Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Welcome Presence of the Evening Grosbeak

When we lived in Pennsylvania, some winters our yard was visited by thieves who descended upon the bird feeders in a flock of ten to twenty birds, cleaned the seed from the feeders, then flew on. The attack was repeated every two or three weeks, until Spring finally returned. Then they would be gone, not to be seen again for another two or three years.

Evening Grosbeaks were irruptive winter birds in my previous home. In spite of the spike they created in the bird seed bill, they were welcome visitors. The male’s gaudy plumage, dominated by bright yellow, was a spark of color against the gray-brown winter landscape.  The sudden appearance and equally sudden disappearance of the nomadic flock - the enthusiasm of their voracious appetites - the energy with which the flock seemed to do everything - all helped to chase the winter doldrums.

Evening Grosbeaks also empty the feeders in my Vermont yard, but they do not disappear. They stay in the neighborhood, and as soon as I refill the feeders, they are back, cracking one sunflower seed after another with their massive bills and sending my seed bill soaring.

Evening Grosbeaks in January
As common as the Evening Grosbeak is in my yard, for many birdwatchers it is a rare, sought after species. Last year a young birder who reads my blog emailed me; he was going to be in southern Vermont for a weekend. Could he come by to see the grosbeaks? Unfortunately, that Spring weekend was the one weekend when the grosbeaks decided to go elsewhere. As soon as he was safely back in New Jersey, the grosbeaks were back in my trees.

When the European colonists were settling the Atlantic coast, the Evening Grosbeak was not present. It was primarily a bird of the western mountains, Northwest, although one of the earliest specimens was collected at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.

When first discovered, the Evening Grosbeak was observed to sing in the evening - hence its name. This observation was incorporated in both its common name and its scientific name.

Scientifically, the Evening Grosbeak has been named (until recently) Hesperiphona  vesperina. Hesperiphona refers to the Hesperides, the “Daughters of the Night,” who dwell on the western edge of the world where the sun sets. The Evening Grosbeak was first observed in the far west where the sun sets. Or perhaps more precisely, as one source suggests, the name comes from the Greek hesperios, “at evening,” and phona,”voice” - hence “evening voice.”

With scientific redundancy, the species name is vesperina, from the Latin meaning “belonging to the evening.”

Male cracks seeds and feeds a fledgling.
Scientists have recently reclassified the Evening Grosbeak. It is now Coccothrautus  vesperina. It shares its Genus with the Hawfinch of Europe and the Hooded Grosbeak of South America. Coccothraustes is from the Greek to “shatter,” a reference to crushing fruit pits. But it is still “vesperina” - the bird that sings in the evening.

The name is poetic, but untrue. The Evening Grosbeak sings any time of the morning, afternoon, or evening. The song is sometimes described as a loud “peeyr” with a ringing quality, but that is a generous description. The Evening Grosbeak is not much of a songster.

Historically, the Evening Grosbeak was a western species. Until the late 1800s, the bird was rarely seen east of the Mississippi.  Eastern expansion is commonly attributed to the  widespread planting of box elder trees in prairie windbreaks and as an ornamental tree in northeastern cities.  Seeds of the box elder persist on the tree through winter, which allowed erratic winter flocks from the west to overwinter (Forbush 1929). Some overwintering birds remained to nest, leading to the expansion of its breeding range. The first recorded nesting in Vermont was in 1926.

The large, powerful beak accounts for the folk name, "English Parrot."

The Evening Grosbeak is a bright and conspicuous bird. Such bright colors are usually associated with tropical birds such as the Baltimore Oriole, Scarlet Tanager, or Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Parrots are almost entirely tropical or sub-tropical birds; the Evening Grosbeak has sometimes been called the English Parrot, on account of its plumage, big beak, and occasional feeding habits. However, the Evening Grosbeak is anything but a tropical bird. It is a bird of northern and western forests. Its range straddles the U.S.-Canadian border. How then does it come to be so colorful?

The answer is found in the Evening Grosbeak’s original homeland in the Northwest. Arthur Bent in his 1968 life history of the western Evening Grosbeak writes that it  “is largely a bird of the higher altitudes whose plumage is a blending, a chiaroscuro, of the high-lights and shadows of the great hills.” He cites Enid Michael who wrote from Yosemite in 1926: “The Evening Grosbeak ... furnishes a splendid example of protective coloring in birds. It is brilliantly colored white, yellow, black and olive. It would seem to be one of the most conspicuous of high Sierran birds. Yet its brightest color is almost identical with the lemon color of the lichens found throughout our high Sierra.”

Evening Grosbeak, female
Another writer in 1902 wrote: “While watching the birds on Mt. Shasta one day, I was struck by the conspicuousness of one that flew across an open space. As it lit on a dead stub whose silvery branches were touched with yellow lichen, to my amazement it simply vanished. Its peculiar greenish yellow toned in perfectly with the greenish yellow of the lichen.”

These accounts remind me that when driving our dirt roads in the summer time, I have seen the gravely road in front of me suddenly burst into flight. Evening Grosbeaks, picking up grit and salt, blended into the roadway until my vehicle came to close. Then at the last moment, they flew.

The Evening Grosbeak is a big, stocky finch with a bearing that makes me think of a pugnacious street fighter. But appearances are deceiving. When food is plentiful, most observers use adjectives like quiet, sedentary, gentle, and unafraid. When unmolested, they can become almost tame. They approach backyard feeders from a high perch, where they check things out before coming in to share freely with others birds.

Courtship display by male Evening Grosbeak
As conspicuous as the Evening Grosbeak is when present, comparatively little is known about its life history. During the breeding season, it is secretive. It prefers mature, open-canopy mixed forests. It builds a flimsy nest high in a tree, a practice which makes it very difficult to study.    So ... when I spend a sultry summer day sitting on my back porch, I am not just idling away my time when its too hot to do anything else. I am doing research. I am observing the Evening Grosbeaks.

Good birding!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Hot Days of July

The lazy, hazy summer days of July bring plenty of entertainment as fledglings are fed and juveniles begin to figure out what life requires without mom and dad catering their needs.

Among the many juveniles in the last week is the Tufted Titmouse ...

Tufted Titmouse - juveniles
 American Goldfinch young do not have signs quite as obvious as other birds that identify the young (e.g. the pink at the base of the bill). But there has been lots of "chasing" going on, as young follow adults. This young bird did some wing fluttering and generally appeared a bit perplexed about everything ...

American Goldfinch - juvenile
Even young Blue Jays have an attitude that seems to say, "Well, I can figure this out!" - as did this young jay who studied the suet feeder from the nearby dogwood ...

Blue Jay - juvenile
... and then took a lesson from the topsy-turvy nuthatches to feed on the suet ...

Young Blue Jay feeds in nuthatch fashion
Evening Grosbeak families have had a very successful season and the young birds often outnumber the adults at the feeders. This youngster was even chasing off adult birds from his perch ...

Evening Grosbeak - juvenile
The bee-balm is in full bloom (early it seems), but no complaint from the many young Ruby-throated Hummingbirds working the flower beds ...

Ruby-throated Hummingbird
... the complaints come from the resident male Ruby-throat, who simply cannot keep up with all of the intruders on his exclusive domain. After several territorial flights to chase off these upstarts, he took this breather. He seemed to express his displeasure at the invaders - and the photographer - by sticking his tongue out ...

Ruby-throated Hummingbird
A bonus to the summer bird seeding is the sunflower seeds that have been scattered on the ground - a few have managed to sprout and thrive, providing bright spots of sunshine in unexpected places ...

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Monday, July 16, 2012

More Youngsters

The next generation of birds keep passing through the yard. Two families of Black-capped Chickadees made a rapid transit. The family of Tufted Titmice paused briefly in a bush, giving the young one a brief opportunity to beg.Chipping Sparrow young are feeding themselves.

Yesterday was a gray - and finally rainy - day, but many young were about. Probably the best juvenile for the yard this year was a Black-and-White Warbler. (The young age is more apparent in another photo, but it is not sharp enough for posting, and even this photo is marginal) ...

Black-and-White Warbler - juvenile
 The Purple Finch juveniles were everywhere. This one may look slightly perplexed - or hopeful that someone might still provide food - but it figured things out on its own ...

Purple Finch - juvenile

American Robins were not at the feeders, but were working the lawns and the river bed, although this young bird seemed a bit perplexed about it all ...

American Robin - fledgling
 The Northern Cardinal juvenile was very skittish and especially shy about having his picture taken, but it eventually managed to grab a seeds ...

Northern Cardinal - juvenile

Red-winged Blackbirds are regular and common visitors to the yard, but yesterday I had a first ever observation when fledglings begged for food and were fed by a male. The nesting habitat is probably marginal for the blackbirds, so the males are unable to acquire the usual harem. Obviously, this drives them to desperate measures ... like helping with the child rearing ...

Red-winged Blackbird - fledgling begging

Red-winged Blackbird - fledgling being fed

And finally ... I paid attention yesterday and saw what I have been missing in the past - a juvenile Brown-headed Cowbird. As many cowbirds as there are around, I knew they must be parasitizing nests, but have not had confirmation ...

Brown-headed Cowbird - juvenile
Good Birding (well, maybe with the exception of the cowbird) !!

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Riding the Rapids ...

Riding the rapids ... and more from the bird nursery.

Shortly after 7pm last evening, when the sun was below the hills and the light beginning to fade, we received our hoped-for summer treat when Mrs. Common Merganser led ten chicks down the river behind our home. I had to run for my camera, and missed them as they went over the "big" falls. But then they gathered to ride the rapids ...

Common Merganser mothers gathers ten chicks in preparation for riding the rapids

Let's go gang ...

In addition to the treat of seeing the mergansers, there is also the reassurance that the river and its environs is rapidly recovering from the violent scouring it received last year from Hurricane Irene. Additional evidence is seen in this Belted Kingfisher which emerged from a dive with a fish in its mouth. He has been foraging up and down the river, and in the last few days has been pursued by a youngster noisily demanding food ...

Belted Kingfisher (male) pauses across the river with food for young
 The backyard nursery continues in full swing. The jays and grackles are raucous and demanding. By far, the quietest, and I could say most polite, are the Rose-breasted Grosbeak fledglings. They flutter their wings inconspicuously while softly peeping for food ...

Fledgling Rose-breasted Grosbeak calling for food
All of the young are beginning to get the idea that mom and dad only feed them for a short while. Then they have to figure things out for themselves. This young Evening Grosbeak has definitely gotten the idea ...

Juvenile Evening Grosbeak deftly cracks sunflower seeds
Good birding!

Monday, July 02, 2012

The Crow Family

I am trying to make friends with the resident crow family.

A mated pair has nest near the river behind my home for several years. They appear in early Spring with a helper - a young bird from the previous year's brood. They did so again this year, cleaning seeds beneath the feeders.

In late May, there was lots of noisy activity as the four chicks from this year's brood fledged, and called for food. The parents and their helper scurried about to meet the demands of the young birds.

The family is still together, though the young birds are beginning to figure out how to feed themselves.

Of course, I am making a lot of surmises about this pair, helper, and family, but the surmises are reasonable and supported by research and observation. Crows are intelligent. They have language and culture which they pass along to the generations.

While much of what they say sounds like "caw," as I have listened this summer, I hear many nuances and variations.

One day recently, five of the family were milling about on the neighbor's grass near the river. My surmise: the helper was baby sitting. Keeping an eye of the youngsters and watching for danger. A mere glance in their direction on my part sent them flying.

So how am I trying to make friends with them? Two or three times a day I put a quarter cup of kernel corn, shelled peanuts, and unshelled peanuts on a rock. I often do this when I know the crows are nearby and watching. I speak to them. I show them the cup with food ... and I ring a bell.

Young crows on a venture - trying the cord & peanuts I put out for them.

Am I making friends? I don't know. They are wary (as well they should be considering how often creatures like me fire guns at them).

Occasionally, one perches on the rock, as though waiting for me to come with food.

I put out the food. I watch. Then I go about my business, return, and the food is gone. A few times I have seen them eating my offerings.

It will take time to build trust, but I enjoy the company of creatures that are intelligent - even some who might be smarter than I am. Maybe I can learn something.


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