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    Birders can contribute to Evening Grosbeak science right now!

    Contributions by Ned Brinkley, Ted Floyd, and Jeff Wells.

    photo by Courtney Moore, age14, Vestal, NY
    One of the great submissions to the ABA Bird of the Year Multimedia Art Contest

    Evening Grosbeak is a species as enigmatic as it is striking. When many thousands of them descended upon feeding stations in the East from the 1950s through the early 1980s, birding newsletters, magazines, and journals were filled with word of their complex movements and backyard antics. Despite the considerable expenses involved in hosting this species at a feeder—a large flock can consume more than $100 of sunflower seed per day—birders couldn’t get enough of these great finches. Because this bird still holds so much mystery, because of its charm, because of its fragile and threatened habitats, and because it is certainly a “data-deficient” species, as conservationists say, the ABA in 2012 elected to name Evening Grosbeak its Bird of the Year for 2012.

    And of course that’s not the beginning of the story. In rich detail, ornithologist Arthur Norton recounted the “great migration” eastward of Evening Grosbeaks in winter 1915-1916 (Auk 35: 170-181). An even more remarkable eastward incursion was documented in winter 1889-1890; five articles appeared in April–June 1890 issues of The Auk. It seems the birders of yesteryear were every bit as compulsive about their records as we are!

    We think of Evening Grosbeaks, and finches generally, as seed eaters, based on what we observe of their feeding habits in the nonbreeding season, when most of us have the pleasure of their company. But during the breeding season, Evening Grosbeaks, like many other passerines, require insect matter to raise their young. And as it turns out, spruce budworms, both the Eastern and the Western species, are their preferred food at this time of year. Many birders are aware the outbreaks of these insects are linked to surges in populations of the “spruce budworm specialists,” warblers such as Cape May, Blackpoll, and Bay-breasted, which feed these insects to young, sometimes raising several broods per season. Populations of these species also increased sharply in the 1960s and 1970s, when the grosbeaks were last abundant in the East. And many ornithologists are of the opinion that the last big “irruptions” of Evening Grosbeaks in the East were a result of the extensive outbreak of Eastern Spruce Budworm (Choristoneura fumiferana) during that period.

    There are hints, collected by eBird and by ABA’s North American Birds reporting networks, that counts of the spruce budworm warblers—and even of Evening Grosbeak—are increasing in the past year or two, most notably in the past few weeks! Could this be a result of a resurgence of spruce budworm over the past several years? News coming from the Canadian boreal forest, where many Evening Grosbeaks nest, suggests that it may well be. Just in the past two years, the area of defoliation caused by spruce budworms has almost doubled in some areas, mostly in mixed forests with plenty of White Spruce or Balsam Fir, the trees preferred by Eastern Spruce Budworms. Ontario had outbreaks reported around Manitoulin, Espanola, north of New Liskeard, and around Sault Ste. Marie. Southwestern Quebec has had a growing and relatively severe outbreak for at least five years now. Foresters in neighboring New Brunswick, where they have not been troubled by the pest since the mid-1980s, are monitoring border areas for signs of spread. To the west, the Eastern Spruce Budworm infestation in northern Alberta and Saskatchewan has continued to grow slowly over the past five years, despite programs of aerial pesticide spraying. Farther west, British Columbia’s forests, as around Kamloops, have suffered from a plague of Western Spruce Budworm (C. occidentalis), which defoliates Douglas-fir. (Another species, the Western Black-headed Budworm, is also active in the past few years in British Columbia.) Could the recent small, scattered “flights” of Evening Grosbeaks, spanning from the Upper Midwest to northern New England to Appalachia, be the first signs of another wave of this species, such as we saw in the beginning in the late 1950s?

    EVGR - eBird Sightings Map Aug-Nov 2012
    Click on the map to go to the interactive map at eBird.org

    Evidence of a budworm-fueled resurgence of grosbeaks comes from the southern Rocky Mountains in the past several years, too. After many years of apparent paucity at such well-birded locales as Rocky Mountain National Park, Evening Grosbeaks are suddenly “everywhere,” “easy to find,” even “abundant”—if you believe the listserves and other sources of birder chatter. David Leatherman, a well-known Colorado birder and professional entomologist, notes that an ongoing budworm outbreak may be at play here. Particularly interesting and sobering is that the southern Rockies’ massive die-off of Lodgepole Pine—widely thought to be caused by human activity—may be driving the budworm outbreak, but much more study is needed to confirm this suspicion.

    In California, birders also witnessed an irruption of Evening Grosbeaks in fall 2010 “on a scale not seen since the late 1980s.” The flight began in September on the coast of northwestern California and the northern Central Valley and then spread quickly southward, reaching areas well south of San Francisco in October. West Coast irruptions of this sort, fairly frequent before 1990, were usually assumed to be of the grosbeak subspecies that nests in the high mountains of the state (brooksi). However, audio recordings of several 2010 grosbeaks from Santa Cruz County matched vocalizations given by birds that nest in the Pacific Northwest and throughout the northern Rockies, not those of California nesters. Could all of the birds seen in the California flight of 2010 have come from areas far to the north and northeast, where budworms had been very active? (And yes, like Red Crossbills, Evening Grosbeaks have distinctive Call Types. See: Sewall, K. B, T. R. Kelsey, and T. P. Hahn. 2004. Discrete variants of Evening Grosbeak flight calls. Condor 106: 161-165.) As is true of recent irruptions in the Northeast and the Rockies, the California flight involved much smaller numbers—in this case, about 600 birds were reported—than historical flights, but the geographic span of the flights has been similar.

    In a provocative 1984 article entitled “How much is an Evening Grosbeak Worth?” (Journal of Forestry 82: 426-428), John Takekawa and Edward Garton argued that these “voracious” finches would prove a more effective, and cost-effective, way to control outbreaks of Western Spruce Budworm than to spray insecticides from the air, which cost about $1820 per square kilometer. Grosbeaks are free, unless they visit your feeding station. Unfortunately, few forestry officials have availed themselves of this wisdom, and campaigns that apply chemicals continue. And so it will be difficult, even impossible, to make sense of the ebb and flow of this great species’ populations in North America without suitable studies, ideally studies that examine the impact of budworms in very similar stands of treated and untreated forest.

    photo by Brian Gatlin of Grand Canyon, AZ
    One of the great submissions to the ABA Bird of the Year Multimedia Art Contest

    Making the story of the population fluctuations of Evening Grosbeaks even more complex is the equally complex recent history of industrial land-use activities in its Canadian boreal forest breeding range. The scale of this industrial footprint—including forestry, oil and gas extraction, hydro-power, mining, and other activities—is immense, with approximately 180 million acres of the southern boreal forest already impacted. The forest in eastern Canada, the Maritime Provinces, and northern New England is now a changed landscape of much younger forests, often with fewer coniferous tree species than it had before the advent of industrial-scale logging activity. How these changes have affected or will affect populations of Evening Grosbeaks, other birds, and insects is uncertain, especially during the current period of rapid climate change. About 40% of Evening Grosbeak’s Canadian boreal breeding range overlaps with areas of intense industrial land-use activity—one of the highest proportions of any bird species. Only 9% of its Canadian boreal range lies within protected areas. Read more about this on the website of the Boreal Songbird Initiative.

    Birders can contribute massively to our dim understanding of populations of Evening Grosbeaks by searching for them in appropriate habitats and seasons and submitting information to eBird. It’s helpful to include photographs in your checklists and whatever details on nesting and foraging you can provide. In that way, scientists trying to sort out the puzzle of this species’ changing distribution will have access to a large and informative database that includes clues on the phenology of migration and nesting.

    In many ways, we know as little today about population instability in the Evening Grosbeak as we did a century ago. As Arthur Norton wrote in his article in The Auk:

    It seems to require no draft upon the imagination, and no step into the realm of speculation, to realize that in this hasty review of this interesting history, we have seen the Evening Grosbeak, forced against the impassable barrier to its southern migration at the prairie region, slowly and steadily take its way eastward, to the Atlantic coast. Thus has our generation witnessed a species overflowing the bounds of its original habitat, and forming its route of migration along the line of congenial conditions as they exist today!

    Time is replete with instances no less remarkable than this, but it is indeed rare that man is permitted to witness them in the making.

    Norton’s words offer both caution and inspiration. On the one hand, the Evening Grosbeak story is complex. Unstable populations are an undeniable aspect of the species’ natural history, and our human understanding of the phenomenon has long been, and still is, rudimentary. We need to tread cautiously here. On the other hand, something remarkable is going on with Evening Grosbeaks right now. And today, as never before, we have the resources—both in terms of technology and widespread birder interest—to figure out, compellingly and definitively so, what is going on with Evening Grosbeaks. If you encounter this species in your birding, be sure to record accurately how many you saw, where you saw them, and maybe even try to work out which Call Type. And be sure to record your observations through eBird!

    photo by Rob Lowry of Carson City, NV
    One of the great submissions to the ABA Bird of the Year Multimedia Art Contest
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    Robert Mortensen

    Robert Mortensen

    Robert is most widely known as the host of www.BirdingIsFun.com, 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 boy@aba.org.
    Robert Mortensen

    Latest posts by Robert Mortensen (see all)

    • Ted Floyd

      “If you encounter this species in your birding, be sure to record accurately how many you saw, where you saw them, and maybe even try to work out which Call Type.”

      On that note, stand by for a major article in the imminent November 2012 Birding. We go to press today! Aaron N. K. Haiman, a grosbeak expert at the University of California at Davis, writes in the Nov. Birding about “Evening Grosbeaks: Evolution in Action.” A key to understanding grosbeak populations–everything from how they are evolving to how we humans can help them–is variation in flight calls. Well, you’ll have to read about it all in Aaron’s article. Soon…

    • Ted Floyd

      How to learn more about Evening Grosbeaks? Rick Wright’s answer: First, read the old, old literature; second, encounter that old literature in a decidedly 21st-century medium. Get intel here:

      http://blog.aba.org/2012/07/ethoughts-on-egrosbeaks.html

    • http://abirdingnaturalist.wordpress.com/ Aaron N. K. Haiman

      Great post! That only 9% of the Canadian Evening Grosbeak breeding range is within protected areas in Canada is a startling statistic!

      As part of my research, I want to collect information on the calls and diet of Evening Grosbeaks across North America. Specifically, what I am after are recordings of calls and detailed observations on diet. So, if anyone sees Evening Grosbeaks any where, and is willing to, take a moment to observe what they are eating. What I am looking for is information on what these birds are eating in the wild, so bird seed out of a feeder may not give the most interesting information, although, you never know. As to calls, if you hear an Evening Grosbeak vocalizing, and have any recording device (this does not have to be fancy, I have gotten useful recordings off the recorders in digital cameras), then make a recording. These recordings will be best if they have the vocalizations of only one bird calling for as long as possible, but any recording will be useful and this includes birds at feeders. After you have made an observation or recording make a note of the date, time of day, location (be as exact as possible. GPS locations would be great), and any notes on behavior or habitat that seems interesting to you. Then send them along to me at anhaiman@ucdavis.edu

      On a different tangent of this subject…when spruce budworm outbreaks occur, and the songbirds that eat them have a really good breeding season, it seems like that will then allow the songbird predators to also have a really good year (maybe the nest breeding season?). Anyone noticed increases in, for example, Sharp-shinned Hawk numbers that correspond to spruce budworm outbreaks?

    • Darlene Feener

      On November 11,2012 while birding at Mountain Falls in the community of Pahrump, Nevada, I saw 15 male Evening Grosbeak’s. It is unusual to see Evening Grosbeaks in Nevada. I am from Maine and re-located to Nevada, seven years ago,so it was a thrill for me to see Evening Grosbeak’s again.

      Darlene

    • Michele Beckett

      I have had my first encounter with male on 12/3. It was approx at one I photoed since I had to look at the coloration twice, The head and beak … well I ran to get camera sot off round with one good photo
      I was steered here to learn how to be involved as it was at my window.
      Triple No-No Feeder had black oil enhanced with nyger, mealy worm and assortment of nuts.
      He was eating black oil but also picking at nuts. I did not hear call. In the confusion I did not notice others. He ate at lunch bar with assirtment of finch, nuthatch, chickadees, siskins and woodpecker. Not unlike rose breasted, he held his ground and ate watching me 6 inches away watching him. When I came back, camera in hand, he was there but backed around. I will now keep a look out and keep journal notes to help
      I have good natural shelters, water nearby. It was my first so I will book mark this in hopes to learn how to help

    • Hank

      I have loads of them (Evening Grosbeaks) at my feeders at the farm near Thorhild, Alberta – this is December of 2012.

      Feeders (with Black Oil Sunflowers) are about 1 hour NE of Edmonton, AB.

    • Barb

      We live 25 miles north of Edmonton, AB, Canada and had a visit from 2 male and 2 female Evening Grosbeaks on Christmas Day–what a gift!–we have not seen them here for some 25 years (when they came every year). They came and fed at our black sunflower seed feeder for several minutes and we got pictures, but no vocalizations. We have not seen them again since.

    • http://www.birdsource.org/ibs/IBSspecies/evegro/index.html Jeanette

      I live in South Lake Tahoe California. This afternoon I went next door to my sons house and there were 2 Evening Grosbeaks, a male and a female, full grown, dead. They had blood on their beaks and had tried to fly through the plate glass window. I took pictures and would send them if you want them.

      The morning before the neighbor had taken the time to tell me of an unusual song bird that he had never heard before up here, and he has lived here for 40 years. I thought perhaps he might have heard the song of these Grosbeaks. I can’t recall ever seeing them up here before. Lots of other little finches, but never saw these larger ones before. Let me know if you want the pictures.

    • Thesophieroom@gmail.com

      Showed up at my feeder a couple weeks ago…lots of them. Absolutely dominate the feeder now.
      P Weaver
      hamlet Or.

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