Sunday, September 25, 2011

September 23, 2011 Winter Finch Forecast 2011-2012


by Ron Pittaway

This winter’s theme is that cone crops are excellent and extensive across
much of the boreal forest and the Northeast. It will not be a flight year.
Finches will be spread thinly over a vast area from western Canada east
across the Hudson Bay Lowlands into Quebec and the Atlantic Provinces, New
York and New England States. White-winged and Red Crossbills and Pine
Siskins should be widespread in low numbers. A small movement of Pine
Grosbeaks is probable because mountain-ash berry crops are variable and some
are of poor quality in the boreal forest. Evening Grosbeak numbers are
increasing as spruce budworm outbreaks expand in the boreal forest so some
may show up at feeders in southern Ontario and the Northeast. Redpolls are
unlikely to come south because the dwarf birch crop is bumper in the Hudson
Bay Lowlands. See individual finch forecasts below for details. Three
irruptive non‐finch passerines are also discussed.

PINE GROSBEAK: Small numbers are likely in southern Ontario because the
mountain‐ash berry crop is variable with some poor quality crops in the
boreal forest of Ontario. The crop is generally very good to excellent in
Atlantic Canada, New York and New England. Pine Grosbeaks wandering to
southern Ontario will find average berry crops on European mountain‐ash,
good crops on Buckthorn and average crops on ornamental crabapples. Expect a
few at sunflower seed feeders.

PURPLE FINCH: Purple Finches will be uncommon in Ontario, but probably in
higher numbers in Atlantic Canada, New York and New England where cone crops
are excellent. A few may frequent feeders in southern Ontario. The Purple
Finch has declined significantly in recent decades. Some suggest it declined
due to competition with the House Finch. However, the drop in numbers began
before House Finches were common in eastern North America and also occurred
where House Finches were absent. A better explanation for the decrease is
the absence of large spruce budworm outbreaks that probably sustained higher
Purple Finch populations in the past.

RED CROSSBILL: Red Crossbills should be widespread in Ontario in very small
numbers, but much more frequent in the Northeast where cone crops are
excellent. This crossbill comprises at least 10 “call types” in North
America. Some types may be separate species. Most types are almost
impossible to identify without recordings of their “flight calls”.
Recordings can be made using your iPhone. Send recordings to be identified
to Matt Young (may6 at cornell dot edu) at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Most Red Crossbill types in winter prefer pines, but they also use
introduced spruces and European larch. The smallest‐billed Type 3 prefers
the small soft cones of hemlock and white spruce. It may occur in the
Northeast this winter drawn to the excellent crops on hemlock and white

WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILL: Good numbers of White‐winged Crossbills are
currently widespread in the Hudson Bay Lowlands where the white and black
spruce cone crops are bumper. They may remain there this winter or some
could wander to the Northeast where spruce and hemlock cone crops are
excellent. A few should be in traditional areas such as Algonquin Park where
spruce and hemlock cone crops are better than last winter. Unlike the Red
Crossbill, the White‐winged Crossbill in North America has no subspecies
and call types.

COMMON and HOARY REDPOLLS: Redpolls in winter are a birch seed specialist
and movements are linked to the size of the birch crop. Redpolls are
unlikely to come south in numbers this winter because the dwarf birch crop
is bumper in the Hudson Bay Lowlands. Those that wander south of the boreal
forest will be stopped by a fair to good seed crop on white and yellow
birches in the mixed coniferous/deciduous forest region north of Lake

PINE SISKIN: The nomadic siskin is a spruce seed specialist. There are
currently large numbers of siskins in Yukon including a high proportion of
hatch year birds. They will move because the spruce crop is average in Yukon
and Alaska this year, possibly coming to the East. Siskins are expected to
be widespread across Ontario this winter. Good numbers are likely to be
drawn to the excellent spruce and hemlock crops in Atlantic Canada, New York
and New England.

EVENING GROSBEAK: We can expect another good showing at feeders similar to
last winter in central Ontario and probably elsewhere in the Northeast.
Highest breeding densities are found in areas with spruce budworm outbreaks.
Grosbeak numbers are increasing as spruce budworm outbreaks expand in
Ontario and Quebec. However, current populations are still much lower than
several decades ago when budworm outbreaks were widespread and extensive.

THREE IRRUPTIVE PASSERINES: Movements of these species are often linked to
the boreal finches.

BLUE JAY: There will be a moderate flight, much smaller than last year,
along the north shorelines of Lakes Ontario and Erie. Hazelnut crops were
average. Beechnut crops were fair to good. Acorn crops were poor or spotty
north of Lake Ontario, but with some good acorn crops in the deciduous
forest region (Carolinian Zone) of southwestern Ontario.

RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH: This nuthatch is a conifer seed specialist when it
winters in the north and its movements are triggered by the same crops as
some of the boreal finches. There has been very little southward movement
indicating that this nuthatch will winter in areas with heavy cone crops
such as the boreal forest, Quebec, Atlantic Canada, New York and New

BOHEMIAN WAXWING: The mountain‐ash berry crop is generally good but
variable and some crops are of poor quality in the boreal forest. Expect to
see some Bohemians in traditional areas of southern Ontario such as Orillia,
Peterborough and Ottawa where European mountain‐ash berries, Buckthorn
berries and small ornamental crabapples are available. Bohemian Waxwings
have increased in frequency and numbers as a winter visitor to the
Northeast. It now occurs commonly in some winters on the island of
Newfoundland where it was unrecorded by Peters and Burleigh (1951) in The
Birds of Newfoundland.

WHERE TO SEE FINCHES: Algonquin Park is always an adventure about a three
hour drive north of Toronto. Cone and birch seed crops are generally
average, but much better than last winter. There are some good crops on
pine, spruce, balsam fir and hemlock, but they are spotty. The cone crop on
white cedar is bumper like elsewhere in Ontario. Feeders at the Visitor
Centre should have Pine and Evening Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins and Gray Jays.
Sometimes Pine Martens and Fishers feed on suet and sunflower seeds. A
panoramic observation deck overlooks a spectacular boreal muskeg. Eastern
Wolves (Canis lycaon), a recently recognized new species, are seen
occasionally from the observation deck feeding on road‐killed Moose put out
by park staff. The Visitor Centre and restaurant at km 43 are open weekends
in winter. Arrangements can be made to view feeders on weekdays by calling
613‐637‐2828. The Spruce Bog Trail at km 42.5 near the Visitor Centre and
the gate area along the Opeongo Road are the good spots for finches, Gray
Jay, Boreal Chickadee, Spruce Grouse and Black‐backed Woodpecker. Lastly,
inquire about the Birds of Algonquin Park by Ron Tozer published by The
Friends of Algonquin Park. It is expected out early in 2012.

WINTER FINCH BASICS: I wrote this article in 1998 but it still should
interest birders learning the basics about winter finches, seed crops and
irruptions. From OFO News 16(1):5-7, 1998.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: I thank staff of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources
from across the province designated by an asterisk* and others whose reports
allow me to make annual forecasts: Dennis Barry (Durham Region), Eleanor
Beagan (Prince Edward Island), Peter Burke (James Bay), Pascal Cote
(Tadoussac Bird Observatory, Quebec), Samuel Denault (Monts‐Pyramides,
Quebec), Andre Desrochers, (Laurentian Plateau, Quebec), Bruce Di Labio
(Eastern Ontario), Carolle Eady (Dryden), Cameron Eckert (Yukon), Francois
Gagnon (Reservoir Gouin and Chibougamau, Quebec), Marcel Gahbauer (Alberta),
Michel Gosselin (Canadian Museum of Nature), David Govatski (New Hampshire),
Charity Hendry* (Ontario Tree Seed Facility), Leo Heyens* (Kenora), Tyler
Hoar (northern Ontario), Eric Howe*, Jean Iron (Northeastern Ontario and
James Bay), Bruce Mactavish (Newfoundland), Andree Morneault* (Nipissing),
Brian Naylor* (Nipissing), Ian Newton (England), Martyn Obbard*, Stephen
O'Donnell (Parry Sound District), Justin Peter* (Algonquin Park), Fred
Pinto* (North Bay), Brenda Schmidt (Creighton, Saskatchewan), Don
Sutherland* (Northern Ontario), Ron Tozer (Algonquin Park), Declan Troy
(Alaska), Mike Turner* (Haliburton Highlands), John Woodcock (Thunder Cape
Bird Observatory), and Matt Young of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology provided
detailed information about seed crops in New York State. I thank Jean Iron
for proofing the forecast and making many helpful comments.

Ron Pittaway
Ontario Field Ornithologists
Minden, Ontario
23 September 2011

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