Common Grackle
Every season, something to watch for

(published 11-17-15)

My yard, and probably yours too, is a fine place to watch birds. It doesn’t matter that it’s surrounded by other houses, or that a park, pond or woods is nowhere in sight. The birds visit anyway, attracted by food, water and a chance to have their picture taken.
Newcomers are rare but always welcome. In September, an olive-sided flycatcher stopped by, No. 114 on my yard list. After 18 years, the list is still growing, albeit slowly.
I was nearly as thrilled when my favorite backyard bird, red-breasted nuthatch, appeared in mid-October. A pair turned up in the days that followed, making quick hits to peanut feeder. I’m crossing my fingers that they’ll be regular customers this fall and winter. Red-breasted nuthatches have been way too scarce around here in recent years.
The yard took on a Hitchcockian feel October 24 when a raucous flock of common grackles staged an invasion lasting several hours. Some homeowners might have shooed them away but not me. It was a scene well worth watching—loud, black, avian chaos. Cardinals and other innocents looked on in horror. For them, “The Day of the Grackle” could not end soon enough.
The next day, a Sunday, I kept a close eye on things, curious to see if the circus would return. Amazingly, not a single blackbird visited the yard. 
I would not have predicted that. But a lot of what happens in the backyard is rather easy to forecast. The more you watch birds, the more you appreciate their behaviors, seasonality and migration patterns. In early October you wait for that first dark-eyed junco to magically appear under your feeders, a feathered gift from the north. About the same time, trained eyes can spot chimney swifts high in the air, on their way to South America for the winter. I noticed a few on October 6. 
Pine Siskin
Very soon we hope to see and hear a more conspicuous migrant, the sandhill crane. Flocks of these bugling gray giants move through our region in November, a centuries-old sky show not to be missed.  
Besides the all-time yard list, I keep a backyard year list, recording every species and the date observed. This is good way to learn the seasonal patterns I mentioned, and part of my ongoing education as a birder. In most years, migratory birds come and go with a remarkable consistency. In time, you know exactly what to expect at different times of the year—in your yard and elsewhere.  You can get this information from a book or website but it’s more satisfying to track it yourself and compare notes from year to year.
As we move into the colder months, there’s a particular member of the finch family that I’m watching for: pine siskin. The species is special for me because the first one I ever saw was in my own yard, in February 1998. So far it’s my only “lifer” scored at home.

Siskins are not hard to tell apart from goldfinches and house finches but you need to be alert. They blend in with your regular feeder birds quite easily. Field marks to look for are pointy bill, heavy streaking and a deeply notched tail. Watch for yellow feathers in the wings and tail, too, especially on birds landing or taking off.
One more thing: siskins, like other finches, show a strong preference for “thistle” seed (Nyjer). You must offer it to attract them. Having some coneflowers and alder trees in the yard doesn’t hurt either.
Pine siskin is a “maybe species,” like the crossbills, purple finch and common redpoll. Some winters they visit our region in good numbers, some years not. It depends on the food supply in their northern breeding grounds. If the cone and seed crop is plentiful, siskins stay in their usual northern range. But when the pickins are slim they tend to wander south in nomadic flocks. 
Even in “off” years, small numbers of siskins are in the area. And if they locate your feeder they might become daily customers.
This year I didn’t see a siskin in the yard until March 7. Then two or three birds arrived and stayed through May, capped by a final yard sighting on June 9!
A single pine siskin was spotted at Cantigny Park in Wheaton on August 8. So the species, like birding itself, continues to surprise us. Perhaps due in part to climate change, it’s the “winter finch” most likely to be seen in spring, summer and fall.   
Copyright 2015 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.