October 29-November 4, 2018 (Week 44 of 52): Fill Your Feeders – A Winter Finch Irruption is Upon Us

 

Once every several years, we experience an irruption of “winter finches” where significant numbers of songbirds that typically overwinter in Canada migrate south into the Buffalo-Niagara Region and across much of the rest of the northeastern United States. This year is one of those exciting times for birdwatchers! Pine siskins and purple finches have already arrived in the Region in large numbers over the past few weeks. Red-breasted nuthatches, while not finches, have also settled in our Region in larger than average numbers. Common redpolls and evening grosbeaks are close behind, and a few white-winged and red crossbills are starting to reach the Toronto area and will likely arrive here soon. Significant southern flights of these birds are made in response to scarce seed and fruit crops (e.g., spruce, fir, and hemlock cones; birch seeds, mountain-ash berries) across much of northeastern Canada.

If you would like to greatly improve your chances to observe winter finches and related birds, consider establishing a bird feeding station near your home. If a feeding station is not a good option for you, visit a local nature center (see the 2nd to last column in the tables of nature viewing sites found under the “B-N Region & Sites” tab on this web page). Nyjer (AKA thistle) and black oil sunflower are the best seeds for attracting winter finches, evening grosbeaks, and red-breasted nuthatches. Even during non-irruption years, feeding is a good way to attract a diversity and abundance of songbirds for closer observation (including species in your neighborhood that you might otherwise not see).  It helps to bring them out of the woodwork, so to speak, especially during cold and snowy weather. Start feeding in early autumn to attract species that primarily migrate through the area (versus overwintering), such as white-throated sparrow, white-crowned sparrow, and fox sparrow. These species are currently passing through our Region.

Another noteworthy natural phenomenon happening this week is prolonged fall color. We have been fortunate this autumn to experience an especially long period of bright leaf color, extending about two weeks later than normal so far. An important factor has been the lack of a hard frost to date. While leaf color is a now past peak across most of the Region, near peak brightness still radiates in some areas – particularly upland forest habitats dominated by sugar maple and lowland forests dominated by silver and/or Freeman maple (hybrid of red and silver maples). This is an excellent time to explore the forest understory to experience bright leaf colors, both on trees/shrubs and on the ground. To find public properties that offer both forest habitats and trails, check the 6th and 10th columns of the tables of nature viewing sites found under the “B-N Region & Sites” tab on this web page.

Below are highlights of what you can expect to find outdoors in the Buffalo-Niagara Region this week. Those in bold/italics are new or substantially revised highlights to watch for this week. Check out the list of 300 publicly accessible sites (“B-N Region & Sites” tab on this web page) to find areas to explore in your neighborhood and throughout the Buffalo-Niagara Region.

Average Sunrise/Sunset (Day Length):

  • 7:50 AM/6:07 PM EDT (10 Hours, 17 Minutes)
  • 5 Hours, 4 minutes of daylight shorter than at Summer Solstice

Typical Weather:

  • Normal High Temperature: 53.3° F  Normal Low Temperature: 38.1° F
  • Cumulative Growing Degree Days thru October 31, 2018: 3196 (>10% above normal)
  • Light frost is likely this week.

Lake, Pond, Stream & Wetland Conditions:

  • The Lake Erie water temperature off Buffalo dropped to 53°F and the Lake Ontario water temperature off Greece (Monroe County) dropped to 50°F as of October 30, 2018.
  • Water levels in most interior wetlands and vernal pools remain low but continue to rise in response to recent rainfall and reduced evapotranspiration rates.
  • Similarly, the water level in most ponds is low but continuing to rise.
  • Most streams will exhibit high flow levels this week in light of forecasts for significant rainfall.

Fungi:

  • A few late season species of fungi may still be observed in rich woodlands this week: giant puffball, hen of-the-woods, oyster, bear’s head tooth fungus, and bearded tooth.
  • Shaggy mane mushrooms can be found in lawns and along wood chip trails, often in fairy rings.

Ferns and Grasses/Sedges/Rushes:

  • An often overlooked fall color change occurs with ferns in the forest understory. The following ferns often exhibit striking color changes, albeit briefly, at this time: New York, lady, bracken, royal, cinnamon, interrupted, and ostrich ferns.
  • A few species of grass will continue to exhibit showy color changes this week, especially rice cut-grass, white grass, and witch grass found in wetlands and other poorly drained areas.
  • Wool-grass, a native species of bulrush, is still evident in wet meadows and marsh edges as a result of its abundant rusty brown and wooly fruits.
  • Broad-leaf and narrow-leaf cattail stems are now mostly brown and laden with fruit in marshes, pond edges, ditches, and other wet habitats. Many fruits are starting to disintegrate, releasing thousands of tiny fluffy seeds to the wind.

Wildflowers:

  • One non-native summer wildflower, butter-and-eggs, will continue to bloom in open field and roadside environments this week.
  • A few individuals of late season asters will continue to bloom this week: heath aster, calico aster, crooked-stem aster, and New England aster.
  • Golden yellow leaves of native common milkweed, swamp milkweed, and Indian hemp may still be seen in old fields and wet meadows.
  • Common milkweed pods are bursting and releasing hundreds of seeds to the wind, each equipped with fluffy “parachutes” to aid dispersal.
  • This is bur season so be watchful where you (and your dog(s)) walk. Several local plants have adapted a hitch-a-ride strategy that capitalizes on animal disbursal. Those currently in fruit include common burdock and multiple species of bur marigold and avens.

Trees and Shrubs:

  • While leaf color is past peak over most of the Buffalo-Niagara Region, near peak color can still be found in certain habitats, particularly upland forests dominated by sugar maple and wetland forests dominated by silver and/or Freeman maple (hybrid of red and silver maples).
  • The following trees and shrubs continue to exhibit some bright red leaf color: sugar maple (some individuals), Freeman maple (hybrid of red and silver maples), arrow-wood, cranberry viburnum, and maple-leaf viburnum. Some pin oak leaves have now changed to a bright red-brown.
  • Many shrubland areas and forest edges continue to be colored reddish-purple at this time as a result of the abundance of Region’s three species of dogwood (gray, silky, and red-osier) which are now joined by similar leaf colors of arrow-wood, nannyberry, and blackberry.
  • Some brilliant orange leaves can still be seen on sugar maple (some individuals), American hornbeam, serviceberry, and shadbush.
  • The following trees and shrubs display gold and yellow leaf color: tamarack (AKA larch, a deciduous species of conifer), silver maple, Freeman maple (hybrid of red and silver maples), many sugar maples, American basswood, quaking aspen, big-toothed aspen, eastern hop-hornbeam, shagbark hickory, bitternut hickory, American beech, tulip poplar, sassafras, witch-hazel, and spicebush.
  • Wind and rain will shed leaves soon, especially after we receive a hard frost, so enjoy the color while you can.
  • Leaf color for some species of trees and shrubs stays green late into autumn, including most oaks, willows, Tartarian and Morrow’s honeysuckles (both non-native), and common and glossy buckthorn (both non-native).
  • Eastern white pine and red pine have shed old needles as new needles take their place. The shed needles have created golden blankets beneath the pines.
  • Be on the lookout for stringy yellow petals of witch-hazel flowers. Also watch and listen for seeds being explosively ejected from ripe (but woody) fruits (from last year’s flowers).
  • The availability of hard and soft mast is noticeably less abundant this week as squirrels, chipmunks, white-tailed deer, wild turkey, and other wildlife have consumed a large amount over the past several weeks.
  • Some hard mast (acorns, hickory nuts, etc.) continues to be available, on and off trees, for consumption by many mammals and some birds (e.g., wild turkey, blue jay). Sources at this time include northern red oak, pin oak, bitternut hickory, and black walnut.
  • Several native trees, shrubs, and vines continue to provide some ripe fruit (soft mast) that is an important source of food for a variety of birds and mammals: cucumber magnolia, gray dogwood, cranberry viburnum, winterberry, staghorn sumac, poison ivy, Virginia creeper, and wild grape.
  • In addition, the following non-native species provide ripe fruit (soft mast) consumed by wildlife: multiflora rose, autumn olive, and common buckthorn.

Insects & Other Invertebrates:

  • Adult stage ticks become especially abundant in early October and remain active as long as temperatures stay above freezing and the ground is not covered with snow. Therefore, be especially careful to wear protective clothing and/or repellent, and do tick-checks after every outing.
  • A few late season butterflies may still be active during relatively warm periods this week, including orange sulphur and clouded sulphur.
  • Included among the late season butterflies are individuals of three species that will overwinter as adults and be the first butterflies on the wind next spring: mourning cloak, eastern comma, and question mark butterflies.
  • Wooly bear caterpillars will continue to be active. This species will overwinter beneath leaf litter and ultimately metamorphose into Isabella tiger moth next spring.
  • A few late season dragonflies may still be active during relatively warm periods this week, including shadow darner and autumn meadowhawk.

Fish:

  • Many species of fish are moving into shallower areas and are feeding more heavily as water temperatures have cooled, including muskellunge, walleye, and smallmouth bass.
  • Schools of yellow perch are now moving into progressively shallower water as fall advances.
  • Chinook salmon (AKA king salmon) are continuing to run up Great Lakes tributary streams and the Lower Niagara River for spawning, which usually peaks in mid-October and continues through early November. Spawning runs for coho salmon typically peak a couple weeks after chinook. Both species are native to Pacific coast watersheds.
  • Historically, Atlantic salmon (AKA landlocked salmon) followed a similar spawning pattern in the Lake Ontario. This native and one-time abundant species was nearly extirpated in the late 1800’s. Restoration efforts have had limited success to date.
  • Another native species, lake trout, continues to spawn in shallow rocky/gravelly shoals of the Great Lakes and Lower Niagara River.
  • Steelhead are also running up Great Lakes tributaries and the Lower Niagara River at this time. Spawning does not occur until late winter and early spring. Steelhead are an anadromous form of rainbow trout that spawn in streams but live most of their lives in Lakes Erie and Ontario. All forms of rainbow trout are native to Pacific coast watersheds.
  • Native brook trout (our state fish species) typically begin to spawn in riffles and shallow areas of small headwater streams at about this time. Male brook trout develop a hook on the lower jaw and are ornately colored at this time of year.
  • Brown trout are beginning to run up Great Lakes tributaries and the Lower Niagara River. Spawning typically occurs from late October to December in these tributaries. In headwater streams, where brown trout have been stocked, they typically spawn a little later than brook trout. Brown trout were introduced from Europe.

Amphibians & Reptiles:

  • Northern leopard frogs have migrated to flooded wetlands and ponds where they will hibernate, similar to most other aquatic species of frogs (e.g., green frog, bullfrog).
  • Some American toads will still remain active in upland environments this week, at least during relatively warm periods. Soon they will all dig-in and enter hibernation.
  • Listen for occasional single-syllabled “peeps” from spring peepers during relatively warm periods.
  • This is still a good time of year to inspect areas around outdoor lights for spring peepers that feed on moths and other insect attracted to the lights. This species has suction-cups on its toes that allow it to cling to windows and siding. Some may still be moving toward upland hibernation areas.
  • Eastern garter snakes remain active at this time but will soon enter hibernation. Watch for them basking in sunny spots.
  • Midland painted turtles may still be seen basking on logs, especially during cool but sunny periods.

Water & Shore Birds, Gulls & Terns:

  • As Canadian waterbodies freeze, noticeably larger numbers of ducks and other waterbirds will begin to arrive in the Region. Check ponds and wetlands for mallard, American black duck, wood duck, American wigeon, northern shoveler, gadwall, ruddy duck, ring-necked duck, green-winged teal, northern pintail, hooded merganser, and American coot.
  • Watch and listen for migrant Canada goose flocks passing overhead. Some will stop-over in our region to rest and feed on their journey south.
  • This is a good time to scout for migrant brant resting and feeding in parkland and other open habitats bordering Lakes Erie and Ontario. Brant is a relatively small species of goose that nests in the tundra and into the Arctic Circle.
  • The annual buildup of “sea ducks” and similar waterbirds that overwinter in the Great Lakes and Niagara River continues with the arrival of common loon, red-throated loon, red-necked grebe, horned grebe, greater scaup, lesser scaup, canvasback, redhead, common goldeneye, bufflehead, white-winged scoter, surf scoter, black scoter, long-tailed duck, common merganser, and red-breasted merganser.
  • Watch for migrant tundra swans to start passing over and congregating along the upper Niagara River and at Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge and adjoining state WMA’s.
  • Bonaparte’s gull numbers will continue to build in the region this week, using the Niagara River as a significant stop-over feeding area along their migration route south. This species will reach its peak fall numbers in the region in November and December when thousands may be observed along the Niagara River.
  • This is an excellent time to watch for rare species of gulls such as Franklin’s gull, little gull, black-headed gull, Iceland gull, lesser black-backed gull, Sabine’s gull, and black-legged kittiwake among more common species such as recent arrivals of Bonaparte’s and greater black-backed gulls. Such rarities add to the remarkable diversity of gull species – 19 species total – that have been observed along the Niagara River and bordering Great Lakes. The peak time is typically between mid-November and mid-January.

Birds of Prey:

  • Migrant turkey vultures and hawks are continuing to pass through the Buffalo-Niagara Region, including red-tailed hawk, rough-legged hawk, red-shouldered hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper’s hawk, and northern harrier.
  • Bald eagles are starting to be seen more frequently along the Niagara River at this time. Good numbers will over-winter along the upper and lower rivers.
  • Winter resident raptors, in particular northern harriers and rough-legged hawks, will continue to arrive in the region, especially in areas with extensive open grassland habitat. A few snowy owls, short-eared owls, and long-eared owls may begin to join them starting this week.
  • Northern saw-whet owls will continue to migrate through the Region in large numbers, as documented by Project Owlnet and ebird.

Upland Game Birds:

  • Wild turkey flocks have started to form. Watch for them in farm fields, along forest edges, and near bird feeders.

Songbirds:

  • Watch bird feeders for the following songbird species that are part of this year’s “winter finch” irruption: purple finch, red crossbill, white-winged crossbill, common redpoll, hoary redpoll, pine siskin, evening grosbeak, and red-breasted nuthatch. Nyjer (AKA thistle) and black oil sunflower are the best seeds for attracting these species.
  • Bird feeders are also excellent locations to watch for arrivals of more typical migrant and overwintering feeder birds such as dark-eyed junco, white-throated sparrow, white-crowned sparrow, fox sparrow, song sparrow, and American tree sparrow.   Place seed such as white millet in ground feeders or directly on the ground to attract many of these migrants.
  • Bird feeders will also be active with year-round resident birds such as mourning dove, downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker, black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, blue jay, northern cardinal, house finch, and American goldfinch.
  • Good tips for feeding birds are available from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, at: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/notes/BirdNote01_WinterFeeding.pdf
  • If you don’t have a feeder of your own, consider visiting a local nature center (see the 2nd to last column in the tables of nature viewing sites found under the “B-N Region & Sites” tab on this web page).
  • The following “short-distance” migrant songbirds are now passing through our region on their journey south: brown creeper, red-breasted nuthatch, golden-crowned kinglet, ruby-crowned kinglet, eastern phoebe, winter wren, yellow-bellied sapsucker, American pipit, hermit thrush, yellow-rumped warbler, rusty blackbird, dark-eyed junco, white-throated sparrow, white-crowned sparrow, fox sparrow, song sparrow, American tree sparrow, purple finch, and pine siskin.
  • The northern shrike, a predatory passerine that breeds in Canada and Alaska, will continue to arrive in the Region. Watch for them on prominent perches overlooking open and brushy habitats.
  • Small flocks and family groups of eastern bluebirds may be seen this time of year, as well as small to medium sized flocks of American robins.
  • Watch for large flocks of blackbirds consisting of red-winged blackbird, rusty blackbird, common grackle, brown-headed cowbird, and/or European starling.
  • Small flocks of horned larks are being joined in open farmland and other tundra-like habitats by snow buntings and Lapland longspurs. Many will overwinter in our region.
  • To stay abreast of bird sightings in the region, consult eBird, Genesee Birds, and Dial-a-Bird (see the “Resources” tab on this web page for more details).

Mammals:

  • Resident species of cave bats (big brown, little brown, and eastern pipistrelle [tri-colored] bats) have entered hibernation. Most woodchucks have also started their winter hibernation. Two other species of true hibernators, meadow jumping mouse and woodland jumping mouse, have also begun hibernation.
  • Eastern chipmunks, gray squirrels, and southern flying squirrels continue to actively gather and store acorns and other mast for winter.
  • White-footed mice and deer mice prepare for winter by building nests in woodpecker holes, bird houses, and squirrel leaf-nests. Some rehab old bird nests by adding a roof and insulation. These mice often cross paths with homeowners this time of year as they seek shelter in sheds, garages, and houses – along with non-native house mice.
  • Beavers cut more trees this time of year, in preparation for winter. They will cut, transport, and cache cut branches in shallow water near their lodges for wintertime feeding.
  • Continue to watch for white-tailed deer buck rubs. Bucks actively rub saplings and small trees, depositing scent from forehead glands.
  • Bucks are also making scrapes by pawing away leaves to expose soil, then urinating over the scraped area to deposit scent from tarsal glands. They typically mouth and rub their antlers on an overhanging branch, depositing even more scent.
  • Deer courtship (the “rut”) is well underway. Does become more active as they start estrus and bucks are often seen following them. As a result, the frequency of deer-car collisions increases sharply during the rut, from mid-October through December.

Be sure to find an opportunity to get outside this week to discover signs of the season.

Chuck Rosenburg

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