Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Invasion of the Winter Finches: A Preview

Red crossbills

It is probably no surprise to the birders of Illinois that this year winter finches and other enigmatic birds of the Far North are supposed to irrupt far from their boreal homelands, giving the rest of us a chance to see them. It has, on the other hand, surprised at least one birder (myself) that I have actually managed to find a few.

You see, I have no luck with winter species. It took me an embarrassing amount of time to get even the easy-peasies, like the pine siskin. For redpolls, I had to admit defeat on my home territory and travel to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and the Sax Zim Bog in northern Minnesota to get any satisfaction. So as the first reports of the Winter Finch Invasion trickled in over the past week or so, I contained my expectations and went out in search of common loons on Clinton Lake instead.

Saturday was another gray, wet, chilly day, much like the last time I went out looking for a loon. The weather was so dreary that I didn't even mind restricting my search to places along the water, as I normally would -- long before I loved to bird, I was an avid hiker, and am always at my happiest when I can combine the two. Scoping the water front is fun and all, but doesn't satisfy me the way hiking a trail for five or six miles can do.

At the Weldon Access, I saw nothing. I stopped a bit further down past the IL 48 bridge, and found a small flock of double-crested cormorants and a pair of ruddy ducks, which were nice, but not exciting. Next stop: Parnell Access, where I once again trained my spotting scope over the water and saw...ho hum...ring billed gulls and a great blue heron.

But the trees around the parking lot were surprisingly birdy. In quick order, I saw a white-breasted nuthatch, a Carolina wren, a northern cardinal, a flock of juncos, ditto for robins, pine siskins, an American tree sparrow, cedar waxwings, a downy and a red-bellied woodpecker, black-capped chickadees and a crow. Something else flew in, something streaky and finch like and reddish. "Could it be a redpoll?" I thought to myself, and had almost convinced myself that they were, when the small group flew off after I had barely had a glimpse of them.

I hurried to the opposite side of the parking area, saw a bird moving in the trees, and put up my binoculars, to see...a female purple finch. "Oh, purple finches," I thought. "Well, they're nice, too."

By now, the dampness of the day was starting to sink in, and after getting back in my car and turning on the heat, I had no desire to brave the wind off the lake again, and began heading for home. On a last minute impulse, I decided to stop at the West Side Access on the way, where I lazily pulled my car right up to the water and raised my binoculars to see...something loon-like.

OK!! Park, set up scope, get the bird in focus...and it dove beneath the water and popped back up further away, dove again, and popped up even further, and then again: yes, a common loon disappearing quickly from my view.

The next day Greenturtle and I headed for the grounds of the Robert Allerton park outside Monticello, as someone had posted sightings of both red and white-winged crossbills in the hemlocks by the 4-H camp. Once again, I didn't have much hope. I really, really wanted to see the crossbills...in fact, I had woken early and, like a kid before Christmas, been unable to fall back to sleep just thinking about the crossbills...but due to the Winter Finch Curse, I was certain I would be unable to find them. What's more, it was more likely than not that someone else would post a sighting of them a mere fifteen minutes after I had given up and left. Such is my luck with winter birds.

But no! They were there! I spent several minutes admiring my "lifer" red crossbills, and my first decent look at white-winged crossbills (previously only seen flying overhead as I cursed my fate as per the dictates of the Winter Finch Curse), and everything was right with the world.  As they were preoccupied by the tiny cones on the hemlocks and the even tinier seeds these cones contained, they simply flew from branch to branch and cone to cone, seemingly oblivious to our presence.

For reals...red crossbills!!

Mission accomplished, Greenturtle and I took a walk on the trails, seeing nothing else that was new, though I did enjoy the sight of a pileated woodpecker flying past. The trail was smouldering from what I assume to be a controlled burn of the undergrowth not long before our walk, and the sky was turning gray once again. After a couple of hours, we headed back, and I promised to spend time that did not involve birds with him in the afternoon.

But you know how it is with birders. Before we commenced our Quality Non Birding Spouse Time, I checked my birding alerts. Common redpolls had been seen the day before at the Parnell Access area of Clinton Lake. OMG!! They had been redpolls!  But could I, in good conscience, add common redpoll to my Illinois State List based on such a quick look, which I had then mentally downgraded to "purple finch"? If I did such a thing, perhaps no one would judge me; certainly, unless I confessed to it, no one else would even know.

But the bedrock of birding is the honor system, and if I did not go back and verify their ID, in my mind, they would always be kinda-sorta-maybe redpolls, and an internal sense of guilt, not triumph. There was nothing else to be done.

"Ummm...do you mind if we postpone our Quality Non-Birding Spouse Time?" I asked Greenturtle. "Because I kind of have to go back to Parnell Access and check out some redpolls."

Being the good sport that he is, he said that would be fine; actually, I sometimes think that he likes my birding obsession, as it leaves him free to play computer games to his heart's content.

"You can come, too," I added, not wanting to "bogart" the redpolls. He declined. And so I ran back for the car and sped down Highway 54 to Parnell, hoping against hope that they would not have taken off in the night. I wheeled past a group of hunters and skidded to a stop.

The parking area was quiet, the birding bonanza of yesterday gone. But in a tree I saw a small flock of birds, raised my binoculars: red caps, check. Variable amounts of red on chests, check. Brown steaks on sides, check. Tiny little bills, check. Redpolls!

Can it be? Is the winter birding curse broken? I hope so, as varied thrushes, evening grosbeaks and Bohemian waxwings have all been sighted recently in Illinois. November has never been this exciting.

1 comment:

  1. I'm so glad that you have broken The Curse of the Winter Finches! Here in the UP, we're delighting in much earlier than usual sightings, too, of redpolls and both the red and white-winged crossbills, snow buntings, and pine and evening grosbeaks. I long for owls, and varied thrushes and Bohemian waxwings. This is going to be a fun winter! MOM