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Written by Terry Spraque   
Nov 16, 2017 at 06:00 AM


NOTE: "Mouse over" the photos for their identification

Perhaps we will see a few Evening Grosbeaks this winter as the overall population increases. Photo by Ian Dickinson Anyone who operated a bird feeder back in the 1960s and 1970s will have bittersweet memories of Evening Grosbeaks descending on their feeding stations en masse. These large yellow birds with the thick beaks and appetites to match departed with the arrival of spring, leaving behind thick carpets of sunflower seed shells on the ground beneath the feeders.

According to fellow birder Ron Pittaway of Minden, those days may return to some degree this winter. The reason is due to expanding spruce budworm outbreaks in the northern forests Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick where the birds typically breed. Breeding success tends to be higher in areas with budworm outbreaks because the larvae are eaten by the adults and fed to their young. Numbers always increase if the food supply is abundant. So, it isn’t just sunflower seed that Evening Grosbeaks eat, nor is it the samaras of Manitoba maples where we used to see them munching away decades ago. The secret is spruce budworm and populations of grosbeaks will rise and fall according to the food supply. However, despite what could be higher numbers, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), two years ago, assigned the Evening Grosbeak as a species of Special Concern due to strong population declines occurring mainly in central and eastern Canada. If we fail to attract any down this way, we can always drive to the Visitor Centre at Algonquin Park where EVENING GROSBEAKS (photo by Ian Dickinson of Belleville) are most always present.

For almost a decade, Pittaway has been making predictions about members of the finch family that breed in the boreal forests – redpolls, Pine Grosbeaks, siskins and crossbills. With the assistance of numerous agencies, friends and roving birders who check out the successes and failures of northern seed crops, and a knowledge of which foods are the favourites among the northern breeders, his predictions have rarely missed their mark. Of course, harder to predict are the whims of roving birds as they follow seed crops here and there, wandering east and west, north and south with a devil may care attitude as they follow a baited highway when local supplies run low. We have all experienced hordes of pine siskins at our feeders, only to find them gone by week’s end.  With sunflower seed being a good backup when these birds are seeking wild food supplies, there is better than a good chance that some of these roving flocks will find what they want right at our feeders, and decide to hang around a bit.

As Redpolls roam around seeking food sources, there is a good chance that their wanderings will take them south to the Quinte region, predicts Ron Pittaway. Photo by Sydney SmithHaving now set the stage with this column, Ron’s predictions are that many of the northern finch species are apt to stay put where they have bred this past summer because cone crops in the Northeast being the best in more than a decade. Why spend energy on flying to far off places if the food supply is good right there? This will be a banner winter to see boreal finches in central and northeastern Ontario, Quebec, Atlantic Canada, northern New York, and northern New England States. White-winged and Red Crossbills and Pine Siskins have moved east to areas of abundant seed crops. The Big Question is: will finches concentrate in areas of highest cone abundance (more likely) or be spread out across the Northeast? This is not an irruption year south of traditional wintering areas in the Northeast.

However, as these birds roam around seeking food sources, there is a good chance that their wanderings will bring them south to the Quinte region. This may happen, he says, with COMMON REDPOLLS (photo by Sydney Smith of Wellington) because birch seed crops are low to average across the boreal forest. If redpolls move south this year, they will likely continue to southern Canada and the northern states because birch seed crops are generally low across the entire Northeast. As always, the best location is Algonquin Park where many boreal species reach their southern limit in their wanderings.

What about Pine Grosbeaks, the largest of the finches? We haven’t seen appreciable numbers of these birds for several winters, and we’re not apt to see them in any appreciable numbers again this winter.   A few may wander to southern Ontario where they like European Mountain-ash berries and small ornamental crabapples. They relish sunflower seeds at feeders.

Remember the winter of 2008-2009 when flocks of White-winged Crossbills descended onto the Bay of Quinte region and literally dripped off every white spruce tree, working away at cones noisily? This crossbill flooded into the Northeast over the summer, drawn here by the bumper cone crops. Winter trips to hotspots such as Algonquin Park, Laurentians and Adirondacks are guaranteed to see this crossbill. They probably will be breeding there this winter. Watch and listen for their loud trilling songs given from tree tops and during circular slow-flapping display flights. So, most should stay in the boreal regions of the province where food supply is good. A few may wander to southern Ontario where they like European Mountain-ash berries and small ornamental crabapples. At feeders they prefer black oil sunflower seeds. One winter, they were so common in Algonquin Park, it was difficult to hear anything else, so persistent and widespread was their conversational trills. The following winter, there was nary a crossbill to be seen. They had moved on to who knows where, following a baited highway as they went, and nesting in the middle of their food supply. That’s how they operate.

Only a small flight south is expected because native Mountain-ashes have good to excellent berry crops across the boreal forest. Photo by Tom WheatleyRon Pittaway also provides some insight into this winter’s Blue Jay numbers. We tend to think of Blue Jays as permanent residents, with us 12 months of the year, but actually there is a heavy fall migration most years.  Blue Jays, he explains, move south in varying numbers every fall beginning in mid-September. This fall, however, saw lower than usual numbers, and this was reflected in observations in the Bay of Quinte area this past fall. The strength of annual flights appears to be linked to the size of acorn, beechnut and hazelnut crops.  The acorn, beechnut, hazelnut and berry crops are generally good in Ontario.  Last summer’s drought though  damaged many seed crops resulting in a high number of Blue Jays being noted during that fall’s migration. Not so this year.

What about BOHEMIAN WAXWINGS (photo by Tom Wheatley of Foxboro)? We always look forward to winters when there are irruptions of this colourful species. Only a small flight south is expected because native Mountain-ashes have good to excellent berry crops across the boreal forest from Alaska to Newfoundland. In recent times Bohemians have been coming south more frequently probably due to now reliable annual crops of introduced Buckthorn berries. When they come south, Bohemians relish European Mountain ash berries and small ornamental crabapples. It was historically called “Bohemian Chatterer” because flocks make a continuous “buzzy ringing twittering”.

Find out what else we might expect in our backyards and at our feeders this winter by checking out his WINTER FINCH FORECAST  for 2017-2018.


(Photo credits and descriptions of photos can be seen by "mousing over" each photo. )

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Last Updated ( Nov 16, 2017 at 05:02 PM )
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November 22, 2017 5:18 pm