Winter bird-watching on the shoreline is at its easiest around the bird feeder. And one of the most entertaining is a perky little visitor called the pine siskin. A pine siskin, if you are not into birding and the name is unfamiliar, is a small songbird, its plumage streaky brown, wings and tail edged yellow. When the bird is at rest, which is almost never, the yellow can be difficult to see but flashes visibly when the bird moves. The siskin’s bill is needlelike, its wing tips noticeably sharp, and its tail short but deeply notched. Pine siskins are gabby little birds, and their compact flocks twitter endlessly, as bunches of them explode into short fluttery flights, as if in a constant state of excitement. Last year I welcomed them to my Killingworth homestead. They were endlessly entertaining, enlivening drear winter days with their bounce and chatter. If it took a free meal or two to keep them around, I was willing. That is, until they told their friends they had made a big score, anthropomorphically speaking. Dozens mushroomed to flocks and flocks to hordes—hungry hordes, seemingly insatiable. As I peeled off banknotes to buy more food, my initial delight at their appearance jaded. Unlike me, my friends at the Audubon Shop in Madison were happy as—well—larks. The birdseed business was booming, as bag after bag went out the door to feed last winter’s irruption of pine siskins.
An irruption, in the avian sense, is an incursion, in exceedingly large numbers, of birds not normally abundant in the territory invaded. Along our coast, irruptions normally occur during the winter when food runs out up north for one species or another. Some years it is snowy owls, usually when their lemming prey dwindles on the tundra. Because the grassy areas behind the Meigs Point Nature Center at Hammonasset State Beach in Madison approximate tundra, the owls sometimes turn up there. So says Jerry Connolly of the said Audubon Shop, my local birding guru. Actually, there is a decent chance of seeing a snowy owl at Hammonasset most years, even when they are not invading.
Last winter, when the siskins showed up, so did a continent of redpolls, like the siskin, a member of the finch family. They live from boreal forest north to the tundra, just north of the main siskin territory. Several other finches also stage irruptions, including spectacular yellow and black evening grosbeaks, pine grosbeaks, and purple finches. So you have a bird feeder and are asking, “siskins? Last year? What siskins?” They probably were there but you did not recognize them. With their yellow highlights, they can be mistaken at casual glance for goldfinches in winter drab. “You have to pay attention,” says Connolly, who is exceedingly adept at telling apart birds that look pretty much alike to most other humans.
One way to tell a pine siskin from a goldfinch or sparrow is its sharp edges: the notched tail; sharp, slender bill; and pointed wing tips. At the feeder, pine siskins, along with goldfinches and several other small birds, especially like niger seed, sometimes incorectly called “thistle.” Niger is a flowering herbaceous plant with a yellow flower, resembling a daisy, which is grown in Africa and Asia. Niger is expensive and should not be purchased in amounts of more than five pounds, unless you fill feeders with a shovel, because you must use it quickly. Its oil, which attracts birds, dries fast, and birds then ignore it. Siskins will eat whole, black oil sunflower, the bird feeder staple, but have a hard time cracking the shell. Black oil sunflower with shell on used to be cheap. In the past few years, however, sunflowers have become a hot commodity—literally, on the trading market—because of rising demand, not by birders but by producers of ecofriendly fuels.
With in-the-shell prices high, I figured I might as well go whole hog and change to an even pricier variety, a mix, sometimes called Number 2 sunflower. It is mostly sunflower hearts, easy to eat for siskins, goldfinches, and the like, with a smattering of seeds still in the hull for birds that go that route.
In the long run, it turned out cheaper than standard sunflower seeds, because almost half of what you pay for per pound of seeds with shells is shell. It is also less expensive than niger. The mix lasts much longer in the feeder and—bonanza—brings in droves of bluebirds that ignore standard seed. It also continues to attract birds like the tufted titmouse, common in backyards hereabouts year-round, that enjoys working for its dinner. It typically picks out large sunflower seeds, or whole seeds in the mix I use, then holds one between its feet and hammers it open with its stout bill. If you regularly hear a light tapping on your house, it probably is not a woodpecker but a titmouse using a rafter, sill, or some other handy perch as an anvil under its sunflower.
If you want to depart from feeder watching and bird afield, two of the best spots along all the Connecticut shore are Hammonasset and, smack-dab on the Rhode Island line, Barn Island Wildlife Management Area in Stonington. Besides aforementioned snowy owls, Hammonasset’s grassy areas draw other birds of the Far North, including horned larks, in droves, and Lapland longspurs and snow buntings. Barn Island’s marshes are of international birding importance. They are recognized as such by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative, a coalition of government agencies and conservation groups developing an integrated bird conservation plan for the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
The National Audubon Society nominated Barn Island to the Important Bird Areas Program, an international effort to conserve key habitat. During hunting seasons, except on Sunday, birders must share Barn Island with sportsmen. It is a good idea to wear blaze orange, required of hunters except for waterfowlers, as a safety measure. Do not complain about the hunters. They pay a tax on their firearms and ammunition that funds wildlife management such as Barn Island. Without hunters, there would be far fewer places to watch and enjoy birds. And far fewer birds because management areas provide nesting, feeding, and migratory habitat.”
Pullquote: “If you want to depart from feeder watching and bird afield, two of the best spots along all the Connecticut shore are Hammonasset and,smackdab on the Rhode Island line, Barn Island Wildlife Management Area in Stonington. Besides aforementioned snowy owls, Hammonasset’s grassy areas draw other birds of the Far North, including horned larks, in droves, and Lapland longspurs and snow buntings.”