GENERAL FORECAST: This is an irruption (flight) year for winter finches in the East. Cone and birch seed crops are poor to low in most of Ontario and the Northeast, with a few exceptions such as Newfoundland which has an excellent spruce crop. It will be a quiet winter in the North Woods. Expect flights of winter finches into southern Ontario, southern Quebec, Maritime Provinces, New York and New England States, with some finches going farther south into the United States. Stock your bird feeders because many birds will have a difficult time finding natural foods this winter. This forecast applies primarily to Ontario and adjacent provinces and states. Spruce, birch and mountain-ash crops are much better in Western Canada. For the details on each finch species, see individual forecasts below.
PINE GROSBEAK: This magnificent grosbeak will move south in moderate numbers into southern Ontario and the northern states. The Mountain-ash berry crop in the boreal forest of Ontario and Quebec is below average and conifer seeds are in short supply. The feeders at the Visitor Centre in Algonquin Park should have Pine Grosbeaks this winter. At feeders they prefer black oil sunflower seeds. Also watch for them on European Mountain-ashes and crabapple trees.
PURPLE FINCH: Purple Finches are now moving south out of Ontario. Most Purples will have departed the province by December because seed crops are poor on northern conifers and hardwoods. A few may linger at feeders in southern Ontario where they prefer black oil sunflower seeds.
RED CROSSBILL: Red Crossbills will be scarce this winter. Watch for them in pines. Red Crossbills comprise about 10 “call types” in North America. The western types seen last winter in the East have probably returned to their core ranges in western North America. Most types are impossible to identify without analyzing recordings of their flight calls. Recordings can be made with an iPhone and identified to type. Matt Young (may6 at cornell.edu) of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology will identify types if you email him your recordings or upload them to an eBird checklist. This helps his research. Recordings uploaded to eBird checklists are deposited in the Macaulay Library. See link #4 for Matt’s guide to Red Crossbill call types.
WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILL: Most White-winged Crossbills have moved east to Newfoundland and west to Western Canada where spruce cone crops are much larger. Some should wander south this winter into southern Ontario and the northern states because of poor cone crops in the eastern boreal forest. Watch for them on non-native spruces and European Larch.
COMMON REDPOLL: This will be a flight year for redpolls. Birch, alder and conifer seed crops are generally poor to low in most of the Northeast so redpolls will come south into southern Ontario and the northern states. The first arriving redpolls this fall likely will be seen in weedy fields. When redpolls discover nyger seed feeders, feeding frenzies will result. Fidgety redpolls are best studied at feeders. Look for the larger and darker far northern “Greater” Common Redpoll (subspecies rostrata) from Baffin Island (NU) and Greenland. For subspecies ID see link #2 below.
HOARY REDPOLL: This will be the winter to see Hoaries in flocks of Common Redpolls. The “Southern” Hoary Redpoll (subspecies exilipes) breeds south to northern Ontario and is the subspecies usually seen in southern Canada and northern USA. Watch for the far northern “Hornemann’s” Hoary Redpoll (nominate hornemanni) from high arctic Nunavut and Greenland. It is the largest and palest of the redpolls. Hornemann’s was formerly considered a great rarity south of the tundra, but recently it has been documented more frequently in the south with better photos. For subspecies ID see link #2 below.
PINE SISKIN: Siskins are currently moving south because cone crops in the Northeast are generally poor on spruce, fir and hemlock. Many siskins also have probably gone to better spruce crops in Western Canada. Siskins relish nyger seeds in silo feeders. Link #3 below discusses siskin irruptions related to climate variability.
EVENING GROSBEAK: Expect a moderate flight south into southern Ontario and the northern states because both conifer and deciduous seed crops are generally low in the Northeast. The best spot to see this striking grosbeak is the feeders at the Visitor Centre in Algonquin Park. At feeders it prefers black oil sunflower seeds. In April 2016 the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) listed the Evening Grosbeak a species of Special Concern due to strong population declines occurring mainly in central and eastern Canada.
THREE IRRUPTIVE NON-FINCH PASSERINES: Movements of the following three passerines are linked to irruptions of boreal finches.
BLUE JAY: A very large flight of jays is underway along the north shorelines of Lakes Ontario and Erie. The acorn, beechnut, hazelnut crops were generally poor to low in central Ontario and Quebec.
RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH: This nuthatch is irrupting south because conifer seed crops are poor to low in most of the eastern boreal forest. Red-breasted Nuthatches also have moved east to Newfoundland where spruce crops are excellent. A report on eBird at Point Pelee National Park on 25 July 2018 was an early indication of a movement.
BOHEMIAN WAXWINGS: A good flight south into settled areas is expected because native Mountain-ashes in Ontario and Quebec’s boreal forest have a below average berry crop. Flocks will likely wander farther south and east than usual. Watch for them feeding on European Mountain‐ash berries, small ornamental crabapples and Buckthorn berries. Swirling flocks of Bohemian Waxwings resemble starlings and make a continuous buzzy ringing twittering.
WHERE TO SEE FINCHES: Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park is an exciting winter experience. It is about a 3.5 hour drive north of Toronto. Cone crops are poor in the park so crossbills, siskins and Purple Finches will be mostly absent this winter. The feeders at the Visitor Centre (km 43) should attract Common and Hoary Redpolls, Evening and Pine Grosbeaks. The feeders are easily observed from the viewing deck. The Visitor Centre and restaurant are open weekends in winter. On weekdays there are limited services, but snacks and drinks are available. The bookstore has a large selection of natural history books. Be sure to get the Birds of Algonquin Park (2012) by former park naturalist Ron Tozer. It is one of the finest regional bird books. The nearby Spruce Bog Trail at km 42.5 and Opeongo Road at km 44.5 are the best spots for boreal species such as finches, Canada Jay, Boreal Chickadee, Spruce Grouse and Black-backed Woodpecker.