Category Archives: Northern finches

Purple finches always welcome winter visitors when snow and cold drives them to feeders

Purple-March30

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Purple finches are mainly winter visitors in the region, although they may make appearances during their fall and spring migrations. Although similar to house finches, purple finches have their own unique appearance once observers become familiar with them. The notched tail, evident in this bird, is a good way to distinguish purple finches from very similar house finches.

The region experienced its first brush with wintry weather with the snowstorm that arrived Dec. 8. With a few inches of snow on the ground, some birds that had been ignoring my feeders decided to give them a second look. American goldfinches, dark-eyed juncos and a red-bellied woodpecker made frequent visits to the feeders over the weekend as more snow and cold temperatures put a temporary stop to the mild start of the 2017-2018 winter season.

So far, the feathered clientele at my feeders are the expected visitors, including Carolina chickadees, downy woodpeckers, song sparrows and white-breasted nuthatches. Some birds, such as pine siskin and purple finch, which can make feeder watching an exciting winter pastime, have not yet made an appearance. Both these species belong to a group of birds known in birding circles as “Northern finches” that also includes species like red crossbill, evening grosbeak and common redpoll.

Evening_Grosbeak

Photo by George Gentry/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A male evening grosbeak perches on the side of a sunflower-stocked feeder.

The purple finch, which is a winter visitor to northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia and western North Carolina is apparently not as common as in past years. Some experts have speculated that the decline in the numbers of purple finches each winter can be attributed, at least in part, to the closely related house finch. Today, the house finch is quite widespread, found across the United States. Originally, however, the house finch was a bird of the western part of the country, living in Mexico and the southwestern United States.

About 1940, the house finch became established in the eastern United States. In violation of federal law, these small finches were being sold in New York City as pet birds described as “Hollywood Finches.” To avoid trouble with authorities, vendors and even some owners released their “Hollywood Finches” into the wild. Finding the area around New York City to their liking, house finches spread. Within a few decades, they were common birds throughout the eastern United States, including Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina. The house finch had also been introduced into Hawaii about 1870, and is still present today, along with many other species of birds not native to the island.

HousieFinch

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male house finch perched on a cable. These finches are native to the western United States but became established in the eastern states thanks to the illicit pet trade.

As the house finch claimed a new range, they inevitably encountered the related purple finch. During the winter, both finches are often present at feeders in the region. When both are available for observation, bird enthusiasts should take advantage of the opportunity to compare and contrast these birds. Personally, I have never had any difficulty distinguishing a purple finch from a house finch. The two species, at least in my eyes, are easily recognized. I can understand why some people might have trouble separating the two birds. The late Roger Tory Peterson once described the purple finch as a bird “dipped in raspberry juice.” Think about that imagery for a moment and you’ve got a good start to distinguishing a male purple finch from a male house finch. Unfortunately, the description does nothing to distinguish females of the two species.

Let’s deal first with the males. Male purple finches are delicate pink-red (that raspberry coloration) on the head and breast, mixing with brown on the back and cloudy white on the belly. The red of a male purple finch is definitely a color I have not observed with many other birds. Even “red” birds such as male Northern cardinals and male scarlet tanagers do not show the same red color. Once you learn the way the red appears in the plumage of a male purple finch, you are on your way to telling this bird apart from its relative.

purple-finch-john-james-audubon

Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this depiction of purple finches.

The red in the plumage of male house finches is surprisingly variable. In most cases, the heads, necks and shoulders of male birds are reddish and the red at times extends to the stomach and between the wings on the bird’s back. The intensity of the red changes with the seasons and is also derived from the berries and fruits in the bird’s diet. Pale yellow and bright orange are alternatives to the typical red plumage.

Look closely at the photograph of the purple finches accompanying this column. There’s a distinctive facial pattern evident on the birds. The strong facial markings include a whitish eye stripe and a dark line down the side of the throat. This pattern simply doesn’t exist with the male house finch. When I make a snap identification of these two birds, I always look for the facial pattern even before I study any other aspects of the appearance of the bird. In addition, purple finches have powerful, conical beaks and a tail that appears short and is clearly notched at the tip. Rounding out the description of a male house finch is the fact that they have a long, square-tipped brown tail and are brown or dull-brown across the back with some shading into gray on the wing feathers. The breast and stomach feathers may be streaked.

Females of both house finches and purple finches are dull brown birds that could easily be mistaken for sparrows. Again, the facial pattern is much more apparent on a female purple finch than on the related female house finch. In addition, I have always noticed that female purple finches are usually a darker shade of brown than the dull brown female house finches. Both male and female house finches are more slender than their more chunky-bodied counterparts.

PurpleFinches

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A study of the facial pattern of a female purple finch helps contrast her from similar female house finches. Again, the notched tail is also a good indication of the bird’s identity.

In the United States, another close relative of the house finch and purple finch is the Cassin’s finch of the western United States. Together, the three species make up a classification known as the American rosefinches. Formerly placed in the genus Carpodacus, these three birds are now in the genus known as Haemorhous. The new classification separates them from the Eurasian rosefinches, which includes more than two dozen species including scarlet finch, great rosefinch and crimson-browed finch.

Purple finches occupy a variety of winter habitats, including fields and woodland edges, as well as yards and gardens. All it takes to lure these finches to your feeder is a plentiful offering of sunflower seeds. If you are lucky enough to have both of these finches visiting your feeders, take time to study the differences. It takes some practice, but they can be distinguished quite confidently.

Merry Christmas to all my fellow bird enthusiasts! 

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Winter birds bring their own winning ways to region as weather turns colder

Erwin resident Don Dutton called me recently to ask about hummingbirds. He hasn’t seen many this past summer season, but as I told him, their numbers fluctuate from year to year. Most of the ruby-throated hummingbirds have now departed the region. I did encourage him to keep his sugar water feeders hanging as fall gets closer to the colder weather of winter. You never know when a rufous hummingbird or other western species might stray into Northeast Tennessee.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                           A young male Rufous Hummingbird at my feeder in Hampton, Tennessee, on Oct. 13.

In fact, I’ve been visited twice since the first of October by a young male rufous hummingbird. It’s easy to tell the rufous from the ruby-throated hummingbird. The rufous shows a great deal of brown/rufous coloration in its plumage. The bird at my feeders visited on Oct. 7 and again on Oct. 13. I’m very hopeful the bird will linger for a spell. I am asking anyone who sees a hummingbird in the coming weeks to let me know by sending an email to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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evening_grossbeak_on_feeder

Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/George Gentry An evening grosbeak, the largest of the winter finches that stage occasional irruptions southward in search of food, visits a feeder. Could this be the year these colorful birds return to the Southern Appalachians?

With October already halfway completed, it’s time to stop lamenting the end of summer and brace for another winter. The cold season brings an entirely new range of birds to the region for our viewing enjoyment. If nothing else, winter birds provide a tremendous morale boost to help us overcome the occasional gloom of the winter season. There’s nothing quite as entertaining as watching a large, boisterous flock of birds like evening grosbeaks or pine siskins at your feeders.

So, some of our favorite summer birds have flown south. We’ll miss them, but we will see them again next spring. In the meantime, winter offers its own bird diversity.

Here are some of the types of birds to enjoy as the weather outdoors becomes colder.
Ducks and other waterfowl. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducts yearly surveys of the breeding success of native ducks. In cooperation with the Canadian Wildlife Service, this year’s survey has some mixed news for those birders eager to observe ducks later this fall and in the winter at area lakes, rivers and ponds. Im love to check the pond at Erwin Fishery Park and the ponds along the linear trail for visiting waterfowl once the weather turns colder. The figures from the report came from surveys conducted in May and early June.
Overall duck numbers in the survey area are statistically similar to last year and remain steady. Total populations were estimated at 48.4 million breeding ducks in the traditional survey area, which is 38 percent above the 1955-2015 long-term average.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens A trio of Canvasbacks on the Watauga River in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

Last year’s estimate was 49.5 million birds. The projected mallard fall flight index is 13.5 million birds, similar to the 2015 estimate of 13.8 million.
American wigeon, green-winged teal and redhead are two ducks that are expected to show an increase in numbers.
Unfortunately, some other species showed declines, including Northern shoveler and canvasback.

Siskin-Yellow

Photo by Bryan Stevens                             Northern finches, such as this Pine Siskin, may come south in large numbers.

Other waterfowl that could join the annual migration of ducks include everything from loons and grebes to geese and cormorants.
Northern finches. Reports from the Northeastern United States indicate that the cone crop — a vital food source for a variety of songbirds —has been extremely poor. Reports from Canada indicate more of the same, which could result in a variety of the so-called Northern finches — pine siskin, common redpoll, purple finch, red crossbill, white-winged crossbill and evening grosbeak — heading south in massive numbers as they seek out alternative food sources.
I’d be thrilled to see flocks of common redpolls or evening grosbeaks at my feeders, although the more likely visitors are probably pine siskins and purple finches. I haven’t hosted evening grosbeaks at my feeders since the late 1990s. In fact, I haven’t seen an evening grosbeak since 2000. Perhaps this will be the year these large, colorful and energetic finches overwhelm our feeders once again.
The coming winter could be a very interesting one for birders. Keep your eyes open and your binoculars handy.
Sparrows. Although we have a few sparrows in our yards and gardens during the spring and summer, this group of birds often referred to as LBBs, or Little Brown Birds, really comes into its own during the winter season.
Some of the sparrows that may come to feeders during the colder months of the year include white-throated sparrow, white-crowned sparrow, swamp sparrow, field sparrow, and fox sparrow. Technically, even the Eastern towhee and dark-eyed junco are members of the sparrow family, although they lack names containing the word “sparrow.”
Many of the sparrows prefer yards offering dense cover, such as hedges, brush piles or evergreen trees.

Red-breastedNuthatch

Photo by Bryan Stevens         Red-breasted Nuthatches are already showing up at feeders throughout the Southern Appalachians.

If you enjoy a challenge, set yourself the task of learning the subtle differences between some of our native sparrows.
Nuthatches and woodpeckers. Although the woodpeckers are present throughout the year, it’s often easier to observe these “tree-huggers” once the leaves are off the trees.
A couple of species, including the red-breasted nuthatch, red-headed woodpecker and yellow-bellied sapsucker, are migratory birds with numbers that fluctuate from year to year.
I’m learning about reports that elevated numbers of red-breasted nuthatches are already winging their way south. These tiny birds with their “yank, yank” calls are immensely entertaining at feeders. They love sunflower seeds and peanuts, so make sure you have plenty of their favorites ready and waiting for them.