P.E.I. birders excited by large numbers of unusual visitors this fall

Prince Edward Islanders are seeing some unusual birds this fall in their yards and at their feeders. 

It’s because of something called an irruption and it has a lot of birders on P.E.I. excited about what they are going to see this winter.

“The one that most people are taking note of now at the feeders is the finch irruption,” said Dwaine Oakley, who teaches in the wildlife conservation program at Holland College and watches birds at his feeders in Stratford, P.E.I.

Oakley said an irruption is an irregular movement of birds, in this case from the northern parts of Canada, the boreal forest region. 

“Due to a lack of food, [they] have now moved farther south and into our region, and into the northeast and other parts of the States,” Oakley said.

Oakley says it’s been 20 or 25 years since P.E.I. has seen the number of evening grosbeaks that are showing up. (Nicole Murtagh)

“Allowing people to actually see them at their feeders, and some species, in some large numbers that we haven’t seen in a couple of decades.” 

Oakley said most of the birds in this year’s finch irruption are sighted regularly on P.E.I., just in very small numbers.

But this year, he said, there has been a large increase of species such as evening grosbeaks and common redpolls.

The common redpoll is being seen in larger numbers than usual here on P.E.I. as part of the finch irruption this fall. (Donna Martin)

“With common redpolls, it’s been several years since we’ve seen the numbers that are out there right now,” Oakley said.

“When it comes to evening grosbeaks, it’s been 20 or 25 years since we’ve seen the numbers that are starting to show up.”

‘Sheer numbers’

Summerside birder and bird photographer Donna Martin had a surprise sighting last month, at North Cape, P.E.I.

“Driving along North Cape, probably six weeks ago, I had a huge, huge flock, over 200 pine siskins come in off the water,” Martin said.  

“It was pretty interesting to see that. They just came in off the water and landed and started feeding.

Donna Martin was driving along North Cape when she saw a huge flock of more than 200 pine siskins come in off the water. (Donna Martin)

“We always get a few of these birds around the province, but it’s certainly the sheer numbers that are of interest this year.”

Other unusual species

Oakley said the finch irruption isn’t the only unusual event birders are observing this fall.

He said there has also been an influx of other species not usually seen here on P.E.I.

Birders are excited about sightings of the northern cardinal which Oakley says is either a possible range expansion, or was blown here by the winds that P.E.I. had in late fall. (Dale Murchison )

Oakley said some have been, literally, blown onto the Island.

“It’s more due to some of the southerly winds that we had, we’ve had a large influx this fall of some more western species and some from more southern United States,” Oakley said. 

“The northern cardinal is either a possible range expansion, or part of winds that we had late fall.”

Dale Murchison took this photo of a snowy owl, from a safe distance with a large telephoto lens, at Covehead in 2017. (Dale Murchison)

Then there have been the recent sightings of snowy owls.

“The trifecta would be we’re starting to see an irruption of snowy owls into the region as well,” Oakley said.

Like the other irruptions, Oakley said the snowy owls are on the move for a variety of reasons.

“They might have had a large number of chicks and now they’re being displaced by adults in their winter range,” Oakley said.

“Some of the young birds get moved down, pushed out of the region and have to go farther south, into our region.”

New species sighted

Martin said adding to the excitement this fall has been the sighting of two species never before seen here on P.E.I. — the rock wren and Franklin’s gull.

“Two new species for P.E.I., both western birds, and I guess probably got pushed in, whether through a storm or just some high winds,” Martin said.

“They were pretty exciting birds for the province. We’ll have to change our checklist and add a couple of new ones.”

Birders on P.E.I. will have their checklists out over the next two weeks as part of Audubon’s 121st Christmas Bird Count.

“We’d love to hear if people have something unusual at their feeders, especially if they’re within the count circles,” Oakley said.

“So they can reach out to Nature P.E.I. or Birding on P.E.I. Facebook page for some really good resources.” 

Oakley says once the wild food sources are gone, the finches will start going to feeders or moving farther south. (Donna Martin)

‘It’s been amazing’

Oakley said how long the finches stay on P.E.I. will depend on what food they are able to find, and once the wild food sources are gone, the birds will start going to feeders or moving farther south.

For now, both birders suggest Islanders should make the most of the irruptions and the birds they have brought to the Island.

“It’s one of those weird seasons that we’re benefiting from northern finches, we’re seeing snowy owls move into the region, and then a large number of cardinals, which people are excited about,” Oakley said. 

“So it’s a great time to be out there birding.”

Oakley says the clay-colored sparrow has been seen less than 10 times on P.E.I. so he was excited to get this photo in early December in his yard in Stratford. (Dwaine Oakley)

“It’s been amazing, the birds around have been great,” Martin said. 

“It’s been a pretty exciting year for birders.”

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