Seeing winter finches this year may mean a trip to Algonquin Park
Some of my favourite backyard birds during fall and spring migration are white-throated and white-crowned sparrows. These migrants arrive each year right on schedule – almost to the day – and feed on the millet I scatter on the ground. Despite my best attempts at coaxing them to stay, however, most will have moved on by early November, headed for the warmer climes of the central and southern U.S. Some of the void left by the sparrows’ departure is filled by dark-eyed juncos. More and more are now arriving everyday. Large numbers of juncos will spend the winter in the Kawarthas, along with resident species like chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, cardinals, and mourning doves.
Although the juncos and resident birds provide ample winter entertainment, what birders and backyard feeder enthusiasts really hope for is another wave of avian visitors – the so-called winter finches. These species, which breed primarily in the boreal forest of northern Ontario, are noted for their erratic migrations in search of tree seed crops.
Because their nomadic ways are an adaptation to the ups and downs of seed production, the appearance of winter finches in central Ontario is no guarantee. They can be here one winter and completely absent the next. If seed crops are good in the north, the birds stay put. Conversely, if the northern seed crop fails, they will sometimes fly thousands of kilometres to find food. In years when seed production is especially low, finches often turn up in the Kawarthas as early as mid-fall. This is what happened last year when siskins and redpolls started arriving in late October. Later in the fall, evening grosbeaks also moved into our area in numbers not seen for years. When finches descend upon our region, they readily come to feeders, especially if nyger and black oil sunflower seeds are on the menu.
The seeds and berries that finches depend upon most are those of birch, mountain-ash, pine, spruce, hemlock, and tamarack. Many factors affect seed crops, including early and late frosts, too much or too little precipitation, insect pressures, and disease. These factors often result in seed production being reduced or completely aborted over hundreds of kilometres. Other influences seem to be in play, as well, but are poorly understood.
Monitoring seed production in trees allows biologists to make reasonable predictions about finch movements in the upcoming winter. Since the fall of 1999, Ron Pittaway and Jean Iron of the Ontario Field Ornithologists have prepared an annual forecast of which winter finches are most likely to show up in southern and central Ontario. Much of the data on seed production comes from Ministry of Natural Resources staff. This year, apart from pines, seed crops are good to excellent across northern Ontario and Quebec. The cone crop on spruce trees is especially impressive. This means that most winter finches will stay in the north this year and few, if any, will turn up in the Kawarthas.
The annual forecast includes a species-by-species breakdown. Non-finch species are also included in the list, namely the blue jay, red-breasted nuthatch, bohemian waxwing and American robin.
PINE GROSBEAK: Pine grosbeaks specialize in eating the fruit of both the showy and American mountain-ash. This year, the berry crop on these small trees is excellent, which means that most pine grosbeaks will remain close to their breeding grounds. A few, however, may drift south to Algonquin Park. Adult males – a minority in most flocks – have a bright rose plumage. First year males look like females.
EVENING GROSBEAK: Most evening grosbeaks are expected to winter in the north, because conifer and deciduous seed crops are abundant. This is especially so for black ash, which grosbeaks relish. However, because large numbers of grosbeaks came south last winter, there may be a small “echo flight”. This poorly understood phenomenon is also common in snowy owls. The feeders at the Algonquin Park Visitor Centre attract evening grosbeaks every winter.
PURPLE FINCH: In most years, purple finches leave Ontario in the fall, returning in mid-April to mid-May to breed. They are often seen moving south through the Kawarthas in September. Most have now left the province. An easy way to tell a purple finch from the very similar house finch is by checking the tip of the tail; the former has a distinctly notched or slightly forked tail, while the house finch’s tail is squared off. Many house finches also migrate south in fall.
PINE SISKIN: Siskins wander the continent in search of conifer seeds, especially those of spruce, fir and hemlock. According to this year’s forecast, most siskins will stay north this winter, although some may take advantage of the big spruce cone crop in Algonquin Park. At feeders, siskins relish nyger seeds.
COMMON REDPOLL: Redpolls resemble siskins and goldfinches in size, shape, and habits.
With birch and alder catkins loaded with seeds across the north, redpolls are expected to remain in the boreal forest. A winter trip to Algonquin Park may yield a few redpolls, but very few are expected to venture any further south.
RED CROSSBILL: Red crossbills will be scarce this winter in the Kawarthas. If some do show up, watch for them in pines. Petroglyphs Provincial Park is often a good location to see both species of crossbills. Crossbills rarely come to feeders.
WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILL: These crossbills move back and forth like a pendulum across the boreal forest looking for bumper spruce cone crops. They venture south only in years of widespread cone crop failures. White-winged crossbills are currently widespread and locally common in northern Ontario. We can expect to see some this winter in Algonquin Park.
The abundance of some non-finch species that turn up in our yards in winter also varies greatly from one year to the next.
BLUE JAY: Jays move south into the U.S. in varying numbers every fall. The percentage of the population that remains in Ontario is linked to the abundance of acorns, beechnuts, and hazelnuts. Given this year’s excellent nut crop in many parts of central Ontario, large numbers of blue jays are expected to stay put this winter and should turn up at feeders.
BOHEMIAN WAXWING: The excellent berry crop on American mountain-ash trees across the boreal forest should keep most bohemian waxwings in the north. For whatever reason, some flocks do wander south into the Kawarthas each winter, where they are attracted to the fruit of European mountain-ash, ornamental crabapples, and European buckthorn. They can be distinguished from cedar waxwings, which may also be present, by their rufous undertail feathers, yellow tips on wing feathers, and dark grey belly.
AMERICAN ROBIN: Given the huge wild grape crop this year in the Kawarthas, it is likely that large numbers of robins will spend the winter with us. Robins also feed on mountain-ash, crabapples, and buckthorn.
The best place to see winter finches in central Ontario is Algonquin Park, only a two-and-a-half hour drive from Peterborough. Cone crops are excellent in Algonquin so most finches should be present this winter. The feeders at the visitor centre (km 43) are always busy and convenient to watch from the viewing deck. The centre is open every day in fall and winter. Weekday services are limited, but snacks and drinks are available. Be sure to check out the bookstore, which has one of the best selections of nature books in the province. The nearby Spruce Bog Trail at km 42.5 and the Opeongo Road at km 44.5 are also good locations to see finches, along with Canada jays (formerly gray jay), boreal chickadees, spruce grouse, and even black-backed woodpeckers.
To get up-to-date information on winter finches or other birds, go to ebird.org, click on “Explore” and then “Explore Regions”. Type in the county you want to search. This might be Peterborough, Kawartha Lakes or Nipissing (for Algonquin Park). You can then click on “Hotspots” to see a list of popular birding areas. If you click on “Bar Charts” and set the “Date Range” to the current year only, you can see at a glance what birds are currently being seen.
What to watch for this week
The smoky, golden-yellow of tamaracks is lighting up wetland borders throughout the Kawarthas right now. These trees make for one of the most beautiful sights of fall and, along with the orange-brown leaves still clinging to our oaks, represent the final act of autumn’s colour parade.
CLIMATE CRISIS NEWS
Although the outcome of the federal election provides reason for guarded optimism for more aggressive greenhouse gas reduction, few of us really understand the scale of the climate challenge. This is why I recommend reading “The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming”, by David Wallace-Wells. As he writes in the first sentence of the book, “It is worse, much worse, than you think.” The author lays out in terrifying detail what the coming decades will look like should we continue on our present carbon emissions trajectory. In fact, the elements of climate chaos are so horrendous that halfway through the book Wallace-Wells commends any reader who has “made it this far”. At the same time, he points out that we already have all the tools we need to avoid a worst case scenario. These include “a carbon tax and the political apparatus to aggressively phase out dirty energy; a new approach to agricultural practices and a shift away from beef and dairy in the global diet; and public investment in green energy and carbon capture”. However, Wallace-Wells acknowledges that acting quickly enough will be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.