Winter Finch Forecast 2016-2017
Ever wondered why birds are common in some winters and seem absent in other years? The answer is food...
Many winter bird species are nomadic moving to areas with abundant food supplies. Ornithologists (or bird scientists) call this behaviour "irruptive". These irruptive bird species travel the continent in search of specific species of tree seeds and fruit in order to survive winter. In some years birds are abundant and in others they are absent.
Ron Pittaway, former Algonquin Park Naturalist (1971-1980) and recipient of the Distinguished Ornithologist Award from the Ontario Field Ornithologists, has been predicting which winter finches will irrupt into southern areas based upon current seed crop production across North America for many years. Learn more about which tree species have produced seed and fruit, and what bird species are expected to irrupt into Algonquin Park.
General Winter Finch Forecast
Cone crops average poor in Southern Ontario, Quebec, Atlantic Canada, New York, Vermont and New Hampshire, but crops are generally good to bumper in Northern Ontario, Western Canada and Alaska. The dividing line is roughly James Bay south along the Ontario-Quebec border. White-winged Crossbills and often Pine Siskins prefer to move east or west rather than go south in search of cone crops. Many crossbills and some siskins may have already relocated to northern Ontario and across the boreal forest to Yukon where spruce cone crops are abundant. Purple Finches in the East are currently moving south in numbers. See individual forecasts for other finches and further details. Note: Many birds will have a difficult time finding natural food sources this winter in Southern Ontario and the Northeast.
Forecasts apply mainly to Ontario and adjacent provinces and states. Three irruptive non-finch passerines whose movements are often linked to finches are also discussed. Follow finch wanderings this fall and winter on eBird.
Pine Grosbeak: Most should stay in the north because native Mountain-ash berry crops are good to bumper (some poor areas) across the boreal forest. A few may wander to southern Ontario where they like European Mountain-ash berries and small ornamental crabapples. At feeders they prefer black oil sunflower seeds.
Purple Finch: Eastern Purple Finches were moving in early September at the Observatoire d’oiseaux de Tadoussac in Quebec The poor seed crops on most coniferous and deciduous trees indicate that Purple Finches will leave northern breeding areas. Purples prefer black oil sunflower seeds at feeders.
Red Crossbill: A scattering of Red Crossbills will likely wander widely in the Northeast this winter. Listen and watch for them on large-coned ornamental pines and spruces. Red Crossbills comprise at least 10 “call types” in North America. Most types are impossible to identify without analyzing recordings of their flight calls. Matt Young (may6 at cornell.edu) at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology will identify types if you email him recordings.
White-winged Crossbill: This crossbill irrupts south only in years of widespread cone crop failures. Many eastern crossbills have probably moved to northern Ontario and to abundant spruce cone crops in western Canada. However, expect some White-winged Crossbills to be scattered across southern Canada and the northeastern USA. Both crossbill species increasingly use feeders with black oil sunflower seeds when conifer seeds are scarce.
Common Redpoll: Last fall and winter’s large irruptive southward flight was unexpectedly halted north of latitude 45 degrees by a bumper seed crop on Balsam Fir. If redpolls move south this year, they will likely continue to southern Canada and the northern states because birch seed crops are generally low across the Northeast. In redpoll flocks, check for larger and darker “Greater” Common Redpolls (subspecies rostrata) from Baffin Island (Nunavut) and Greenland. Redpolls prefer nyger seeds in silo feeders with or without perches.
Hoary Redpoll: Watch for Hoaries in flocks of Common Redpolls. The “Southern” Hoary Redpoll (nominate subspecies exilipes) breeds south to northern Ontario and is the subspecies usually seen in southern Canada and northern USA. However, “Hornemann’s” Hoary Redpoll (nominate hornemanni) which was formerly considered a great rarity south of the tundra is now reported more often likely because its ID features are better known. See link #2 below for photos and identification marks of Common and Hoary Redpoll subspecies.
Pine Siskin: Some will irrupt south because cone crops in the Northeast are generally poor. Siskins were moving south in mid-September at the Observatoire d’oiseaux de Tadoussac in Quebec. However, some eastern siskins have likely relocated to abundant spruce crops in western Canada. Siskins prefer nyger seeds in silo feeders. See link #4 which discusses siskin irruptions related to climate variability.
Evening Grosbeak: The Evening Grosbeak is the world’s most spectacular winter finch. Its breeding populations continue to increase in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick due to increasing outbreaks of spruce budworm. Watch for them in Algonquin Park, Adirondacks and northern New England. A few are likely at feeders in southern Ontario where they prefer black oil sunflower seeds.
Three Irruptive Passerines
Movements of these three passerines are often linked to the boreal finches.
Blue Jay: Expect a much larger than usual flight of jays from mid-September to mid-October along the north shorelines of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. The acorn, beechnut, hazelnut crops were generally poor but variable in central and southern Ontario. Drought has damaged many seed crops.
Red-breasted Nuthatch: An early southward movement began in early summer and continues as this forecast is posted. This widespread movement is evidence of poor cone crops in the Northeast. It indicates that Purple Finches, White-winged Crossbills and Pine Siskins are on the move too.
Bohemian Waxwing: Very few Bohemians breed east of James Bay in Canada. Most Bohemians will likely stay in northern Ontario and western Canada because native Mountain-ash berry crops are good to bumper (some poor areas) across the boreal forest. In recent winters, however, Bohemians have been coming south regularly every winter possibly due to reliable annual crops of abundant Buckthorn (Rhamnus) berries. Watch for Pine Grosbeaks eating their favorite European Mountain-ash berries and small ornamental crabapples.
Where to See Finches
Algonquin Park is an exciting winter experience about a 3.5 hour drive north of Toronto. Most cone crops are poor (good on White Cedar) in the park so crossbills and siskins will be very scarce or absent. However, feeders at the Visitor Centre (km 43) should attract Common Redpolls (watch for Hoaries), Evening and Pine Grosbeaks. The Visitor Centre and restaurant are open weekends in winter. On winter weekdays, the facility is open, but with limited services (no restaurant, but snacks and drinks are available for purchase). Birders can call ahead to make arrangements to view feeders on weekdays by phoning 613-637-2828. The bookstore has one of the best selections of natural history books anywhere. Be sure to get Birds of Algonquin Park (2012) by retired park naturalist Ron Tozer. It is one of the finest regional bird books ever published. The nearby Spruce Bog Trail at km 42.5 and Opeongo Road at km 44.5 are the best spots for finches and other species such as Gray Jay, Boreal Chickadee, Spruce Grouse and Black-backed Woodpecker.
- Finch Facts, Seed Crops and Irruptions
- Subspecies of Common and Hoary Redpolls – ID Tips and Photos
- Interview with Ron Pittaway in OFO News 34(1):1-3, 2016
- Climatic dipoles drive two principal modes of North American boreal bird irruption
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: I thank staff of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, and the many birders/naturalists whose tree seed reports allow me to make annual forecasts: Alexandre Anctil (Chibougamau, Quebec), Christian Artuso (Manitoba), Dennis Barry (Durham Region and Kawartha Lakes), Angus Baptiste (Grand lac Victoria, Quebec), Eleanor Beagan (Prince Edward Island), Peter Burke, (Georgian Bay, Ontario), Joan Collins (Adirondacks and northern New York State), Pascal Cote (Observatoire d’oiseaux de Tadoussac, Quebec), Bruce Di Labio (Eastern Ontario), Charity Dobbs (Ontario Tree Seed Plant), Carolle Eady (Dryden, Ontario), Cameron Eckert (Southern Yukon), Dave Elder (Atikokan, Ontario), Bruce Falls (Brodie Club, Toronto), Walter Fisher (Rosetta McClain Gardens Raptor Watch, Toronto), Marcel Gahbauer (Eastern Ontario), Terry Gauthier (PEI), Michel Gosselin (Canadian Museum of Nature), David Govatski (New Hampshire and Vermont), Leo Heyens (Kenora, Ontario), Tyler Hoar (Southern Ontario), Kris Ito (French River, Ontario), Jean Iron (James Bay and Northeastern Ontario), Hilde Johansen (Chibougamau, Quebec), Gordon Kayahara (Timmins, ON), Dan McAskill (PEI), Bruce Mactavish (St. John’s, Newfoundland), David McCorquodale (Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia), Stacy McNulty (Adirondacks NY), Brian Naylor (Nipissing District, Ontario), Stephen O’Donnell (Parry Sound District), Justin Peter (Algonquin Park, Ontario, Gatineau Park, Quebec), Fred Pinto (Nipissing District, Ontario), Brian Ratcliff (Thunder Bay District ON), Rosamund and Jim Pojar (Central British Columbia), Harvey and Brenda Schmidt (Creighton, Saskatchewan), Michael Runtz, (Algonquin Park), Don Sutherland (Southern James Bay and Nova Scotia), Doug Tate (Northwest Territories), Ron Tozer (Algonquin Park), Declan Troy (Alaska), Mike Turner (Haliburton Highlands, Ontario), Richard Welsman (Rosetta McClain Gardens, Toronto), the late Alan Wormington (Point Pelee, Ontario), Matt Young (New York State). Jean Iron made many helpful comments and hosts the forecast on her website.
22 September 2016
Ron Pittaway’s passion for birds began during the 1950s in Ottawa, where his mentor was the late Earl Godfrey, then Curator of Ornithology at the National Museum. Godfrey influenced Ron’s interest in identification, taxonomy, subspecies, morphs, molts and plumages.
He inspired many people to take up birding during 10 seasons as a Park Naturalist in Algonquin Park and 23 years teaching conservation and resource management science at the Leslie M. Frost Natural Resources Centre.
Ron Pittaway has received the Distinguished Ornithologist Award from Ontario Field Ornithologists (OFO) in 2005 for his outstanding and authoritative contributions to the scientific study of birds in Ontario and Canada.
- Current Birding Report
- Birds of Algonquin Provincial Park
- Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario 2007