It’s a conversation that happens every fall, as soon as temperatures drop and migrants move south. Will this be a year with winter finches gracing our bird feeders? To many bird watchers, their appearance, which appears once every few years, seems like a mixture of mystery and chance. But there is a science.
It was longtime finch forecaster Ron Pittaway who helped crystallize the connections between trees in Canada and the movements of winter finches – birds like crossbills, redpolls, grosbeaks, and the other so-called “disturbing” species. These birds tend to come south in winter when cones and berries are scarce on the trees to the north. Every September since the late 20th century, Pittaway has assessed the condition of these tree crops and predicted finch movements in the eastern United States. His predictions have become legendary for their accuracy.
Now, after more than two decades, Pittaway is handing over the reins.
Tyler Hoar takes over the helm of Ron Pittaway’s famous Winter Finch Forecast. (Photo was taken in Hokkaido, Japan, and the large birds in the background are Steller’s sea eagles.) Photo courtesy of Tyler Hoar.
Meet Tyler Hoar, a freelance biologist and ecologist from Oshawa, Ontario, Canada who has spent his career traversing the Canadian countryside to observe nature. Before the pandemic slowed, he had made an appearance in James Bay, Ontario, surveying waders – 10 hours by car, 5 hours by train, and 40 minutes by helicopter to a place where there was simply no one and nothing is nearby, “he says. In between, Hoar has the opportunity to spot thousands upon thousands of sandpipers and red knots to get a glimpse of what’s going on in the remote boreal forest.
We asked Tyler how he became the “new Ron Pittaway”, whether there are any changes to the annual Winter Finch Forecast and how the forecast that has just been published is developing this year.
What was your connection to the Winter Finch Forecast prior to this year?
Tyler Hoar: I was one of Ron’s watchers from the start. Ron and I met at a Hawkwatch facility near Whitby, Canada, in the early 1990s. We started talking about cones and I sent him a few observations. As his business expanded, I started checking more places too. If my work took me to places like James Bay [in northern Ontario]I would make random pit stops to run into the boreal forest and look at cones. I look at tens of thousands of trees every year.
What made you get this gig? Were you chosen by Ron?
TH: In a way, I put myself up for it lightly. About four years ago I casually mentioned to Ron that he’d ever wanted an apprentice, That would be interesting. I didn’t really get much of a response from him and I didn’t think about it too much. That year, just a few weeks before Ron announced he’d finished the forecast, I was in central Ontario watching some cone cultures and thinking I needed to get in touch with Ron. The day it was announced [August 10] I finally called him and asked if he would like me to continue and he said, “Okay, it’s yours.”
Tell me how it feels to step into Ron’s shoes. Are you nervous about taking on for such a legend?
TH: Ron made that prediction from scratch. He studied the species and links to their abundance of food and built a wide network of contacts from across North America to look at trees. With his enthusiasm he would turn you into a cone watcher after a short chat. I wasn’t nervous about slipping into Ron’s shoes at first – but that changed after about a week when I realized how great the Winter Finch Forecast is for American bird watchers. When my contacts and Ron’s contacts began returning reports of cone harvests from across Canada, New England, and Alaska, I immediately adjusted to the picture building up well.
How much time did you spend this year putting the forecast together?
TH: Since my acquisition, I have spent 2-3 hours emailing, reading, analyzing, writing, emailing reminders, editing, etc. almost every day since I took over, and there are currently 49 employees working from Newfoundland to Alaska.
What is your workspace like?
TH: I have a basement office / bunker with no windows, so no distractions. As at the moment, I miss hundreds of broad-winged buzzards that roam my house. I have a 6 ‘x 4’ piece of cardboard on the wall with a sketch of Canada and the Northern United States filled with dots and doodles that represent bird and harvest dates. It’s great because I can step back 10 feet to look at it and just think about it ….
Do you have any plans to update the methodology used by Ron?
TH: I like the way it works so nothing special. One thing I’ve done this year is reach out to more foresters – they usually know what the seed crops look like from year to year. This year, some bear researchers from central and northeastern Ontario asked if they could participate – this was really helpful in learning about the berry cultures in the area.
I’ve also been a local eBird reviewer for a decade. I used eBird data to see how species moved in early summer of this year and to examine sightings from previous years as they ultimately correlated with observations of cone harvest from those years.
Can you briefly summarize what this winter will be like?
TH: There should be good diversity this year, with some species moving south in numbers. We’ll crawl into Purple Finches. And maybe even evening grosbeaks. With the large and widespread spruce budworm outbreaks that year, both species had a large source of food during the breeding season. The cone and seed plants on which they feed for the winter are poor and they have to move around in search of food.
What’s your favorite winter finch?
TH: The big, charismatic evening grosbeak. The bird appeared in huge flocks at our bird feeders every winter in the 1970s and 1980s when I was growing up. When the number of spruce budworms went down, I went for a decade [late 80s and 90s] without seeing a single one near home. It’s exciting that we’ve had some good years lately like 2018-19. Hopefully this year will match or exceed this year.
Read Hoar’s first attempt since acquiring Pittaway, the 2020 Winter Finch Forecast.