We usually get what we anticipate.
~Claude M. Bristol
It has been a great year for those birds from up north (a so-called bird irruption). This occurs periodically when cone crops fail across vast stretches of Canadian boreal forests. Other factors can contribute, and different species may react differently, but those that migrate far from their normal range are usually just looking for food resources. It looked like it could be a good irruption year when we saw a Red-breasted Nuthatch early last fall. Then Pine Siskins started arriving along with Purple Finches (both of the latter species were absent here in our woods last year). And then I started hearing reports of Pine Grosbeaks in New Jersey and Evening Grosbeaks moving south. Evening Grosbeaks are sort of the holy grail of irruptive species (well, the Snowy Owl seen this winter on the OBX is probably a bigger thrill, but I have not seen Evening Grosbeaks in the Piedmont since 1998!).
To stoke the anticipation, friends in northeastern NC reported Evening Grosbeaks at their feeder back in November and I saw reports in Chapel Hill and other nearby locations in December. Why aren’t they here? I whined. Then a couple of weeks ago, a friend texted me he was just down the road watching them at a neighbor’s feeders and asked if I had seen them (NO!!!). After a couple of days they were seen at a closer neighbor’s house. I waited…
Then, this weekend, Melissa saw one at the feeder out back, but it spooked before I got there (but that counts, right?). Finally, on Monday, I saw them (and the wait was, indeed, worth it).
These grosbeaks are hard to miss when they finally make an appearance. First, they are rather chunky, boldly patterned birds.
Females (and immature males) are mostly gray with bold black and white wings and a wash of yellow on their necks.
Males are even harder to miss – black and yellow with a very bold white wing patch and a bright yellow forehead and eye stripe.
And that bill…
A reminder that the name “grosbeak” comes from the French “gros bec”, which means large beak. That huge, conical beak is useful for crushing seeds (and no doubt inflicting a painful bite on bird banders). It turns out that the several types of grosbeak found in the U.S., though similar in their beak adornments, are not all related. Pine and Evening Grosbeaks are members of the finch family, Fringillidae, which also includes Pine Siskins, crossbills, and goldfinches. Rose-breasted and Blue Grosbeaks belong to the family Cardinalidae that includes Northern Cardinals, Indigo Buntings, and tanagers.
But, as I said earlier, of all the NC grosbeaks, the Evening Grosbeak is the toughest to regularly find in our state. Historically, Evening Grosbeaks were birds of the north and west, hardly ever seen in the eastern half of the U.S. much before the late 1800’s. Then, for reasons not totally understood (but probably related to Spruce Budworm outbreaks in eastern Canada and increased planting of Boxelder, another valuable food source), the breeding range expanded eastward. The number of wintering birds in the northeast peaked between 1940s and mid-1980s but has declined dramatically since then. And in NC, the Birds of North Carolina, Their Distribution and Abundance web site states that their status in the Piedmont is “erratic winter visitor; strongly declining.”
But this year, they are back, and in good numbers. I counted a maximum of 25 between our two feeding stations yesterday (and I am guessing I missed several as they are so active). They have been coming mainly in the morning, an ironic schedule given their name. In fact, In his Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds, Arthur C. Bent made this observation – Ordinarily the species is not crepuscular, and in fact it might better be called “morning grosbeak,” for it is most active early in the day.
Each morning this week, they are going through a lot of sunflower seed and making it tougher for the usual group of Purple Finches to crowd in on the platform feeders. Most of the other bird species are either hitting the tube feeders or the suet when the black and yellow throng arrives, as the grosbeaks tend to be somewhat pugnacious at feeding time. Again, looking back to Bent’s Life Histories, he commented: Although evening grosbeaks are ordinarily gregarious and sociable, feeding harmoniously when scattered openly on the ground, their behavior is quite different when crowded on the feeding trays. There they are often selfish, hostile, and belligerent, pushing their way in, sparring with open beaks, and threatening to attack or drive out a new arrival. They are bosses of the tray and are intolerant of other species, driving away even the starlings; only the blue jay seems able to cope with them. Even the females of their own species are not immune to attack by the males. But, so eager are they for their food, that the tray remains crowded full of birds as long as there is standing room.
Well, I guess not all Canadians are kind…