Usually as we slide into winter here in Nebraska the birding gets a little slow. About this time last year the first Snowy Owls, in what turned out to be an unprecedented invasion, began showing up in Nebraska. This provoked a lot of excitement, but something of this magnitude is not expected to occur again anytime soon. However, this late fall and winter is shaping up to be exciting in its own right as “winter finches” and a few Rocky Mountain species have made incursions into Nebraska.
“Winter finches” is a general term applied collectively to several passerine species that breed in the taiga or tundra of northern latitudes (think Canada) or montane forests of the Rocky Mountains. They are indeed finches, relatives of the familiar American Goldfinch and House Finch, and include species such as Purple Finch, Common and Hoary Redpoll, Red and White-winged Crossbill, Evening and Pine Grosbeak, Rosy Finches and Pine Siskin. The handful of Rocky Mountain species that occasionally occur in western Nebraska include Mountain Chickadee, Stellar’s Jay, and Clark’s Nutcracker. These species are only found in the West and do not have ranges that extend across the taiga or tundra of North America.
In most winters, it would be nice to see one or two of these species make it to the state. Already this fall a majority of the aforementioned species have made appearances in Nebraska. Like the Snowy Owls of the winter of 2011-2012, these are the sort of irruptions (NOT eruption) that birders dream about. However, these birds have moved out of their traditional ranges because they are looking for food. Conifer cone crop failures can send these nomads wandering. On Sunday, both White-winged and Red Crossbills were discovered by a birder at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Omaha. White-winged Crossbills, the rarer of the two species, have occurred in the state about once or twice per decade in recent history. Thus, they are a rare sight in these parts. Since their initial discovery, numerous other birders have enjoyed seeing these nifty, and very tame, birds. Other White-wings have been found at North Platte and in the Tekamah Cemetery. Red and White-winged Crossbills, Evening Grosbeaks, Stellar’s Jay and a host of other species have also been observed at Wildcat Hills Nature Center.
Now that the word is out, it is time to keep your eyes pealed, particularly if you have a bird feeding station in your backyard. Occasionally these rare birds will make an appearance with the standard backyard fare. If you have a rare visitor, pass along the sighting. If you are more adventurous and wish to pursue these species there are a few things one can do. First, if you live or are traveling near Scottsbluff or Gering, stop by the Wildcat Hills Nature Center (http://www.visitscottsbluff.com/recreation/wildcat-hills-state-recreation-area-and-nature-center). The Nature Center has feeders set up and this an excellent location to see winter finches and possibly a rarity such as Stellar’s Jay. Also, join their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/pages/Wildcat-Hills-Nature-Center/173987212703640.
The other proactive step birders take to find winter finches is to visit cemeteries (or parks) that have plantings of conifers. Crossbills seem particularly fond of White Spruce (Picea glauca) or Blackhills Spruce (Picea glauca var. densata). But do not expect to be overwhelmed by numbers of winter finches. Even during irruption years, they can be elusive. This is the prinicipal reason why it is so special when they are encountered in Nebraska. Now, where’s that Pine Grosbeak I am looking for………