“This winter’s theme is “finches going in three directions” depending on the species. Some finches have gone east and west or both, while others will come south. Most coniferous and deciduous trees have very poor seed crops in much of Ontario and western Quebec. The exception is northwestern Ontario such as Quetico Provincial Park, Dryden and Lake of the Woods, where there are good crops on some species. However, north of a line from the top of Lake Nipigon to Manitoba the crops are generally low in the boreal forest. This will be a quiet winter for most (not all) winter finches in Algonquin Provincial Park, in contrast to last winter’s bumper seed crops and abundance of finches. Most of last winter’s White-winged Crossbills and Pine Siskins departed Ontario this past summer. They probably went either to eastern or western Canada or both where there are bumper cone crops. Type 3 Red Crossbills, which were abundant in Ontario last winter, have probably returned to their core range in western North America. White-winged and Red Crossbills and Pine Siskins will not be irrupting south out of Ontario as they do in some flight years, because most have already gone east and/or west. However, other winter finches such as Pine Grosbeaks, Evening Grosbeaks, Purple Finches and redpolls are irrupting or will irrupt southward out of northern Ontario. See individual species accounts for details. In addition I comment on other irruptive passerines, such as the Red-breasted Nuthatch, whose movements are linked to cone crops. Also included is a comment on northern owls.
INDIVIDUAL FINCH FORECASTS
Pine Grosbeak: This grosbeak will irrupt south of the breeding range because crops on native mountain-ashes (rowan berries) are generally poor in northeastern Ontario and across the boreal forest. However, crops are good in northwestern Ontario west of Lake Superior. Pine Grosbeaks should wander south to Lake Ontario and perhaps farther in search of crabapples and planted European mountain-ash berries, which have average crops in southern Ontario. Watch for them at feeders where they prefer sunflower seeds. After irruptions, Pine Grosbeaks return north earlier than other northern finches. Most are gone by late March. Buds form a larger part of their winter diet when mountain-ash crops are poor.
Purple Finch: Most Purple Finches will migrate out of Ontario this fall in response to the low seed crops. Currently, Purple Finches are migrating south through southern Ontario. Very few or none will stay behind at feeders in southern Ontario.
Red Crossbill: The Red Crossbill complex comprises 9 sibling Types, possibly full species, which have different call notes, and different bill sizes related to cone preferences. At least three Types occur in Ontario. Type 3 (smallest bill) prefers small hemlock cones (and spruce cones) in Ontario. The hemlock Type 3 was abundant last winter, but is presumed absent now from the province because hemlock produced few or no cones in 2007. Type 4 (medium sized bill) is adapted to white pine cones. White pine cone crops are fair to good (but spotty) in northern Ontario. Currently, small numbers of Type 4 Red Crossbills are present on the “east side” of Algonquin Park (heavy crop on white pine) and probably elsewhere with extensive white pine forest. Algonquin’s east side pine forest is accessible from Highway 17 west of Pembroke. South of Algonquin white pine crops are poor to none. An infrequent presumed Type 2 Red Crossbill is
associated with red pine forests.
White-winged Crossbill: This crossbill moves back and forth across northern coniferous forests searching for new cone crops. Most White-winged Crossbills left Ontario this past summer. They will be scarce or absent in Ontario this winter. They presumably went either west to bumper spruce and fir cone crops in Alberta and British Columbia, and/or to Atlantic Canada, which has large cone crops on spruce and balsam fir, particularly in Newfoundland and Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. White-winged Crossbills are currently common in Newfoundland and western Canada.
Common and Hoary Redpolls: There will be a big flight of redpolls into southern Ontario and bordering United States. Seed crops on white birch, yellow birch and alder are very poor in most of Ontario. Expect redpolls at bird feeders this winter. Far northwestern Ontario has a good white birch crop so redpolls may be common there.
Pine Siskin: Similar to the White-winged Crossbill, most Pine Siskins departed Ontario this past summer, presumably attracted to huge spruce and fir cone crops in Alberta and British Columbia and/or to big spruce and balsam fir cone crops in Newfoundland and Cape Breton Island and probably elsewhere in the Atlantic Provinces. Some of the very few siskins that remained in Ontario are now wandering south with sightings of usually only ones and twos in southern Ontario.
Large southward irruptions occur when cone crop failures span much of Canada. Very few siskins will visit feeders this winter in southern Ontario.
Evening Grosbeak: This grosbeak will irrupt south of the boreal forest this fall because tree seed crops are generally very poor in northeastern Ontario and western Quebec. In recent weeks scattered birds have visited feeders in southern Ontario. Beginning in the early 1980s the Evening Grosbeak declined significantly as large outbreaks of spruce budworm subsided. The larvae and pupae are eaten by adults and fed to nestlings. Expect Evening Grosbeaks at bird feeders in southern Ontario and northern United States, but not in the large numbers seen during the 1970s.
OTHER IRRUPTIVE PASSERINES
Red-breasted Nuthatch: They have been moving south since mid-June presumably because of the poor cone crop in central Canada. Almost all Red-breasted Nuthatches will depart Ontario’s boreal forest by late fall and left the province. Some will be at feeders in southern Ontario, but they will be very scarce in Algonquin Park. Algonquin Christmas Bird Counts (32 years) show a biennial (every two years) high and low pattern, with some exceptions.
Bohemian Waxwing: The poor crop of native mountain-ash (rowan berries) in much of northern Ontario will cause Bohemians Waxwings to wander south and east this winter. Watch for them eating buckthorn berries and crabapples in southern Ontario. The mountain-ash crop is better west of Lake Superior with a big crop around Kenora at Lake of the Woods.
Blue Jay: A strong flight is expected this fall. The beechnut crop is zero and the acorn crop on red oak is only fair to good (aborted in some areas) in central Ontario. Soon thousands of jays will be migrating southwest along the shorelines of Lakes Ontario and Erie, exiting Ontario south of Windsor. This winter there will be far fewer Blue Jays in Algonquin Park and at feeders in central Ontario.
Gray Jay and Boreal Chickadee: They are moving in northeastern Quebec east of Tadoussac along the north shore of the St. Lawrence River. These movements could extend to southern Ontario and northeastern states.
Small mammal populations were abundant this summer in northern Ontario, presumably increasing after the big seed/berry/fruit crops in 2006. However, crops this year are very poor in much of the north, partly caused by cold weather and snow in late spring that froze the buds and flowers of many plants. In early August, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources biologists on aerial surveys noted many raptors near James Bay including 15-20 Great Gray Owls, Short-eared Owls (common), Northern Harriers (common) and scattered Rough-legged Hawks. If small mammal populations crash this fall, then Great Gray Owls, Northern Hawk Owls and Boreal Owls will move, possibly southward into areas accessible by birders. Northern Saw-whet Owl numbers are linked to red-backed voles (a forest vole) in Ontario. There is the possibility that this vole could decline soon because it often cycles with deer mice. The huge population of deer mice in central Ontario is declining rapidly now because of poor seed crops this summer, particularly sugar maple samaras, which they store for the winter. If red-backed vole numbers decline as they often do in association with deer mice, there will be a strong flight of Northern
Saw-whet Owls this fall.
I thank staff of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR) and
birders whose reports allow me to make predictions about finches.
They are Ken Abraham (OMNR Hudson Bay Lowlands), Dennis Barry (Durham
Region and Haliburton County), Kevin Clute (Algonquin Park), Shirley
Davidson (OMNR Minden), Bruce Di Labio (Eastern Ontario), Carrolle
Eady (Dryden), Dave Elder (Atikokan), Bruce Falls (Brodie Club,
Toronto), Brian Fox (OMNR Timmins to Chapleau), Marcel Gahbauer
(Labrador, Alberta, British Columbia), Michel Gosselin (Gatineau,
Quebec), Charity Hendry (OMNR Ontario Tree Seed Plant), Leo Heyens
(OMNR Kenora), Tyler Hoar (central Ontario and southern Quebec),
Peter Hynard (Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia), Jean Iron (Toronto
and northeastern Quebec), Christine Kerrigan and Peter Nevin (Parry
Sound District), Barry Kinch (Timiskaming), Bob Knudsen (Ontario
Parks, Algoma), Bruce Mactavish (Newfoundland), Scott McPherson (OMNR
Northeast Region), Brian Naylor (OMNR North Bay), Marty Obbard (OMNR
Peterborough), Justin Peter (Algonquin Park), Janet Pineau (Arrowhead
Provincial Park), Fred Pinto (OMNR North Bay), Gordon Ross (OMNR
Moosonee), Rick Salmon (OMNR Lake Nipigon), Don Sutherland (OMNR
Hudson Bay Lowlands), Doug Tozer (Algonquin Park), Ron Tozer
(Algonquin Park and Muskoka), Declan Troy (Alaska), Mike Turner (OMNR
Brancroft District), Stan Vasiliauskas (OMNR Northeast Region), Mike
Walsh (OMNR Muskoka and Parry Sound), John White (OMNR Ontario Tree
Seed Plant) and Alan Wormington (Point Pelee). I thank Michel
Gosselin, Jean Iron and Ron Tozer for reviewing the forecast. Ron
Tozer also provided information from his upcoming book on The Birds
of Algonquin Provincial Park.
PREVIOUS FINCH FORECASTS archived at Larry Neily’s website:
Ontario Field Ornithologists