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Larry Weber: It's the winter of the goldfinches at the feeder

As we move through January, it is easy to see that we are experiencing a great winter. Our snow cover has been continuous for more than two months and we've seen subzero on more than 25 days. Both December and January have recorded temperatures b...

Goldfinches
Goldfinches have been dominating some local feeders this winter. Two years ago it was redpolls that were most common; last winter it was purple finches. (Photo courtesy of Larry Weber)

As we move through January, it is easy to see that we are experiencing a great winter. Our snow cover has been continuous for more than two months and we've seen subzero on more than 25 days. Both December and January have recorded temperatures below normal.

While looking around in the forests, fields and roadsides of January, we can get a good view of which critters are dealing with these winter conditions, too. Though we don't see most of the active mammals since they are often nocturnal and quite elusive in their habits, we do find the tracks that they leave behind. Thanks to the messages left on the persisting snowpack, we have a good evidence of their presence (or lack of it).

The avian population of the cold season is most likely to be seen, except for owls -- barred owls and great horned owls, which both call in the chilly darkness. We can see and hear the others that move about in the cool daylight.

Ruffed grouse walk through the woods seeking frozen meals or shelter beneath the white blanket. Ravens and crows, often in groups, scatter about feeding on whatever they can find. Flocks of snow buntings drift in the roadsides and fields with the chilly winds. Bohemian waxwings travel in feeding flocks in trees, where they dine on berries that are still found in the Northland: crab apples, hawthorns or mountain-ash.

And there are those birds that come to our feeders. By this time of winter, feeders have become a daily routine for me and the birds. I fill them each day and then sit back and watch as the feathered friends arrive to partake of sunflower and thistle seeds along with frozen suet. After weeks of this, I watch the regulars: seven species of birds that breakfast here each morning. We also host a thriving number of gray and red squirrels in the daytime, flying squirrels and cottontail rabbits after dark. Many stay all day or return for dinner.

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These seven species that provide winter companionship are the black-capped chickadee, white-breasted nuthatch, red-breasted nuthatch, downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker and goldfinches. Not only do the same species return each day, I think that individuals reappear; it's nearly always the same numbers within the chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers.

Things vary with the goldfinches. These small yellow-black birds are the finches of the winter this year. The bright yellow-black patterns from last summer have molted into an olive-brown winter coat. They nested in the region late last summer and now as a group remain in the cold. They are consistent to arrive each day, but their numbers change. I have counted as many as 50 devouring the sunflowers and thistle seeds, hardly enough room for all, or as few as five. They do not appear to roost here, but with the morning light, they show up.

Goldfinches are one of several different finches that frequently come to Northland feeders. Others include purple finches, redpolls, pine siskins and pine and evening grosbeaks. But for me, they are the only finches this winter. They illustrate some of the dynamics of bird feeding.

Two years ago our feeders held an abundance of redpolls, more than 200 on some days. Last winter, it was purple finches that dominated the feeding site. This year, goldfinches prevail. We never saw them 20 years ago, but slowly, they began to winter here. Looking drab and brown now, these finches will go through another molt with the coming longer days and become bright yellow again by the time they leave the feeders in spring.

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