by Ron Pittaway

Pine Grosbeak eating ornamental crabapples at Uxbridge near Toronto, Ontario.


GENERAL FORECAST: This winter, spruce seed specialists such as White-winged Crossbills and Pine Siskins should be concentrated in eastern and western North America where cone crops are heaviest. Northwestern Quebec and Ontario have the least spruce cone abundance with only poor to good crops. Conifer crops including on ornamentals are heavier in southern Ontario and could attract finches. Common Redpolls may move into southern Ontario because birch seed crops are low to average in northern Canada. A small flight of Evening Grosbeaks is expected in the East because of increasing numbers due to expanding spruce budworm outbreaks in Quebec. Pine Grosbeaks also should move south in small numbers because the mountain-ash berry crop is below average in northern Ontario. Expect a scattering of Red Crossbills across the East this winter. See individual forecasts for the details.

INDIVIDUAL FORECASTS: Forecasts apply mainly to Ontario and adjacent provinces and states. Three irruptive non-finch passerines whose movements are often linked to finches are also discussed. Follow finch wanderings this fall and winter on eBird.

PINE GROSBEAK: This largest of the finches should move south in small numbers to Algonquin Park and probably farther south. A small flight is indicated because the native mountain-ash berry crop is below average across the boreal forest in Ontario and the crop may become depleted forcing grosbeaks southward. If Pine Grosbeaks come south they will find plenty of European mountain-ash berries and ornamental crabapples in southern Ontario and elsewhere. They relish sunflower seeds at feeders.

PURPLE FINCH: Many (not all) should migrate south out of Ontario this fall because cone and deciduous tree seed crops are generally low in northern Ontario. Purple Finches winter in numbers in the north only when the majority of tree seed crops are bumper. An easy way to tell Purple Finches from House Finches is by checking the tip of the tail; it is distinctly notched or slightly forked in Purple and squared off in House Finch. Purples prefer sunflower seeds at feeders.

RED CROSSBILL: Expect a scattering of Red Crossbills in the East this winter. Red Crossbills comprise at least 10 "call types" in North America. Some may be full species, but most types are normally impossible to identify without analyzing recordings of their flight calls. Matt Young (may6 at at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is studying Red Crossbills and he will identify types if you send him your recordings. The following summary is from Matt who reports "a nice sprinkling of Types 1 and 2 Red Crossbills in central New York State. Type 2s appear to be more common this year across much of the East. Type 10s are occurring from the Great Lakes across the Adirondacks and northern New England into the southern Maritime Provinces. An early September report of Type 3 in the Great Lakes area makes it the first in more than two years after the massive Type 3 irruption in 2012-13." Red Crossbills, probably Type 2, were seen this summer in the "pine belt" of northeastern Algonquin Park. Look for Type 2s in White Pines in Algonquin along the Barron Canyon Road (no park services) accessible from Highway 17 west of Pembroke.

WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILL: This crossbill moves back and forth like a pendulum across the boreal forest looking for bumper spruce cone crops and irrupts south only in years of widespread cone crop failures. They will be scarce in most of Ontario because cone crops are low. They should occur this winter in Atlantic Canada including Newfoundland, which has a heavy spruce cone crop. It is hoped that White-winged Crossbills will move into the northern New England States and the Adirondack Mountains in New York State where spruce cone crops are very good.

COMMON REDPOLL: Similar to last winter, expect a southward movement because birch seed crops are low to average across the boreal forest. Birch crops are much better in southern Ontario south of Algonquin Park so watch for redpolls in birches, in European Black Alders, and in weedy fields. At feeders redpolls prefer nyger seeds served in silo feeders. Redpolls are difficult to study in the field because they are so flighty, but much easier to study at feeders. Watch for the rare "Greater" Common Redpoll (rostrata) from Baffin Island and Greenland. Greaters are larger, browner, longer tailed and bigger billed. For ID and photos see links #2 and #3 below.

HOARY REDPOLL: Hoaries occur mixed in with flocks of Common Redpolls. The "Southern" Hoary Redpoll (nominate subspecies exilipes)  breeds south to northern Ontario and is the usual subspecies seen. "Hornemann's" Hoary Redpoll (subspecies hornemanni) was formerly considered a great rarity south of the tundra. There is an old specimen from southern Ontario in the Royal Ontario Museum, and more recently it has been documented by photos with 10 accepted records by the Ontario Bird Records Committee. For ID and photos of Hornemann's see links #2 and #3 below.

PINE SISKIN: Expect very few siskins in Ontario this winter because White Spruce crops are generally low. Siskins likely will be concentrated in western Canada which has heavy spruce cone crops. There were high numbers of siskins in southern Yukon in early September. They also should occur in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, the northern New England States, and the Atlantic Provinces which have very good spruce cone crops. Their wheezy calls are the best way to identify siskins flying overhead. At feeders they prefer nyger seeds in silo feeders.

EVENING GROSBEAK: Breeding numbers have been building in Quebec linked to a greater food supply from increasing outbreaks of spruce budworms, so a small southward flight is likely. Tyler Hoar recently saw small flocks of Evening Grosbeaks roaming in widely separated areas of northern Ontario and western Quebec. Tyler reported that "central Ontario feeders may hold these birds from coming south in sizable numbers." However, this spectacular grosbeak should be watched for in eastern Ontario, the Adirondacks and northern New England. The feeders at the Visitor Centre in Algonquin Park usually have grosbeaks in winter. Evening Grosbeaks prefer black oil sunflower seeds.

THREE IRRUPTIVE PASSERINES: Movements of these three passerines are often linked to the boreal finches.

BLUE JAY: The flight of jays is fairly strong this year along the north shorelines of Lakes Ontario and Erie. The strength of annual flights appears to be linked to the size of acorn, beechnut and hazelnut crops. Acorn crops were good in some areas and poor in other areas of the province. The beechnut crop failed in most areas and the hazelnut crop was average in 2015.

RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH: This nuthatch is not moving south in numbers this year indicating that White-winged Crossbills and Pine Siskins also won't irrupt southward. A heavy cone crop on Balsam Fir in many areas may explain why this nuthatch is more sedentary this year. Dennis Barry told me years ago that when fir cones disintegrate in the fall it causes millions of seeds to become lodged in the dense upper branches. These lodged seeds provide an abundant winter food for nuthatches and probably finches.

BOHEMIAN WAXWING: Expect a moderate southward and eastward flight this winter because mountain-ash berry crops are average in the boreal forest. Bohemians should get east to St. John's, Newfoundland, where mountain-ash (dogberry) crops are excellent. Bohemians now occur annually (historically more infrequently) in southern Ontario, southern Quebec, northern New York State, and elsewhere in the east. Their more regular winter occurrence now may be related to the abundance of introduced buckthorns (Rhamnus) which produce large berry crops almost every year. If they venture south, Bohemians will also find large crops (some bumper) on European Mountain-ash and ornamental crabapples in many areas.

WHERE TO SEE FINCHES: Algonquin Park is an exciting winter experience about a 3.5 hour drive north of Toronto. Cone crops are very poor in the park so finch numbers will be very low to absent. However, feeders at the Visitor Centre (km 43) should attract Common Redpolls (watch for Hoaries), Evening and Pine Grosbeaks. The Visitor Centre and restaurant are open weekends in winter. On winter weekdays, the facility is open, but with limited services (no restaurant is available, but snacks and drinks are available for purchase). Birders can still call ahead to make arrangements to view feeders by calling 613-637-2828. The bookstore has one of the best selections of natural history books anywhere. Be sure to get Birds of Algonquin Park (2012) by retired park naturalist Ron Tozer. It is one of the finest regional bird books ever published. The nearby Spruce Bog Trail at km 42.5 and Opeongo Road at km 44.5 are the best spots for finches and other species such as Gray Jay, Boreal Chickadee, Spruce Grouse and Black-backed Woodpecker.




#1. Finch Facts, Seed Crops and Irruptions, plus an informative chart of finch species and numbers on 40 Algonquin Park Christmas Bird Counts.


#2. Subspecies of Common and Hoary Redpolls – ID Tips and Photos.


#3 Photo Essay: Redpolls from Nunavut and Greenland visit Ontario.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: I thank staff of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, and the many birders/naturalists whose tree seed reports allow me to make annual forecasts: Christian Artuso (Manitoba), Dennis Barry (Durham Region, Haliburton, Sudbury District), Angus Baptiste (Grand Lac Victoria, Quebec), Eleanor Beagan (Prince Edward Island), Peter Burke (Chapleau and Thesselon, Ontario), Joan Collins (Adirondacks, New York State), Pascal Côté (Tadoussac Bird Observatory, Quebec), Bruce Di Labio (Eastern Ontario), Charity Dobbs (Ontario Tree Seed Plant), Cameron Eckert (Southern Yukon), Bruce Falls (Brodie Club, Toronto), Walter Fisher (Rosetta McClain Gardens Raptor Watch, Toronto), Marcel Gahbauer (Eastern Ontario and Calgary, Alberta), Michel Gosselin (Canadian Museum of Nature, Gatineau, Quebec), David Govatski (New Hampshire), Leo Heyens (Kenora, Ontario), Tyler Hoar (Northern Ontario, Northwestern Quebec, Laurentians, Northern Minnesota), Kris Ito (French River, Ontario), Jean Iron (James Bay and Northeastern Ontario, Edmonton, Alberta), Bruce Mactavish (St. John's, Newfoundland), Brian Naylor (Nipissing District, Ontario), Justin Peter (Algonquin Park, Ontario, Gatineau Park, Quebec), Fred Pinto (Nipissing District, Ontario), Rosamund and Jim Pojar (Smithers, central British Columbia), Michael Runtz (Algonquin Park, Ontario), Harvey and Brenda Schmidt (Creighton, Saskatchewan), Don Sutherland (Southern James Bay, northeastern Ontario), Ron Tozer (Algonquin Park and Presqu'ile Park, Ontario), Declan Troy (Alaska), Mike Turner (Haliburton Highlands, Ontario, Yukon and Northwest Territories), Richard Welsman (Rosetta McClain Gardens, Toronto), Alan Wormington (Point Pelee, Ontario). I particularly thank Matt Young of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology for information on Red Crossbills and tree seed crops in the East. Jean Iron made many helpful comments, proofed the forecast, and hosts it on her website.


Ron Pittaway

Ontario Field Ornithologists

Toronto, Ontario

28 September 2015


Greater Common Redpolls (rostrata) in Toronto, March 2011