Thursday, Jan 05 2012

Winter’s Pine Siskins

by Jan D. Axtell

Vermont’s Green Mountains are truly a unique place. The winter season illustrates that nicely. People travel from all over the world to visit our little corner of the world to marvel at our beautiful landscape and, in many cases, experience the recreational opportunities it affords. Much like human beings who come to visit, there is a bird population that visits Vermont during its long winter as well.

There are two groups of birds that call Vermont home during the winter. The first set are those species that live in our forests year round and do not migrate at all. They include species like the Black-capped Chickadee, Dark-eyed Junco, the Wood Peckers (downy, hairy, and pileated), and the Kinglets (golden-crowned and ruby-crowned) just to name a few. They are the hardy of the hardy and seek out an existence in a, relatively speaking, harsh environment as one of their specialties.

The second group is composed of bird species that migrate to Vermont to wait out the winter until their homes in the boreal forest or arctic tundra of the far North become hospitable once again in the spring. They include, most notably, the Snow Bunting, Common Redpole, Hoary Redpole, Snowy Owl, and the Pine Siskin.

As fall transitions to winter and the first snows of the year blanket the ground, many of our feathered year round residents migrate down from the high elevation forest that top the area hills and mountain peaks, and the first visitors from the north start to arrive for the season. It can be an anxious time of year for the area bird watchers. Who will arrive first? When and where?

Of these visitors one of my favorites over the years has been the Pine Siskin (Carduelis pinnus). By some standards the Pine Siskin is rather drably colored, although I feel that is a mischaracterization. It is a small finch with a heavily brown streaked body (head, back, breast , and flank), beautiful yellow wing bars, and dark brown/black wing tips. It resembles its close relative the American Goldfinch in size and song, and during the winter months is often found in large migratory groups.

The Pine Siskin spends the majority of its time in the high latitudes of the boreal forest of Canada. As its latin species designation (C. pinnus) suggests it is a lover of the coniferous forest. During its winter migration it is often found in large groups or near the large stands of conifers that dot our mixed low elevation forests.

During the spring, summer, and fall the Pine Siskin makes its home in the boreal forest to the north of us. It is a habitat dominated by spruce and fir and subsequently Pine Siskins choose similar habitats on their wintering grounds here in Vermont.

The first Pine Siskins started arriving in our area –this year - around the second week of December and as the season has progressed I have been seeing them with a greater increasing frequency. The first reports I found were online and it wasn’t soon after that they started showing up in number here at Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe VT.

Two weeks ago, while inspecting a snowshoe trail with Trapp Family Lodge guide Christian Poacher, we came across a great flock that numbered – by estimation - near 200 individuals feeding on Yellow birch catkins. The orchestration with which the group moved from tree to tree was astonishing and we spent some time watching them move through the forest. The sheer volume of birds moving together was the kind of spectacle reserved for the Discovery Channel.

Despite the mass migration of birds out of Vermont during the fall, there is still much to see. Whether it be the birds that call the Green Mountains their year round home, winter visitors from high elevation forests and points far north, or the unique adaptations and behaviors that these birds that choose to tough out their winter season here in our back yard. There still is much to see in Vermont’s Avian community.

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