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Superflight of the Finches

White-winged Crossbill (Loxia leucoptera) photograph by Larry Master.

On November 16, a bird watcher observed that the cars parked outside Walmart in Plattsburgh had been “whitewashed by a superflight of something.”

He suspected waxwings. A year that brought us an irruption of snowy owls, a tidal wave of red admirals, an invasion of giant butterflies, and a perfect storm of bears is now producing a winter-finch spectacle that bird watchers are calling, awesomely, a “superflight.”

“Because there’s a lack of natural food across large sections of the continent, it could be an amazing year at feeders,” writes ornithologist Matt Young of the Cornell Lab. “The Mid-Atlantic States (and perhaps Carolinas) could experience a superflight not seen in 15 years!”

Red and white-winged crossbills, pine grosbeaks, evening grosbeaks, redpolls, other finches and honorary finches such as waxwings and nuthatches are on the move in huge numbers. Adirondack birders have had lots to see as Canadian birds wander through the region, which serves as a hybrid portal between the northern boreal and more temperate ecological zones.

“The finch movements this fall are fascinating and thrilling for those in the southern states,” says Joan Collins, a bird watching guide based in Hamilton County. “Last winter, I guided many birders from New York City, Long Island, and states to the south. This fall, the species they traveled north to see last winter are now in their back yards!”

Matt Young also writes on eBird.org, “The last superflight in the East occurred in 1997-98, and what is even more exciting about this year’s movement is that it includes finches in both the West and the East.”

Collins says that winter bird movements are all about food. This year there was a widespread crop failure of fruiting and cone-bearing trees in Canada. “A common misperception is that birds move because of bad (or cold) weather. Weather only plays a role if it affects food sources. . . . We haven’t seen pine grosbeaks in a few years, so birders are particularly excited this winter! They have beautiful, melodious vocalizations. On my way home [Sunday] from taking my son to the Albany airport, I found a pine grosbeak in front of the Minerva Central School—vocalizing away—a lovely sound to hear, especially when you wait several years in between irruptions!”

Young posted ten days ago on the ABA site, “To get everyone up to date, red-breasted nuthatches and pine siskins are in Florida, purple finches in Georgia, redpolls as far south as Kentucky and Virginias, evening grosbeaks in North Carolina and Tennessee (and it’s great reading from people very excited about seeing these birds in the south again), pine grosbeaks in Connecticut and Pennsylvania, and red and white-winged crossbills in big numbers in the Virginias!”

Birders are still seeing all of the above in the Adirondacks.

You can follow Northern New York sightings on the American Birding Association Web site. Locals log observations daily. You can also participate in a citizen-science project to help monitor complicated crossbill populations.

Note: Golden eagles were among other exciting finds of the past week. Joan Collins saw the big bird on two occasions near Little Tupper Lake, and Larry Master saw one flying over Lake Placid Monday. Joan and Larry were both alerted to the eagle’s presence by alarm calls from ravens. The birds are passing through. Golden eagles have not been known to nest in the Adirondacks for decades.

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