Winter finch irruption into Chicago may be largest in 50 years

Grosbeaks, Siskins, Redpolls and Crossbills head south in search of food sources

One of my first books about birds was a guide put out by the Ortho yard care company called How to Attract Birds. There was a photo on the back cover of a group of Evening Grosbeaks at a feeder. The image left an impression on 10-year-old me, both because I never saw any grosbeaks in my neighborhood and because the birds looked so cool.

"So many people are reminded of parrots or parakeets by the hulking physique and incandescent color scheme of Evening Grosbeaks. One heck of a bird, indeed." Jeffrey Gordon, President of the American Birding Association, on Facebook recently

Evening Grosbeaks never were particularly common in these climes, peaking perhaps in the mid-20th century. Their nomadic behavior in search of food added to the mystery. Unfortunately, they've experienced a steep population decline since the 1970s, up to 90 percent. Partners in Flight reports that the species has “all but disappeared in the Appalachian Mountains and has suffered heavy declines elsewhere.” PIF goes on to say that the reasons for the decline are mostly unknown.

That’s what makes this year so special, as Evening Grosbeaks and other winter finches have moved into the Chicago area in numbers not seen in decades.

“In the Chicago area we almost never get Evening Grosbeaks and now there’s quite a few,” said Josh Engel, founder of bird tour company Red Hill Birding. “Any number greater than zero in a year is good, and this year we’ve had dozens of sightings in the area.”

Evening Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins, Common Redpolls, White-winged Crossbills, Red Crossbills, Red-breasted Nuthatches and Purple Finches are being reported throughout the area, all driven south due to changes in cone and berry crops in the boreal forest. The technical term is irruption, essentially a mass movement of birds.

“It’s hard to know a lot of times what’s going on exactly that’s causing these irruptions,” Engel says, “but each of these finches has their pretty specific preferred seeds that they like to eat and they move around in search of those seeds and sometimes that drives them farther south than usual.”

Last year, for example, some of the more regular northern finches like siskins and redpolls were nowhere to be found. Same with Red-breasted Nuthatches (not a finch, but another irruptive species). The movement isn’t just happening in Chicago either this year. Pine Siskins have been seen as far south as Louisiana and Texas.

So where should we look for these charming and showy species? Two of the more reliable places for Common Redpolls are Chicago Botanic Garden and Montrose Point. At Montrose, I’ve seen redpolls along the restored prairie on the southern end of the sanctuary. At the Botanic Garden, check out Spider Island. Looking for crossbills? Try Van Patten Woods in Lake County or Morton Arboretum. But don't discount the possibility of a feeder full of Evening Grosbeaks either, especially if you supply black oil sunflower seeds.

“Evening Grosbeaks can show up at feeders any time, siskins are really a feeder bird," Engel says. “Redpolls will show up at feeders. So it’s worth people keeping their eye on their feeders and keeping their feeders stocked if they’re interested in seeing these birds.”

In a bit of good news, the Evening Grosbeak irruption is in part due to population growth.

“In the eastern part of their breeding range, around eastern Canada, there’s a big outbreak of spruce budworms on the spruce trees there, so there’s just a lot of them around this year,” Engel says, “and that’s resulting in a lot more Evening Grosbeaks spreading out more than usual.”

That dream of a group of grosbeaks on a platform feeder may not be out of reach after all.

Kara Morrison contributed to this report. Kara is a recent graduate of my alma mater, Kenyon College, who is interested in making historical and educational information accessible to the public.

Lake Cook Audubon Society will have a presentation tomorrow night, Dec. 1, at 7p.m. by Tyler Hoar of the Winter Finch Forecast, “It’s an Irruption Year, Winter Finches Are Here!” More info: https://www.lakecookaudubon.org/programs/

Update on lakefront closures

Last week I wrote a longer piece on lakefront closures, chronicling the situation going back to March, and it received several comments on Facebook. It seems there’s still quite a bit of confusion and an inconsistent implementation by the city. The Montrose entrance to Lincoln Park was open to cars at times and closed at others (this came up again when a White-winged Crossbill was seen at Montrose Point this past weekend). It was also noted that 63rd Street Beach has been closed during all of Covid. It’s best to keep monitoring the situation—and be prepared to walk or cycle in.

The story behind the shot

Jamie Burning photographed a Common Redpoll at Montrose Point on November 7:

“I was right in the center section of Montrose. [The redpolls] were traveling between the Butterfly Meadow and the southern area of the point. I heard they were in the area and went down there. Then I went to the center and played the odds, sat down and set up my camera and waited for it.

“You have to sit and be patient and wait. I compose the shot in my mind and sit and wait. It happened to land perfectly on top of the reed. It was top-heavy, and I waited to see where it might settle.”

TWiB Notes

I went for a walk on Black Friday at Pine Dunes Forest Preserve near Antioch and saw a nice group of Trumpeter Swans (above). The big waterfowl—our largest—are making a comeback in the Midwest...Black Scoters, sea ducks that are uncommon winter visitors here, still were at Lake Opeka in Des Plaines as of yesterday. The lake is just off I-90 near Allstate Arena...The Chicago Park District has a Board of Commissioners meeting this Wednesday, and it’s expected that there will be remarks from supporters about the proposed habitat addition for Montrose Beach Dunes…Our Thanksgiving matching challenge for “Monty and Rose 2” was a success! Thanks to everyone who gave to the effort.

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