As days shorten and cooler temperatures descend into North America, it’s time for one of our favorite features of the Autumn — Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch Forecast. Here it is: This is not an irruption (flight) year for winter finches, but there will be some southward movement of most species into their normal winter ranges. Ontario’s cone crops (except white pine) and deciduous seed/berry crops are generally above average to excellent. Very good to bumper spruce cone crops extend across Canada’s boreal forest from Yukon (bumper) east to Atlantic Canada, with rare exceptions. Cone crops are good to excellent (poor on white pine) in central Ontario and Laurentian Mountains in southern Quebec with heavy crops extending east through the Adirondack Mountains of New York and northern New England States.
Birch, alder and mountain-ash berry crops are good to excellent across the boreal forest. Most reporters said that finches were thinly dispersed in their areas with few concentrations noted, except for southern Yukon which had abundant Pine Siskins this past summer. Finches this winter should be widespread given the almost continent-wide extent of the seed crops. Limited movements southward to traditional wintering areas such as Algonquin Park are expected. See individual species forecasts below for details on each species. Three irruptive non-finch passerines whose movements are linked to finches are also discussed. Please note that the forecast applies mainly to Ontario and the Northeast.
FINCH TREES: The key trees affecting finch movements in the Northeast are spruces, pines, hemlock, birches and mountain-ashes. Other trees normally play minor roles unless their crops are bumper. This year many tree species have spotty or patchy crops with some trees being heavy with cones or fruit while nearby trees of the same species have few or no cones or seeds. A similar patchy distribution is evident on a larger scale, with stands heavy with cones or seeds versus stands in the next township or county that have scanty crops.
PINE GROSBEAK: Most Pine Grosbeaks will remain in the north this winter because mountain‐ash berry crops are very good to bumper across the boreal forest from Alaska to the island of Newfoundland. European mountain-ash, crabapple and buckthorn have heavy berry crops in southern Ontario and elsewhere so if grosbeaks wander south they will have plenty of food. They prefer sunflower seeds at feeders, often feeding on spilled seeds on the ground.
PURPLE FINCH: In most years Purple Finches migrate south of Ontario in the fall, but this winter some should remain in the north where tree seed crops are abundant. They will likely visit sunflower seed feeders and be attracted to heavy berry crops on mountain-ashes, eating the seeds not the flesh. Similar to the Evening Grosbeak decline, Purple Finch numbers dropped significantly after 1980 as major spruce budworm outbreaks ended.
RED CROSSBILL: Small numbers are being reported in Algonquin Park and northern Ontario usually in pine stands. Red Pine cone crops are fair to good in many areas, but White Pine crops are poor with a few exceptions such as around Temagami just south of the boreal zone. Expect to see a scattering of Red Crossbills where pine, spruce and ornamental conifers have good crops. Red Crossbills comprise at least 10 “types” in North America. Each type probably represents a separate or recently evolving species. The types are usually impossible to identify without recordings of their flight calls. Matt Young (may6 at cornell.edu) of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology will identify types for you from recordings and this will help his research. Most Type 3 crossbills from last winter’s irruption have apparently returned to their core range in the Pacific Northwest. Matt says it is important to monitor the distribution of types in more “normal years” such as this winter. This crossbill rarely goes to feeders.
WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILL: Spruce cone crops are generally good to excellent from the Yukon east across the boreal forest to the island of Newfoundland. Large crops extend south into the northern states. White-winged Crossbills should be widely dispersed this winter given the enormity of the cone crops. Expect to see this crossbill in Ontario’s Algonquin Park, New York’s Adirondack Mountains and in the northern New England States. This crossbill usually feeds on native conifers with small soft cones such as white, red and black spruces and hemlock. It normally avoids the larger harder cones of pines. This crossbill rarely goes to feeders.
COMMON REDPOLL: Most redpolls should stay in the north this winter because birch, alder and conifer seed crops are generally good across the boreal forest. Some redpolls should get south to usual southern parts of their winter range such as the Atlantic Provinces and Ontario’s Algonquin Park (Latitude 45.5), where redpolls have been recorded on 33 of 39 Algonquin Christmas Bird Counts. The rare “Greater” Common Redpoll (subspecies rostrata) from Baffin Island and Greenland is not expected in the south this winter. For reference photos of “Greater” Common Redpolls see link #4 below.
HOARY REDPOLL: The rare Hoary Redpoll is usually found in flocks of Common Redpolls. It is not expected in the south this winter because this is not an irruption year for redpolls. The “Southern” Hoary Redpoll (exilipes) is the usual subspecies seen. “Hornemann’s” Hoary Redpoll (hornemanni) is a great rarity south of the tundra even during irruption years.
PINE SISKIN: Siskins will winter across the north because conifer crops (except white pine) are excellent. They should be attracted to heavy cone crops in southern Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains, New York’s Adirondacks and northern New England. Watch for siskins on spruce and hemlock. They prefer nyger seeds at feeders.
EVENING GROSBEAK: This big “eye-catching” golden grosbeak should visit sunflower seed feeders again this winter in Ontario and the Northeast. Numbers are increasing due to expanding spruce budworm outbreaks in northern forests. However, spraying to control budworms, if not already occurring in some provinces, will limit an increase in grosbeaks. Breeding success is higher in areas with budworm outbreaks because the abundant larvae are eaten by adults and fed to young. Evening Grosbeak populations peaked during the 1940s to 1980s when massive budworm outbreaks stretched across Canada. The last Algonquin Christmas Bird Count with very high numbers was the winter of 1984/85 when 1474 Evening Grosbeaks were found on the count (Birds of Algonquin, Tozer 2012).
Movements of the following three passerines are often linked to the boreal finches.
BLUE JAY: Blue Jays move south in varying numbers every fall beginning in mid-September. This year expect a small to moderate flight along the north shorelines of Lakes Ontario and Erie because the acorn, beechnut, hazelnut and many soft mast crops are good to excellent across central Ontario and elsewhere. Interestingly, I found a Blue Jay feather stuck on a hazelnut north of Toronto on 11 August 2013. Good numbers of Blue Jays should visit feeders this winter in Ontario because many northern birds will not migrate south this fall.
RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH: No movement of Red-breasted Nuthatches this year reliably predicts that spruce cone crops are heavy in the boreal forest. This indicates a non-irruption year for finches, especially Pine Siskins and White-winged Crossbills which similarly specialize on conifer seeds, especially white spruce seeds. Some more southerly nuthatch populations may be permanent residents. We have Red-breasted Nuthatches year-round at our suet, sunflower and peanut feeders in Toronto and they annually bring their young to the feeders.
BOHEMIAN WAXWING: Most Bohemians will remain in the boreal forest this winter because mountain‐ash berry crops are very good to bumper from Alaska to Newfoundland and Labrador. When feeding on mountain-ash berries, Bohemians and Pine Grosbeaks often occur together. The superficial resemblance of Bohemian Waxwings to female Pine Grosbeaks is striking and may be functional. If some Bohemians move south they will be attracted to abundant berries on European mountain‐ash, small ornamental crabapples and buckthorn. Some are likely to occur in traditional areas such as Ottawa and Peterborough.
WHERE TO SEE FINCHES: Ontario’s Algonquin Park is a winter adventure about 3.5 hour drive north of Toronto. Cone crops are much better in the park this year than last winter so a good scattering of finches should be seen. Feeders at the Visitor Centre (km 43) should have Evening Grosbeaks, siskins and perhaps redpolls and Pine Grosbeak. The Visitor Centre and restaurant are open weekends in winter. Arrangements can be made to view feeders on weekdays by calling 613‐637‐2828. The nearby Spruce Bog Trail at km 42.5 and Opeongo Road (side road) are the best spots for finches, Gray Jay, Boreal Chickadee, Spruce Grouse and Black‐backed Woodpecker. At the bookstore be sure to get the “Birds of Algonquin Park” (2012) by retired park naturalist Ron Tozer. This is one of the finest regional bird books ever published. 474 pages. $49.95 CDN. Proceeds go to The Friends of Algonquin Park. If you cannot get to Algonquin, a trip to Quebec’s southern Laurentians north of Montreal or to New York’s Adirondacks should produce a good number of finches.
#1. Finch Facts, Seed Crops and Irruptions
#2. Last year’s Winter Finch Forecast 2012-2013
#3. Previous forecasts back to 1999-2000
#4. “Greater” Common Redpolls – Reference Photos
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: I thank staff of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and the many birders whose reports allow me to make annual forecasts: Dennis Barry (Durham Region and Kawartha Lakes), Angus Baptiste (Grand Lake Victoria, Quebec), Eleanor Beagan (Prince Edward Island), Owen Clarkin (Gatineau Park, Quebec), Joan Collins (Adirondacks, New York), Pascal Cote (Tadoussac Bird Observatory, Quebec), Bruce Di Labio (Eastern Ontario), Carolle Eady (Dryden, Ontario), Cameron Eckert (Southern Yukon), Bruce Falls (Brodie Club, Toronto), Walter Fisher (Rosetta McClain Gardens Raptor Watch, Toronto), Sylvia Frisch (Central Yukon), Marcel Gahbauer (Alberta and Northwest Territories), Michel Gosselin (Canadian Museum of Nature), David Govatski (New Hampshire and northern Vermont), Leo Heyens (Kenora, Ontario), Tyler Hoar (Northern Ontario & Quebec Laurentians), Peter Hynard (Minden), Jean Iron (James Bay and Northeastern Ontario), Ken Knowles (St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador), Stuart Mackenzie (James Bay), Scott McPherson (Nipissing, Ontario), Brian Naylor (Nipissing, Ontario), Justin Peter (Gatineau Park, Quebec), Harvey & Brenda Schmidt (Creighton, Saskatchewan), Dawn Sherman (Algonquin Park), Ian Sturdee (James Bay), Ron Tozer (Algonquin Park), Declan Troy (Alaska), Mike Turner (Haliburton Highlands), John Woodcock (Thunder Cape Bird Observatory, Ontario) and Kirk Zufelt (Sault Ste Marie, Ontario). I particularly thank Matt Young of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology for information about seed crops and advice about Red Crossbills. Jean Iron made helpful comments and proofed the forecast.
Ontario Field Ornithologists
21 September 2013