[Ontbirds]Winter Finch Forecast 2008-2009

Jean Iron jeaniron at sympatico.ca
Thu Sep 18 12:52:11 EDT 2008

This winter's theme is where will crossbills go and will they irrupt 
south? Both species wandered widely this summer. Cone crops are poor 
in the Atlantic Provinces and fair to moderate in Western Canada. In 
Ontario, spruce crops are fair to good west and east of Lake Superior 
and in central Ontario such as Algonquin Park, but cone abundance 
diminishes rapidly northwards into the boreal forest. White pine 
(Ontario's provincial tree) has heavy cone crops in most areas. The 
hemlock crop is poor in central Ontario. The white birch crop is fair 
to good west and east of Lake Superior to Lake Ontario, but poor in 
the boreal forest. The mountain-ash (rowan berry) crop is excellent 
in Ontario and Western Canada, but poor in the Atlantic Provinces. 
Individual finch forecasts below apply mainly to Ontario, but 
adjacent provinces and states may find the forecast of interest. I 
also comment on three irruptive passerines and two boreal forest raptors.

Pine Grosbeak: A mountain-ash berry specialist in winter, Pine 
Grosbeaks will stay north of most birders this winter because 
mountain-ash berries are abundant in northern Ontario. A few normally 
get south to Algonquin Park, but they are unlikely farther south.

Purple Finch: This finch stays in the north only when most tree 
species have heavy seed crops. This fall most Purple Finches will 
migrate south out of the province because overall tree seed crops are 
too low. A very few may winter in southern Ontario.

Red Crossbill: This crossbill comprises nine ecotypes in North 
America; each has cone(s) preferences related to bill size and shape. 
The Types are difficult to identify in the field. Types 2 and 3 and 
probably 4 occur in Ontario. The white pine Type 2 is apparently the 
most frequently encountered Red Crossbill in the province (Simard 
2007 in Atlas of Breeding Birds of Ontario). Since white pine has 
abundant crops in most areas, expect Type 2s to be widespread in 
small numbers. Hemlock Type 3 (subspecies sitkensis of AOU Check-list 
1957) prefers the small cones of hemlock and white spruce when bumper 
in Ontario. Type 3s should be absent from the province this winter 
because the hemlock crop is poor and the white spruce crop is 
average. Other Types are possible this winter given the bumper white 
pine cone crop and good crop on red pine. The Red Crossbill complex 
very much needs further study.

White-winged Crossbill: This crossbill wandered widely this past 
summer searching for extensive spruce cone crops. Reports came from 
Alaska, Yukon, Hudson Bay Lowlands, Ontario, Quebec and many northern 
states such as Michigan and New York. Most kept moving but some 
stopped and their singing suggested nesting but spruce cone crops are 
generally not large enough in most areas to support major nestings. 
The White-winged Crossbill specializes on the small soft cones of 
black and white spruces and hemlock when bumper in Ontario. This 
winter they should be widespread in small numbers in traditional 
areas such as Algonquin Park. However, spruce cone crops are 
generally low in most of Canada and as seed supplies are exhausted 
this fall and winter so a moderate southward irruption is probable, 
perhaps extending south into the central United States. Watch for 
them on ornamental spruces and European larch.

Common and Hoary Redpolls: The Common Redpoll is a white birch seed 
specialist in the boreal forest in winter. White birch crops are poor 
in the northern two-thirds of the boreal forest, but seed abundance 
increases southward. In central Ontario, such as Algonquin Park, 
crops on white and yellow birches range from fair to good. It is 
uncertain whether the birch crop is large enough to stop the 
southward movement in central Ontario about latitude 45 degrees. Some 
redpolls, including a few Hoarys, may get south to Lake Ontario if 
birch seed supplies run low.

Pine Siskin: A conifer seed specialist in winter, most siskins should 
leave the province this fall because the spruce cone crop is poor in 
the boreal forest. It is uncertain whether the huge white pine seed 
crop will keep some siskins in central and northern Ontario this winter.

Evening Grosbeak: A conifer and hardwood seed generalist in winter, 
Evening Grosbeaks should make a small southward movement this winter 
because food supplies are probably sufficient in the north. Older 
birders remember the 1970s when the Evening Grosbeak was a common 
feeder bird. Their memory is based on the greatly inflated numbers 30 
years ago in Eastern Canada due to huge outbreaks of spruce budworm. 
The last Algonquin Christmas Bird Count to have high numbers of 
Evening Grosbeaks was in 1984 with 1474 individuals, which was the 
North American CBC record that year. A significant decline in 
grosbeak numbers began in the mid-1980s because the size of annual 
budworm outbreaks decreased. Ontario's breeding population is 
currently probably stable, subject to periodic fluctuations in spruce 
budworm (Hoar 2007 in Atlas of Breeding Birds of Ontario).

Red-breasted Nuthatch: Movements of this nuthatch are linked to cone 
crop abundance, particularly spruce, white pine and balsam fir in 
Ontario. Good numbers of Red-breasted Nuthatches should winter in 
Ontario this year feeding on the bumper white pine seed crop and good 
spruce/fir crops in many areas such as Algonquin Park.

Bohemian Waxwing: Like the Pine Grosbeak, this waxwing is a 
mountain-ash berry specialist in winter. Mountain-ash crops are 
excellent across northern Ontario (bumper around Lake Superior) so 
very few Bohemians will wander out of the boreal forest this winter. 
Some may get south into traditional wintering areas of central 
Ontario such as Orillia, Peterborough and Ottawa where European 
mountain-ash berries are in good supply.

Blue Jay: Good numbers of jays will winter in central Ontario because 
the red oak acorn crop is good and beechnut crop is fair in central 
Ontario. Many other fruits and berries are abundant. Therefore this 
fall's flight should be average or smaller along the shorelines of 
Lakes Ontario and Erie.

Northern Goshawk: A small flight is possible this fall because high 
snowshoe hare populations have declined in much of northern Ontario. 
However, grouse numbers (Ruffed, Spruce, Sharp-tailed) are generally 
good so they may buffer the decline in hares.

Boreal Owl: Small mammal populations have crashed across northern and 
central Ontario. In Quebec, Pascal Cote of Observatoire d'oiseaux de 
Tadoussac expects a flight of Boreal Owls this fall and winter 
following their 4 year cycle linked to red-backed voles. Southern 
Ontario may get Boreal Owls and other northern forest owls this winter.

WHERE TO SEE FINCHES: A winter trip to Algonquin Park is a birding 
adventure. The park is a mix of boreal and hardwood habitats only a 
three hour drive north of Toronto. Kilometre distances are marked 
from the west entrance. Watch carefully for crossbills and other 
finches in early morning eating road salt and sand. Two excellent 
birding spots are the Spruce Bog Trail at km 42.5 and the gate area 
on the Opeongo Road about 4 km north from km 46 on the highway. Watch 
and listen for finches, Gray Jay, Boreal Chickadee, Spruce Grouse and 
Black-backed Woodpecker. The Visitor Centre and restaurant at km 43 
are open only on weekends in winter. An observation deck overlooks a 
spectacular bog and black spruce forest. The feeders attract Evening 
Grosbeak, Pine Grosbeak, Common Redpoll and other finches depending 
on the winter. Gray Jays frequent the suet feeder and sometimes a 
pine marten or fisher goes to the suet. Eastern Canadian Wolves 
(Canis lycaon) are seen occasionally from the observation deck 
feeding on road-killed moose put out by park staff. Arrangements can 
be made to view feeders on weekdays. For information call the Visitor 
Centre at 613-637-2828.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: I thank staff of the Ontario Ministry of Natural 
Resources (OMNR) and birders whose reports allow me to make annual 
forecasts: Dennis Barry (Durham Region), Ken Corston (OMNR Moosonee), 
Pascal Cote (Tadoussac, Quebec), Shirley Davidson (OMNR Minden), 
Bruce Di Labio (Ottawa to Moosonee), Carrolle Eady (Dryden), Cameron 
Eckert (Yukon), Bruce Falls (Brodie Club, Toronto), Brian Fox (OMNR), 
Marcel Gahbauer (Alberta), Michel Gosselin (Canadian Museum of 
Nature), Skye Haas (Michigan), Charity Hendry (Ontario Tree Seed 
Plant), Leo Heyens (OMNR Kenora), Tyler Hoar (Laurentians and 
Northeastern Quebec), Peter Hynard (Haliburton County), Jean Iron 
(Northeastern Ontario/James Bay), Christine Kerrigan and Peter Nevin 
(Parry Sound District), Richard Pope (Lake Superior), Bruce Mactavish 
(Newfoundland), Erwin Meissner (West Sudbury District), Scott 
McPherson (OMNR), Brian Naylor (OMNR North Bay), Larry Neily 
(Ottawa), Stephen O'Donnell (Parry Sound District), Fred Pinto 
(OMNR), Betsy Potter (Wilson, New York), Gord Ross (OMNR Moosonee), 
Rick Salmon (OMNR Nipigon), Don Sutherland (OMNR), Eve Ticknor 
(Ottawa), Ron Tozer (Algonquin Park), Declan Troy (Alaska), Mike 
Turner (OMNR Minden), Stan Vasiliauskas (OMNR), Mike Walsh (OMNR 
Muskoka/Parry Sound), Ben Walters (Northeastern Ontario), Alan 
Wormington (Point Pelee), Matt Young whose posts on New York State 
listservs were informative, and Kirk Zufelt (Sault Ste Marie). I 
thank Ron Tozer for ongoing discussions on winter finches and Jean 
Iron for proofing the forecast.

PREVIOUS FINCH FORECASTS archived at Larry Neily's website.

The recently published ATLAS OF BREEDING BIRDS OF ONTARIO 2007 has 
detailed peer-reviewed information and maps on boreal winter finches. 
I highly recommend it.

Ron Pittaway
Minden and Toronto ON
18 September 2008

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