Winter Irruptives

Merriam Webster dictionary defines irruptive as “a sudden sharp increase in the relative numbers of a natural population. . .” Winter in Maine often sees irruptions of a variety of birds which range from Alaska to the Canadian Maritimes.  These birds include Pine Siskins, Common Redpolls, Evening Grosbeaks and two crossbills. For these birds, it’s all about the seeds.

Evening Grosbeak

Evening Grosbeak

One of my first winters in Maine, I had some of these birds regularly visit my feeder. Growing up in Mississippi, I seldom, if ever, saw these birds and was delighted to think they were common in Maine. Unfortunately, since that early winter, they seldom visit and I haven’t seen an Evening Grosbeak in seven years.

So, where do they go? Have you ever noticed that White Pines produce a lot of cones some years while other years are modest? This same cycle happens with many other trees, including oak and beech. If you’ve noticed these cycles, you can bet these birds have noticed too. 

When I moved to Maine, I learned a new word from hunters and foresters - “mast.” Mast, in this case, are the fruit, nuts or seeds of a tree. A good “mast year,” produces a super-abundance of seeds and may attract these visitors. Here is a quick summary of each:

Pine Siskin: This bird may remind you of a dull, female goldfinch. Look for a streaky brown and black bird with yellow-to-white bars on its wings. Its underparts are streaked in brown as well.

Common Redpoll: This small bird is brown streaked on top and lighter underneath. Males have a raspberry patch on their forehead and raspberry on their throat to their chest.

Evening Grosbeak (pictured): This large, chunky bird is bright yellow with black and white highlights. If this bird visits your feeder, you won’t soon forget it. In our area, there’s no other bird this big and this yellow.

Crossbills: There are two types. Red Crossbills (pictured) and White-winged Crossbills. The males are reddish with black, white and brown highlights. The females are olive. What sets them apart is their beak. The upper bill crosses the lower one. This allows them to pry open cones for the seeds. Look for them in the tops of pine, spruce or fir trees.

Keep watch for these unique visitors. They irrupt into our area, especially during high, mast years. (Information sourced from

James Reddoch, of Albany Township and Boston, leads birding events for the Mahoosuc Land Trust which celebrates 30 years conserving the natural areas of the Mahoosuc Region. Visit Valentine Farm at, 162 North Road Bethel, ME or at To learn about upcoming events or to contact James send your emails to