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Always in Season: Goldfinch season arrives in the valley

Goldfinch season is either coming or going, depending on your point of view.

From the goldfinch's point of view, it's coming on, but from the point of view of humans wanting to see lots of goldfinches, the season is heading in the other direction.

The reason lies with the goldfinches. They are about to begin the business of their lives, rearing the next generation of their species. They want some privacy to do that, and so they have begun dispersing from our backyards and gardens to find thickets in which to nest.

Most bird species have finished that business by this time. Swallows and blackbirds have begun to congregate on overhead lines; a clear preview of that migration time lies ahead. The catbirds have begun bringing their young to my suet feeder, and the song sparrow has ceased his relentless attack on his own image in a window. Young geese are nearly full grown, and fledgling ducks are a-swim on wetlands across the region. The other day on a country road, a fledgling red-tailed hawk moved ahead of the car. Capable of only short bursts of flight, it at last veered off the road.

Goldfinches take a different approach. They wait until midsummer to nest.

They have a good reason. They line their nests with thistle down, and they feed their nestlings thistle seed.

Thistle is a late summer plant.

To exploit the resource, goldfinches nest from mid-July — a few nest earlier — to early September.

Nests are located in small trees and tall shrubs. Such habitat is common, and so are thistles.

So, too, are goldfinches.

Earlier in the year, I had as many as 30 goldfinches at my backyard feeder array. The last few days I have had only a couple. The others, I imagine, have slipped into the shelterbelts around our place. Rather than congregating at the feeders, they come one at a time.

Others have had the same experience with goldfinches. The most frequent question this time of year is "Where have all the yellowbirds gone?"

Those would be male goldfinches.

Goldfinches are sexually dimorphic, as the scientists say. This means that males and females have different plumage.

Male goldfinches are easily recognized. They are bright yellow with black wings barred in white. There's a black cap above the bill that just extends to the top of the head. The bill is often bright orange.

Females are duller, overall, though they do appear yellowish gray or green. They mark themselves as goldfinches by the black wings with white bars, similar to the males.

Male goldfinches molt into non-breeding plumage that closely resembles the females. That's how they present themselves in winter.

The goldfinches are small birds — not tiny like hummingbirds and kinglets, but smaller than most of the sparrows. Nevertheless, they are conspicuous wherever they occur.

Dickcissel sightings

Another small finch relative caused a stir in the local birding community earlier this month. Dickcissels were spotted in a field of clover at the south edge of Grand Forks.

The dickcissel resembles a meadowlark, brown on the back, tending to rust and yellow on the underparts with a black bar across the chest. Dickcissels are much smaller than meadowlarks, however, and much less likely to be encountered locally.

The Grand Forks County checklist calls them uncommon, likely to be found but in small numbers. There are nesting records for the county.

Farther south, dickcissels are more likely to be seen. Robert Stewart called them "locally common in the southern two thirds of the Agassiz Lake Plain Region." He wrote that their range extended "north through the southern half of Grand Forks County. " This is from his book "Breeding Birds of North Dakota" published in 1975.

Likely, changes in the prairie landscape have reduced the frequency of dickcissels here.

Bobolinks appear to be holding their own. I see and hear them daily in the meadow at our place west of Gilby, N.D.