Each year Canadian Ron Pittaway collects information and writes a “Winter Finch Forecast” for the “New York Birders” newsletter. His projections are based on information gathered from colleagues about seed and cone crops as well as bird observations across the provinces of Ontario, Quebec and the adjacent Maritimes. I draw on his report this year for much of the following column. Hopefully it will give you an idea about some of the species to look for this coming season.
There are two major factors that cause numbers of birds to retreat southward in winter. The first is a very successful breeding season that produces an excess of birds competing for limited resources. The second is a lack of availability of those resources. Those resources are called mast, the seed crop of forest trees. The mast of most concern to passerines is that of spruces, birches and mountain ashes. Pittaway tells us that this year the spruce cone crop is mixed; birch seeds poor to average; and mountain ash berries very good.
Bad news at the outset: my favorite among these winter species, the handsome pine grosbeak, will once again almost certainly be missing. It feeds on those mountain ash berries that are available in most areas. When I think of my many birding friends who have never seen this species, I am reminded that I once saw about 50 of these lovely birds gathered on a snowy lawn in North Bay.
Purple finches, on the other hand, should appear at your feeders to feast on sunflower seeds. This species is often confused with the house finch, a more common, generally non-migratory resident. The males of both species are brightly colored, but the purple finch is well named; the house finch’s color is more orange.
Crossbills’ odd X-shaped bills assist them with extracting seeds from pinecones, and it is always exciting to have these species at feeders. They will be few and far between this winter. Pittaway suggests that the chance for seeing red crossbills may be better than seeing the white-winged species – the reverse of our usual expectation.
There is an unusual situation with regard to red crossbills. Ten different call types have recently been identified in North America. If you are able to record the song of a red crossbill, you can send the recording to Matt Young (firstname.lastname@example.org) to determine the type. This would also assist him with his research.
Redpolls, with their little red foreheads, should appear in reasonably good numbers. Most of the species that occur here are common redpolls but we should also expect a few hoary redpolls. My experience with this species in the past suggests that they are late-comers, their numbers increasing in the new year.
Little rather drab sparrow-like pine siskins have already been appearing in flights along the Lake Ontario shore. They often accompany goldfinches but are easily distinguished by their buzzy shreeee song and clee-ip flight call. They are brown striped birds with yellow in their wingbars and tail feathers.
Evening grosbeaks have become uncommon everywhere, but one has already been identified in Wilson this year. Appearing like outsized goldfinches, these sunflower seed gluttons create great excitement when they first appear at feeders, but soon outstay their welcome by threatening to bankrupt their hosts.
Pittaway also reports on some other irruptive passerines. His list includes blue jay, red-breasted nuthatch and Bohemian waxwing.
Of course, we see jays all year, but many of these birds migrate as well. I once observed more than 100 of them in Lakeside Beach State Park in Kuckville. You should find many at your feeders this winter.
And count on those delightful little red-breasted nuthatches this winter. Smaller and more delicate appearing than their white-breasted cousins, they are also distinguished from them by their black eye line.
Whenever you see a flock of cedar waxwings, look them over for a larger bird with deep rusty undertail coverts. These are Bohemian waxwings, birds that appear here from our west rather than north.
Other winter passerines to look for: snow buntings, Lapland longspurs, tree sparrows, horned larks and Northern shrikes. Early appearances suggest that this should also be another good year for snowy owls.