Finches bring springtime joy to Rockies

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By Sylvia Brockner

The big snow has come and gone. It was not quite as much as we had a few years ago, but it was more than we needed at one time. I measured 3½ feet at our house, but it was so warm that much of it melted as it fell, and it weighed so much that it compacted what had already fallen. So, measurements were less than accurate. I decided that the actual depth didn’t much matter. After you pass 2 feet of wet heavy snow, most of the roads are closed and the damage to power lines has been done.

It took about three days for the snow to accumulate, and it took another three days for most of it to melt. It took four days to get my power back on. All in all, I lost about a week of time in which I accomplished nothing. All I did during that period was related to basic survival: carrying in firewood to keep the fireplace going 24 hours a day, cooking in the fireplace, melting snow to flush the toilet and putting out food for the birds. It sure does make one appreciate electricity! We should all say a big thank-you to Xcel and other power companies for the tremendous job they did to restore our power as quickly as they did. It seemed like a long time when we were waiting for it, but they had a big and difficult task that they accomplished in an amazingly short time.

Now it is spring again, with all its beauty and pleasures. One of the best sights at the feeders during the snowstorm was a small flock of goldfinches that appeared one afternoon. Unbelievably brilliant golden yellow in their full spring finery, they stood out like flashes of sunshine against the white snow. They fed gluttonously as if they hadn’t eaten for a week, and when satiated, they flew off joyfully not to be seen again.

If I were to choose one word to describe a goldfinch, I think it would be joyful. They sing and twitter with a jumble of happy notes; they bounce when they fly like kids on a roller coaster; they highly admire dandelions that small people also do. They don’t settle down to nesting as soon as they return in the spring but instead wander about in happy little flocks enjoying spring before they nest in July. Like a band of gypsies, they sing and dance and seem to enjoy life more than any bird I know. Even in a snowstorm, they are joyful.

A very few stay in the area in open winters as long as seeds are available and infrequently show up at feeders. They belong to the big finch family and, like sparrows, live almost entirely on seeds except for while the small young are fed on insects. They consume large quantities of noxious weed seeds and are especially fond of dandelion and thistle seeds — so much so that people refer to them as thistle birds.

They build a well-constructed nest of plant fibers and line it with the soft, silky down from thistle seeds. This is why they do not nest earlier. They wait for thistle seed down (pappus) to line their nests. I have often wondered why they do not use dandelion pappus, which appears much earlier, but there must be a reason. Perhaps it is not as resilient and mats down in the nest. Thistle down seems to stay soft and silky even when trampled by a nest full of six or more young.

Because they nest so late, they usually have only one large brood, as they would not have time for a second brood to mature before fall comes. In late summer the females and young look much alike, and in fall the male molts his brilliant yellow and puts on his winter coat, which is also mostly olive drab, and they all look very similar. But golden or olive, they are such joyful little birds that one cannot but love having them around.

Other birds of interest during the past week have been a few ducks on the lake, including blue-winged, green-winged and cinnamon teal, and three buffleheads. On Friday night, April 17, during the worst of the snow, a white-faced glossy ibis was also seen at the lake. The most exciting news was that broad-tailed hummingbirds have returned. The first reported were on April 15 when two were seen by Tina Jones in Bow Mar and one at the mouth of Coal Creek Canyon. However, the first foothills report came from Denisse West, who saw one in Indian Hills on April 20. This makes me suggest that if you do not already have your feeders up and filled, you should do so. These early arrivals have a difficult time, as so few flowers are now in bloom. They really can’t find enough natural nectar to survive, and feeders are necessary.

As I finish this article, Loie Evans phoned from the lake to say that a cormorant, spotted sandpiper, yellow-rumped warbler and two red-tailed hawks were new arrivals today. One of the red-tailed hawks was the light phase, which is an exceptionally beautiful nearly white bird with a pink tail. She had no more than said goodbye when the phone rang again. It is that time of year when every day, even every hour bring new arrivals. This time it was Kathanne Lynch, who reported her first broad-tailed hummingbird at 7,500 feet elevation at Genesee.

Spring has sprung, and now hummingbirds mean that summer is here, even though we may still have more snow. That’s life in the Rockies.