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October 2003


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Michael Blust <[log in to unmask]>
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Vermont Birds <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 13 Oct 2003 11:27:20 -0400
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VT Birders - This was forwarded to me and I am passing it on. It is a nice set of info not only for this year's winter birding, but for an understanding of the details influencing irruptive species.


Mike Blust, Professor of Biology
101 Ames Hall
Green Mountain College
Poultney, VT   05764
[log in to unmask]

"Good things come to those who wade"


Subject: Winter Finch Forecast in Ontario
From: Jean Iron <jeaniron(AT)sympatico.ca>
Date: 8 Oct 2003 5:29am

Hello Birdchatters,

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.

TREE SEED CROPS: (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

Minden and Toronto, Ontario