Late-fall can be a bit of a downer as it trends toward winter, what with the cold and the gray and the dismal.
But for area birders, this time of year begins a seasonal quest to seek out birds that don't generally live in central Ohio.
Oh, we get our regular winter visitors, among them dark-eyed juncos and a variety of sparrows (white-throated, white-crowned and tree). But some winters promise to be special, and the upcoming season looks to be one of those.
Already, we've spotted red-breasted nuthatches and pine siskins at the feeders at Deer Haven and Hogback Ridge preserves. We're on the lookout for evening grosbeaks and, in conifer groves, white-winged and red crossbills -- all of which have been spotted in Ohio.
The white-winged crossbills and red-breasted nuthatches, in particular, are entering Ohio in huge numbers.
Birding experts say the winter of 2012-13 will be an irruption year for those species and others, which means they will leave their usual winter grounds in Canada and the farthest-northern reaches of the U.S. to head further south, mostly in search of food. Irruptive species are plentiful some years and absent in others, depending on food availability in their native areas.
In September, noted Ontario (Canada) biologist Ron Pittaway published his annual winter finch forecast, eagerly awaited by birders who want to know which birds they should expect to see out in the wild and at their feeders.
In his report, he said both coniferous and hardwood tree seed crops are "generally poor from northeastern Ontario extending eastward across Quebec to Newfoundland south through the Maritime Provinces, New York and New England states."
That means birds that would normally stay in those regions will head to areas south, including Ohio. (You can read the report, which includes a lot of information on bird species, their diet and where you are likely to see them, at: http://ebird.org/content/ebird/news/ff2012.)
But what does this mean to you as you go for a walk in one of the Preservation Parks preserves?
Well, at Hogback Ridge and Deer Haven preserves, it means you might see some of these visitors at the bird feeders, where you can watch from the comfort of viewing areas that come complete with scopes, binoculars and bird-identification books.
Common redpolls -- cute little songbirds with a red patch on their heads -- go for thistle and nyger seed, and will visit feeders. Purple finches could show up as well.
If we're lucky, the stunning evening grosbeak -- bright golden-yellow, brown, black and white -- also might arrive to dine at the feeders. Along with seeds, buds and berries, these colorful finches favor sunflower seed, and the sight of a flock of them descending on a feeder can be the highlight of a birder's day. The speed at which they empty the feeder might be disconcerting, however, as the bird's powerful beaks tear through seed at a ferocious pace.
Other irruptive species are more likely to be seen out in the wild. You might spot crossbills in conifer stands, whether in planted pine forests in our parks or in your own back yard. The birds strip the seeds from pine cones with their curved, crossed bills. In about three-fourths of these birds, the right side of the bill crosses over the left side -- kind of like being right-handed. The left or right direction determines how the bird goes after the pine-cone seeds.
These are pretty birds, by the way, with the males providing a flash of pinkish-red (white-winged crossbills) or orangish-red (red crossbills) against the drabness of the winter landscape.
Whether the winter visitors are at our feeders, in your yard or out in the parks, they provide a little excitement during the long, cold winter. We'll be outdoors, regardless of the weather. Bundle up and join us.
Sue Hagan is marketing and communications manager for Preservation Parks of Delaware County.