Temperatures are dropping, there’s snow in the forecast, and the birds around the feeders are putting away seed like there’s no tomorrow. Yes, winter is coming. For birders, winter brings the possibility of finches, grosbeaks, redpolls and waxwings, birds we see only occasionally and always look forward to. These species are known as irruptive migrants; they come south when supplies of pine seeds, birch seeds, or fruit run low. Since trees have cycles in their fruit and seed productivity, these birds visit us in large numbers during the low points in the cycle.
The Winter Finch Forecast is out, and it predicts a good year for these visitors from the north. Locally, we’ve had reports of Common Redpolls, a Pine Siskin and a few Evening Grosbeaks. A Pine Grosbeak was found along Kelderhouse Road, in the Port Oneida area of Leelanau County. Keep your eyes open!
Bohemian Waxwings in juniper
Once the snows roll in, many of these birds will head farther south, or move to feeders, depending on their food preferences. For now, there are plenty of wild foods accessible. Port Oneida Road is an excellent place to look, with mowed fields full of grass and weed seeds, some Autumn Olive holding berries, and the bright red berries of Michigan Holly in Kelderhouse Swamp. Generally, check any areas along the Trail with Autumn Olive or crabapple trees. These tart fruits are fall favorites of Pine Grosbeak and Bohemian Waxwing. Stands of juniper are good places to check also, like those about ¼ mile south of Glen Haven, at the Dune Climb parking area, and at the intersection of M-22 and Bohemian Road. American Robins are a more common fruit-eater, so watch for them and sort through the flocks carefully.
For seed-eaters like Common Redpolls and Pine Siskins, watch and listen for them in conifers. The place where Shalda Creek crosses Bohemian Road is one of my favorite spots. There are many other clusters of cone-bearing pines along the Trail in Leelanau County. The Otter Creek Trail south from Esch Road, in Benzie County, is another good one. Several conifer species mix with birch and alder, with their catkins full of tiny seeds. For those farther north, Leelanau State Park, both the lighthouse unit and the area where Dunsmore Road runs near Woolsey Airport have a wonderful mix of food plants for finches. Look carefully at flocks of American Goldfinches, because siskins and redpolls will often mix with them.
Remember that Pine Siskins sound like goldfinches, but with a buzzier call ascending in pitch. Common Redpolls have similar calls, but perhaps somewhere between the two. The calls of Bohemian Waxwings are lower pitched than Cedar Waxwings, and in flight, their chunkier bodies may resemble European Starlings more that the sleeker Cedar Waxwings.
When you’re out birding this fall, please remember that firearm deer season starts November 15th. Be careful! Wear some bright colors. This might be a good time to hit the beach at Glen Haven and check out the ducks.
Also, if you are watching winter finches at someone’s feeder, please don’t stare in the windows! Instead, position yourself so you are watching the birds in the trees near the house. If the time of day is appropriate, you may want to knock and introduce yourself.
Wherever you end up, keep an eye on the trees, and an ear to the sky!
(Thanks again to Ed Kaminski for the photos.)