Purple finches among the early migrants
This is the time of the vernal equinox, the first day of spring. Though listed as the beginning of spring on the calendar, the actual arrival of this season does not follow the dates on the calendar and is not an abrupt change. Thanks to the weather of the last couple of weeks, it looks like spring has been here already and spring's arrival is early.
During the last few years, we have seen early springs in 2010 and again in 2012, while those of 2013 and 2014 were very late. Indeed, 2011 and 2015 were closer to the usual. But this season is perhaps our hardest to determine "normal" and it's very difficult to predict nature. Even if spring is early, we still can expect more snow and cold as these conditions fluctuate, especially in March. And of course, Lake Superior will impact us.
Despite the varying weather patterns, we can be sure of the daylight and darkness. As we pass the annual rite of the vernal equinox, daylight now exceeds darkness. Many of the local wildlife are more attuned to this diurnal lengthening than they are to the warmth, cold, snow or rain. This is why, regardless of the spring's appearance, we still see migrant birds arriving in late March.
Normally by the end of March, open water in rivers will hold some northing ducks, geese, mergansers and swans with maybe a few great blue herons along the shore. Overhead, bald eagles and various hawks return on routes that were flown in the fall migration.
We all look for the first robin, arriving soon if not already. And we may have other arriving migrants that also will be singing. By late in the month, songs of red-winged blackbirds, grackles, mourning doves and bluebirds can be heard in the region. Other migrants, smaller songbirds, may not be as vocal, but come to the yard and maybe even the feeders as they pause for meals.
It begins with the restless redpolls that wintered with us, but now are getting eager to begin their trip from us back north. I find that these hardy energetic small birds that feed here all winter, often in large groups, are more noisy and restless at this time. One day in late March or early April, I'll look out to see a feeder devoid of them. Their presence, though missed, is quickly replaced by others. A couple of cousins, pine siskins and goldfinches, arrive. These flocking finches will most likely also move on.
Beneath the feeders, on the ground, another spring passerby is present: juncos. Gray, sometimes almost black, with a white underside and white feathers on the edge of the tail, juncos are a kind of sparrow. They seem to be in no hurry to leave. For a couple of weeks their presence will be noted and appreciated by those of us who continue to feed birds throughout April.
They may be joined by a few other sparrow types: white-throated, white-crowned, song, tree and fox sparrows. All come by here before March has gone.
Though the redpolls from winter and maybe some other wintering birds are gone, there is plenty more to see. Another March arrival that I expect to see at the feeders each year at this time is the purple finch.
Though looking more rose-red than purple, the colors of the head and chest of the male purple finch makes it hard to not notice him. They are a little larger than the other finches and besides the reddish head, chest and tail, the wings are dark. Females are heavily streaked below and brownish-gray on the back, looking much like a sparrow. (The similar-sized house finch has more of a red head and face.)
Purple finches have thick seed-eating beaks and are quite at home on the birdfeeders. Despite the bright colors of the male, I usually detect the arrival of this feeder bird each March more by sound. Birds give a sharp "pit" call note or a musical "chur-lee" sound in flight. Both sounds are quite distinct from the other birds in the yard at this time.
I have found that purple finches do not last long at the feeders but while they are here, we may also hear their rich warbling song, again a sound unlike other bird songs of early spring. Female purple finches also sing, an unusual trait for songbirds. Sometimes purple finches may remain and nest in the Northland.
Whether it is purple finches, pine siskins, goldfinches, juncos or various sparrows in our yards and feeders as we move into late March, they are worth watching and show quite a variation from what we saw here all winter. They give us more to look forward to seeing in spring.
A female purple finch on a birdfeeder. Notice the sparrow-like appearance. (Photo by 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.