The Nature Writers of Texas

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Sunday, December 26, 2004

Some Songbirds are Irregular Winter Rarities
by Ro Wauer

Every few years a truly rare bird species, for our area, appears at our feeders. It may remain for a couple hours or a few days, but very seldom stays for long before it disappears. Many of these rarities are northern birds that come south due to extra cold weather or a depleted food supply in their more normal wintering grounds. This year apparently is one of those years when conditions are not as comfortable up north, and so a few northern songbirds are appearing here and there in our area.

The most exciting of these "accidentals" is the purple finch, a house finch-like species that can be identified by the male's rose-red head and chest and unstreaked belly, and the female's brown ear patch, broadly edged with white, and heavily streaks underparts; no red. The purple finch is a tough-looking bird, considered "uncommon to rare and irregular winter visitor to the northern portion of the state," according to "Handbook of Texas Birds." It is extremely rare in South Texas, but it was a somewhat "regular" winter visitor to Texas prior to the 1980s; since then observations have declined sharply.

So, when a female purple finch appeared at my feeders on December 5, it was a rather exciting event, although friend Paul Julian had called early to tell me that the species had been seen in my area the previous day. My female purple finch remained for only about two hours, and on December 14, a male purple finch suddenly appeared, checked out my feeders, and was gone just as suddenly. The December 5 purple finch was the 173rd yard bird recorded since I have been keeping track of what species have appeared in my yard or what I have seen in flight over my yard since 1989. It also marked my fifth yard bird for 2004. The other new 2004 birds included a bald eagle on March 16, worm-eating warbler on March 29, blue-winged warbler on April 17, and green jay on October 16.

Pine siskins also appeared at my feeders about the same day as the purple finch. Although pine siskins occur most winters, they do represent northern species that are somewhat irregular in their occurrence. These little streaked finches are pugnacious birds that are able to intimidate several of the larger seedeaters such as goldfinches and sparrows, and they are sloppy feeders, throwing aside all but favorite seeds.

There are a few other northern songbirds that appear irregularly some winters; their appearance can never be expected. These include brown creeper, a tiny, all-brown bird that creeps along a tree trunk in search of insects; golden-crowned kinglet, a little highly vocal bird with a golden crown that usually stays in the high canopy; rusty blackbird is similar in appearance to the more common Brewer's blackbird female, but its back is blotched with rust. Rusty blackbirds are of special interest because this species has declined precipitously throughout its range in recent years.

Some of the more commonly expected wintertime songbirds that we do not find in our area during the breeding season include ruby-crowned kinglet; hermit thrush; brown thrasher; American pipit; cedar waxwing; orange-crowned and yellow-rumped warblers; chipping, Lincoln's, swamp, white-throated sparrows; and American goldfinch.

Christmas Bird Counts, in which all of the wintering birds in an area are recorded annually, are one of the better ways that biologists are able to record population changes over the years. With more than 100 years of continuous records in some areas, these data provide important population trends all across the continent. Like canaries once taken into mines to help miners recognize dangerous levels of gasses or loss of oxygen, Christmas Bird Count data provide significant clues into the condition of our wildlife as well as our own well-being.

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