Anyone who has lived in the Pacific Northwest for very long knows that spring can be a little -- unpredictable. But this year, winter and spring seem to be engaged in a protracted slap-down, and it's still not clear who will be the winner. Today is a perfect example: when we woke up this morning, there was snow on the ground! Snow! On March 6? And now, it's a bright, sunny day outside (cool and windy to be sure). We seem to be alternating seasons every day, one nice, one cold and dark.
But the natural world doesn't seem confused. I was in the park a few days ago with my dog Zeke and the pink cherry trees were putting out blossoms. And the bird activity in my yard has been frantic. Of course, my yard is very active all winter -- I often have more birds around in the winter than I do in the summer and autumn -- but the last couple of weeks it's been very busy. My birdseed budget has more than doubled!
This year, there's something new and interesting going on. About three weeks ago I noticed an unusual pair of birds in my yard. I spotted them a couple of times but couldn't get photos. So I wasn't sure if it was someone new. Then, I got these shots -- see if you can identify them before I tell you.
Yep, those are Pine Siskins -- not showing their full summer plumage yet, but you can see the faint yellow on the wings and tails (not so well in the photo). They were new to the yard list, and I thought it was just a pair of them.
Suddenly, there's a whole flock of Siskins in my yard. And unlike the chickadees who grab a few seeds and move on, these guys are occupying the feeders. Almost every time I go out now, there's a Siskin sitting on one or both of the feeders. Sitting there, eating or not, until another comes along and convinces him to give up the perch.
Pine Siskins are Finches, and according to “All About Birds” they are very nomadic, and it’s not uncommon to have a flock in your yard one year and not the next. In fact, every few years they make “irruptions” into the east and south. They also have adaptations to allow them to survive in extreme temperatures – they can “ramp up” their metabolisms, even accelerating their heartbeat as much as five times the normal rate, to help them get through cold nights. And they put on half again as much winter weight as close relatives like the Goldfinch. Judging from how much seed they’ve been eating at my house, I can understand why. But that’s not all – they store seed that totals up to 10% of their body weight in their crop.
Little Gluttons for sure.
The last time I was at the birding store, I picked up an easy Finch Feeder -- it’s basically a net bag filled with Nyjer seed -- to hang up. Sure enough, the Siskins have been eating there too. I'm not completely sure there aren't some other Finch species hiding among the Siskins, but I don't proof of it.
So, for the moment, I'm just waiting to see what's going to happen. What brought the flock here this year, when I've never seen them in the yard before? I'm not sure. How long will they stay? Well I would expect them, in the not too distant future, to begin to break up into mating pairs and spread out to nest.
But for the moment, they're Kings of the Yard.
If you like Birdland West, you might also want to check out our sister blog Books and Beasts, which focuses on reviews of books about animals and related topics.
(Many of the original photographs featured on Birdland West are available for sale as art quality prints. You can check out all of our offerings at http://AlexWashoe.imagekind.com. If you see an image here that does not show up on our Imagekind site please contact me directly and I'll let you know about availability.)