Most winters, birders in the United States can expect to see the typical feathered visitors: northern cardinals, chickadees, blue jays, titmice, woodpeckers, etc. But occasionally, a sudden surge of unexpected birds can wander outside their typical winter range and migrate further south than they normally would. This is called an irruption. Irruptions can be difficult to predict ahead of time and the reasons behind these surprising, sporadic migrations isn’t straightforward. (Researchers have found the causes vary from species to species.)
Ornithologist Ron Pittaway predicts the irruptions of winter finches by analyzing the status of wild food crops such as spruce cones and mountain ash berries in Canada. He’s been doing his Winter Finch Forecast since 2012. In a nutshell, Ron’s forecast is based on whether or not there is enough food to feed the hungry finches in the forests of Ontario. If there hasn’t been enough, he’ll predict an irruption of birds that will venture down into the United States to fill their bellies.
The 2017 Winter Finch Forecast
For 2017, Ron’s forecast does not point to this being an irruption year and the majority of winter finches will stay up north. Ron says, “Cone crops in the Northeast are bumper in 2017. It is the best cone crop in a decade or more. …This is not an irruption year south of traditional wintering areas in the Northeast.” But he has more specific forecasts for various species, and covers where birders are likely to see finches this winter. “This will be a banner winter to see boreal finches in central and northeastern Ontario, Quebec, Atlantic Canada, northern New York, and northern New England States. white-winged and red crossbills and pine siskins have moved east to areas of abundant seed crops.”
Although Ron always makes it clear that these are just predictions, plenty of birders rely on his forecast to get a more accurate sense of what to expect to see in winter.