A Year of Winter Finches Ahead

It’s predicted that the finch species that nest and winter here will be joined by an unusually large number of their more boreal brethren this coming winter. Winter finches rely on tree seeds in winter and when these are scarce, the birds will be on the move. Most of these finches usually come south, but some species, like white-winged crossbills and sometimes pine siskins, may move east or west rather than south when food is scarce.

It’s easy to foretell the status of the boreal seed crop by mid-summer, well before the seeds have matured, by the number of visible cones on tamaracks, the spruces, and hemlocks. White pine seeds take two years to mature, so estimates can be made of the seed crop both for the coming winter and the next one by counting the new small cones and the larger, nearly mature ones.

You might think that a poor seed crop, though good for us birdwatchers, would be terrible for the finches, but tree seed crops have always had big ups and down and the birds that depend on them are used to and good at being nomads. In many years, Christmas bird counters in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario have found fewer than a hundred finches of all stripes, while almost 13,000 were counted in 1989.

Pine siskin

Pine siskins nest to the north of us and they often come this far south in winter unless there’s a big crop of conifer seeds back home. We can expect to see more of them than usual this winter.

Redpoll

The birch and alder seeds that redpolls like are in short supply this year and because of that, many redpolls have already shown up here and more are likely to arrive. They’ll eat goldenrod and aster seeds until the snow is deep. When there’s an exceptionally large crop of paper birch seeds, redpolls may stay put in the north.

Red crossbill

Perhaps later in winter, when they have finished off the supply of white pine seeds, red crossbills will head south. Typically, most of them don’t migrate.

White-winged crossbill

We might well see a lot of white-winged crossbills this winter because spruce and tamarack cone crops are poor.

American goldfinch

Many more American goldfinches winter in our area now than in the past, perhaps because of the ever-growing number of well-stocked birdfeeders to be found. Absent birdfeeders, they, too, rely on tree seeds in winter, when thistles and the many other composites that they eat in summer are buried in snow. By late February or March even the boreal stay-at-homes may head our way if they run out of food.

Evening grosbeak

The population of evening grosbeaks rose dramatically during the severe spruce budworm outbreak in the 1970s and 80s and has recently increased again – along with a new outbreak of spruce budworms. Both adults and chicks eat budworm caterpillars in the summer, but in winter it’s mostly deciduous tree seeds from sugar maple, box elder, and ash. They may deplete this resource and show up here in large numbers.

Purple finch

Current spruce budworm outbreaks in the north have enabled purple finches, like the evening grosbeaks, to fatten up many nestlings. There may be too many purple finches in the north for the available food supply.

Pine Grosbeak

Because there’s a good supply of mountain ash seeds (it seems that the birds spit out the berry skins and much of the pulp), pine grosbeaks are likely to stay in the boreal forest, which they often do. They don’t migrate unless they have to.

Thanks to The Finch Network for these forecasts.

Now is when oak trees on distant hillsides really show up. And seedlings in our woods, too, perhaps related to my scattering acorns out of my pockets each fall over the past 30 years.

Side Hill Cider Mill

Apple Balsamic Vinegar of Vermont hit the shelves just last fall. Made by Side Hill Cider Mill in Vershire, it’s a highly unusual product. Neil Hochstedler, the owner, has found only two other producers – one in Ireland and a small company in Massachusetts. He said his idea “seemed like a natural and logical” extension of his existing cider vinegar business.

Neil’s been deep into apples since the 1970s, when he picked and pruned for a living. He brought his work home with him, grafting and pruning apples at his own place. Before long, he was producing more perishable apple juice than he could use, and he turned some into cider vinegar, which he has been selling for several years. Too much vinegar inspired him to diversify his offerings, so he created a balsamic line. With help from Sebastian and Sabra Ewing of neighboring Flag Hill Farm, they pretty much invented a commercial-scale production process and have gotten started on marketing.

Not unlike the more familiar balsamic vinegar made from red grapes, Neil’s process begins with boiling apple juice to a sweet syrup, which is done in a small sugaring evaporator.

To make cider vinegar, the sugars in apple juice are first fermented to alcohol and, in a second fermentation step, acetic acid-forming bacteria that have survived the fermentation process are augmented with selected acetobacters which convert the alcohol to vinegar.

To make apple balsamic, the cider vinegar is mixed with the sweet apple syrup until the acid level is right. The mix is then aged in wooden barrels, with some oak chips thrown in. At every step, things can go awry. As Neil says, “There have been a lot of setbacks.” But he finds the complicated relationships among the ingredients and conditions fascinating, and when the right apples, aeration, time, and temperature have been provided, the result makes it worth all the trials and errors.

Neil’s other job is as a machinist, which has come in handy: he’s converted a carpet steamer into a tool that shrinks the sleeves on the bottle caps and has modified aquarium pumps to aerate tanks of vinegar. The kind of electric mats made for starting seeds keep the tanks warm.

The label on the Apple Balsamic Vinegar of Vermont says that it’s “Organic * Gourmet * Handmade * Subtle * Complex,” and where it’s sold, mostly at farm stands and coops at this point, it’s being gobbled up. Somewhat unexpectedly, Neil even likes the sales part, especially when he meets anyone interested in vinegar. It seems to have become an obsession. Now there’s a storehouse of tanks, drums, and casks that should keep him obsessed for a long time.