening grosbeaks were turning up all the way down there. Not since Moses parted the Red Sea has there been such an exodus.
Of course, it’s possible Maine’s natural food supply is discouraging our own native species and sending them south, too. As evidence, I’ve had several readers complain that the blue jays are overly hungry and truly obnoxious this year, crowding feeders and bullying smaller birds. What’s next, 2020, a plague of locusts?
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 email@example.com.