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Redpolls arrive early at the birdfeeder

A redpoll arrives at the feeder, seeking thistle seeds. (Photo by Larry Weber)1 / 2
A flock of goldfinches find sunflower seeds on the ground among the snow. (Photo by Larry Weber)2 / 2

The mild weather conditions of this December continue. Temperatures in the 30s and 40s, not just once but several times, are not what we expect. Even the low temperatures of the day are often above the normal high temperature. The snowfall that came to us on Dec. 1 was anticipated and appreciated by many.

Though the snow fell in the calendar month of December, it was more of a November snow. The water content of this snowfall was very high. Five inches of it yielded about 1 inch of water. (A typical rule is 10 inches of snow equals about 1 inch of water, but there are many variations.)

Snowfalls during December are usually dry and the entire month will often give us only slightly more than 1 inch of precipitation. Also more "Novemberish" is the fact that this passing snowstorm provided several inches of white stuff inland, but virtually nothing near the lake. With mild conditions following this snowfall, the snowpack suffers but tries to linger.

I have noticed a response to this weather at the birdfeeders. I began the feeding about two months ago and quickly got a response. With some migrants still in the area along with winter residents, I noted about a dozen kinds of birds during these early weeks. These settled into seven regulars that continued through much of early November. These "same seven" included blue jays, black-capped chickadees, white and red-breasted nuthatches and downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers.

Later in the month, this list had dropped to what I now see, five kinds. The red-breasted nuthatch and red-bellied woodpecker apparently found conditions better elsewhere or realized that in this mild time, food would be available without going to feeders.

Besides these birds, the bird-feeding site has attracted many non-birds. I regularly look out to see gray squirrels, usually on the ground, gathering as many sunflower seeds as possible. Most days nearly a dozen come by, but even this number has dropped. Chipmunks that were here earlier are asleep. Nocturnal visits from deer mice and flying squirrels have persisted. The latter, being gregarious, are more numerous than I expected. Being quick-moving small squirrels and watching at night, they are hard to count, but I have seen as many as 15 here at one time.

Along with the birds of the earlier days were two kinds of finches. With their reddish heads as identification, purple finches fed on seeds for a while, too. Males are quite brightly colored, even in winter, while females are streaked and sparrow-like.

Also a small flock of goldfinches arrived. Though they are a brilliant yellow-black in summer, these "wild canaries" are a drab olive green and brown now. Neither finch species lasted long and I was back to watching the same seven. And then a surprise happened as we exited the month of November.

Maybe it was the onset of snow or a few chilly days of the freeze-up or the continued days of later sunrises and earlier sunsets that brought them, or maybe they were not getting enough food elsewhere. But I looked out at this time to see that a small flock of goldfinches had returned to the feeders. In addition to the usual seeds on the feeding sites, I had included a fresh batch of thistle seeds. The finches went for this new addition. They came back the next day and with them this time was a bigger surprise: Among the goldfinches were two redpolls.

While goldfinches and purple finches may winter in the area, many also breed here. This is not the situation for redpolls. These tiny, 5-inch, hardy finches nest in the Arctic and arrive in the Northland only in winter. Our region is the southern part of their range. Birds are black-white speckled and streaked, looking something like the goldfinch cousin, the pine siskin. But unlike the siskins, redpolls have no yellow on wings and tail. Instead, they have red and black markings on the head. The name "redpoll" refers to a large red patch on the forehead of both males and females. (The forehead of some animals may be called the poll.) Males have more red here than do the females.

If redpolls arrive most winters and remain for the cold season, then why was I surprised to see these at my feeder recently? Yes, they arrive here in the region, usually in late October or November, but they seem reluctant to go to feeders until later in the season, usually about the first of the year. I have been seeing flocks of redpolls often lately, but they have been among the alders and birch trees where they have been feeding on these seeds; no need to go to feeders.

Later in winter, that seems to change and the days of January, February and March are often filled with these energetic little birds. Maybe the large number of these birds this year sent the early arrivals to the feeder. Whatever the reason they came, I appreciate their presence. I look forward to seeing them much more this winter despite the mild weather.

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

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