I wrote recently about the potential for this winter to bring “irruptive” species into the southeastern United States. This is a small group of birds that can be common one year then absent the next from an entire region or regions.
Last weekend a passing cold front brought a huge flight of pine siskins and a lesser flight of purple finches into the Carolinas. Their numbers were small last year. They’re still at feeders now, so keep a watch out for them.
Identification of these birds can sometimes be tricky, so here are a few tips.
Pine siskins are the same size as American goldfinches, and often appear with them at thistle or sunflower feeders. They are entirely streaked brown except for whitish to yellowish bars on the wings. This mark can be somewhat variable.
Purple finches are often confused with house finches. Purple finches are absent from our area from early May to mid-October. House finches are with us all year.
Where male house finches have patches of red on the throat and upper breast, male purple finches have a much more extensive wash of reddish purple over the head, face, breast, flanks and upper back. They are larger and plumper than house finches, a feature easily seen if the two species are together.
Female purple finches are larger and more heavily streaked brown than the grayer female house finch. They also have a bold stripe on the side of the face that includes the eye. Check your field guide for additional tips on telling the pine siskins and purple finches apart from similar species.
And while on the subject of feeder birds, I do want to mention to keep your hummingbird feeders up through the winter. There are species of hummingbirds that spend the winter in the southeastern United States. Mecklenburg and surrounding counties are well within the range for these birds. If you still have a hummingbird at your feeder, take a close look to see if the bird has reddish or brown plumage on the sides, flanks or tail. It is getting late for ruby-throated hummingbirds now. Any remaining hummers might indeed be something different.
If you have a hummingbird, let me know. A photo would be great. I will tell you more about winter hummingbirds in a few weeks.