“Mr. Healy, I have a question I’ve been meaning to ask you.” My coworker approached me as I was stowing my binoculars after a brief pre-work survey of the schoolyard. “I’ve been at my place in northern Jersey for years now, but this year I’ve noticed something different. There are these birds, I can only describe them as…finches?”
I smiled, having suspected the nature of the question as soon as he mentioned that this season was unusual compared to the past few falls. “They’re small, with a short beak, and kind of yellow and green on the belly…and there are A LOT of them! I saw just one at first, but now my yard is full of them. They’re everywhere all of a sudden! Have I just been oblivious this whole time, or is this something out of the ordinary?”
On our way up the stairs to our classrooms, I confirmed his suspicions that he was observing something special. He was happy to receive a name for the birds in his yard that he’d described so clearly: American Goldfinch. I went on to explain that although the species is present in our region year-round in some numbers, the conspicuous, large finch flocks he reported are part of a widespread and fascinating bigger picture.
The Irruption Begins
Most birders in the northeastern section of North America are well aware of the phenomenon by now. Every once in a while, flocks of strange finches swarm to bird feeders in parts of the country where they are seldom seen. Many species of birds that inhabit the taiga and tundra habitats of the north stage periodic irruptions southwards. Most of these invasions are tied to food availability. In the case of Snowy Owls, the most dramatic movements appear to take place after breeding seasons with bumper crops of lemmings that allow the raptors to successfully raise large broods of young. Other species flee their traditional haunts when periodic crashes result in a scarcity of resources. Many plants follow boom and bust cycles of seed production, including a variety of fruiting, cone-bearing, and nut-producing trees that boreal birds depend on. The winter of 2018-2019 is showing signs of being a banner finch flight year due to one of these seed crop lows.
The first indication that there was some winter magic in the air emerged as early as late summer. Red-breasted Nuthatches began turning up around NYC and Long Island in July, and their numbers continued to build into the fall. The growing abundance was especially notable compared to their obvious absence last winter, when the birds largely stayed north due to plentiful cone crops. By the end of September, the influx had reached record-breaking proportions. One morning flight survey at Cape May turned up a staggering 1,570 individuals! It also became clear that the nuthatches weren’t alone. Massive flocks of Blue Jays swept south in response to poor acorn production from oak populations in Canada. Even though these flashy, noisy corvids are common throughout the eastern states, the impressive incursion of migrants was clear to just about anyone who kept an eye on the sky. As the autumn progressed, many naturalists wondered what other species might follow suit.
Northern finch species like crossbills, grosbeaks, and redpolls are highly nomadic. These birds will breed whenever and wherever they have the resources to do so, often wandering long distances from year to year. In the non-breeding season, they seek out reliable sources of cones, seeds, or fruits to sustain them through the winter. When the conditions are favorable, the finches may remain in the North Woods all year long. Conversely, many species will migrate south en masse in response to food shortages. Researchers attempt to predict and monitor these movements based on the annual seed crops in the boreal forest. Each fall, birders in the eastern United States and Canada look forward to the Winter Finch Forecast put together by Ontario ornithologist Ron Pittaway. Sure enough, the data from up north supported our observations from the field this year. All signs pointed to a notable flight of finches for New York, New England, and the more populated regions of Canada, with the possibility that some birds may stray even further south.
Invaders from the North
The finch flight excitement is really heating up on Long Island this fall. I began seeing Purple Finches on the move during barrier beach birding efforts in September, and Pine Siskins followed in October. Like the nuthatches, these two finches were quite scarce during the previous winter. This year, I frequently documented both birds outside my workplace and detected a few flocks passing over my yard. The early arrival and increased prominence of these variably abundant visitors served as an appetizer for the more dramatic species still to come. The situation with the American Goldfinch flight is more similar to that of the Blue Jays. They are common breeders in our area, but migrants from points north add to the local population during the non-breeding season. This year’s major movement has resulted in a huge increase of numbers throughout the Island and around NYC, accounting for the sudden invasion in my friend’s New Jersey backyard.
Slowly but surely, the rarer, more spectacular winter finches have begun to make their presence felt in my neck of the woods. I watched eagerly as reports of Evening Grosbeaks gradually trickled south. Birds appeared in upstate New York, on the Connecticut coast across Long Island Sound, and finally along the North Shore of the Island itself. Most of these initial sightings were brief encounters with individuals and small groups that quickly continued on their way. I finally heard a report of a chaseable grosbeak from the birders gathered at the stakeout for my life Northern Wheatear. A handsome male had been discovered at a grove of fruiting trees in Sunken Meadow State Park, the same site where the first short-staying grosbeak of the season was observed. I was thrilled to connect with this stunning visitor, a species I’d never seen before on Long Island.
Just as predicted, the grosbeaks continued their southbound march. Additional reports began cropping up all over the City, with birds sighted at Central Park, Staten Island, and coastal locations in Brooklyn and Queens. A few lucky birders in Nassau and Suffolk Counties documented individuals at their feeders, and the dazzling drifters also visited hotspots like Hempstead Lake and Robert Moses State Park. Sightings have occurred as far south as Virginia, and they haven’t yet shown any signs of slowing down. The bounty of encounters is a remarkable change of pace for this species, which has become exceptionally rare and irregular in many parts of its range. Studies report that eastern Evening Grosbeak populations have declined by as much as 50 percent in recent decades, but this year people seem to be finding this enigmatic bird all over the place. In this regard, the finch forecast was spot on.
On the other hand, Red Crossbills are apparently moving around a bit more than initially expected. Starting in November, multiple members of the local birding community reported stumbling upon the bizarre finches along the South Shore. It can be difficult to track down and study these wide-ranging wanderers, and efforts are further confounded by the multiple distinct populations with their own unique vocalizations and movement patterns. I positioned myself near the tall pine trees at the end of the Jones Beach median strip on a morning with favorable winds, hoping that any passing crossbills would stop for a snack. My hunch paid off when a pair of Red Crossbills fluttered down to pry seeds from the pinecones for a few minutes. With a little help from some experts at eBird, I was able to confirm that these birds were representatives of the Type 10/Sitka Spruce group. High profile natural events like large scale flights bring out the best in collaborative birding!
Winter is Coming
My personal highlight of finch season so far was a recent morning at Jones Beach. I arrived at the park just after sunrise and began surveying the area for avian activity. Even though warblers, thrushes, and many other early migrants mostly fly by night, the late fall movements of finches and blackbirds take place primarily during the daylight hours. I found myself a suitable spot in the median with a clear view of the sky and started counting flyovers. Despite the very light winds, which slowly shifted from northwest to east during my survey, there were large numbers of birds on the move. When I eventually began exploring the vegetation and shoreline more thoroughly, I made sure to keep my eyes and ears turned skyward. After 5.5 hours on site, I had racked up some nice totals of birds. Purple Finches put in a respectable showing for the relatively late date, with 71 individuals observed flying west down the barrier beach. I counted no less than 374 Pine Siskins over the course of the morning, with several small groups pausing to forage in the pines at close range. American Goldfinches topped the finch tally with a solid 1,253 birds observed. My grand prize, however, was a single Evening Grosbeak that I heard over the parking lot just before noon. Like the crossbills the previous day, this was my first ever encounter with this northern nomad in my home county of Nassau. There were plenty of other nice surprises and regional rarities to be found at Jones that day, but the finches were absolutely the stars of the show.
As wonderful as the finch fun has been this fall, the upcoming winter months are still open to quite a bit of unpredictability. While it’s possible that the Evening Grosbeaks and Red Crossbills may remain with us throughout the season, they could just as easily disappear as quickly as they arrived. I only hope that they find the feeders and forests of southern New York to their liking! It would be a real treat to enjoy the company of these charming travelers all winter long.
Furthermore, some of the other boreal irruptive species have yet to appear in any kind of numbers. There have been a few scattered sightings of Common Redpolls throughout the region, but none that have lingered long enough for interested birders to follow up. If the forecast holds true, there should be plenty more on the way. When and if the expected large flocks do arrive, they may well bring a few Hoary Redpolls or burly, dark individuals from the Greenland population with them. The jury is still out on which flavors of redpoll truly deserve full species status, but studying the variation of these rosy-capped finches is always a worthwhile and entertaining exercise.
There haven’t been many reports of White-winged Crossbills south of the Adirondacks up until now, but I’ve got my fingers crossed that I’ll get to add them to my state and county lists before the winter is done. I’d be content if I see the elusive Pine Grosbeaks anywhere in New York state this season, and there’s really no way of knowing how far south they’ll fly or where they’ll turn up. I’m probably not the only birder with dreams of non-finch irruptives dancing in my head right now, too. Bohemian Waxwings may well follow the lead of their fellow fruit-eaters, and the current noteworthy influx of Saw-whet Owls has some folks wondering, in hushed whispers, if we’ll see a corresponding flight of rarer boreal relatives. Anything could happen, and there’s plenty of exciting stuff already happening! My advice to my readers is the same advice I gave to my coworker: keep your eyes open and your feeders full! This winter is shaping up to be an exciting one!