Jacobs: Goldfinches lead cavalcade of winter bird species

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Not many species become "bird of the week" twice in one year, but the American goldfinch is a changeling, and so it earns the dual designation.

The American goldfinch was bird of the week in late July, and here it is again in mid-November—when it is quite a different bird.

The goldfinch now hardly resembles the goldfinch of July, which—in the males—is a brilliant yellow and black creature.

The birds in winter plumage are much plainer than their summer selves. In fact, just about the only traces of summer goldfinches that appear on winter counterparts are white wing bars and a faint blush of yellow-green on the head and upper breast.

It's a good idea to become familiar with this plumage, because American goldfinches have become common winter birds in our area. They have been by far the most numerous species at my feeders since at least mid-October.

This is a bit of a change. Goldfinches were considered summer residents and winter stragglers in this area not so many years ago. Over the last decade though, goldfinches have lingered longer and longer into the winter, and some remain throughout the season.

They have thus joined the roll of winter birds to watch for.

Notably absent

So far, other winter birds have been notably absent from my feeders. The nuthatches are there. The ones visiting me are white-breasted nuthatches. There have been reports of red-breasted nuthatches in the area, as well.

The black-capped chickadees are at my feeders, too.

Chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches are with us year around; red-breasted nuthatches do occur in the area in summer, but their numbers increase in fall and winter. This appears to be a promising year for them.

The red-breasted nuthatch is smaller than the white-breasted and the face features a black cap and a black stripe through the eye. The white-breasted nuthatch has the dark cap, but its cheeks are entirely white. So, of course, is its breast (except for an occasional stain under the tail). Red-breasted nuthatches do have red breasts. The behavior of these two species is much the same, but red-breasted nuthatches are more likely to be found in evergreen tree.

Blue jays have come out of the neighborhood shelterbelts and moved into the backyard, too. This is a dependable sign of approaching winter. The jays are extremely secretive during breeding season and obnoxiously obvious at other times of year.

Of the northern finches I have so far had none. No redpolls. No pine siskins. No grosbeaks of any kind.

Early reports

Reports of redpolls have reached me, but these have been few. Redpolls, and siskins, too, are irruptive birds, present in great numbers in some years and nearly absent in others. It's too early to guess how this year will turn out.

Snow buntings have drifted into the area. This is another species of northern finch—in fact, the world's northernmost-nesting land bird. They don't come to feeders, except in extremis, preferring to forage in bare fields and roadsides where they pick up weed seeds and spilled grain. The snow bunting is a species that is often seen but seldom identified. Great flocks of them sometimes rise along roadsides as traffic passes.

One other northern species is present in good numbers this year. That is the rough-legged hawk. Although my trips into Grand Forks have grown less frequent now that I don't have to show up at the Herald every day, I still cross the great open grasslands northwest of the city a couple of times a week. This is the haunt of the rough-legged hawk, because it so closely resembles their breeding territory north of the tree line.

The rough-legged hawk is the "great hawk of November." The birds hang around here as long as the ground is free of snow and the grasslands creatures are available as prey.

So far, I haven't seen any snowy owls, and I've had only one report of this northern raptor. In most years, snowy owls show up in mid-November, so I'll be on the lookout for them.

As for our new winter species, the goldfinch, conditions will dictate whether they hang around. An especially severe winter might prompt them to move farther south. Conditions in the last several winters have been favorable for goldfinches, of course, with warmer than average temperatures and less than average snowfall. This coupled with the spread of bird feeding as a hobby has made the Red River Valley a viable winter residence for the goldfinches.