This winter’s irruptives

Red-breasted Nuthatch (photo by Anna Fasoli)

[dc]O[/dc]ne of the exciting things about winter birding is the prospect of large movements of winter finches and other more northern species. Already we are seeing signs that this winter may be good for Red Crossbills and Red-breasted Nuthatches, and it’s not even fall yet. Irruptions are fun because they give many of us a rare chance to see a species that is rare in our location, and sometimes they are found in large numbers as well which makes it quite a treat. Some of the finch species that occassionally irrupt are both species of crossbills, Common and Hoary Redpolls, Evening Grosbeaks and Pine Grosbeaks. Black-capped Chickadees and Blue Jays are also occasionally found moving south in large numbers in pursuit of better food resources. Raptors too, can travel south in large numbers to find food. The most well-known are Snowy Owls which had a huge irruption last year.

There have been many reports of Red-breasted Nuthatches well south of their range with some high counts recorded at Cape May. Red-breasted Nuthatches are most easily found by listening for their high-pitched tin-horn-like ank-ank-ank-ank.  You will often find them in spruce plantations and around other conifers.

Red-breasted Nuthatch video by Katie Andersen

It seems that Ontario has also been experiencing a Purple Finch irruption. I haven’t heard much mention of this species in the Northeast but we may start to see signs of it as the weather gets colder and we approach their typical migration period.

Red Crossbill- Cowan’s Gap State Park, PA (photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

The most exciting species for me will be Red Crossbills. I have not seen many Red Crossbills in my life, and the most recent sighting was of a small flock flying past me at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary when I was a hawk counter one fall. Red Crossbills have popped up in random locations across Pennsylvania and New York, including a small flock in Central Park in NY where they haven’t been reported for decades (I believe, don’t quote me on this). It seems that the irruption is made of of mostly Type 3 Red Crossbills which are the smallest billed of the Reds. Type 3 Red Crossbills also have a high-pitched jip-jip-jip flight call which may be confused with White-winged Crossbill calls. Type 3’s are hemlock specialists but during irruption years can be found foraging on a broad spectrum of conifers.

So what are you waiting for? Get out there and find some irruptives and be sure to use eBird so we can chart out this years irruption.