Thursday, September 24, 2009

Adirondack Winter Finch Forecast

We birders (those who watch birds) eagerly await an e-mail that comes about this time every early fall. It’s a message that’s filled with information that can be good news or bad news. The good news can fill a birdwatcher’s heart with anticipation of a wonderful winter with colorful sightings. The bad news can mean a not-so-good winter with few of these colorful sightings. However, the bad news for us in the Adirondacks turns out to be good news for others.

All this I am referring to is the long-awaited Winter Finch Forecast given by naturalist/ornithologist Ron Pittaway of the Ontario Field Ornithologist group:

First you might ask, What is a winter finch? I’ll reply with: winter finches are a group of birds that traditionally spend most of their time in the boreal forest of coniferous trees well north of the Adirondacks in Canada. Here these birds, with the help of specifically adapted bills, feed on the many pine cone seeds that are found throughout these forests.

Most of us have heard of finches. We’re familiar with the American goldfinch, house finch and purple finch which frequent our birdfeeders. But we may not be familiar with the others in this group, namely evening grosbeaks, pine grosbeaks, common and hoary redpolls, red- and white-winged crossbills . . . great names, eh? This group will often feed solely on pine cone seeds, but as with many other aspects of nature there is a cycle to pine cone production; there are good years and bad years.

Pine cone seeds are chock-full of nutrients and fat that birds need to survive a harsh northern winter. Spruce cones, pine cones, tamarack cones, hemlock cones—all provide these birds with food. But what if the cones are not produced in a given summer season? Well, the bird must find an area where there are cones are being produced.

That’s where the forecast come into play. Throughout the summer months Ron and many other naturalists trod throughout the forests of Canada and our own Adirondacks in search of the cone-bearing trees. This year in particular the Adirondacks have just an “OK” crop of cones in the Adirondack woods—not too good but not too bad. But Canada seems to be having a good year across the Provinces.

How do you forecast bird movements? Well over the many years of bird study we can determine if and when finches will move in search of food. If Canada is experiencing a poor cone crop and the border states of the US (like NY) are producing good crops then the birds will move en masse to our neck of the woods and “invade” or “irrupt” into our area, as they did in 2008-2009. Thus we give the winter finches the all encompassing label of “irruptive winter finches.”

So what’s the forecast for this winter? Well Ron says that we shouldn’t be looking for too many finch visitors to our Adirondack feeders and woods this year. Sad, yes, but that means there’s plenty of good food sources fattening up birds deep in the forests of our neighbors to the north. Maybe next year. But we’ll still look forward to chickadees, woodpeckers, sparrows, nuthatches and the occasional finch this winter.

Another area of study is the cycles of rodent (mice, squirrels, voles, lemmings) and rabbit populations. If those populations crash in a given year up north then those that feed on them (hawks and owls) need to move elsewhere to find food. Will they be coming to the Adirondacks? That’s another subject for another posting!

Photograph of evening grosbeak

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The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park. Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at

2 Responses

  1. Kevin B. MacKenzie (a.k.a. MudRat) says:

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