Saturday, June 30, 2007

Rose-breasted Grosbeak - a Welcome Summer Resident

“One year, in the month of August, I was trudging along the shores of the Mohawk river, when night overtook me. Being little acquainted with that part of the country, I resolved to camp where I was; the evening was calm and beautiful, the sky sparkled with stars, which were reflected by the smooth waters, and the deep shade of the rocks and trees of the opposite shore fell on the bosom of the stream, while gently from afar came on the ear the muttering sound of the cataract. My little fire was soon lighted under a rock, and, spreading out my scanty stock of provisions, I reclined on my grassy couch. As I looked around on the fading features of the beautiful landscape, my heart turned towards my distant home, where my friends were doubtless wishing me, as I wished them, a happy night and peaceful slumbers. Then were heard the barkings of the watch-dog, and I tapped my faithful companion to prevent his answering them. The thoughts of my worldly mission then came over my mind, and having thanked the Creator of all for his never-failing mercy, I closed my eyes, and was passing away into the world of dreaming existence, when suddenly there burst on my soul the serenade of the Rose-breasted bird, so rich, so mellow, so loud in the stillness of the night, that sleep fled from my eyelids. Never did I enjoy music more: it thrilled through my heart, and surrounded me with an atmosphere of bliss. One might easily have imagined that even the Owl, charmed by such delightful music, remained reverently silent. Long after the sounds ceased did I enjoy them, and when all had again become still, I stretched out my wearied limbs, and gave myself up to the luxury of repose. In the morning I awoke vigorous as ever, and prepared to continue my journey.” - John James Audubon, Birds of America, octavo edition, 1871.

Audubon opened his account of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak with these unusually poetic words describing his night encounter. He was enamored with the beauty of both its song and it plumage. I can hardly disagreed. Of the two dozen or so species which regularly visit my feeders during the summer, the two summer grosbeaks, Rose-breasted (Cardinal family) and Evening (Finch family, are the ones which arrest my attention every time they appear.

The plumage of both is stunning, though very different. But if you add the respective songs into the mix, then I have to tip the balance in favor of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak. The Evening Grosbeak hardly has a song worthy of the term. The Rose-breasted, by contrast, sings like a robin who has taken voice lessons. When you hear a robin singing with fewer pauses and with particularly clear, liquid phrases, check the tree tops for a Rose-breasted.

The male Rose-breasted Grosbeak is a handsome specimen. On wings, back, and tail he presents a contrast of black and white. When I startle birds from my feeders with my sudden appearance, and see only a bold black and white pattern disappearing into the trees, I know that I have just scared him away.

But the breast is what catches the breathe. Beneath the dark, black hood covering the head, his breast is rose-red - a rose-red that often evokes the poetic, and even the tragic. The lower tip of the triangular rose-red often runs down toward the white belly, leading some to liken him to a jilted lover whose heart has been broken; his heart pierced by a cruel arrow, he bleeds out his love. From a harsher and more violent era, his folk name has sometimes been Throat-cut.

I prefer to imagine him a groom dressed for his wedding - tuxedo clad with a brilliant cummerbund to balance formality with gaiety.

All such imaginings are, of course, nonsense, although the nonsense prevails in the scientific name. The Rose-breasted Grosbeak is Pheucticus ludovicianus. Pheucticus, from the Greek, means “painted with cosmetics,” suggesting that his breast has been rouged; ludovicianus means “of Louisiana,” the area where the first specimen came from. The Rose-breasted shares its Genus with the western Black-headed Grosbeak.

In contrast to the male, the female Rose-breasted is a plain Jane. She looks like a big sparrow, or an oversized female Purple Finch.

Usually when a male is brilliantly attired and the female is plain, the male spends most of his time singing, continuing to boast his virtues and defend his territory. Domestic duties, particularly incubation, are left to the inconspicuous female. He may perhaps join in the feeding after the eggs hatch, but not necessarily.

The male Rose-breasted Grosbeak is unusual. He provides some help in building a flimsy nest and then shares in the incubation. When sitting on the nest, he continues to sing. Protection of a nest typically depends upon keeping its location as secret as possible from predators; singing on the nest seems counterintuitive. Edward Forbush watched a male sing while on the nest: “When a hawk flew overhead he continued to sing, but so reduced the volume of the song that it seemed to come from far away, raising his voice again when the hawk had passed on. Singing on the nest and ventriloquizing are common habits of the male.”

“Grosbeak” means big beak, an adaptation designed to open large seeds. Watch the grosbeaks, finches, cardinals and other large beaked birds as they feed on your sunflower seeds. Adeptly they crack open the hard shell, extract the nutritious meat and drop the casings. Chickadees, titmice, and even Blue Jays, by contrast, take the sunflower seed to a branch, hold it between the feed, and hammer it open with their bills.

However, the adept use of this “big beak” adaptation apparently has to be learned. Bent, in his life history of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak, reports this observation of the male with his adult sized offspring: “The father then started to show it how to break open sunflower seeds. Perching beside his offspring on a branch, he cracked a seed, broke the kernel into pieces, and fed it to the young bird. He then gave it a whole kernel. Next, he pretended to give the fledgling an uncracked whole seed, but held on to it and in due time cracked the seed and fed the young bird. [After a week of this], irritability on the part of the parent, which had been increasing, resulted in his jamming food into the mouth of the young bird, pecking its bill, and driving it away.”

The natural habitat of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak is second-growth woodlands, the borders of swamp and streams, along wood edges and in neglected pastures. In more recent years it has also adapted to human habitation and is not unusual in towns, villages, and suburbs where there is enough suitable trees and bushes for its nesting.

Like so many other birds, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak is not really “one of ours.” It is a tropical species. It arrives in our neighborhood in May. By mid-October, it will be back home in Central America. But during these summer months, it is a welcome resident, delighting the eye and the ear. The Rose-breasted Grosbeak is one of those birds which defines - Good Birding!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Tennessee Warbler, White-winged Crossbills, et al

Yesterday when atlassing for breeding birds, I was serenaded at length by a Tennessee Warbler. This morning atop Mt. Snow, Bicknell's Thrushes were in full voice. Highlight was White-winged Crossbills, feeding and chattering atop the spruces.


SCAT (Bear Scat?)

Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Welcome Presence of the Evening Grosbeak

When we lived in Pennsylvania, some winters our yard would be visited by greedy feeder thieves who would descend upon the bird feeders in a flock of ten to twenty birds, clean out all the seed from the feeder, then fly on. The attack would be 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 some miles to the south. In spite of the spike they created in the bird feed 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 visit my Vermont yard only rarely during the winter months, usually early in the winter. Then, I suppose, they roam southward in search of a more temperate climate and more abundant food sources (even though the food stock in my feeders can hardly be called sparse.)

And that’s all right, for their winter absence gives me something to look forward to - that time when the summer resident Evening Grosbeaks return to pair and mate and raise their young in my neighborhood. Nearly every year throughout the summer, at least one pair of these large, bright finches lives nearby. Their regular visits interrupt my work; I just cannot go on doing whatever I am doing when they are there.

For a bird of such stunning beauty, there is surprisingly little folklore attached to it. This is probably due to the fact that when the European colonists were settling the Atlantic coast, the Evening Grosbeak was not present. When first found and described by the early naturalists, the Evening Grosbeak was primarily a bird of the far Northwest, although one of the earliest specimens was collected at Sault Ste. Marie.

When first discovered, the Evening Grosbeak was observed to sing in the evening - hence its name. The observation was wrong; it does not sing only at sundown. Nevertheless, this early observational mistake has persisted in both common name and 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, recalling the western regions where it was first observed. 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.”

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. I have not been able to trace the derivation of the Genus name, but it still “belongs to the evening.”

Since the early nineteenth century when the Evening Grosbeak was first described by science and was known primarily as a bird of the far west, it has been expanding its range eastward. The first record of the bird in southeastern Massachusetts was in March, 1890. In the 1920s, Edward Forbush still did not have much personal experience with the Evening Grosbeak in Massachusetts. In 1940, James Baille found six breeding pairs in New England. The first Vermont Breeding Bird Atlas in 1976, recorded twenty-seven probable or confirmed areas of breeding. The current breeding bird atlas research, which still has one more season to complete, has already recorded ninety-nine probable or confirmed breeding areas in Vermont.

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, Indigo Bunting, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and most of the warblers. 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 straddling the U.S.-Canadian border. In winter it may range as far south as the Mexican border and Gulf states, but it will also range northwest into the southern Yukon territories. 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.”

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. (At least, I prefer that explanation for their sudden appearance over the one that has me not paying close attention to what might be on the road ahead of me.)

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.

The Evening Grosbeak will not be found in all of our local neighborhoods. It prefers mature, open-canopy mixed forests, preferably coniferous, or coniferous-deciduous. Fortunately, I live close to such forests which are home to nesting pairs. Even today when I am writing - with dreary skies and drizzly rain - when many of the birds are wet and bedraggled, stressed by weather and nesting and feeding - the Evening Grosbeak comes with his crisp yellow and black and white, and brightens the day. A good bird and good birding!

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Early Morning with the Bicknell's Thrush

This morning I had one of my most delightful times atlassing for the Vermont Breeding Bird Atlas. With Richard Foye, I drove to the top of Mt. Snow (with permission/arrangment with the ski area, on their service road) to cover the “inaccessible” areas of the Mt. Snow block. With frost on the ground and freezing hands, we watched the sun rise and listened to the birds wake up - including

BICKNELL'S THRUSH (at least four singing males)


AND ... Swainson’s Thrush, Winter Wren, Magnolia Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler (carrying nesting material), Chipping Sparrow (sounding like juncos), Dark-eyed Junco (sounding like juncos), Purple Finch (including flight display and flight songs), Common Raven, American Robin, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Pine Siskin, Red Crossbill (possible possible)

Almost incidentally, (we had to pay attention to the road - which demanded attention!) we had on the way up and down -
Wild Turkey, Black-and-white Warbler, American Redstart, American Crow, Common Yellowthroat, Ovenbird, Common Grackle, Blackburnian Warbler, Gray Catbird, Song Sparrow, Blue-headed Vireo, (and probably some more that I can’t remember)

... and in the valley, there were -
Barn Swallow, Tree Swallow, Cliff Swallow, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Killdeer (with young), Canada Goose (with young)

This was between 5:00 am and 8:00 am. Not a bad way to start a day!


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