Purple Finches and other Spring Migrants

Purple Finch

Purple Finch

After seeing my first Red-winged Blackbirds from the bus on Wednesday, March 9th, I was eager to get out on the weekend and look for more. Saturday morning was mild but gloomy; not a terrific day for photography, but a good day for getting out and seeing what was around. I stopped by the ponds on Eagleson first to look for ducks, and was surprised to hear not one, but two Song Sparrows singing as soon as I got out of the car. It was only March 12th; although it seemed early for them to be back on territory, I enjoyed hearing their jubilant songs after the long, silent winter. Red-winged Blackbirds were back as well, calling from the tops of the trees and adding to the spring chorus. There were no new ducks on the pond, just the usual mallards and Canada Geese.

After that I went to Sarsaparilla Trail. The pond was still frozen, but two geese were standing on the ice while about five Red-winged Blackbirds sang from the cattails around the pond. Those were the only new arrivals I found there.

I had better luck when I stopped by the Beaver Trail, hearing a Purple Finch singing as soon as I got out of the car. A raven was calling from the power lines, and five Wild Turkeys fled from the feeder area when I walked by the Wild Bird Care Center.

At the boardwalk I found a few birds feeding on the seed left there. A Blue Jay was sitting in a tree overlooking the pond, and when I put some peanuts on the boardwalk rail it came down to feed.

Blue Jay

Blue Jay

The American Tree Sparrows that were feeding on the boardwalk didn’t fly very far when I started walking toward them; they darted into the vegetation, but soon came back out when I stopped to watch them for a while. I looked to see if there were any early Song Sparrows among them, but I didn’t see any, nor did I hear any on the trail. Although they may have returned to Emerald Meadows, they hadn’t returned to Stony Swamp yet.

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

At the observation platform at the back of the trail I heard several Red-winged Blackbirds singing in the marsh. I tried to entice them closer by putting food out; only one seemed interested, and waited until I had retreated a fair distance before flying down to investigate. As I was photographing the blackbird, I heard the strident calls of a pair of Killdeer flying over – not only was this a year bird for me, it was the first time I’ve recorded them at this trail. I scanned the skies hoping to see them, but I never did catch so much as a glimpse of them.

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

Eastern Chipmunks were busy enjoying the mild day, and I counted six of them scurrying about the forest floor on my walk – no wonder the inner loop is called the Chipmunk Trail!

Eastern Chipmunk

Eastern Chipmunk

I wasn’t ready to go home yet, so I drove over to Jack Pine Trail after finishing up at the Beaver Trail. I found three more Red-winged Blackbirds, about ten robins, and heard a Pine Siskin flying over. The best part of the visit was seeing the four Purple Finches in the feeder area. There were two males and two females, and for the longest time they all sat patiently in a tree, perhaps too timid to fly to the feeder.

Purple Finch

Purple Finch

Eventually one of the females flew closer to the feeder before landing on it. None of the other Purple Finches came in to feed.

Purple Finch

Purple Finch

Purple Finches are large and bulky compared to other members of the finch family. Although they may be confused with House Finches, the males are a deeper raspberry colour and have a pale pink supercilium lacking in House Finches. In fact, the facial pattern of male Purple Finches is a lot like the pattern of the females, except the males appear to be dipped in raspberry juice. Another good feature to look for is the strongly notched tail (lacking in House Finches).

Of the two species, Purple Finches are more likely to be found in wooded areas, particularly mixed coniferous-deciduous woods with streams or other swampy areas. House Finches are more comfortable in open suburban areas, close to human activity, although Purple Finches can often be found in the suburbs in migration and winter as well.

Purple Finch

Purple Finch

On Sunday I had a similar plan, first stopping in at the ponds on Eagleson before heading over to the Old Quarry Trail. This time I found some mergansers there – two Hooded Mergansers swimming in the open pond north of Emerald Meadows Drive, and three Common Mergansers in the large pond south of the road.

At Old Quarry Trail I tallied 20 species, including a few Canada Geese flying over, both Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles back in the marsh, several Dark-eyed Juncos in the woods, five Pine Siskins flying over, and at least three different Purple Finches singing throughout the trail. It was again interesting to me that so many Purple Finches had returned, as I have never encountered any good-sized flocks of them in winter or during migration – not the way I see flocks of redpolls or Pine Siskins during irruption years, for example. Even in the spring I am more likely to hear one or two individuals singing than I am to see a flock of them, as they like to sing from tall trees overlooking the beaver ponds in Stony Swamp. I’m not sure if the birds I saw this weekend were flocks migrating through or birds returning to their breeding territory, but it was lovely to hear their melodic song ringing through the forests once again.

While the Purple Finches may have been the birds with the loveliest song, the best bird of my outing was a pair of juvenile Bald Eagles soaring overhead. My attention was drawn skyward when I heard one vocalizing, and not certain as to what I was hearing, I looked up and saw two of them sweeping across the sky fairly close together. They were the mottled colour of juveniles, not adults, so it took me a moment to realize what they were. I was thrilled to see the two Bald Eagles as I have never encountered them on this trail before – it just goes to show that now that spring migration has officially begun, birds can turn up anywhere!

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2 thoughts on “Purple Finches and other Spring Migrants

  1. Oddly enough there were two Redwing Blackbirds at my feeder this morning. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them come to the yard before! And yesterday there were Brown headed Cowbirds! We are having crazy spring weather; freezing and thawing; but mostly freezing!

    • Yes, we’ve been having the same weather – it warms up, the snow melts, it cools down, it snows again. Fortunately the snow from Friday has all melted now, and it is getting warm again. I usually don’t get blackbirds at my feeder – it would be nice to see them!

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