by Ron Pittaway

Common Redpolls by Jean Iron


Many people have asked for my annual prediction on winter finches. This fall and winter I forecast a good flight of boreal winter finches to the south because of the failure of most tree seed crops, except White Spruce, over a large area of northern Ontario. I contacted sources in central and northern Ontario who are knowledgeable about tree seed crops. Based on their information and my own observations, here are my predictions for seeing winter finches in traditional spots such as Algonquin Park (one of the best places in the world to see them) and at bird feeders in southern Ontario. I also comment on a few other species, such as Red-breasted Nuthatch, which often move in association with winter finches.




(1) Conifers: Except for an excellent crop on spruces, most conifers have poor cone crops. There are local good cone crops on White Pine around North Bay and in the Upper Ottawa Valley. There is a good crop of cones on White Cedar, but it usually is not a key species for winter finches. Eastern Hemlock has retained cones from last year, which may hold some seeds.


(2) Hardwoods/Deciduous: The White Birch seed crop is poor in most areas, but there are pockets with moderate crops. A large outbreak of Birch Leaf Skeletonizer has reduced seed quantity and quality over much of central Ontario and in northern Ontario from Lake Nipigon to the Quebec border. Good crops of American and Showy Mountain-ash berries are reported in northeastern Ontario, but there are poor crops in some northern areas.


PINE GROSBEAK: Movements of Pine Grosbeaks are keyed to mountain-ash berries. They irrupt into southern Ontario when mountain-ash berries are in low supply in the boreal forest. Last year was an excellent year for mountain-ash berries and Pine Grosbeaks stayed in the north. This year the crop is good in some areas and poor in others so we can expect a moderate flight of Pine Grosbeaks into Algonquin Park and probably into southern Ontario. Watch for them on European Mountain-ash (rowan berries) in southern Ontario, which has a moderate crop of berries if the robins and starlings leave any. Pine Grosbeaks also feed on ornamental crab apple seeds, which are commonly planted in urban areas. At bird feeders, Pine Grosbeaks prefer sunflower seeds.


PURPLE FINCH: Already a few have been seen migrating south through southern Ontario in September. I expect that most will migrate out of Ontario into the United States in October and November because tree seed crops are generally poor across most of northern Ontario. Don't expect to see Purple Finches in Algonquin Park this winter. A few may winter at feeders in southern Ontario. Purple Finches have declined in recent years.


RED CROSSBILL: Two main forms occur in Ontario. One is adapted to hemlock and the other to pines. The hemlock form (sitkensis) has a small bill, even smaller than White-winged Crossbill. Hemlock cone crops are poor this year (some cones retained from last year) so sitkensis Red Crossbills are not expected this winter. In most areas, White Pine and Red Pine cone crops are poor. However, there are pockets of good cone crops on White Pine around North Bay and the Upper Ottawa Valley and in Simcoe County. Red Pine also has some locally good crops. Watch for a few Red Crossbills where there are pine cones.


WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILL: Currently there are no White-winged Crossbills in Algonquin Park. However, this winter they should be widespread in small numbers across the north and in Algonquin Park because of big cone crops on spruce. We also may see White-winged Crossbills in southern Ontario attracted to the big cone crops on spruces. Many ornamental spruces in Toronto are bending over with a heavy load of cones.


COMMON and HOARY REDPOLLS: I expect a good flight of redpolls. In winter redpolls are keyed to birch seeds. The White Birch seed crop is poor in many northern areas. Watch for redpolls in weedy fields and at bird feeders. They love nyger (niger) seeds in silo feeders. Flocks of Common Redpolls always bring the chance of seeing Hoary Redpolls.


PINE SISKIN: Expect to see many siskins migrating south out of Ontario in October and November because most conifers, except spruce, have poor cone crops. However, the excellent spruce cone crop should hold some siskins in places such as Algonquin Park for the winter.


EVENING GROSBEAK: Recently this species has become more of a mystery bird. Once regular in winter at feeders in southern Ontario, its numbers seem to be declining. I saw only one pair this July in Haliburton County, where 10 - 20 years ago I often saw them in summer. Because seed crops are generally poor across the north, I expect a southward movement at the usual time in late November and early December. A few should winter in Algonquin Park and visit feeders in southern Ontario.


AMERICAN GOLDFINCH: Large numbers are currently migrating in southern Ontario. This is another indication of poor seed crops in central and northern Ontario.


RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH: They are migrating south now. I expect some to stay north this winter because of heavy cone crops on spruce in central and northern Ontario. In Algonquin Park, there is a strong correlation in numbers (both high and low) between Red-breasted Nuthatches and White-winged Crossbills. Pine Siskin numbers are moderately correlated with numbers of Red-breasted Nuthatches.


BOHEMIAN WAXWING: Like Pine Grosbeaks, Bohemian Waxwings are keyed to mountain-ash berries in the boreal forest. Because the mountain-ash berry crop is poor in some areas, expect a small flight of Bohemians into traditional areas such as Ottawa and Peterborough and probably elsewhere.


BLUE JAY: My sources tell me that there has been a widespread failure of Red Oak acorns and acorns on other oaks in the northeast. The large numbers of Blue Jays moving south in September along the shorelines of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie indicate that acorn, beechnut and many other seed crops are poor in Ontario. This is another indicator that a flight of winter finches is coming.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: For information on tree seed crops, I wish to thank Dennis Barry in Durham Region and Haliburton County, Al Foley (MNR) in Simcoe County, Peter Hynard (MNR) in Haliburton County, Fred Pinto (MNR) in Sudbury District, Taylor Scarr (MNR) in Sault Ste Marie, Ron Tozer in Algonquin Park, Mike Turner (MNR) in Haliburton County, and Mike Walsh (MNR) in Muskoka/Parry Sound.


Happy winter finch watching,


Ron Pittaway

8 October 2003

Ontario Field Ornithologists
Minden and Toronto, Ontario,