Thursday, October 11, 2012

Winter Finch Forecast 2012-2013

by Ron Pittaway
The theme this winter is that each finch species will use a different
strategy to deal with the widespread tree seed crop failure in the
Northeast. It will be a quiet winter in the eastern North Woods. See
individual species forecasts for details. 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. Within the Northeast there are pockets of good
crops. Cone crops are much better in the Hudson Bay Lowlands and
northwestern Ontario west to Alberta, Northwest Territories and Yukon. Three
irruptive non‐finch passerines whose movements are linked to finches are
also discussed.


PINE GROSBEAK: A good flight is expected into southern Ontario because the
mountain‐ash berry crop is variable in the boreal forest. Many berries are
hard with low moisture content because of the drought. The European
mountain-ash and ornamental crabapple crops are poor to fair in southern
Ontario so these crops won’t last long. Grosbeaks will be attracted to the
usually abundant buckthorn berries and to bird feeders offering black oil
sunflower seeds. The Ontario breeding population of this grosbeak is stable.

PURPLE FINCH: Most Purple Finches will migrate south of Ontario this fall
because both coniferous and deciduous hardwood seed crops are very low this
year in the Northeast. Purple Finch numbers dropped significantly in recent
decades as spruce budworm outbreaks subsided and currently a moderate
population decline continues in the province.

RED CROSSBILL: Red Crossbills comprise at least 10 “types” in North
America. Each type probably represents a separate or newly evolving species.
Most types are normally impossible to identify in the field without
recordings of their flight calls. Matt Young of The Cornell Lab of
Ornithology reports that there is currently a large early irruption of Type
3 Red Crossbills (smallest billed type) from the west into eastern North
America. Recordings can be made with a cell phone and sent to Matt to be
identified (may6 AT Every recording adds an important piece to
the puzzle, especially when accompanied by notes on behaviour and ecology,
including tree species used for foraging and nesting. Matt emphasizes that
the conservation of call types depends on understanding their complex
distributions and ecological requirements.

WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILL: With very poor spruce cone crops in the Northeast,
most White-winged Crossbills will likely stay this winter in the Hudson Bay
Lowlands, northwestern Ontario and western Canada where spruce cone crops
are generally very good. They will be virtually absent from traditional
hotspots such as Algonquin Park where spruce crops are very low. Wandering
birds may show up throughout the Northeast.

COMMON REDPOLL: There should be a good southward flight because the white
birch seed crop is poor to fair across the north. Watch for redpolls on
birches and in weedy fields and at bird feeders offering nyger (preferred)
and black oil sunflower seeds. Check flocks for the rare “Greater” Common
Redpoll (subspecies rostrata) from the High Arctic. It is reliably
identified by its larger size, darker and browner colour, longer/thicker
bill and longer tail in direct comparison to “Southern” Common Redpolls
(nominate flammea subspecies). Note: The notion of a “biennial
periodicity” that redpolls irrupt south every second winter is not
supported by records in Atlantic Canada (Erskine and McManus 2003). The
authors concluded that "irregular abundance but near-annual occurrence" of
redpolls in the Atlantic Provinces is a better explanation than a two year
cycle. Similarly redpolls were recorded on 32 of 38 Christmas Bird Counts in
Algonquin Park (Lat. 45.5 N), Ontario.

HOARY REDPOLL: Check redpoll flocks for Hoary Redpolls. There are two
subspecies. Most Hoaries seen in southern Canada and northern United States
are “Southern” Hoary Redpolls (subspecies exilipes). “Hornemann’s”
Hoary Redpoll (nominate subspecies hornemanni) from the High Arctic was
previously regarded as a great rarity in southern Canada and the northern
United States. In recent decades a number have been confirmed by
photographs. Hornemann’s is most reliably identified by its larger size in
direct comparison to flammea Common Redpoll or exilipes Hoary Redpoll.
Caution: White birds loom larger than life among darker birds and size
illusions are frequent.

PINE SISKIN: Some siskins currently in the Northeast should move south this
fall and winter because cone crops are poor. However, siskins are an
opportunistic nomad wandering east and west continent-wide in search of cone
crops. Most siskins will probably winter in northwestern Ontario and western
Canada where cone crops are generally very good. Major southward irruptions
occur when cone crops fail across most of North America.

EVENING GROSBEAK: This spectacular grosbeak is ABA’s Bird of the Year in
2012. We can expect some at feeders in central Ontario and probably
elsewhere in the Northeast because coniferous and hardwood tree seed
supplies are low. Highest breeding densities are found in areas with spruce
budworm outbreaks. The larvae are eaten by adults and fed to young. Current
populations are much lower than several decades ago when budworm outbreaks
were much larger and more widespread.

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

BLUE JAY: Expect a smaller flight than last year along the north shorelines
of Lakes Ontario and Erie because the red oak acorn crop is very good in
central Ontario. Beechnut and hazelnut crops were poor to none, but the
acorn crop may be large enough to keep many jays in the north this winter.

RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH: A widespread irruption of this nuthatch beginning in
mid-summer indicated a cone crop failure in the Northeast. Most will leave
the eastern half of the province for the winter, but some will probably
remain in northwestern Ontario where cone crops are much better.

BOHEMIAN WAXWING: Expect a flight this winter because the mountain‐ash
berry crop in the boreal forest was affected by drought. Even though some
areas have large crops, many berries are hard with low moisture content.
Farther south Bohemians will be attracted to the usually abundant buckthorn
berries because European mountain‐ash and ornamental crabapple crops are
generally low and of poor quality.

WHERE TO SEE FINCHES: Algonquin Park is a winter adventure about a three
hour drive north of Toronto, but this will be a very lean finch winter in
the park. Conifer crops are poor to none. Feeders at the Visitor Centre (km
43) should have Pine Grosbeaks, Evening Grosbeaks, and redpolls. 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 are good spots for Gray Jays, Boreal
Chickadees, Spruce Grouse and Black‐backed Woodpeckers. Be sure to get a
copy of the new “Birds of Algonquin Park” (2012) by Ron Tozer. It is one
of the best regional bird books ever published with lots of information
about winter finches and boreal specialties.

WINTER FINCH BASICS: A primer about finch facts, seed crops and irruptions.

Excellent paper on berry crops in Ontario.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: I thank staff of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources
designated by an asterisk* and others whose reports allow me to make annual
forecasts: Dennis Barry (Durham Region), Eleanor Beagan (Prince Edward
Island), Pascal Cote (Tadoussac Bird Observatory, Quebec), Bruce Di Labio
(Eastern Ontario and Churchill, Manitoba), Carolle Eady (Dryden), Cameron
Eckert (Yukon), Marcel Gahbauer (Alberta & Northwest Territories), Michel
Gosselin (Canadian Museum of Nature), David Govatski (New Hampshire),
Charity Hendry* (Ontario Tree Seed Facility), Leo Heyens* (Kenora), Tyler
Hoar (Northern Ontario & Quebec Laurentians), Jean Iron (Hudson Bay, James
Bay & Northeastern Ontario), Bruce Mactavish (Newfoundland), Brian Naylor*
(Nipissing), Justin Peter* (Algonquin Park), Genevieve Perreault
(Regroupement QuebecOiseaux), Fred Pinto* (North Bay), Harvey & Brenda
Schmidt (Creighton, Saskatchewan), Ron Tozer (Algonquin Park), Declan Troy
(Alaska), Mike Turner (Haliburton Highlands), John Woodcock (Thunder Cape
Bird Observatory) and Kirk Zufelt (Sault Ste Marie, Ontario). I especially
thank Matt Young of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology for advice and detailed
information about seed crops in New York and adjacent states and for
information about Red Crossbills. Jean Iron proofed the forecast and made
helpful comments.

LITERATURE CITED: Erskine, A.J. and R. McManus, Jr. 2003. Supposed
periodicity of redpoll, Carduelis sp., winter visitations in Atlantic
Canada. Canadian Field-Naturalist 117(4):611-620.

Ron Pittaway
Ontario Field Ornithologists
Minden, Ontario
19 September 2012


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