From sharing rides on outings to taking fewer if any overnight trips to the field, birders have felt limited by the scourge of the coronavirus pandemic.
Thankfully, not so the birds.
While the usual wintering birds in Minnesota such as black-capped chickadees and northern cardinals grace the landscape, this has been the winter of finches, said one keen observer of the winged community.
"Each winter is different," said Bob Dunlap, a past president of the Minnesota Ornithologists' Union and zoologist and data specialist for the Department of Natural Resources. "You've got a number of birds that any given winter, they are going to be here."
There never is a winter without the aforementioned chickadees or cardinals. Dark-eye juncos, too. Other winters have irruptions — unusually high numbers of a species.
"This is a finch winter," Dunlap said, singling out the evening grosbeak, which has been seen as far south as Houston County. People are reporting red crossbills and, like the rarity of grosbeaks to the south, common redpolls also are showing up statewide. Pine siskins and purple finches irrupt every one or two years, and they are statewide, too.
"Any given winter it might be one species or two species that seem to be in greater abundance, and this winter it seems like a majority of species are in decent abundance where you can find them throughout most of the state, which is really exciting."
Here are five winter birds — finches and others — top of mind for Dunlap, with advice on how to identify them:
They are one of the bigger finches — smaller than a robin but bigger and bulkier than a goldfinch. The males stand out. They are bright yellow even in winter, with big, white wing patches. They also have dark hats. Dunlap said they have big, crushing bills for eating seeds. They'll feed at sunflower tray feeders, and also will go for catkins and berry- and seed-producing trees.
Dunlap said birders can reliably find them in a few spots at the Sax-Zim Bog every winter, but this winter there are reports they are all over the bog and, uncharacteristically, as far south as Houston County and in spots more than usual in northwestern Minnesota. They're showing up more than usual in southeastern states, too.
An outbreak of the spruce worm — an invertebrate pest — in the boreal regions of Canada and northern Minnesota might be attracting the finches, looking for a meal. Dunlap said there are reports there can be 40 years between really large outbreaks.
Grosbeaks used to be regular winter visitors in the northern half of the United States.
"What we are seeing now is pretty special in the lifetime of a lot of birders," Dunlap said.
White-winged and red crossbills
These finches are "cone specialists," said Dunlap. They are most often spotted high in pine and spruce trees to eat. White-wings go for the smaller cones of spruce trees. There are different types of red crossbills, with different bill sizes. Some go for the larger cones on white pines, while those with smaller bills key on spruces.
A bird pecking at a cone high in a conifer tree is likely a crossbill. The tips of their bills overlap, allowing them to peck and pry open the scales to get to the seeds.
"It's really fascinating behavior," Dunlap said, "because there is nothing else in the bird world, at least in North America, that does that."
A little bigger than a goldfinch, males are kind of rosy red for both species. Females are muted yellow-green. White-wings are distinguished by bold, white wing bars.
Common redpolls are one of the easier finches to spot. They like thistle feeders. They have streaky-colored plumage, yellow bills and distinct red caps. Like goldfinches, where there is one there usually are more, Dunlap said.
The loggerhead shrike is a rare breeder in Minnesota that gets replaced in winter by the northern shrike, which begins arriving in late October. Gray birds with dark masks and wings and a flash of white on the tails, they are distinct by appearance and their actions. They are a songbird that feeds on smaller songbirds.
"Their songs sound like finch songs," Dunlap said, "a finchy warble" that shrikes use to lure their prey. Their behavior mimics small species of falcons in Minnesota such as kestrel and merlins. Most shrikes will migrate by the end of March. They commonly hang out in open areas.
Raptors: hawks and owls
Other winter standouts are worth mentioning. Rough-legged hawks are showing up in open country where they can prowl the expanse to feed on small mammals. They share looks and characteristics with red-tailed hawks — and they are sometimes mistaken for them while perched on poles — but they are slightly larger and have darker tails feathers and a noticeable white rump during flight. Black wrist patches also are a distinguishing marking. Some winters they are fairly common in open spaces of the state, but they can be scarce, too, Dunlap said.
Years with heavy snow cover makes hunting difficult, and many will bypass Minnesota. "Some years they'll just keeping going," he said.
In general, northern owls such as snowies and great grays are up this winter. Snowy owls tend to stick north in any given year but are turning up again at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Great grays are irrupting in numbers beyond usual winters, north and south, Dunlap said. Most of the owl species are dependent on prey, and when small mammal populations like voles are up, so are sightings of the winged visitors. They are called northern owls for a reason, but that doesn't mean a spotting can't happen elsewhere. Earlier this winter, a great gray owl was spotted in Battle Creek Regional Park in Maplewood.
Bob Timmons • 612-673-7899