Thursday, November 4, 2010

Season of Change

When I left Black Mountain last Wednesday for a weekend of hunting at Pocosin Lakes NWR, the autumn colors here were at their most-vibrant. I grew up in New England, but it's been years since I've experienced the reds, golds, oranges and yellows of the highlands. It was glorious. When I drove back home, four days later, I was shocked to see the trees that had been so colorful, now stripped of their leaves. Rain and wind took autumn far too soon and now we are left with the stark skeletal remains of naked trunks and branches. Winter is coming.
That fact of life is not without merit. Yesterday morning, as I took out a pail of kitchen scraps to the compost bin, I heard a curious chirping in the backyard I did not immediately recognize. I ran to my possibilities bag (still packed and sitting in the hallway since the hunting trip) and grabbed my binoculars. Finches with streaky breasts, yellow wing bars and slender, pointed bills - four pine siskins for the yard bird list. Siskins rarely attempt to breed in the high elevation, coniferous forests of the Appalachians. More typically, this northern species is seen during winter, when the population migrates south, as far as northern Mexico. It is one of several irruptive species that, on occasion, invades the southern extent of its range in massive numbers (often estimated in the tens of millions) when the northern seed crop is poor.
In talking to some birding friends up north, I learned that reports are already streaming in that this could be such a year. If so, backyard bird watchers should stock up on thistle and millet to bring the show to their feeders. A pine siskin irruption rarely occurs on its own. The forces sending the little finches our way usually have a similar affect on other boreal species like; purple finches, common redpolls, red and white-winged crossbills, evening grosbeaks, red-breasted nuthatches and (fingers crossed) bohemian waxwings.
Sparrow heaven
Buoyed by the arrival of the siskins, I decided to go birding later in the day at Jackson Park in Hendersonville. It was a rather dark, dreary day, but that often puts birds in a mood to keep active. Evidence of the changing season was flitting along the paths in the feathered forms of winter's ambassadors. The expected Carolina and house wrens have been joined by their diminutive cousin, the winter wren. Wood ducks, pushing down from the north, have taken up residence in the creek that runs through the park and the small ponds within. A few years ago, the local birding community convinced the parks and rec department to leave much of the open areas in the park unmowed. That move has paid off in spades, as birds of all types now take advantage of the weedy, brushy habitat to forage. During my walk through, the fields held a flock of around 50 white-throated sparrows, a handful of song sparrows, a couple of swamp sparrows and an aptly named field sparrow. In addition to the usual suspects - cardinals, Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, ruby-crowned kinglets and yellow-rumped warblers - further evidence of the impending finch irruption showed itself in the form of a trio of purple finches. Back home in Black Mountain, the European starlings, red-winged blackbirds and common grackles have taken to using a thick stand of bamboo as a roosting site down the street. If you time it right, you can watch the mixed flock of 2,000 or so blackbirds fly in from the countryside far and wide. The cacophony of noise is almost deafening until they settle down for the night. Winter is coming. You can hear it in the air.

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