Finches are spectacular. Some finch species are highly nomadic, and are prone to massive irruptions throughout select regions of North America. Some finch species are local, year-round residents. There are some finch species which look the same all year long, and there are other finch species that undergo stunning transformations of immaculately-colored feathers, which replace their drabber winter plumage. The world of finches is incredible, and sometimes the sheer numbers of finches, as well as finch diversity, can really put on a show!
Throughout the upper Midwest, the winter months host a special array of very specialized bird species that inhibit the bitter-cold forests. Two finch species, the White-winged Crossbill and Red Crossbill, tend to be found in greater numbers throughout the lower 48 during the winter months. Both of the crossbill species meander and roam throughout the evergreen tops looking for cones of their liking. Red Crossbills tend to be found in pine forests; since pine trees produce larger cones, and the larger-billed Red Crossbills favor these larger cones. White-winged Crossbills love the spruce and hemlock cones, with their smaller bills fitting incredibly well within the cones. Both crossbills have a really cool technique for prying the seeds out of the cones that they are constantly searching for. When the crossbill puts its bill within the “fins” of the cone, they reach their crossed bill tips deep within the fins and lick the seed out! Several times this winter, I have been treated to seeing White-winged Crossbills carrying black spruce cones in their bills as they hover throughout the tree tops; and once perched, they enjoy ravenously eating the seeds that they work hard to obtain. Seeing a songbird hover with food as large as its head can be quite comical to see.
There are two very unique and stunning finch species that breed throughout the arctic tundra and overwinter south of these flat, low-light expanses of land. The Common Redpoll and Hoary Redpoll are extremely well-adapted to surviving the coldest conditions, can feed at very unique times of the day and host a highly-nomadic lifestyle. They thrive where catkins can be found. In northern Minnesota, they can sometimes be seen foraging deep within the alder thickets, as well as near the birch tops. Mmmm catkins! I am very excited to elaborate more on redpolls, but I am saving that for an upcoming Nemesis Bird post… stay tuned!
Can you identify all four species of finches in this photo? I took this photo earlier in the winter while leading a birding tour up the North Shore of Lake Superior (starting in Duluth, MN, and heading northeast). Photo was taken in Grand Marais, MN. Seeing four species of finches at one time was a highlight of the day! I hope you have as much fun looking through these birds as we did. Answers will be posted later on. Have fun!