Winter Finch forecast 2011-12

Ron Pittaway has released his annual Winter Finch forecast and there is not a lot of good news for all us in the mid-Atlantic hoping for a good year for crossbills, redpolls and grosbeaks. Despite the fact that we have a good cone crop in our region, birds will likely stay to our north were there are also good cone crops. Read below of the full details and where you should head if you want to see anything.

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- Cowan's Gap State Park (photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

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 spruce.

White-winged Crossbill- Lancaster County Central Park (photo by Drew Weber)

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 theNortheast 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 Ontario.

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 - male (photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

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 England States.

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 Côté (Tadoussac Bird Observatory, Quebec), Samuel Denault (Monts-Pyramides, Quebec), André Desrochers, (Laurentian Plateau, Quebec), Bruce Di Labio (Eastern Ontario), Carolle Eady (Dryden), Cameron Eckert (Yukon), François 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