LIVING BIRD MAGAZINE, Winter 2020 —
In early February of 2019, WhatsApp birding groups in southern Ontario were firing off finch alerts. More than a dozen Pine Grosbeaks spotted in Durham, northwest of Toronto. Evening Grosbeaks at Long Point, on the northern shore of Lake Erie. A flock of redpolls around Point Pelee on Lake Erie.
Ron Pittaway was ready. In the yard of his home in the northeastern corner of Toronto, he had his feeders filled with oil-rich nyjer seed and a buffet of sunflower and safflower seed, peanut butter and suet spread across his tree-studded urban property.
“See those big conifers? That’s an important finch tree, especially for siskins, and we have a whole ravine full of them here. This forest over here is full of eastern hemlocks,” he said.
During short, cool days, the cheery jewel-toned winter finches are a welcome addition to a cold season that is often bleak and gray. But their winter whereabouts can be somewhat erratic. Some years there are few to no grosbeaks or siskins, crossbills or redpolls to be found. Other years, they descend en masse to bird feeders across southern Canada and the U.S., decorating wintry backyards like yellow and red ornaments flitting about the trees.
Pittaway is North America’s principal prognosticator of when and where—and importantly, if—these birds will arrive each winter. Birders eagerly anticipate the latest edition of his annual Winter Finch Forecast, released every autumn for the past 21 years. Last winter, he bolstered his winter-finch bona fides by predicting the waves of grosbeaks and redpolls descending south four months before those WhatsApp alerts.
Pittaway has made it his mission to lend some predictability to winter finch sightings by compiling intelligence from his network of naturalists across Canada and the U.S. and analyzing the data to reveal his predictions. The annual reports have made him a bit of a celebrity among eager winter birders.
“There’s an air and a mystique about it,” says Matt Young, a Cornell Lab of Ornithology scientist who studies crossbills and contributes to Pittaway’s data collection. Young is also an avid birder.
“Ron’s Winter Finch Forecast is one of the most eagerly anticipated events of the year, like Punxatawney Phil and his shadow. But better, because instead of shadows, Ron sees winter finches.”
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