Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Winter Finch Forecast with Comments

Below is one of the most forwarded emails in cyberspace, at least in the birding world. Each fall Ron Pittaway from the Ontario Field Ornithologists, puts together a forecast of the distribution and abundance of winter finches in Ontario.

"Winter finches," for those not in the know, is a broad category that includes not only some finches (Purple Finch, Pine Siskin, Red and White-winged Crossbill, Common and Hoary Redpoll), but also some other sought-after species like Pine and Evening Grosbeak. Ron bases his prediction on food supply in the boreal regions, specifically in Ontario, where these species are typically found, and deduces what birdwatchers may see at their feeders or local parks in southern Ontario.

For those mathematically included, the simplified equation might look something like:

(Less food in boreal) + (More food locally) = Interesting birds at your feeder!

In the interest of full disclosure, let me reinforce that I like math when it's simple and straight-forward, so that's as detailed as I'm going to get, even though it's really more complicated than that.

While what happens in southern Ontario may resemble what happens down here in the southern tier of NY, it also may not. Fortunately we have Matt Young in our region, who is something of a WinterFinchophile, and seems to be more in tune with these species than your average birder. Matt recently forwarded Ron's predictions with his comments, based on his experience and observations.

Bottom line, for those in our region of New York: stock up on seed and start filling those feeders, it looks like it could be crowded this winter. Of course, it could be a bust, so as a disclaimer let me state that Ron, Matt, nor I are responsible for a lack of birds at your feeder, nor for any excessive money spent at your local bird store.

That said, bird on, people!

Ron's predictions in normal type, Matt's comments in bold.

Hello all,

Here's Ron Pittaway's winter forecast which most of you have probably seen by now. The cone crops here in NY are poor on all species except a fair cone crop on red pine. This is probably consistent with most of the rest of the Northeast. Also, non-native species prevalent here in Central and Southern NY such as Norway spruce and European larch might still hold a small amount of seed from last year's bumper crops. Look for comments in bold by each species to see how things could unfold here in Central NY and Northeast.


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.


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.

The last big Pine Grosbeak year was the winter of 2001-02, which occurred after the last widespread "bumper" cone crop of 2000-01. We are primed for a flight here in Central NY. Look for juveniles and females with perhaps a few adult males making it south into Central NY. More adult males will be present in Adirondacks and other parts of Northeast. Again, we are primed to see this rarest northern visitor here in Central NY.

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.

Look for very few Purple Finches in NY and the Northeast this year with the exception of perhaps small numbers occurring downstate south of the Catskills to Long Island. Good numbers should be present southward into Mid-Atlantic States, Appalachians and the Carolinas.

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.

Look for a few Red Crossbills to again persist in Chenango County(Central NY) where Red Crossbills have been present since at least winter 2004!! Last winter and spring Red Crossbill types nested in small to moderate numbers throughout NY excluding south of Catskills and extreme Western NY. They were more widespread than White-winged Crossbills in NY last year, but the opposite was true for the rest of the Northeast.

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.

After last year's Adirondack and Northeastern nesting event, look for a scattered flock or two of White-winged Crossbills in Adirondacks, but like the forecast predicts they will be generally scarce or absent in NY and much of the Northeast this winter.

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.

There hasn't been a "big" redpoll flight in Central NY south of Adirondacks since 2003-2004 and that occurred fairly late in the season in late January and February. There were modest redpoll flights in the Adirondacks in 2004-2005 and 2005-2006. We are primed for a big flight in the Northeast, the Adirondacks AND south of the Adirondacks here in Central NY. Look for small numbers perhaps even on Long Island and northern Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

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.

There were nearly zero fall or spring migrating Pine Siskins in New York last year. Unlike the other finch species, excluding Purple Finch, there is almost always a fall and spring Pine Siskin pulse (push of migrating birds through NY). Look for the "pulse" to happen this year. In fact, I would not be surprised given the amount of feeders in the Adirondacks (and perhaps more populated wooded areas of Northeast) and Central NY that small numbers (a few here and there) persist here in Central NY and perhaps Southern NY at feeders mixed in with redpoll and goldfinch flocks.. with Goldfinch flocks earlier in season and redpoll flocks later in the season. There is evidence that Pine Siskins are starting to build in small numbers again in the Adirondacks. There have been recent sightings of a few to 50 in parts of Northern NY. Pine Siskins have been nearly continuously persistent in parts of the Adirondacks since 2001 when they bred in very large numbers throughout much of the state. They again bred last year in the Adirondacks in small numbers. Good evidence exists to support the idea that Pine Siskins have nested in small numbers in the state every year since 2001!

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.

Evening Grosbeaks have become a bit of an enigma bird. Where have all the massive flocks of the 70's and 80's gone? Why aren't the Carolinas still seeing wintering flocks like they did almost annually up to 1990? Many tie their decline to the absence of a spruce budworm outbreak, which hasn't occurred since the late 1980's when their number started to precipitously decline. There was anecdotal evidence that they bred in areas this past summer a bit outside where they normally bred. Also, a couple of mid summer reports from Ithaca, NY was the first mid summer reports in years! They have become a biennial irruptive the past 15 years, and so they should be present in small to moderate numbers in hamlets of the Adirondacks and Northeast, and small numbers at feeders in wooded higher elevational areas in Central NY, the Catskills and perhaps points southward to the mountains of the Virginias.


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.

Irruptive birds have been showing up south of Northern NY since mid July. Birds have already been seen as far south as Georgia and Alabama!

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.

Look for Bohemian Waxwings at their usual haunts ...crabapple trees and other fruiting trees from Northern NY (particularly the St. Lawrence and Champlain Lake Plains) northward throughout parts of Northeast. Birds should become more common as we get into late December and early January and look for smaller flocks to make their way into Central NY and perhaps Southern NY come February-April.

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.

Blue Jays are already starting to move through New York as we speak(or type).

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.

It's been many years since (late 70's) there was a big Boreal Chickadee flight south of the Adirondacks. In 1976 birds were noted as far south as northern Pennsylvania and a few birds wintered on Long Island into at least April. Could this be the year?


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.

Lets see what the owls bring.. things could shape up nicely. We're also due for a big Rough-leg flight, which also occurred the winter of 2001-02 the year after the last bumper cone crop.


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.

Ron Pittaway
Ontario Field Ornithologists
15 September 2007

Update: On October 20 Matt Young included the following in a post to Cayugabirds, our local listserve:
Just a few more notes on the impending finch invasion....I just can't help myself. Pine Siskins are moving into all northeastern states from Maine to Penn and NJ in what I would call impressive widespread numbers .......numbers we haven't seen in a while here in NY. They will probably move through.

I would also like to note that my prediction from a few weeks regarding Pine Siskins differed from Ron Pittaway's forecast. He stated that most siskins had moved west and north. I predicted this pulse that we're seeing now --lets hope some stick around.

Additionally, Evening Gosbeaks are beeing seen in small, but widespread numbers and we're still in mid-Oct. I find the earlier the push the better it bodes for a "significant" winter invasion here in central NY and even points south. Commen Redpoll numbers are also on the way! Additionally, Bohemian Waxwings and Pine Grosbeaks are already being seen in Northeastern states and banding stations in Michigan and Minnesota.

So, in short, I'm predicting the best winter finch season here in central NY since 2001! It also is shaping up for a good nowl and hawk winter as well. Lastly, there are still some White-winged Crossbill and Red Crossbills scattered here and there as well. In fact, in Newfoundland there's a significant Pine Siskin and WW Crossibill invasion taking place --- there's actualy a good cone crop in some of the NE maritime provinces such as Newfoundland.
Matt also mentioned only Red Pines are showing a good cone crop, so look for finches around feeders, not conifers. Apples and crabapples look good, which bodes well for Bohemian Waxwing and Pine Grosbeaks. Finally, Boxelder and Black Locust also look good, which are favored Evening Grosbeak foods.

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