I saw them in time to stop and pull over before my car scared them off, and the first bird I saw was not a Pine Siskin, but a Common Redpoll – another winter finch, and one that I hadn’t seen or heard at all this winter save for one flying over Sarsaparilla Trail in November. When a car came along and scared the flock into the trees, I drove past the area where they had been feeding, found a wide spot near the Duck Club bird feeders where I could safely park, and got out of the car.
It didn’t take long for the finches to return, although the traffic was heavy enough that I was not able to get any prolonged looks at them. Fortunately they kept returning to the side of the road a moment or two after each vehicle passed by, and I was able to walk closer and closer to them each time. The first few birds I saw were all Common Redpolls, but as the flock kept flying off and returning, I noticed that the Pine Siskins greatly outnumbered the redpolls.
Common Redpolls have also been scarce this winter, although Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch Forecast predicted that these birds would move into southern Ontario where the birch seed crops are much better than the poor crop across the Boreal forest. In contrast, the Winter Finch Forecast advised us to expect very few siskins in Ontario this winter because White Spruce crops are generally low. It predicted that the Pine Siskins would likely be concentrated in western Canada due to the heavy spruce cone crops there, with some occurring in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, the northern New England States, and the Atlantic Provinces which also have very good spruce cone crops. My experiences with these two species has been the reverse of what Ron Pittaway predicted – I’ve heard several Pine Siskins during the fall migration (October through December) but only a single Common Redpoll (November 14, 2016), and observed neither species until two weeks ago when I started hearing Pine Siskins flying over.
Pine Siskins look like a cross between a goldfinch and a House Finch. Like the female House Finch, they are brown and very streaky, but with a much thinner bill. The males have bright yellow edging on their wings and tails, and after seeing this species for the first time in a few years in Pakenham last December, it struck me how closely all of the finches resemble each other in appearance, and how their differences are actually very subtle.
I counted about 15-20 siskins and up to 5 redpolls at any one time, but as there were several Pine Siskins calling and/or singing from the trees on either side and more birds flying over, I estimated the number of siskins at least 30. They were picking away not only at the gravel on the shoulder, but also the exposed bare spots on the steep bank. This one – a male – appears very yellow, and I wondered if it was a rare “green morph” Pine Siskin which is said to be very lemony in colour.
I was thrilled just to watch these birds feeding along the side of the road for about half an hour, as my only experience with them so far this past season has been hearing them call as they fly over. Two Purple Finches were also present, flying over the road before landing in the trees near the Duck Club feeders where the male burst into its melodic song. A couple of Pine Siskins were also singing quite boisterously, and I would have loved to have shot some video if the traffic hadn’t been so frequent.
Then the birds all started twittering in alarm. They scattered into the trees just an accipiter buzzed over my head and landed in the woodlot across the street. I actually managed to find the hawk with my binoculars, but it was behind too many layers of tree branches to identify it. Then it flew east and I lost it. I headed out after that, driving east toward Herzberg Road, where I found a Red-tailed Hawk soaring overhead, two Wild Turkeys at the smaller Duck Club feeder, and a flock of about 15 Bohemian Waxwings along the way. These winter wanderers have also also increased in number lately, even in my own neighbourhood where I’ve seen them flying together in a large flock. I haven’t been able to get any photos of them this winter.
From there I headed over to Sarsaparilla Trail. I wasn’t expecting much, for it was 2:00pm and a gorgeous, sunny day of 7°C – just the right conditions to attract families with young children and boisterous teens. Still, I wanted to check the pond to see if the ice had melted yet, as sometimes Great Blue Herons hunker down around the edges where there is open water. The pond was still completely frozen, to my disappointment, but I found more Pine Siskins around the edges of the pond, including a group of four that were attracted to a family feeding the birds on the boardwalk. They perched in a tree right above the trail for a few moments, but were too skittish to come any closer. Eventually they flew off, followed by a few others.
While at the boardwalk I heard a Red-shouldered Hawk calling from somewhere across the pond. I picked up a large bird soaring in the distance with my binoculars – possibly the Red-shouldered Hawk, although when it turned I saw a flash of white on the tail. Despite the number of people on the trail, I observed a few other good birds: four Song Sparrows, including two gleaning seeds at the end of the boardwalk; a Northern Cardinal singing near the picnic shelter; a Brown Creeper dashing up a tree trunk; three Golden-crowned Kinglets in the woods (a year bird for me); and three Cedar Waxwings near the picnic shelter. All of these species were new for my Sarsaparilla Trail year list.
A Hairy Woodpecker was also present, and to my amusement it started hitching up one of the support beams of the picnic shelter.
I was hoping the Eastern Phoebe I’ve often seen near the picnic shelter had returned, but found only a robin instead.
I had an amazing afternoon – the finches on March Valley Road were completely unexpected, and it was great finding the Red-shouldered Hawk and Golden-crowned Kinglets at Sarsaparilla Trail. Spring migration is progressing nicely; it can only get better from here!