We've been waiting for the winter finches to find our feeders, and only a few have made it so far. To date, the Evening Grosbeak was certainly a fall highlight. And today, our patient waiting paid off and we added one more to the fall yard list: Pine Siskin. Others have been reporting them in large flocks in our area, and they've been reported wide and far.
Back to our siskin. It wasn't at the feeder with the more-prevalent House and goldfinches. But because the feeders were covered I decided to walk the loop around the yard to see what else might be around. In addition to the stationary feeder finches, there were dozens flying overhead, not quite circling, but not quite leaving the area.
The larches, or tamarack, are turning a beautiful golden yellow, which really stands out against the green spruces and firs. I have been carefully watching the conifers for crossbills, but today only a half dozen Black-capped Chickadees were foraging on the cones. I tried shooting one as it bounced around in a colorful larch. Shooting with a camera, that is, although there were plenty of deer hunters blasting away across our hill.
Birding by ear, for me, is always challenging. Because I rarely make frequent and/or lengthy birding trips anymore I guess I lack confidence in remembering all of the sounds emitted by all of the birds of North America. As a result I'm always wondering if I would identify an unseen-but-vocal bird as it flew briskly overhead. These days it's even more intimidating: over the past few weeks the local listserve is replete with definitive statements like, "I also heard three crossbills, but never saw them," or, "I heard an Evening Grosbeak somewhere in the evergreens," and, "I heard the upslurred ziiiiiip of a redpoll, it wasn't as emphatic as a siskin, and was shorter in duration." Yikes, it's been so long since I've heard redpolls, siskins, crossbills and the like with any frequency in the field, I'm not sure I'd recognize one if it shouted at me.
But then I heard a squeaky whistle, higher pitched than the dozens of goldfinches "po-tay-to" chipping overhead. And my first thought wasn't even, "Huh, that was different." I went straight to, "That was a frickin' siskin!" Sure enough, it was; not only did it sound like one, it looked like one, too.
But that wasn't the best sighting of the morning. When we (Barron, our dog, and I) got back near the house I saw some two dozen birds perched towards the top of a leafless maple. It was easy to pick out the goldfinches and House Finches, a few American Robins, two starlings, and a lone Cedar Waxwing. And one bird I couldn't quite figure . . . clearly bigger than the finches and the waxwing, not as chunky as the robins and the starlings. Through binoculars it was still fairly nondescript, grayish but tawny coloring, hint of a black mask covering the eye, a straight, slender bill with a hook at the tip . . . a hook? That means one thing: shrike!
The field marks add up to one species: an immature Northern Shrike. Not unexpected, but certainly not common, either. Unfortunately for me, I'm not a great photographer, so this was the best I did with a backlit bird on a gray day. Better shots of a similar bird can be seen on Bill Schmoker's website.
All in all, a great, but too short, walk around the yard. Now, about those redpolls people are reporting. . . .
Post title credit: Sunshine for Your Love (1967), Cream
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