Quebec’s Tadoussac Bird Observatory Sees Record Breaking Finch Flights
By Ryan Mandelbaum
The Observatoire d’Oiseaux de Tadoussac (OOT) has recorded some legendary bird migration events—take its historic 2018 warbler flight, for example. This year, birders at the observatory logged a record-breaking day sure to excite finch fans: observers tallied over 23,000 white-winged crossbills in just a few hours.
Jessé Roy Drainville was the observer present to watch the flight, and recounted some of his experience with us. Drainville has been birding since he was seven years old, and at 27 years old today, now monitors bird migration events professionally as a biologist at Tadoussac, He’s skilled at identifying and tallying birds, any birds, flying overhead.
The fall began slowly for finches at the observatory, he said. At the start of the month only small groups of white-wings flew by the dunes, perhaps only a few dozen to 150 in a day. But then, around October 10th, numbers started to increase, especially the number of pine siskins. The observers on the dunes figured that this species would be the one to overwhelm the count. But then from October 14 to 16 bad weather set in, preventing the team from counting on the 15th and the 16th.
Things got interesting once the weather cleared. On the 17th, the counters recorded 449 white-winged crossbills and 1279 pine siskins. On the 18th, the white wings eclipsed the siskins; 3265 crossbills versus 2239 pine siskins, and 6666 crossbills passed Tadoussac on the 19th. But even those numbers couldn’t compare with what Tadoussac’s observers would experience the next morning.
“We were three people there—I’m the only one counting the birds, and then two others were there banding black-backed and three-toed woodpeckers for a research project,” Drainville said. It was too windy for them to band, so the two joined him on the dunes. “I started the count at 7, and then at 7:20 the birds started to pass by in huge numbers. I had a group of 85 at 7:20, then by 7:30 the groups were mostly in the 100s. A group of 270 passed by at 7:37, and we knew at that point that things were going to go crazy.” At this point, Drainville started using a handheld counter to tally birds in groups of 10.
So, what does 23,357 finches look like? “It was insane,” Drainville said. “The birds are all in groups. It’ll be a group of 100, then a ten second break, then a group of 200, then maybe a group of 2 birds. The two other guys who were with me stopped counting so they could enjoy the show, but I had to keep counting. It was really hard—I probably missed one or two thousand for sure. Things started slowing down after 9am; 17,000 birds passed in just the 1.5 hours from 7:30 to 9.” The day trounced previous records from 2006, which saw 30,000 total birds in a season maxing out at 6000 in one day.
Tadoussac is a special place to observe birds. The observatory sits at the wide mouth of the Saint Lawrence River. Birds moving out of the boreal eventually hit the coast, and rather than cross, chose to follow the river, concentrating them. Birds also may reorient themselves after a night of migrating, again using the coast to find their way.
The white-winged crossbill flight is historic, but perhaps not unexpected. Poor spruce cone crops in the western boreal forest, in part caused by fires, drove white-winged crossbills eastward this past summer, well east of Tadoussac into Maine, the Maritime Provinces, and even Newfoundland. As that crop runs out, the inflated number of crossbills in the East are on the move in search of their next meal. As Tyler Hoar predicted in this year’s Winter Finch Forecast, these birds are headed back west and perhaps south to better spruce crops in Central Ontario eastward to Newfoundland and southward into northern New York and New England, visiting traditional winter finch hotspots, and perhaps even further south.
It’s unclear how far white-winged crossbills will move out of the traditional finch hotspots. Despite large numbers flying by Tadoussac in 2006, those birds didn’t move far out of the boreal. This year’s birds didn’t seem to move far past Tadoussac either, Drainville said; despite being only a two hour drive southwest, Québec City birders didn’t observe nearly the same volume of crossbills on October 20th. Meanwhile, during the historic 2012-2013 irruption of white winged crossbills that brought birds as far south as North Carolina, Tadoussac counts reported just a few dozen birds per day, maxing at 156.
But anything is possible. The sheer volume of birds this year, combined with poor crops in the west, might still crowd some crossbills out of the forest and into surprising areas, such as conifer forests in central New York and southern New England or even plantings of ornamental spruce in towns and cities. White-winged crossbills are already moving southward west of the Great Lakes, and a birder observed one male white wing on the Long Island barrier beaches in late October of this year.
The faucet of white-winged crossbills has slowed at Tadoussac, but Drainville is still counting dozens, and sometimes hundreds of white winged crossbills in a day. Another finch is beginning to take its place—common redpoll numbers have started increasing, and on November 1, over 11,000 common redpolls flew past the dunes. How far south these birds will travel is again a mystery.
Other surprising birds are showing up as well. Despite bumper mountain ash crops, Drainville tallied 427 Bohemian waxwings and 308 pine grosbeaks on Monday, October 25—perhaps a reflection of a good breeding season from these birds. And birders across North America have by now heard of the apparent white-crested elaenia, a mega-rare South American vagrant, which ended up in a Tadoussac mist net on October 26
Still, for us finch fans, Drainville’s October 20th count has solidified itself permanently in bird lore. Most of us will forever remain jealous that we couldn’t see 23,000+ white-winged crossbills in one day.
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