Winter Finch Forecast 2014-2015


by Ron Pittaway

Common Redpolls on weed seeds near Toronto in Durham Region, Ontario.


GENERAL FORECAST: This winter's theme is a "mixed bag" of finch movements. For example, some species such as Purple Finch will go south while White-winged Crossbills will likely stay in the boreal forest in widely separated areas where spruces are laden with cones. Common Redpolls should move into southern Canada and the northern states because birch seed crops are thin to average across the north.  See individual finch forecasts below for details.

TREE SEED CROPS: Key trees affecting finch movements in the boreal forest are spruces, birches and mountain-ashes. Spruce cone crops are variable in Ontario. Crops are excellent around southern James Bay and very good to excellent west of Lake Superior. Crops are mostly poor elsewhere in the province such as Algonquin Park in central Ontario. The heavy spruce cone crop around James Bay extends east in a broad deep band across north-central Quebec into the Gaspe Peninsula. East of Ontario cone crops are generally poor in the Atlantic Provinces, New York State, New Hampshire and other northern New England States. West of Ontario cone crops are poor in the boreal forest in Manitoba and Saskatchewan but improve westward with average crops in southern Yukon and excellent crops in Alaska. Birch seed crops are poor to average in the boreal forest. Mountain-ash berry crops are very good to bumper across the boreal forest, but crops are low in northeastern Ontario and poor in Newfoundland. 

INDIVIDUAL FINCH FORECASTS: Forecasts apply mainly to Ontario and adjacent provinces and states. Three irruptive non-finch passerines whose movements are linked to finches are also discussed. There will be local exceptions to individual forecasts. You can follow the movements of winter finches this fall and winter on eBird.    

PINE GROSBEAK: Pine Grosbeaks should make a small flight into central Ontario because mountain-ash berry crops are low in northeastern Ontario. However, mountain-ash crops are excellent in north-central Quebec and in northwestern Ontario with excellent crops extending west across the boreal forest to Alaska so grosbeaks there may not move far from these areas. At feeders they prefer sunflower seeds, and also watch for them feeding on European mountain-ash berries and ornamental crabapples. 

PURPLE FINCH: Last winter many Purple Finches stayed in the boreal forest because of bumper seed crops there. This fall most Purple Finches should migrate south of Ontario because many coniferous and deciduous tree seed crops are much lower in central and northeastern Ontario. When Purple Finches leave Ontario in October and November, they return in mid-April to mid-May to breed. At feeders Purples prefer sunflower seeds. Old-timers remember when Purple Finches were much commoner than they are today. The principal cause of the decline may be the absence of large outbreaks of spruce budworm. 

RED CROSSBILL: Red Crossbills will be scattered in the Northeast this winter because cone crops are generally poor. Expect some in Ontario where red and/or white pines have locally good cone crops. A few Red Crossbills were reported this past summer north of Lake Huron. Red Crossbills comprise at least 10 "call types" in North America. However, the types are usually impossible to identify without recordings of their flight calls. Matt Young (may6 at at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology will identify types if you send him your recordings and this will help with his ongoing research. Matt reports that Type 10s have been moving around the Great Lakes and Northeast for a few months and Pascal Cote of the Tadoussac Bird Observatory in Quebec reports a small movement of Type 3s. 

WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILL: This crossbill will be mostly absent this winter from central Ontario such as in Algonquin Park because spruce and hemlock cone crops are very poor there. White-winged Crossbills move east and west like a pendulum across North America searching for bumper cone crops. In the Northeast they should winter in numbers around James Bay and east across north/central Quebec into the Gaspe Peninsula where spruce crops are heavy. Pascal Cote reports that White-winged Crossbills are currently abundant in boreal areas of Quebec such as Charlevoix and Chibougamau. They are unlikely to irrupt south in numbers because the excellent spruce cone crops in Quebec, northwestern Canada and Alaska should keep this crossbill within the boreal forest.

COMMON REDPOLL: Expect a moderate to good flight south this fall and winter because birch seed crops are variably poor to average in the boreal forest. At bird feeders redpolls prefer nyger seeds in silo feeders. Watch for "Greater" Common Redpolls (subspecies rostrata) from Baffin Island and Greenland in flocks of "Southern" Common Redpolls (nominate subspecies flammea). Greaters are larger, browner, longer tailed, and bigger billed in direct comparison with "Southerns". For photos of "Greater" Common Redpolls see links #5 and 6 below. Watch for redpolls in weedy fields.

HOARY REDPOLL: Watch for Hoaries this winter mixed in with flocks of Common Redpolls. The "Southern" Hoary Redpoll (nominate subspecies exilipes) which breeds south to northern Ontario is the usual subspecies encountered. It is rare but regular in redpoll flocks. "Hornemann's" Hoary Redpoll (subspecies hornemanni) was once considered a great rarity south of the tundra, but it has been documented with photos in recent years with four records accepted to date by the Ontario Bird Records Committee. For photos of Hornemann's see link #6 below.

PINE SISKIN: Siskins were observed in numbers this summer around southern James Bay and in southern Yukon. They will move east and west this fall searching for areas with excellent spruce cone crops. Siskins should winter in Alaska and north-central Quebec where spruce crops are excellent. However, those that fail to find adequate cone crops will probably wander south where they will frequent bird feeders with nyger seeds in silo feeders. Siskins are often detected by their wheezy clee-ip call, which is the best way to identify them in flight.

EVENING GROSBEAK: Very small numbers of Evening Grosbeaks should move south this winter into southern Ontario and the Northeast because tree seed crops are generally poor farther north. This past summer, Tyler Hoar reports the lowest number of Evening Grosbeaks that he has seen around Lake Superior and in Quebec's Laurentians in four years. Breeding populations are now much reduced from the population peak during the 1940s to 1980s linked to large outbreaks of spruce budworm. The feeders at the Visitor Centre in Algonquin Park should have some grosbeaks this winter. At feeders Evening Grosbeaks prefer black oil sunflower seeds.

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

BLUE JAY: Expect a good to heavy flight (many more than last year) moving westward along the north shorelines of Lakes Ontario and Erie because the acorn, beechnut, hazelnut and soft mast crops averaged low in northeastern, central and eastern Ontario. However, acorn crops were much higher in the Carolinian Zone south of Toronto. Expect fewer Blue Jays at feeders in Ontario this winter because many jays will migrate out of the province this fall.

RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH: This nuthatch is a conifer seed specialist when it winters in the boreal forest. Cone crop failures cause irruptions. It began wandering southward in mid-summer indicating that boreal finches would also move this fall and winter. Many but not all Red-breasted Nuthatches should move south this fall because white spruce cone crops are generally low to average (some bumper crops) across much of the boreal forest. At bird feeders Red-breasted Nuthatches prefer black oil sunflower seeds, chopped peanuts and suet.

BOHEMIAN WAXWING: Most Bohemians should stay in the north this winter because the mountain-ash berry crop is generally very good to excellent across most of the boreal forest except in northeastern Ontario. When Bohemians move south they are attracted to berries on European Mountain-ash, small ornamental crabapples and buckthorn berries. With the recent breeding range expansion east across northern Quebec and the annual abundance of buckthorn berries in settled areas, Bohemians now occur every winter in varying numbers in southern Ontario, southern Quebec and New York State. 

WHERE TO SEE FINCHES: Algonquin Park is an exciting winter experience about a 3.5 hour drive north of Toronto. Cone crops are poor in the park this year so finch numbers will be very low. 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 weekdays arrangements can be made 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 the 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.

NOTE: Previous finch forecasts and much additional information with photos are in the following links:


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


#2. Last year's Winter Finch Forecast 2013-2014


#3. Winter Finch Forecast 2012-2013


#4. Previous forecasts from 1999-2000 to 2011-2012


#5. "Greater" Common Redpolls Reference Photos


#6 Redpoll Photo Essay - Greater and Hornemann's Redpolls


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: I thank staff of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, and the many birders whose tree seed reports allow me to make annual forecasts: Christian Artuso (Manitoba), Dennis Barry (Durham Region, Haliburton, Sudbury), Angus Baptiste (Grand Lac Victoria, Quebec), Eleanor Beagan (Prince Edward Island), Peter Burke (north of Lake Huron), Mike Burrell (eBird Canada), Joan Collins (Adirondacks, New York), Pascal Cote (Tadoussac Bird Observatory, Quebec), Bruce Di Labio (Eastern Ontario and Churchill, Manitoba), Charity Dobbs (Ontario Tree Seed Plant), Carolle Eady (Dryden, Ontario), Cameron Eckert (Southern Yukon), Walter Fisher (Rosetta McClain Gardens Raptor Watch, Toronto), Marcel Gahbauer (Southern Quebec, Gaspe, New Brunswick, Alberta), Michel Gosselin (Canadian Museum of Nature), David Govatski (New Hampshire and Alaska), Leo Heyens (Kenora, Ontario), Tyler Hoar (Lake Superior and Quebec's Southern Laurentians), Peter Hynard (Minden, Ontario), Kris Ito (French River, Ontario), Jean Iron (James Bay and Northeastern Ontario), Bruce Mactavish (Island of Newfoundland), Scott McPherson (Nipissing, Ontario), Brian Naylor (North Bay, Ontario), Justin Peter (Algonquin Park, Ontario, and Gatineau Park, Quebec), Fred Pinto (North Bay, Ontario), Harvey and Brenda Schmidt (Creighton, Saskatchewan), Don Sutherland (Southern James Bay), Ron Tozer (Algonquin Park), Declan Troy (Alaska), Mike Turner (Haliburton Highlands, Ontario), Richard Welsman (Rosetta McClain Gardens, Toronto). I particularly thank Matt Young of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology for information about seed crops in New York State and Pennsylvania, and for his advice on the types of Red Crossbills. Jean Iron made helpful comments, proofed this forecast and hosts it on her website.


Ron Pittaway

Ontario Field Ornithologists

Toronto, Ontario

22 September 2014


Male Pine Grosbeak feeding on ornamental crabapples in Uxbridge near Toronto, Ontario.