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Your Turn: Evening Grosbeaks

Have you seen the Photo Salon in the May issue of Birding yet? What fantastic images from wonderfully talented bird photographers and what a great showcase for the ABA's 2012 Bird of the Year.

At the end of the article, Birding editor Ted Floyd invites us all to share by asking "What's your Evening Grosbeak story?"

My personal eBird records show that I've seen Evening Grosbeaks on only five separate occasions. I remember each experience distinctly. My first sighting was certainly one of those "Wow!" moments. I was with my son and father-in-law at a Father & Sons camp-out near Garden Valley, Idaho. I tend to rise early while camping to enjoy the morning birds while everyone else still slumbers. The hot spring resort there had a well-stocked bird feeder and I started seeing this flock of birds with striking yellow unibrows feeding en masse. I didn't have a field guide on me so I sat there watching until my birding mentor father-in-law joined me and told me what they were. What a thrill!

My favorite Evening Grosbeak experience happened on top of a mountain above Boise, Idaho. It was late November and we were scouting for elk without any luck. A light snow had fallen and the sun was just poking through the clouds. I sat there on my four-wheeler enjoying the idealistic morning setting. Suddenly an enormous flock of Evening Grosbeaks came whirling around me, similar to a murmuration of starlings. The in-flight kinetic sculpture dazzled me for several minutes before the grosbeaks settled into a pine tree for breakfast. Breathtaking.

I hope you'll join me in adding to our collective Evening Grosbeak repertoire this weekend with The Evenging Grosbeak Weekend-Out.

That's my story. What's yours?! Tell us about it here in the comments.

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Robert Mortensen

Robert Mortensen

Robert is most widely known as the host of, a multi-author blog sharing enthusiasm for birds and birding. He is also the ABA's Bird of the Year program coordinator. Robert began birding in the summer of 2004 when his father-in-law handed him a pair of binoculars to go on a Sunday afternoon walk at Deer Flat Wildlife Refuge in Idaho. Birding was an instant addiction. Married to Jessica since 1999, they have four children that keep them hopping. They live in Bountiful, Utah adjacent to spectacular birding at parks and refuges on the eastern shore of the Great Salt Lake. Robert earned his degree in Construction Management from Brigham Young University and somehow fits his construction career around his birding. He is a "well-rounded nerd" who enjoys adventures with his family, serving in his church and Boy Scouts of America, family history, music, and an avid college football fan. Robert plays clarinet and saxophone and enjoys singing too. For question about the Bird of the Year program, you can reach Robert at [email protected]
Robert Mortensen

Latest posts by Robert Mortensen (see all)

  • Oops posted this at first in the wrong post

    Used to apparently be a common bird everywhere in WI in winter, but now you have to go north to see them even in winter. First time for me was a few years ago. Alvin, Wisconsin, is a well known place for them in winter, near the WI/MI border. The first time I went was about 2 PM. I assumed by the name “evening” grosbeak they’d be around then. No dice. Came back the next day. Waited around again. Nothing. Lady there told me they’d been there in the morning and often come back in the evening, but not lately. So my last day, I got up early, headed up, and they were everywhere – trees, feeders, sumacs. Really cool.

    Always a neat bird to see when I go up.

  • Thanks for sharing your experience and great video! Watching them noisily feed like that reminds me of my first experience seeing Evening Grosbeaks.

  • Ted Floyd

    My Evening Grosbeak story is a tale of two tales.

    Part 1. February 13th, 1982 was glorious. I was 13, and I was alone the whole day, free to wander the farm country of Orange County, Virginia. I’d visited many times as a non-birder, and a coupla times as a starting-to-get-serious-about-it birder. But this was my first visit as a rabid. That snowy day (real snowy!), I saw lifer upon lifer. I could barely keep up: the brilliant Red-bellied Woodpecker, the exquisite Cedar Waxwing, the lovely Purple Finch, and many more…including a little group of Evening Grosbeaks in an old apple tree.

    What’s precious to me about my memory of that day is how vivid it still feels. I remember the exact tree from which I flushed the Red-belly. I know the exact spot in the old cedar where I saw the Brown Creeper. I could show you the exact perch where I saw the Purple Finch. And I could walk you right over to the abandoned orchard where the Evening Grosbeaks were jockeying for perches.

    It feels like yesterday.

    Part 2. Thirty years and a few days later, I embarked on a task that will probably keep me going well into my senior years: I began to enter into eBird all my bird notes from prior to January 1st, 2007, the day I started eBirding. When I got to February 13th, 1982, I hit an unexpected snag. eBird queried my record for Evening Grosbeak!

    I’d been wondering what would be my first “filtered” eBird report, an arcane personal milestone only an eBirder could relate to. Maybe one of my high early-autumn counts of Common Nighthawk in the early 1980s? Maybe some of my high Cape May or Bay-breasted warbler counts from the springs of 1983 and 1984? Maybe the Lark Sparrow I found summering in central Virginia in 1985?

    I’d never thought of those Evening Grosbeaks as remarkable. Of course, they weren’t, way back in February of 1982. But 30+ years have elapsed, and a lot has changed with Coccothraustes vespertinus. The birds were routine in central Virginia in 1982; young teens with J.C. Penny binoculars could find Evening Grosbeaks in neglected orchards in the foothills of the Blue Ridge. Today a sighting is queried by eBird.

    Hence, a paradox. That ancient memory feels like yesterday, yet modern technology (eBird would have been unthinkable in 1982) places the record in its historical context.

  • Ted Floyd

    I was recently reading–and admiring–an article to appear in the July 2012 Birding. The article is by Rick Wright, and it’s about–wait for it–Evening Grosbeaks. In the article, Rick gives the best description of an Evening Grosbeak I’ve ever seen. Indeed, it’s one of the finest descriptions of any bird. Rick writes that Evening Grosbeaks are “the color of winter sunshine and ice.” Rick just drops that line in there, in the midst of a technical discussion about Evening Grosbeak invasions in the late 19th century.

  • Ted Floyd


    For Rick’s article, we’re doing some 11th-hour scrounging for “historical” photos (basically, pre-1980) of Evening Grosbeaks from eastern North America. Especially sought are photos of winter flocks at feeders. Do you have (or have access to) such photos? If so, please contact me offline (I’m [email protected]) as soon as possible. We can pay you for this!! In the subject line of your e-mail, please indicate “Evening Grosbeak.”



  • Wesley Greentree

    I saw my first Evening Grosbeak when I eleven (27 March 2011). I was so excited to see them.

  • Great perspective from recent history Ted. Folks in Idaho tell me of when Evening Grosbeaks were very common at feeders back in the 60’s and 70’s, but not so much now. There does seem to have a bit of resurgence in the Boise area.

  • Oh…I love Rick’s poetic description.

  • Wesley…great to see birders born in 2000 and younger! Where did you see your first Evening Grosbeak and what was the story behind it?

  • Ted Floyd

    Say, is it okay to talk about “The Other Evening Grosbeak”? I refer to the Hooded Grosbeak (Coccothraustes abeillei) of the highlands of Mexico and Central America.

    An experience I’ll never forget was sunrise on February 10, 2010. The setting was the high-elevation forest around Finca El Pilar, Sacatepéquez, Guatemala.

    On the one hand, we were surrounded by birds from my childhood: Eastern Bluebird, Swainson’s Thrush, Tennessee and Nashville warblers, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Baltimore Oriole, and others. On the other hand, we delighted in such fare as Long-billed Starthroat, Blue-throated Motmot, Emerald Toucanet, Ruddy Foliage-Gleaner, and Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo–birds I wouldn’t have dared dream of back in my earliest years as a birder.

    And a little group of three lovely Hooded Grosbeaks. They were foraging at the edges of a tree that stretched over a country lane. As I think back upon the memory, I can’t also help but think of Julie Zickefoose’s Bird of the Year art, gracing the cover of the March 2012 Birding.

    Those Hooded Grosbeaks were, for me, perfectly emblematic of the best-of-both-worlds experience of birding the Guatemalan highlands–a place at once familiar and exotic.

  • Ted,

    I think your Smithsonian field guide to the birds is the best around. The photos coupled with the range maps are great! Also, I like the fact you mention whether birds are increasing in certain areas. Most field guides do not have this information. I look forward to seeing new species coming to my area. I figure that the Black-Bellied Whistling Duck or Neotropic will be nesting in my state of Illinois in the very near future. When is the newest edition coming out?


    Mike Coffey

  • Back in the ’70s, the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis was lined we hundreds of magnificent old elms. In May they would produce a bountiful crop of fresh seeds. And Evening Grosbeaks arrived in hordes. On clear sunny days, students would walk the pathways with umbrellas and rubber boots to shield themselves and their clothing from the falling mess. When the seeds fell, the grosbeaks came to the ground for them, blanketing the grassy squares. One year I estimated the number of grosbeaks on campus to be in the neighborhood of 750,000. But the fear of spreading Dutch elm disease forced the systematic removal and replacement of most of the elms, so that this year one would have had a hard time noticing the few birds that came to campus. Alas.

  • I have been studying the Evening Grosbeak for the past three years for first my Master’s degree and now my Ph.D. Studying this species has had many wonderful benefits. Since they are commonly found in mountainous areas, I have traveled to, and camped in, many parts of the Sierra Nevada, Cascade, and Rocky Mountains. I have met wonderfully generous people interested in the birds that share this world with us. I have had the opportunity to glimpse some of the details of some aspects of the lives that members of this species lead. However, one facet of working with this species that has not been quite so wonderful is the bite that these birds can deliver! It is amazingly powerful! I have been banding birds of many species for over a decade now, and in that time I have been bitten by quite a few birds. I have been bitten by Cardinals, I have been bitten by American Kestrels, and I have bitten by Downy Woodpeckers just to name a few of the more painful species. I have even been bitten by Black-headed and Blue Grosbeaks, which have a similarly shaped beak, though they are not actually closely related to the Evening Grosbeak. None of those bites prepared me for the first time I was bitten by an Evening Grosbeak. I was in Oregon on my first trip out to do field work on my project and had caught my first Evening Grosbeak in my mist net. I was very excited and began spreading the net open so that I could untangle the bird. Just as I was reaching my hand in to get a hold of the bird, it suddenly turned its head and clamped its beak down on my finger. Wow, did it hurt! If you take a pair of pliers, put the side of one of your fingers between the jaws, and squeeze tight, you will have some idea of what my finger was feeling at this point. And not only do they have the strength to cause some serious pain, but they have the stamina to continue applying that crushing pressure seemingly indefinitely! I reached my other hand in and tried to pull the bird away from my hand, but it would not let go. I waved my other hand around near its head, which sometimes works to distract a bird, but it would not let go. My eyes now watering from the pain, I even tried to pry the birds’ beak off of me with my other hand, but it would not let go! Finally, it seemed to grow bored with my finger and let go and started screaming at me instead. Over the next two days, I caught about 30 Evening Grosbeaks and many of them treated me to the same amazing bite! By the end of my trip the sides of several of my fingers were black-and-blue with bruises from the repeated biting.

    To give you a reference for what Evening Grosbeaks use their beaks for when they are not biting banders, they can sometimes be seen eating Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) or Bitter Cherry (Prunus emarginata). Like domestic cherry we all buy in the grocery store, these wild cherries have a very hard pit surrounded by a layer of soft fleshy meat. Evening Grosbeaks carefully peel off the fleshy meat and then drop it on the ground. They then take the hard pit in their beaks and crack it open to eat the tissue inside! No wonder my fingers hurt!

    Finding this our for my self, and watching others who have worked with me find it out for themselves, has actually been a very exciting process. The only way to learn about a thing is to get close to it. Sometimes this may mean closer than is comfortable, but it is only through this closeness, this intimacy, that true understanding is gained. As my research on these birds continues, I am looking forward to learning many more little facts about them, and so to coming ever closer to true understanding.

  • Thanks for the wonderful and painful insight Aaron. We’d love to hear more about what you are learning about our spotlight species this year.

  • Hi Robert! I am glad you liked my post. I was really happy when the Evening Grosbeak got chosen as the ABA Bird of the Year, and would be happy to give more info on my project! Just let me know what the proper way to go about it.

  • Just saw a few of them for the first time this weekend! At the Oregon Garden in Silverton, Oregon. Beautiful birds!!

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