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Winter Bird Migration

by Liz Magnanti

Redpoll. Photo courtesy Flickr: Kev Chapman

Most of the time we think of bird migration season being in the spring and fall. In May we see a dramatic increase in the number and species of birds that come into the area: warblers, shorebirds, swallows, and hummingbirds, to name a few. And in fall these same birds will make the trek down south to spend the winter. Here in upstate New York, we are lucky to experience some exciting birds that can only be found in the winter and early spring months. For these birds, our frigid temperatures are a southern climate. Many of these birds spend the spring and summer in Northern Canada and the Arctic. This winter, we had what’s known as an “irruption year” for several of these northern species. An irruption year is when there is an unusually high number of birds in an area that aren’t normally found there. Usually this is due to limited food availability in their range. Some of these birds you may be lucky enough to see in your yard, others you may have to travel towards your nearest lakeshore. 

2019 was predicted to be an irruption year for winter finches. And while we didn’t see the numbers that were originally predicted, there were some rare species seen in the Upstate area recently. The Evening Grosbeak is similar in the size and bill structure of cardinals, but they are slightly smaller, yellow, and lack the crest the cardinal is known for. They form flocks in the winter and were a common sight feeding on sunflower and safflower seed at bird feeders. Because they are a large bird they need a tray feeder or a feeder with large perches. Their populations have been in serious decline and they are now a rarity in this area. There have been several flocks spotted this year, especially by the lakeshore. You may be lucky enough to see them at your feeders as they make their way back up north. 

The Pine Grosbeak is a large finch that will definitely stick out if you have them visiting your feeders. The males are a beautiful rosey red with dark gray and white wings. Like the Evening Grosbeak they are most attracted to sunflower seed feeders, especially a style with a lot of room for perching! As their name suggests, look for them in pine trees where they will eat seeds from pinecones and other tree buds. 

Redpolls are a small finch that you will most often see on your nyjer feeders. They are smaller than a goldfinch and have a red dot on the top of their head. Redpolls can form large flocks so during an irruption year the group can easily empty out a feeder in a couple of hours! 

Purple Finches, Pine Siskins, Dark-eyed Juncos and Red-breasted Nuthatches have also been very plentiful this winter! Purple Finches look very similarly to house finches, just more of a raspberry color. You can find them on your sunflower feeders. Pine Siskins will join Goldfinches at your nyjer feeders. They are similar in color this time of year to the dull yellowish-brown Goldfinch, but they have more streaks on their breast. Red-breasted Nuthatches, which are in irruption this year, can be found eating from suet and peanut feeders. Look for Dark-eyed Juncos, a small gray songbird with a white breast, on the ground beneath any of your feeders.

One of the more exciting birds to visit our area this time of year is the Snowy Owl! There have been several spotted this year along Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. These birds will migrate through the night over the lake and stop at the first sight of land. Usually this land is right along the lakeshore or on a pier.  While birding by the lake don’t forget to look for Long-tailed Ducks! They are exquisite and are rare in the warmer months. 

The endangered short-eared owl can be found at dusk flying over rural grasslands and farm fields where they hunt for rodents. Early March is when Saw-whet and Long-eared owls start passing through. They can be found in pine trees but they camouflage very well. The Saw-whet Owl is only the size of a soda can so finding one can be tough! Going on an owl prowl with your local birding club will be your best bet in finding one.

As we round out this winter and head into the spring your best chances for attracting the most birds to your yard is to offer a diversity of food in your feeders. Sunflower, or a sunflower seed mix, and nyjer seed is a must. Having suet will attract woodpeckers and nuthatches. When you’re feeling adventurous head over to your nearest lakeshore for an opportunity to see a Snowy Owl or a Long-tailed Duck! While we may not enjoy the frigid temperatures winter brings, we can enjoy the wonderful birds that come with it.

Liz Magnanti is the manager of the Bird House in Pittsford. 

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