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Cassin’s finches return to area after long hiatus

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By Sylvia Brockner

Oh, how good it is to see green again. Today was a beautiful clear day. With a flow of warm air from the southwest, it was the first really warm day here in the mountains. Yesterday was clear and sunny, but the cold wind did not make it feel like spring.

Today was spring-like, even here in the mountains. I had to go into Denver and the metropolitan area was fantastic. It was almost too warm for the light-weight jacket I had worn. The first rank of foothills west of town were green, instead of the dirty tan they have been since last summer. I saw a cherry tree in lacy white bloom, and maples and cottonwoods had thickened with leaf buds about to burst open. Tulips, daffodils and crocuses bloomed in many yards. It really is warmer down here.

Despite our colder temperature, the inlet at Evergreen Lake has been growing larger every day. This morning, April 9, there were three green-winged teal in the small opening and two common snipe on the edge of the marsh, just off the boardwalk, according to Lois Evans who walks the lake trail every morning.

The snipe were probing in the soft mud as they often do, like a sewing machine needle slowly going up and down. So, the spring influx has begun and every day for the next two months will bring new activity at the lake.

Spring has finally come, and I am delighted. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t still have snow. The early star-drift (pushkinia) is blooming in my yard. They are very hardy and often magically disappear and then reappear when their white blooms are covered with April snow.

Many of you who read this column regularly will remember my writing about the steady decline in Cassin’s finches over the recent years. These beautiful colorful pink birds used to arrive in our yards in February, increasing steadily in numbers until early April when they would begin to move on to their breeding range.

At the time I was banding birds, and it was possible to catch and release a hundred birds in a morning in my yard with twice that many still coming to my feeders that I never trapped or banded. We never knew why but over a period of 10 years or so, they steadily declined until we were pleased when spring brought two or three to our feeders.

No one could explain this mysterious decline, and we all hoped they had perhaps changed their route and were moving through somewhere else, perhaps at a higher elevation. We still have no knowledge of what caused their decline, but after many dreary springs of perhaps one pair at the feeder, this year on March 31, I was delighted to count 11 Cassin’s finches on a feeder. This is the highest count I have had for many years. Just maybe, they are beginning to recover and may in time come back in their former numbers.

Cassin’s finches are the western race of the northeastern purple finch. Not quite as abundantly colored as the purple finch, the Cassin’s finch is just as brilliant, but the coloring doesn’t extend over as much of their body.

I was talking last week with my nephew, who lives in New York, and he was very excited to have four purple finches at his feeder. I wondered about his great excitement, for these birds had been fairly regular winter visitors in the area when we lived there. Then he told me that they have been inter-breeding with the house finches, which were introduced into the East about 40 years ago, and have spread like wildfire.

This has apparently all but wiped our purple finches in the area, since they all see now are hybrids. However, I don’t believe that is what has been the problem with our Cassin’s finches, for the house finches and Cassin’s finches are both native western species and have not to my knowledge hybridized in the past. However, I am keeping a sharp eye on all red finches that appear at my feeders to see if I can spot anything that might be a hybrid, even though I think it highly unlikely.

Spring is here. The foothills are turning green. After a long winter, the spring migration passes all too quickly. Be sure to get out and enjoy it.