Beach to Bayou - December 2020
- story and photos by Dena Temple
People who set up bird feeders and enjoy watching backyard birds already know the usual cast of characters around their feeders year-round: Northern Cardinal, Tufted Titmouse, Blue Jay, Northern Mockingbird. Some of our summer birds disappear or are seen much less frequently in the winter, such as Brown Thrasher, Ruby-throated Hummingbird and Indigo Bunting, to name a few. But winter brings new visitors to the South.
Birds which breed in more northerly latitudes migrate south for the winter months, to the delight of Southern bird-watchers across the Mississippi coast. Most are what are known as short-distance migrants, which breed in northern Mississippi but travel a few hundred miles in the fall to their winter digs.
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Some of the Southern arrivals we expect to see when temps get chilly are American Robin, American Goldfinch, Yellow-rumped Warbler and White-throated Sparrow. There are others, but these four are the most common of the winter arrivals here on the coast.
This year, keep your eyes open for more unusual visitors. Our area is experiencing widespread reports of what are known as “winter finches” – Purple Finch, Pine Siskin and Red-breasted Nuthatch. (The Red-breasted Nuthatch is not actually a finch, but it gets lumped in with the winter finches because its diet consists of the same seed as the finches.) All three of these bird species eat seeds, so any of them may turn up at your feeders.
In an ordinary year, none of these birds have any business being in South Mississippi. But let’s face it - 2020 has turned out to be an extraordinary year in almost every way. This phenomenon is known as “irruption,” which means “to undergo a sudden upsurge in numbers when natural ecological balances and checks are disturbed.”
Why does this happen? Irruption generally occurs when there is a life-threatening change where the birds belong, which in this case is southern Canada. Each fall a “winter finch forecast” is published, which details seed production in Canadian conifers and predicts finch movement from Canada.
All three of these birds depend on seeds from spruce, pine and birch trees to survive the harsh Canadian winters. When conifer seed crops fail, usually due to poor weather conditions in the summer months, the birds must move. Some species move west or east, and many move south.
In the Northeast, bird-watchers are experiencing irruptions of not only the three species currently being seen here, but also Evening Grosbeak, Red Crossbill, White-winged Crossbill and (rarely) Common Redpoll.
Our visitors from the north are still quite rare, although they are being seen with regularity. To increase your chances of seeing one in your yard, keep your feeders full and clean.
Red-breasted Nuthatches can be found at mixed-seed or sunflower-seed feeders, and particularly like suet cakes. (Check your suet regularly for mold in our warm climate.) Purple Finches like mixed seed, and a flock of hungry Pine Siskins can decimate a full thistle (niger) seed feeder in a day.
If you do see one of these uncommon visitors, visit eBird.com to report your sightings. Researchers use the data on eBird to track the movement of birds, and your input in this “citizen science” project can affect future conservation efforts, funding or legislation.
You might also want to share photos of any rare visitors on your social media pages, to encourage your friends to take an interest in birds themselves. Plus, you get bragging rights for having a rare bird at your feeders!