The 2012-13 winter season was one to remember, featuring a spectacular superflight of winter finches and remarkable invasion of northern owls across the western Great Lakes. No birder could realistically expect a similar performance just a year later, and indeed the popular “Winter Finch Forecast” by Ontario’s Ron Pittaway predicted a relatively poor showing across the region this winter. Though no one similarly attempts to predict owl flights, irruptions over consecutive years are uncommon but not unprecedented. What does this winter have in store for eager birders in the Upper Midwest?
Like even the best weather predictions, the Winter Finch Forecast doesn’t always come to fruition. Late October and early November, however, usually provide the first real ground test of what the upcoming winter birding scene may be like. If finches or owls are going to irrupt in significant numbers, the initial wave is typically evident across northern Wisconsin and Minnesota by this time. With this in mind, here I recap where things currently stand for the winter 2013-14 finch and owl season. Data were gleaned from eBird, the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union’s online database, various listserves and facebook groups, and Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory’s daily reports of non-raptors at hawkcount.org.
As predicted, winter finches have been scarce thus far. Small numbers of Pine Grosbeaks and Bohemian Waxwings have been found, mostly in Minnesota. Crossbills, redpolls, and evening grosbeaks are showing no signs of irruptive flights into the region. Pine Siskins and Purple Finches are scattered across region as in most autumns, while American Goldfinches are being seen in large numbers regionwide. Recent sightings of multiple Northern Hawk Owls in northeast Minnesota and one in northwestern Wisconsin give hope of at least some movement this year. Several Great Grays have been reported, mostly from traditional, non-irruptive locales in Minnesota, while reports of Boreal and Snowy Owls have been nearly non-existent so far this fall. More details below!
PINE GROSBEAK: Only one individual has been eBirded in Wisconsin at time of this writing. Minnesota has had more consistent reports in the past few weeks, though still relatively infrequent and in small numbers. All reports there have been north of Duluth, where Hawk Ridge has tallied several flocks of southbound birds on multiple days. These early season sightings suggest small to moderate numbers of Pine Grosbeaks will likely occupy the north woods this winter.
eBird map for Pine Grosbeak, Oct-Nov 2013
CROSSBILLS – RED & WHITE-WINGED: Both crossbills have been exceptionally scarce this fall. A couple reports stem from far northern Minnesota, while Hawk Ridge has had just a few fly-bys of each species over just a couple days. Wisconsin eBird shows only one individual crossbill seen in the state since October 1. Quite the contrast from 2012 (Figure 1)!
REDPOLLS – COMMON & HOARY: Very similar to the crossbill story – abundant by this time last year, typically present in numbers by now during irruption years, and nearly absent so far this year. Few reports of just a couple Common Redpolls have been made in each of northern Minnesota and Michigan, and none documented yet in Wisconsin. It appears redpolls will be rather scarce in the Badger State this winter. Hoary Redpoll? No Commons generally means no Hoaries either…
eBird map comparing Common Redpoll from Oct-Nov 2012 (blue markers) to 2013 (red markers)
BOHEMIAN WAXWING: Very similar to the Pine Grosbeak story thus far – multiple reports from northeast Minnesota and Hawk Ridge but low numbers and not widespread. None reported in Wisconsin at time of this writing. However, at least some appear likely to leak into the northern tier of the state by mid-winter.
eBird map for Bohemian Waxwing, Oct-Nov 2013
EVENING GROSBEAK: Again in contrast to last year, no evidence of any flight at all this year. So far only a few reports from northern Wisconsin and Minnesota as in a typical winter.
eBird map for Evening Grosbeak, Oct-Nov 2013
PINE SISKIN: Also no evidence of any irruptive movements. Reports are scattered throughout the Midwest, including northern and southern parts of the region, but nearly all represent few birds.
eBird map for Pine Siskin, Oct-Nov 2013
PURPLE FINCH: Unlike the other winter finches, most vacate northern Minnesota and Wisconsin in normal years. In years when seed crops are good, some may remain. It’s a bit early to tell exactly what will happen but so far things seems rather “normal” across the region for this species.
eBird map for Purple Finch, Oct-Nov 2013
AMERICAN GOLDFINCH: Not a classically irruptive species but numbers vary significantly each winter, especially across the north. Large numbers have been found throughout the region this autumn. Hawk Ridge in Duluth tallied thousands of migrants, including a state high count of 3,585 on October 2 and second highest state count of 1,358 as recent as November 7. This appears to be the dominant finch in Minnesota and Wisconsin heading into the winter.
SNOWY OWL: After two consecutive good years for this species, a dose of reality may be upon us in 2013-14. Very few have been reported in the U.S. this fall, including one in far northern Minnesota on November 8, while the only regular reports so far come from traditional wintering areas in Alberta (Figure 2). With that said, their Canadian haunts get little eBird coverage AND mid-November to early December is often the more telling period for this species, so there still may be hope for you optimists out there. On the other hand, by this time during the past two irruption years a notable number of birds were already present. The good news is that irruption or not, there are usually a few Snowies to be found in the region.
BOREAL OWL: Winter 2012-13 featured a large and memorable irruption of this secretive species into both Wisconsin and Minnesota. This winter appears to be another reality-check as zero Boreal Owls have been reported in either state so far this fall, including at regional owl banding stations. Overwinter mortality and a poor reproductive season likely have taken a temporary toll on populations, though an “echo” irruption of surviving birds remains possible. If so, such birds may become more evident as temperatures drop and snow deepens.
GREAT GRAY OWL: Scattered reports have come in from northern Minnesota, mostly in areas and numbers comparable to non-irruption years. However, public birding reports from this area may be somewhat scarce so it’s possible more birds are actually around. As with the other boreal forest owls (Boreal and Northern Hawk), irruptions also may materialize later in the season when winter weather worsens, which can increase the owls’ energetic demands and decrease access to mammalian prey.
NORTHERN HAWK OWL: The season’s best hopes for an owl irruption may lie with this species. At least seven individuals have been reported already, including one in northwest Wisconsin, one in Duluth, and the rest in northeast Minnesota. This is a very respectable, albeit not spectacular, showing this early in the season. Given irruptions of the boreal forest owls are often correlated, this may serve as indicator for an echo irruption of all three species again this year, though likely in lower numbers than last.
Here in Wisconsin, the winter is shaping up to be a slow one for specialties like finches, waxwings, and owls. The two frugivores – Pine Grosbeak and Bohemian Waxwing – both appear to be on the move in at least small numbers, suggesting that fruit crops in Canada may be scarce and forcing these birds southward. However, even if these birds reach Wisconsin, it’s likely they’ll stick to their typical haunts across the northern tier of the state this year. Some early Northern Hawk Owls also hint at the possibility of an echo irruption of boreal forest owls, although these often are restricted to Minnesota north of Duluth, perhaps leaving Wisconsin birders to travel a bit to get their fix. Finally, this early season outlook is subject to change as more intense winter weather sets in during December and January. So stay tuned!
Comments, corrections, and questions are welcome to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos and text by Ryan Brady
WI eBird Team
WDNR/WBCI Bird Monitoring Coordinator