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Why this year will be different for area bird watchers -- in a very good way

Three common redpolls were last seen in Centre County by the author in 2013. MARK NALE - For the CDT
Three common redpolls were last seen in Centre County by the author in 2013. MARK NALE - For the CDT

When the temperatures drop and the snow flies, it is time for filling birdfeeders, pouring a cup of hot coffee, kicking back and watching the winter birds. Cardinals, blue jays, juncos, chickadees and others can be enjoyed visiting the feeders from the comfort of one’s home. This is the bird watching that many people enjoy, and I admit that I do, too.

While winter signals the start of birding for some, it is often the slow period for serious birders, because so many of our summer birds fly south for the winter. One or two new species, such as dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows, migrate into central Pennsylvania for the winter, but that hardly makes up for the scores of species that leave.

This winter is a little different. Even veteran birders are eagerly keeping an eye on their feeders and venturing out with anticipation in their steps. This year offers the possibility -- no guarantees -- of seeing several less common avian visitors.

The added excitement is caused by the “Winter Finch Forecast” -- a September prediction made by award-winning ornithologist Ron Pittaway about which northern Canada finches and other birds might be moving south this winter. Pittaway, of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, is forecasting an “irruption year” for finches in eastern Canada. So-called “irruptions” are large numbers of northern bird species moving south because of shortages of tree seed crops in their normal winter range.

Pittaway correctly predicted an early movement of red-breasted nuthatches. Many have been in Pennsylvania since September, and a few arrived in central Florida by the beginning of December.

“Purple finches are now moving south out of Ontario,” Pittaway wrote back in September. “Most purples will have departed the province by December because seed crops are poor on northern conifers and hardwoods. ... They prefer black oil sunflower seeds.”

Purple finches have been regular visitors at my feeders this fall, but never more than three at a time. They are being spotted all over Centre County. Another northern finch - pine siskins - are at my feeders in small numbers. Based on my feeders, siskin numbers are low compared to some big irruption years in the recent past.

While seeing pine siskins, red-breasted nuthatches, and purple finches are fine, more birders are excited about the prospects of seeing redpolls and particularly evening grosbeaks. Since birch, alder and conifer seed crops are poor in northeastern Canada, Pittaway predicts that common and hoary redpolls will move south.

The last time that redpolls visited my Port Matilda-area feeders was in January of 2013, so I would love to see and photograph them again. Pittaway predicts a moderate flight of evening grosbeaks south into the northern states this winter.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, it was not unusual to have hordes of 30 to 50 evening grosbeaks descend on and quickly empty birdfeeders. Unfortunately, that cannot happen this year, because the species has experienced serious declines since the 1980s. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada lists evening grosbeaks as a species of special concern.

I would be thrilled to see even one of the beautiful, yellow, black and white, cardinal-sized birds, but local sightings have been spotty. According to Cornell University’s eBird postings -- and not all birders use eBird, but they should -- a very limited number of evening grosbeaks have already been spotted in the area.

The action began October 30, with a sighting on Stone Mountain reported by State College birder Nick Bolgiano. A few days later, on November 2, Patrick Kline spotted an evening grosbeak at his home in Frenchville.

The first 2018 Centre County sighting was made on November 12, by Amber Wiewel. She watched three grosbeaks munching on sunflower seeds at her Boalsburg feeders. The next day, Joe Gyekis spotted one at 10-Acre Pond at the Scotia Barrens. Just three days, later Brian Schmoke and Allie Causey photographed three evening grosbeaks at their feeders in Marsh Creek Valley.

Other county sightings include two spotted at the Penns Cave airport by Julia Plummer, one seen by Ron Rovansek in Port Matilda, three photographed by Robert Snyder at his home in Howard, and one observed by Debra Rittelmann in Spring Mills. There has been only one reported sighting in Blair County -- Mar Sension had three visit her Altoona area feeders on November 18.

Evening grosbeaks have also been spotted at Pennsylvania Furnace, Shavers Creek, and in Crestmont. It is odd, but all sightings have been one-day affairs, except for Kline’s in Frenchville. Kline has regularly observed a good assortment of northern birds -- including six red-breasted nuthatches at once and he reported sightings of evening grosbeaks on seven separate occasions.

Most of us are still waiting for our first grosbeak view. A very apropos digital cartoon is being passed around the birding world. It shows a skeleton sitting in a chair with binoculars hung around its neck, titled “Waiting for evening grosbeaks.” The cartoon captures the feelings of many so-far unlucky birders.

I have not seen an evening grosbeak in nearly 35 years, so needless to say, I, too, am waiting for evening grosbeaks.

Mark Nale, who lives in the Bald Eagle Valley, is a member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association and can be reached at