Visitors to the feeder

Sharp-shinned Hawk - first-winter male

I really am something of a lazy birder in winter. Winter birding in Ontario, or indeed much of the northeast, tends to one of two approaches: (a) know the hotspots, the key locales, and make trips out to these places to look for birds, or (b) do your local stuff and just be content with whatever you happen to see. I very much fall into the latter category. Which means I tend not to see too much once the summer birds leave town, but that’s okay with me. I appreciate what I do see.

For instance. We (read: Dan, who’s got a wonderful get-r-done attitude when it comes to such projects around the house, a highly-desirable trait in a man, IMHO) put up our feeders last week. Within hours we had chickadees coming to them. Within days, we were up to six species. Just over a week later, my tally stands at 12 species, and the feeders are always busy. It’s amazing how quickly word spreads!

Curiously, while we’re still waiting on common species such as Downy Woodpecker (which actually isn’t all that common in our neck of the woods), we’ve had a few rather interesting (for me) birds drop by. The first one I was alerted to by the sound of some unhappy chickadees in the lilac bush beside the feeders. Can you see him?

Sharp-shinned Hawk - first-winter male

Here’s a shot a little bit closer. It took me a moment to pick him out from amidst the tangle of twigs, but I was delighted with what I saw: a first-winter male Sharp-shinned Hawk. I knew he was male because of his size – Sharpies are small to begin with, but the males can be absolutely tiny. This guy wasn’t a whole lot larger than the Blue Jays that were also coming to the feeder. And I knew it was a first-winter because of the brown plumage, streaked breast and, especially, the yellow iris (adults would be gray-blue, red-barred and orange, for the three characteristics respectively).

As for Sharp-shinned Hawk over the nearly-identical Cooper’s Hawk… Well, the size was a giveaway, for one. But even besides that, I’ve always found Coopers to have heavy brow ridges and a thicker bill that give them a decidedly fierce look. This one lacked those features and looked dainty in comparison. He flew up to the maple after a bit, where we could get much better looks at him, but where he was unfortunately backlit for photos.

Sharp-shinned Hawk - first-winter male
Photo by Dan, whose camera has a superzoom

Many folks would dislike having a hawk hanging around the feeders and potentially preying on the smaller birds, but I don’t mind. The hawk is still going to eat small birds for dinner, whether he does it in our yard where we can see him, or out in the forest where he’s out of sight. He’s not going to eat more than he needs to survive (unlike cats, for instance, which hunt and kill out of instinct rather than hunger), so he won’t ravage our bird population. And him coming to our unnatural aggregation of small birds is no different than the small birds coming to our unnatural aggregation of seed.

The only time hawks become a “problem” around feeders is if they start hanging around so routinely that the small birds no longer come to the feeders (or, if you’re a bit squeamish and you find a larger hawk has started leaving its leftovers behind in the yard, I suppose, though I’d personally find that fascinating). The easiest way to encourage a “problem” hawk to leave is simply to stop putting seed out for a week or so. If there’s no seed, there will be no little birds; if there are no little birds, there will be no hawk. Once the hawk moves on to a new hunting ground you can start putting seed out again, and your little birds will return quickly.

Purple Finch - male

Then there was this guy: a bright male Purple Finch. Although he’s not an especially rare or unusual species, per se, he was the first one to turn up at the feeders and I’ve always had a soft spot for them. He’s uncommon enough that we’re unlikely to have more than half a dozen individuals or so visit our feeders at any given time over the winter. Their numbers are declining in much of their range, and this includes Ontario. Back where I grew up in the Toronto area we might, in a good year, have a couple pairs come to the feeder in the winter. Our current house lies in one of the high-abundance regions of the province for this species, so we see a few more, though not a lot more.

Evening Grosbeak - female

And finally, what was probably the most exciting visitor so far this fall: a female Evening Grosbeak. She lingered at the feeder just long enough for me to decide to get my camera’s long lens out, but not long enough for me to actually get a photo. The first bag of seed we bought, thinking it was sunflower, turned out to be a millet-heavy mixed bag with very little sunflower. She wasn’t that taken by the mix and didn’t hang around long enough to see the sunflower we rushed out to get as soon as we spotted her.

The last time I had an Evening Grosbeak visiting the feeders of the house I was living in was about 15 years ago or so, while I was young enough to be still considered “growing up”, and well before I’d taken up birding as a hobby. I recall the birds being nearly annual when I was a child in the 80s (or that part of the 80s that I was old enough to remember), but numbers petered out into the 90s, and then they stopped coming altogether.

The decline is due to the forestry industry’s control of Spruce Budworm outbreaks, the timing of which corresponds nearly exactly. Evening Grosbeaks are budworm specialists in the summer, even becoming pseudo-nomadic to take advantage of the bounty afforded by outbreaks, and the suppression of these outbreaks has meant a corresponding decline in all of the bird species that depend on them (the grosbeaks aren’t the only ones – several species of warbler are also strongly tied to budworm outbreaks). When I was growing up, budworm outbreaks affected between 8 million and 18 million hectares (20-45 million acres) annually. Since 2000 the average area affected in a given year is only a fraction of that: 81k to 337k hectares (200k-830k acres).

On the other hand, Evening Grosbeaks aren’t originally native to eastern North America. They’re from the west, and moved east as human activity started to create more extensive tracts of the sort of habitat (and vegetative communities) that they prefer. The first breeding record of the species in Ontario wasn’t until 1920, up at the Manitoba border. Twelve years later they’d reached Algonquin Provincial Park. Survey data suggest that Ontario population peaked in the 80s. That said, they’re also on the decline in other parts of Canada, even where they’re historically native – most likely also due to Spruce Budworm control.

So. My first Evening Grosbeak feeder-visit in a decade and a half… you can imagine I was pretty stoked. Even though this is a pretty crummy photo, I had to have a record shot. She had, fortunately, not gone far when she left the feeder – she’d flown into one of the big maples in the yard and was eating maple keys, the few that hadn’t ever gotten around to falling off the tree. Dan had heard some flying overhead a few days before she showed up, and yesterday he noticed a male and a female at the top of the big maple. They didn’t come down to the feeder, but I’m hopeful that we’ll have a few grosbeaks visiting this winter. [I should probably have saved all that budworm info for a later post… but you know if I did, we won’t end up seeing any.]


Dipped in raspberry

Purple Finch - males

A couple of days ago, the first winter finches showed up to our feeders. I classify any finch species that is normally encountered in greatest abundance in our area during the winter as a winter finch. This usually applies to irruptive species such as redpolls and siskins, but also includes a few others such as Evening and Pine Grosbeaks, crossbills, and these guys: Purple Finches.

A bird of coniferous woodlands, its greatest breeding abundance occurs in the boreal forests of the Shield. We’re right on the edge of the Shield here, and we have a fair amount of conifers in our forests. Although I don’t recall seeing any in the fall, except perhaps through hearing the odd bird fly overhead, I’m sure they breed in our woods in the summer. As with most species, they’ll be most readily detected in the spring, by the male’s song. My parents’ previous house, where I grew up, was set in a mixed woodland and the birds were a staple in the winter. We didn’t see many at the lake house, largely due to the lack of conifers in our immediate vicinity.

Purple Finch - pair

I’ve been waiting to get some to our feeders here. The birds have slowly been trickling in as the easily-accessible food sources in the natural habitats is depleted and the rest is now buried under snow. Dan spotted the first one, a male, foraging on the ground under the lilac bush. He called me to look, and I spotted a female with the male. I hurried off to grab my camera, but by the time I returned, the pair had departed. I left my camera on the kitchen table hoping that they might return. I didn’t see them again until today, but when they finally came back they brought friends. A double-date! I just happened to notice them as I was preparing to head out to pick up some baking supplies for Christmas goodies. I ran off a number of shots before I went out and disturbed them.

Purple Finch - male

I’m actually a co-author on the species account for Purple Finch in the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario, 2001-2005, so you’d think I’d know a lot about them without having to look it up. I’m familiar with the basics of their ecology, but it seems in the nearly three years since I wrote the account I’ve forgotten a lot of the details. So I’ve got the book out in front of me. (Incidentally, if you’re interested in your own copy, it’s on sale right now for a holiday price of $60 – a savings of 35%.)

Some neat things can be learned from the second edition of the atlas. I mentioned the huge increase in cardinals in Ontario as shown by the second atlas. The book provides some interesting data on Purple Finches, as well. The species saw statistically significant changes in population in all but the most southwestern part of the province (which is strongly agricultural and doesn’t contain much coniferous forest). Unfortunately, the only region where that change was an increase was the area just south of the Shield. This increase was attributed to a succession and maturation of abandoned or retired farmland and conifer plantations throughout this region, particularly since a similar increase is seen in the region for other conifer-loving species such as Yellow-rumped Warblers.

Purple Finch - female

In the rest of Ontario, from the start of the Shield in our area northward, the species has shown a decline in numbers. The trend is also observed in the Breeding Bird Survey. One theory suggested that the declines were due to the invasion of the House Finch, but in actuality the areas where the Purple is declining, the House hasn’t reached yet (nor is it likely to – its close association with human habitation, much like the House Sparrow, means it’s not typically found widely in sparsely populated areas). The real reason for the Purple’s decline isn’t really clear. It’s possible it’s tied in with Spruce Budworm numbers, which were high during the first atlas but have since been reduced to much lower, albeit constant, levels through forest management practices (this has also affected the Evening Grosbeak, which has declined from the peak numbers it had reached in the 80s, when I was a kid, and can remember counting on it being a regular visitor at the feeders every winter – I haven’t seen one in years now). However, the Purple Finch isn’t a budworm specialist in the way that some warblers are, it just happens to take advantage of the extra food when budworm numbers are high, so it may not be the entire story.

Purple Finch - male

The Purple Finch looks very similar to the House Finch, and new birders can often have some difficulty in telling the two apart. One of the easiest ways for me is the shade of red of each species. The Purple Finches, to quote Roger Tory Peterson, appears to have been “dipped in raspberry juice”. If the Purple is raspberry, then the House could be considered strawberry, being a more orangey red than the Purple’s wine-red. The House’s red is also less extensive on its body. There are other differences in shape and size, but they’re more subtle to novice birders. Female Purples have the wide white eyebrow stripe that tells them apart from Houses, which are more uniform across the head. The Cassin’s Finch, a species that occurs through the western mountains, is roughly intermediate between the two species in both sexes. Love that little crest, which kept getting ruffled by the wind.

Purple Finch - female

Occasionally you’ll spot what looks like a female finch singing from the top of a tree; this is a young male, full of hormones, doing his best to draw in the ladies despite his lanky proportions and pimpled face. Males in their first breeding season will look like females; they don’t obtain that lovely raspberry plumage until their first fall as an adult. Sometimes (but not always) young males will show hints of colour in their plumage that might help to identify them as male. I noticed a slight bit of colour on the throat of this one, which makes me wonder if it’s perhaps a young male rather than a female. No way to know, really, at this time of year.