Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Irruption Season Predicted for Winter Finches

September 29, 2018

By Steve Grinley

     The annual winter finch forecast has been released by Ron Pittaway of the Ontario Field Ornithologists. Birders in New England look forward to Ron’s wisdom each fall as he predicts which birds might visit our area this winter in search of food. Winter finches are seed-eating birds that move with their food supply. 

     This is a cyclic occurrence: In winters when there is enough food up north in Canada, the birds stay put and are scarce or absent in Massachusetts. In winters when certain seeds become less available in Canada, birds will move south into the northern states to find food. This southerly flight is termed an “irruption” year for those birds. Ron looks at data on tree crops across Canada and, knowing which birds depend on which crops, he predicts whether this is an “irruption” year for each of those winter finch species. 

     This year, Ron predicts that, over all, this will be an irruption year for winter finches in the East. Cone and birch seed crops are mostly poor up north that we can expect flights of winter finches into New England States, and some even further south. Ron advises “Stock your bird feeders because many birds will have a difficult time finding natural foods this winter.” 

     Ron predicts that both pine grosbeaks and a more moderate number of Evening Grosbeaks will move south into New England this winter. Pine Grosbeaks prefer the berries of mountain ash and cone seeds, both of which are in short supply up north. Conifer and deciduous seeds are both scarce in eastern Canada, bringing the evening grosbeaks into New England. Both of these birds enjoy black-oil sunflowers at feeders, but also watch for Pine Grosbeaks feeding on berries and crabapples as well.

     Also preferring sunflower at feeders are the Purple Finches that will be moving south out of Ontario. Don’t confuse these with the House Finches that are year ‘round residents here. Male House Finches have red on their head, breast and rump and have striping on the sides and belly. Purple Finches look like they were dipped in raspberry and have a notched tail, which is squared off on the house finch. Female Purple Finches have bold brown stripes on their head compared to the fine streaking of the house finch. Look for both at the feeders this winter.

     Few Crossbills will find their way south this winter, though a few White-winged crossbills may be found. Both Red and White-winger Crossbills enjoy sunflower at feeders but they are rare feeder birds. They will more likely be found feeding on spruce cones.

     Ron predicts this will be an irruptive year for Redpolls and Pine Siskins. Birch and alder seed crops are poor up north sending Redpolls south this winter. Poor conifer seed also encourage Redpolls, including the paler Hoary Redpoll, to head our way along with Pine Siskins. Both of these species will join the wintering Goldfinches that will already be flocking at thistle feeders. If these irruptions materialize, you may need to add more thistle feeders to accommodate them all!

     Ron also looks at three non-finch passerines. The Red-breasted Nuthatches have already started their irruption into Massachusetts. They are being seen all over the area including the pines of Plum Island and many backyard feeders. We have had Red-breasted Nuthatches at our feeders in Essex.

     Ron also predicts that more Blue Jays will head our way from Canada where the acorn, beechnut and hazelnut crops were poor this year. If you enjoy Blue Jays, as I do, you may see more of those at your feeders this winter.

     Like the Pine Grosbeak that enjoys mountain ash berries that will be scarce in Canada this year, Bohemian Waxwings will head south in search of food. Ron describes them as “Swirling flocks of Bohemian Waxwings resemble starlings and make a continuous buzzy ringing twittering.” Look for them on mountain ash and other berries, as well as crabapple trees.

     So if this all comes true, we can look forward to an exciting winter of birds in the field as well as at our feeders!

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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