Oct 192017
 

Bird numbers and diversity at feeders at feeders depends on wild seed abundance

If you’ve been paying attention to coniferous trees this fall, you’ve probably noticed the abundance of cones on many species. Cedars and spruce, for example, have produced an especially heavy crop. The quantity of seed on sugar maples, too, is of epic proportions, most likely in response to last summer’s drought. In fact, the maples put so much energy into manufacturing seeds that the leaves on many trees never grew to their normal size.

The relative abundance of seed has a ripple effect on other species, as well. For instance, it goes a long way to telling us what birds are most likely to keep us company in the coming months. Anyone who feeds or watches birds knows that the relative abundance and diversity of species varies widely from one winter to the next. Last year, for example, thousands of robins overwintered in the Kawarthas. This was largely due to an abundance of wild grape. American goldfinches and purple finches were also very common. Other species, such as pine siskins, were almost completely absent.

The fluctuation in winter bird abundance is most noticeable in a group known as winter or northern finches. The term is used to describe highly nomadic species like redpolls, siskins, purple finches and pine grosbeaks, all of which belong to the Fringillidae family. Some winters, they don’t show up at all, while other years there are so many that they empty your feeder in only a day or two.

Northern finches move south – or sometimes east or west – in late fall when there is a shortage of seeds in their breeding range, which extends across Canada’s boreal forest. Seeds come in many forms. These include berries (e.g., mountain-ash), catkins (e.g., birch) and cones (e.g., spruce). In the case of cones, the seeds are located under the scales. The key seeds affecting finch movements are those of white and yellow birches, alders, American mountain-ashes, pines and spruces. If seed crops are good in the boreal forest, the birds usually stay put. If food is lacking, they will sometimes fly thousands of kilometres to find it. Whether they actually choose to spend the winter in central Ontario and the Kawarthas depends mainly on the abundance of seed crops here.

Since the fall of 1999, Ron Pittaway of the Ontario Field Ornithologists has prepared an annual forecast of what winter finch species are most likely to make an appearance in southern and central Ontario during the coming fall and winter. The forecast is based on information he collects on the relative abundance of seed crops in the boreal forest. According to Pittaway, cone crops across northeastern North America are of bumper proportions this year – maybe the best in a decade or more. Given the amount of food available, this should be a banner winter to see cone-loving species such as pine siskins and both white-winged and red crossbills. The big question, however, is whether these birds will concentrate in only some areas or be spread out across the entire northeast.

Finch forecasts

1. Pine Siskins – Siskins should be common in the Kawarthas this winter, drawn here primarily by the abundant cone crops on spruce. They will almost certainly turn up at nyger seed feeders, as well.

2. Common Redpoll – Redpolls, too, are likely to put in an appearance. The birch and alder seed crops on which they depend are below average in northern Ontario, so they won’t be hanging around. However, this southbound movement may be slowed or stopped as soon as they discover adequate food supplies. If redpolls do make it to the Kawarthas, good local birch seed crops and an abundance of weedy fields should keep them here. You can also expect them at your nyger seed feeder. If a flock of redpolls graces your backyard, watch for small numbers of hoary redpolls. They tend to be larger, paler and smaller-billed than common redpolls.

3. Crossbills – Thanks to the crossed tips of the upper and lower mandibles of their bill,   crossbills are able to specialize in removing seeds from beneath the scales of conifer cones. Red crossbills prefer pine cones, while white-winged crossbills are attracted mostly to spruce, tamarack and hemlock. There should be a good showing of red crossbills in central Ontario in the coming weeks and months. In fact, many will probably take time to breed, despite the snow and cold. Both species of crossbills are able to nest at any time of the year if food is abundant. Watch for streaked juvenile birds.

Red crossbills are of particular interest to scientists who study evolution. Research suggests that there are nine or ten discrete populations, each of which specializes in a different conifer species. They do not interbreed and may represent different species. Careful examination shows differences in body size and in the length of the bill tip (degree of “crossing”). Most types are impossible to identify, however, without analyzing recordings of their flight calls. Matt Young, a researcher at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York, is studying red crossbills and needs your help. He is asking people to use their smartphone to record the birds’ flight calls and to send him the recordings at may6@cornell.edu He will then identify which of the populations the birds belong to and let you know.

White-winged crossbills move east and west like a pendulum across North America, searching for bumper cone crops. Large numbers have already arrived in parts of the northeast, where they’ve been gorging on spruce seeds. There’s a good possibility that they will also turn up in the Kawarthas, too, and probably right here in Peterborough. Watch and listen for their loud trilling songs given from tree tops and during circular, slow-flapping display flights. Algonquin Park, however, is usually the best place to see these birds. Both red and white-winged are often observed right on Highway 60, where they glean grit and salt from winter road maintenance operations. Unfortunately, crossbills rarely come to feeders.

4. Pine Grosbeak – Most pine grosbeaks will probably stay put this winter, since the mountain-ash berry crop is abundant across the north. A few might get south to Algonquin Park, but they are unlikely to turn up in the Kawarthas. When they do make an incursion into central Ontario, they usually found feeding on European mountain-ash and ornamental crabapples. Considered the most beautiful of the boreal finches, pine grosbeaks can be surprisingly tame.

5. Evening Grosbeak – Most evening grosbeaks are expected to remain in the north this winter. However, you can usually see grosbeaks by checking out the feeders at the Visitor Centre in Algonquin Park. In 2016, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) declared the evening grosbeak as a species of Special Concern due to worrisome population declines.

6. Purple finch – Most purple finches will stay north this winter, thanks to the heavy seed crops on conifers and mountain-ashes. They usually appear at my feeder in early fall, but this year I’ve haven’t seen any. An easy way to tell purple finches from look-alike house finches is by checking the tip of the tail; the former has a distinctly notched or slightly forked tail, whereas the house finch’s tail is squared off. Both species prefer black oil sunflower seeds at feeders.

Non-finch species

1. Blue Jay – Thanks to a good crop of acorns, beechnuts and hazelnuts, large numbers of blue jays will probably remain in the Kawarthas this fall and winter. I am already noticing above-average numbers.

2. Red-breasted nuthatch: Like many of the finches, this species depends primarily on conifer seeds. Pittaway is therefore predicting large numbers in central Ontario this winter. This was certainly the case on Thanksgiving weekend at Big Gull Lake, south of Bon Echo Provincial Park. Red-breasted nuthatches were by far the most common bird.

3. Bohemian waxwing: Most bohemians should stay in the north, because of the large berry crop on American mountain-ash. That being said, we almost always see at least a few flocks of this species in the Kawarthas every winter. This may be partly due to the local abundance of European buckthorn, a non-native shrub that produces a large berry crop every year. Bohemian waxwings are also attracted to European mountain-ash and ornamental crabapples.

4. American robins:  Although not part of Pittaway’s forecast, I suspect that robin numbers will be low this winter, given the poor crop of wild grape. Last year, thousands of robins overwintered here and gorged themselves primarily on abundant wild grapes.

The best way to stay on top of bird movements across Ontario is to subscribe to Ontbirds. You will receive a daily digest of sightings. Sign up at ontbirds.ca/mailman/listinfo/birdalert_ontbirds.ca To follow what’s happening locally, I recommend using eBird. When you go to the website, click on “Explore Data” and then “Explore a Region”. Type in “Peterborough, Ontario”. Choose “Current Year” and then click on “Set”. You will see an up-to-date list of all species seen in the area. By clicking on “Species Name”, the birds will appear in the same order as in your field guide. By clicking on the date, you will see where the bird was seen, along with other species observed at the same location.

Project FeederWatch

If you feed birds, you can support research and conservation by taking part in Project FeederWatch. Simply count the kinds and numbers of birds at your feeder, and then submit your observations. This information helps scientists study winter bird populations. To register, go to birdscanada.org/volunteer/pfw/ or call Bird Studies Canada at 1-888-448-2473.

 

 

 

 

Oct 202016
 

Once again this fall, I’ve been kept busy meeting the food demands of the hordes of birds that have descended upon my yard and feeders. At least two dozen white-throated sparrows have been gorging themselves on the millet finch mix I scatter on the ground. These small seeds have also attracted white-crowned sparrows, dark-eyed juncos and three beautiful fox sparrows. Black oil sunflower aficionados like blue jays, house finches, cardinals, chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches and American goldfinches are also putting a serious dent in my birdseed budget. Not to be outdone, hairy and downy woodpeckers have been on a non-stop crusade to empty the peanut feeder.

Fox Sparrow - Wikimedia

Fox Sparrow – Wikimedia

Clearly, October is a wonderful month for feeding birds. But, despite our best attempts to entice them to stay, migrants such as white-throated sparrows abandon our yards in late October for wintering grounds in the southeastern U.S. By early November, there is often a marked decrease in feeder activity. Most years, however, a second wave of visitors eventually fills the void. These are the so-called “winter finches”, a term used to describe highly nomadic species like redpolls, siskins, purple finches and pine grosbeaks, all of which belong to the Fringillidae family. Some winters, they are totally absent from the Kawarthas, while other years they can eat you out of house and home. Last year, big flocks of pine siskins and purple finches were a constant presence at local feeders Why is it that finch numbers fluctuate so widely? The short answer is the availability of wild food.

Common redpolls may show up at feeders in the Kawarthas this winter - Missy Mandel

Common redpolls may show up at feeders in the Kawarthas this winter – Missy Mandel

Winter finches move southward – or east or west – when there is a shortage of food in their breeding territories in the boreal forest of northern Ontario and Quebec. The wild foods the birds depend upon most are the seeds and berries of deciduous and coniferous trees such as birches, mountain-ashes, pines and spruces. If seed crops are good in the north, the birds stay put. If food is lacking, they will sometimes fly thousands of kilometres to find it. Whether they actually choose to spend the winter here in the Kawarthas depends on the abundance of wild food crops in this region.

Since the fall of 1999, Ron Pittaway of the Ontario Field Ornithologists has prepared an annual forecast of what winter finch species are most likely to show up in southern and central Ontario over the upcoming fall and winter. The forecast is based on the relative abundance of seed crops in the boreal forest. Much of the data comes from Ministry of Natural Resources staff. So, what is the seed crop situation this year and what are the implications for the thousands of area residents who enjoy feeding the birds? Below you will find a species-by-species breakdown. Although not finches, four other bird species are included in the list, namely the blue jay, red-breasted nuthatch, bohemian waxwing and American robin.

PINE GROSBEAK: This, our largest finch, will probably stay in the north, because native mountain-ash berry crops are good to bumper across the boreal forest. If some grosbeaks do wander south into the Kawarthas, they will search out European mountain-ash berries and ornamental crabapples. They will occasionally come to feeders, too, if sunflower seeds are available.

PURPLE FINCH: Purple finches have been moving south since late August, when small numbers were appearing daily at my feeder. The southward flight is due to poor seed crops on deciduous trees in the north. An easy way to tell purple finches from house finches is by checking the tip of the tail; the former has a distinctly notched or slightly forked tail. The house finch’s tail is squared off. Both species prefer black oil sunflower seeds at feeders.

RED CROSSBILL: Expect a scattering of red crossbills in central Ontario this winter. Listen and watch for them on spruces and pines, including large-coned ornamental pines. Petroglyphs Provincial Park is often a good place to see these birds.

WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILL: This crossbill moves back and forth like a pendulum across the boreal forest looking for bumper spruce cone crops. It ventures south only in years of widespread cone crop failures. We can expect some white-winged crossbills; however, abundant cone crops in the north will probably keep them at home. Both crossbill species increasingly use feeders with black oil sunflower seeds when conifer seeds are scarce.

Male White-winged Crossbill - Wikimedia

Male White-winged Crossbill – Wikimedia

PINE SISKIN:  This is another species that depends on the seeds they extract from spruce cones. Since the cone crop is generally poor in the boreal forest of Quebec, we can expect some siskins to move south into central Ontario this winter. Most, however, are probably making a beeline to northern Ontario where abundant food awaits them. At feeders, siskins prefer nyger seeds in silo feeders.

COMMON REDPOLL: Given that birch seed crops are generally poor in the north, redpolls should move south this year and grace local feeders. Like siskins, they prefer nyger seeds. Hoary redpolls, which are paler and larger, are often mixed in with flocks of common redpolls.

EVENING GROSBEAK: Breeding populations of this spectacular finch continue to increase in Ontario and Quebec. This is due to increased outbreaks of spruce budworm, a staple food for nestlings. It is likely that some evening grosbeaks will show up feeders in the Kawarthas, like the pair that paid me an unexpected visit in mid-September. Like so many other winter finches, evening grosbeaks prefer black oil sunflower seeds. If you want to travel a little further afield, the feeders at the Visitor Centre in Algonquin Park usually have grosbeaks in winter.

The abundance of other birds – albeit not finches – also varies greatly from one year to the next. Once again, numbers depend on the availability of wild food.

BLUE JAY:  The number of jays that tough it out in Ontario in a given winter is linked to the acorn, beechnut and hazelnut crop. Acorn production was good in many parts of central Ontario and the Kawarthas this year, although the drought damaged some of the crop. It is likely that good numbers of blue jays will hang around this winter.

RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH: A southward movement of these small, hyperactive birds is underway right now and is evidence of poor cone crops in northern Quebec. It is unclear whether these nuthatches will show up in the Kawarthas in above-average numbers.

BOHEMIAN WAXWING:   Most bohemians will likely remain on their breeding grounds in northern Ontario and western Canada this winter, given that native mountain-ash berry crops are good to bumper across the boreal forest. Most years, however, at least some bohemians show up in the Kawarthas, possibly due to reliable annual crops of European buckthorn berries. If they venture south, bohemians are also attracted to European mountain-ash and ornamental crab apples. They can be distinguished from cedar waxwings by their rufous undertail feathers, yellow tips on wing feathers and dark grey belly.

Bohemian Waxwing (Karl Egressy)

Bohemian Waxwing (Karl Egressy)

AMERICAN ROBIN: Given the abundant fruit on wild grape vines this year in the Kawarthas, it is likely that larger-than-average numbers of robins will spend the winter with us. Flocks can often be seen along the Trans-Canada Trail west of Jackson Park and along the Parkway Trail between Hilliard and Cumberland streets. The best way to attract robins to your yard in winter is by planting wild grape, European mountain-ash and ornamental crab apples. Robins may also come to a heated winter birdbath and to offerings of raisins and apple halves.

PROJECT FEEDERWATCH

If you enjoy watching birds at your feeder and would like to become a “citizen scientist”, consider joining the more than 20,000 FeederWatchers who count and submit the kinds and numbers of birds at their feeders. This information helps scientists study winter bird populations. Project FeederWatch participants receive a full-colour bird poster and calendar, a FeederWatch Handbook and Instruction Book, and access to the data entry portion of the FeederWatch website. Visit birdscanada.org for more information or contact the Canadian coordinator at 1-888-448-2473

To conclude, it looks like a variety of winter finches and other birds could show up at your feeder this fall and winter. These predictions are not yet an exact science, however, so we’ll have to wait and see. To get up-to-date information on what birds are turning up in the Kawarthas, go to ebird.org, click on “Explore Data” and then “Bar Charts”. Choose “Ontario”, followed by “Counties in Ontario” and then “Peterborough”. Set the “range of years” for the current year only. And, If you haven’t done so already, get out your feeders and stock up on black oil sunflower, nyger and millet seeds. The birds will thank you for it and you’ll have non-stop backyard entertainment!

BOOK AWARD

The recently-published “Big Book of Nature Activities”, which I co-authored with Jacob Rodenburg, has won a silver medal in the North America-wide 2016 Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards. The book was entered in the category “Activity Books: Educational, Science and History” Each year’s entries are judged by expert panels of youth educators, librarians, booksellers, and book reviewers of all ages. “The Big Book of Nature Activities” is available at Happenstance Books and Yarns in Lakefield, Avant-Garden Shop and Chapters in Peterborough, and from online booksellers.

SILVER MEDAL WINNER Moonbeam Children's Book Awards 2016

MEDAL WINNER! Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards 2016