Early November, the time of year when things in the world of birding are waning considerably. Nothing is nesting, very few birds are singing, and the diversity of species has fallen precipitously from even a month ago. The days of seeing 100+ species in an outing are behind us, now 50 is a good day. The migrants which come here every summer to nest have all but deserted us for the season, leaving only permanent residents--such as black-capped chickadee -- and the overwintering northern birds.
It's those "northern birds," however, that can make this an exciting season for those not willing to hang up the binoculars just yet. There is a fair number of species which nest to our north (some well inside the Arctic Circle) that-potentially, at least--consider our area of the continent a suitable environment to wile away the darker months. Every winter season some birds show up, but the factors leading to one species or another's specific appearance make it a rather complex crap shoot.
The star of the last year's show, for instance, was the snowy owl. This large Arctic nesting owl was seen in great numbers across virtually the entire country. At the same time, some species considered almost annual were nearly absent. Such is the ebb and flow of it all.
Which brings us to winter, 2012/2013. It appears, to this observer at least, that the planets are aligning to bring us a heck of a winter bird season. If early indications are any harbinger of the months to come, this year has the potential to be a memorable one. Let me describe the reasons why.
Take common redpolls for instance. These small handsome finches which remained tough to find last year have been all over town this past week. I can't walk three West Fargo blocks without either hearing them pass overhead or seeing them feeding in someone's birch tree. Additionally, their much rarer cousin -- hoary redpoll -- has already been reported in the state.
Another northern visitor is currently scattered liberally about town, the red-breasted nuthatch. Its squeeze toy "yank-yank-yank" calls are being heard regularly, especially near needled trees.
I got a call last week from a rural Cass County resident who maintains a robust bird feeding station on a farmstead near Ayr. Striking to her was the number of pine siskins present; yet another wandering northern bird showing up locally.
There is a guy from Ontario who predicts such events every fall. Ron Pittaway's Winter Finch Forecast is focused mainly on that portion of Canada but its relevance reaches farther. Based mainly upon available food sources, his yearly outlook is fairly accurate and much anticipated by species-starved American birders this time of year, as it targets eight true finches plus three irruptive non-finch birds (including the previously mentioned red-breasted nuthatch).
The overarching message from this year's forecast is that, due to widespread crop failure of both fruiting and cone-bearing trees in the north, folks in the northern U.S. should be vigilant for sightings of wandering birds.
Thus far this appears to be happening. Numerous reports of red crossbills and white-winged crossbills have sprung up all across our area. Just last week I saw both species in Elmwood Park marking the first time I've seen the two in the same year.
Also last week evening grosbeaks were spotted as close as East Grand Forks, followed by sightings of pine grosbeaks in Grand Forks over the weekend. Just a hint of the significance of this, I have never seen evening grosbeaks in North Dakota and pine grosbeak is missing from my Cass County list.
Of the evening grosbeak (American Birding Association's Bird of the Year, by the way), Pittaway writes, "We can expect some at feeders in central Ontario and probably elsewhere...because coniferous and hardwood seed supplies are low." I certainly hope my yard is considered "elsewhere" by these spectacular large northern finches.
It seems as if the number of folks feeding birds in town is down somewhat. That might be due to the high cost of seed or last year's mild winter. For those who are maintaining feeders, though, keep a sharp eye out for the odd visitor. It just might be one of those rare northern finches. Feel free to let me know if you see one this winter.