by Ron Pittaway

Pine Siskin in Algonquin Park by Jean Iron


GENERAL FORECAST: Tree seed crops in northern Ontario this year vary from poor to excellent, depending on species and location, making predictions more difficult than in past years. Seed crops are better east of Lake Superior to the Quebec border than west of Superior to the Manitoba border. Many finches are moving now or will move later, but some should remain in the north this winter where tree seed crops are good to excellent. In central Ontario, such as Algonquin Park, crops are average so some finches will winter in Algonquin, but numbers are not expected to be high. Expect more finches at feeders this winter than last winter in southern Ontario. Also, as seed supplies diminish over the winter in the north, more finches may drift south in February, increasing numbers at feeders. The two best seeds for finches at feeders are nyger (previously niger) and black oil sunflower seeds. See individual forecasts below for eight finch species, plus forecasts for three irruptive passerines associated with finch movements.




(1) Conifers: White Spruce has an excellent cone crop north of Lake Huron in the Lake Nipissing region, but poor to fair around Timmins. White Spruce has a poor to fair crop north of Lake Superior. Black Spruce has a good to bumper crop south of Timmins, but a poor to fair crop north of Timmins. Both spruces have poor to good crops in northwestern Ontario. Balsam Fir had an excellent cone crop north of Lake Huron and a good crop in Algonquin Park. White Pine has good to excellent crops from Lake Superior east to Algonquin Park. White Pine has a poor crop in Muskoka and Parry Sound District. Red Pine has fair to good crops in many areas. Eastern Hemlock has an average crop on the Canadian Shield between Lake Ontario and the Ottawa River. White Cedar has average crops in many areas. Tamarack or Eastern Larch has a poor to fair crop.


(2) Hardwoods/Deciduous: White Birch has a fair to good supply of seed catkins in central and northeastern Ontario. I received no information on birch crops from west of Lake Superior. Red Oak produced a fair to good crop of acorns in central Ontario, compared to last year's complete failure. American Beech had a good crop of beechnuts in central Ontario including a report from the Haliburton Highlands of "Black Bear dung being full of beechnut husks." American and Showy Mountain-ashes have good to bumper berry crops across much of the north including a report from Lake Nipigon of bear dung evidence. European Mountain-ash (rowan) in the settled areas of southern Ontario also has a large berry crop.


PINE GROSBEAK: Mountain-ash berries are abundant across much of northern Ontario. The big berry crop should keep most Pine Grosbeaks in the north this winter. A few Pines are expected along Highway 60 in Algonquin Park, but few if any should get into the settled parts of southern Ontario.


PURPLE FINCH: Good numbers winter in central and northern Ontario only in years of bumper seed crops on several tree species. Most Purple Finches will migrate out of Ontario this fall because seed crops are not bumper in northern Ontario. However, a few should winter in southern Ontario. Watch for them at bird feeders.      


RED CROSSBILL: There are at least eight types of Red Crossbills in North America that may be separate species. They differ in calls, size, bill size and cone preferences. Ontario has at least three types of Red Crossbill. Two are adapted to pines and one to hemlock. The uncommon resident "white pine crossbill" prefers White Pine cones, which has a big crop in northeastern Algonquin Park and excellent crops north and west of the Ottawa River and Lake Nipissing. The visiting "red pine crossbill" prefers Red Pine cones, which has a good crop this year. Eastern Hemlock has average cone crops in most areas so the small-billed "hemlock crossbill" (sitkensis) will be uncommon or absent this winter. Look and listen for them in large stands of hemlock such as along Highway 60 in Algonquin Park and the adjacent Haliburton Highlands. Red Crossbills in Ontario rarely feed on spruce.


WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILL: Like a pendulum, White-winged Crossbills move back and forth across the coniferous forests from Alaska to Newfoundland. This crossbill is keyed to spruce. It also feeds on Balsam Fir, Tamarack and sometimes Eastern Hemlock, but rarely on pines unless stressed for food. There are good to excellent cone crops on spruce and fir in parts of northeastern Ontario and elsewhere, but White-winged Crossbills are currently scarce in northern Ontario and Algonquin Park. Where are they? Perhaps they went to Newfoundland where White-winged Crossbills recently fledged thousands of young because of the bumper cone crops on spruce and fir. They may stay in Newfoundland to nest again (Bruce Mactavish, pers. comm.). When they leave Newfoundland, perhaps this winter, watch for them as they seek big crops of spruce.


COMMON and HOARY REDPOLLS: Southward movements of Common Redpolls are linked to the abundance of birch seeds in the boreal forest. Since birch crops are fair to good in northeastern and central Ontario, I expect many redpolls will remain in the north, but small numbers should reach southern Ontario because the birch crop is not big enough to hold all redpolls in the north. Watch for Hoary Redpolls among the Commons. Many first year and female Hoary Redpolls are tricky to identify, but a frosty adult male Hoary is unmistakable. In southern Ontario, redpolls frequent ornamental birches, weedy fields and feeders with nyger seed. It is often reported that redpolls show a "biennial periodicity" (every second year) in their irruptions south of the breeding range. However, Erskine and McManus (2003) suggested that the "irregular abundance but near-annual occurrence" of redpolls in the Atlantic Provinces is a better explanation than periodicity (two year cycle) in their irruptions.


PINE SISKIN: Like the White-winged Crossbill, siskins wander the continent searching for seed crops. Many siskins are now migrating south out of Ontario, but a few should stay in the north and Algonquin Park because of locally good seed crops. Small numbers of siskins should also visit feeders in southern Ontario, where they prefer nyger seed. Siskins are aggressive at feeders, fighting with one another, goldfinches and redpolls.


EVENING GROSBEAK: Despite an increase in bird feeders this species has decreased over the past 25 years. The reasons for the decline are not clear, but appear related to changes in the breeding habitat such as fewer big forest fires (fewer wild cherries) and fewer outbreaks of spruce budworm. Small numbers of Evening Grosbeaks should be widespread across northern Ontario. Expect some in Algonquin Park and at feeders in southern Ontario. They prefer black oil sunflower seeds


THREE IRRUPTIVE PASSERINES often associated with finch movements.


BLUE JAYS: A good flight (smaller than last year) of Blue Jays migrated out of Ontario beginning about mid-September, but many have remained in central Ontario reflecting the moderate crop of acorns and good crops of beechnuts and hazel nuts this year. A few Blue Jays always winter far from humans in remote areas such as Algonquin Park. These isolated Blue Jays are often associated with a mated pair of Gray Jays on a permanent territory and partially depend on their food caches. A dependent Blue Jay with a pair of Gray Jays in winter was called a "satellite Blue Jay" by the late Russ Rutter, who did early studies of Gray Jays in Algonquin Park.


RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH: There has been a good (not big) migration through southern Ontario this fall. This suggests that an average crop of conifer seeds has held some for the winter in Algonquin Park and the boreal forest.


BOHEMIAN WAXWING: This species and the Pine Grosbeak will stay mainly in the boreal forest this winter because of the excellent crop of mountain-ash berries. A few may get to traditional wintering areas in central Ontario such as Ottawa and Peterborough where European Mountain-ash also has many berries. If you see Bohemian Waxwings and Pine Grosbeaks feeding together in the same tree, note the similarity in size and coloration of female Pines and Bohemians. Are they mimics?


WHERE TO SEE WINTER FINCHES: A winter trip to Algonquin Park is always worthwhile. Watch for finches in early morning along Highway 60. You may see finches on the highway eating road salt or salty sand. Finches have no fear of cars and hundreds are killed during big finch years. If you see or hear a flock of finches in flight, "squeak" loudly many times. Flying finches will often turn around and perch in nearby trees. The Visitor Centre and restaurant are open on weekends. The Visitor Centre has great feeders for finches and an observation deck. You also should see Gray Jays. Sometimes the suet feeder attracts Pine Marten and Fisher. Wolves are occasionally seen from the observation deck feeding on road-killed Moose put out by park staff. Arrangements can be made to see the feeders at the Visitor Centre during the week. For information on finches and wildlife sightings, call the Visitor Centre at 613-637-2828.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: This forecast is based on information from Dennis Barry, Barb Boysen, Bill Crins, Dave Elder, Nick Escott, Al Foley, Jean Iron, Barry Kinch, Bob Knudsen, Chris Leale, Bruce Mactavish, John Miles, Fred Pinto, Don Sutherland, Megan Thompson, Ron Tozer, Linda Tucker, Mike Turner, Bill Van Schip, and Mike Walsh. I appreciate the comments by Ron Tozer of Algonquin Park on a draft of this post.



Erskine, A.J. and R. McManus, Jr. 2003. Supposed periodicity of redpoll, Carduelis sp., winter visitations in Atlantic Canada. Canadian Field-Naturalist 117(4):611-620.


I hope that everybody sees boreal finches this winter,  


Ron Pittaway

13 October 2004

Ontario Field Ornithologists
Minden and Toronto, Ontario