Every year Ron Pittaway publishes a forecast of the movements of winter finches in the upcoming winter (http://ebird.org/content/canada/news/ron-pittaways-winter-finch-forecast-2015-2016/). Although his report focuses on Ontario, he includes the effect that the Canadian seed crops have on northern New England’s winter bird population. A poor crop of a given seed (spruce, birch, etc.) in Canada inevitably drives finches that feed on that seed to search for food elsewhere, often further south. For instance, because White Spruce crops are low in Ontario this year and high in northern New England, we may well see high numbers of Pine Siskins (see photo).
Pittaway predicts we may also see higher than usual Purple Finch numbers (poor cone and deciduous tree seed crops in Ontario), perhaps White-winged Crossbills (poor spruce cone crop in Ontario), and more Common Redpolls (poor birch seed crop in Ontario) this winter. Time to fill feeders, sit back and see how accurate his forecast actually is!
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Common redpolls (Acanthis flammea), named for their red cap, are small northern finches that breed from the southern edge of the Arctic tundra down into the Canadian coniferous forests. Their size, shape, actions and voice are similar to those of goldfinches and pine siskins. The bulk of the common redpoll’s diet consists of the seeds of several different trees, including birches, alders and willows, as well as grass and weed seeds. While their winter range extends southward as far as Massachusetts, in winters when the seed crop of these trees is exceptionally poor, large numbers of redpolls come even further south into the U.S. seeking food, and these visits are referred to as irruptions. The numbers of redpolls at feeders throughout northern New England, as well as their presence in states further south confirm that the winter of 2012-2013 is such a year. Look for large flocks moving about in undulating flight over fields, alighting on weeds, as well as at and under feeders, where millet and sunflower seeds attract them. Between the redpolls’ brilliant red crowns and their constant twitter, they are hard to miss!