November 26, 2012

Return of the Great Winter Finch Superflight

Evening Grosbeaks at our backyard bird feeder circa 1960.
The forecast is in, and it's going to be 'Evening Grosbeaks' galore this winter, not just according to Ron Pittaway's Winter Finch Forecast for 2012 ( yep, didn't make that up) but also by the hundreds of birders on line who can't seem to hold back their Grosbeak excitement. - As I seem to be re-kindling my interest in birds, suddenly, every bird blog and website is chattering about an abundance of Evening Grosbeaks. But why have we not seen them for so long and where have they been?

According to the American Birding Association website (ABA), the answers why Evening Grosbeaks started changing their habits might be many. There was a time, between the 1950's and the early 1980's when massive flocks of these colorful, parrot-like finches 'migrated' in the winter south, to the United States states and southern parts of provinces during  the winter, bombarding backyard feeding stations and driving up the cost of sunflower seeds. But around 1981, things began to change, and it seemed, no one knew why. For many of us, the sight of these striking creatures is just a memory, or as I am sharing here, memories in family scrap books, but for others, they are new denizens, as it seems, the more we learn about bird migration, the more mysterious it all gets, but one thing is for certain, nothing is as it seems when it comes to bird populations, and in the end, it always seems to be about food.

Nature is a fickle creature herself, which we are now learning as new studies are causing some scientists to theorize that other causes might be at hand, and such ideas as a rising spruce bud worm outbreak both in the east and in the west might be affecting such irruptions, but whatever the cause, the fact is this winter will be a record breaker for the species both in the east and in the west. The website eBird documents local sightings, and when I last checked this morning, a few dozen birds had been sighted near my home town, but not near my neighborhood.

the eBird website shows me daily reports of any species of bird which are sighted and entered in by site members. This is the November Evening Grosbeak data for my area in Massachusetts, and I can zoom in to street level if I need to.

This weekend well be dragging out the power tools and building tabletop feeders not for the squirrels, but for these rare visitors from the arctic which once were common winter visitors in the mid-20th century, but whom today, only periodically decide to migrate south. This year, for some strange reason, grosbeaks and many winter northern finches are traversing south - farther south than ever before, and as scientists and hobby birders are sharing on-line, they are doing this both on the east coast of the US and in the west - an unprecedented southern migrations, or to what they properly call an irruption.

There was a time, when I was a child in the 1960's when here in New England, the first blast of cold, winter weather was only one sign that winter was upon us. It also meant that one of the great joys of winter birdwatchers was about to begin - the winter migration of far northern bird species like Pine Grosbeaks, Evening Grosbeaks, Common Redpolls, Crossbills and Bohemian Waxwings. One of my earliest memories as a child was my father, who was an active birder his entire life, lifting me onto his shoulders so that I could spread wild bird food seed on the many table top feeders he kept in our back yard. So influential was this experience, that for many years, well into high school, I had plans of being a ornithology major, with hopes to attend Cornell.

One of my fathers illustrations from our local newspaper documenting a Forbush Bird Club field trip. The club is still active, and many  members have their own blogs. This might be from the 1950's. or even the 1940's ( I have many of these from the 1930's until the 1960's). My favorite items are the red felt Forbush Bird Club patches from the 1950's.

Recent chatter on the many birder blogs which I follow have raised my interest in birds again, mostly because many of these blogs are all talking about a recent influx of many of these boreal birds in our area.  In the bird world, something very exciting and rare is occurring Large movements of Pine Siskin, Red Crossbills and even Evening Grosbeaks are making an eastern push - which they are calling the Winter Finch Superflight! - the largest since 1997. The birdworld is abuzz. You see, one of the last great irruptions happened in the early 1980's ( with smaller ones after that), but there was a time when many area back Yard bird feeders were bombarded with the  gold, black and white squawking Evening Grosbeaks. In case you haven't noticed, they've been gone for many years.

Like father, like son ( well sort of - he was a better artist!).
I observed a flock of redpolls and pine grosbeaks when I was 18 in our yard, and I have some earlier ones which I illustrated for the local column showing red crossbills which decided to dine in one of our Hemlock trees when I was 14 years old. Yeah, I was a nerd even then.

Evening Grosbeaks were once the favorite bird feeder bird before the Cardinal started migrating north, and began appearing on dish towels, calendars and Holiday ornaments. Maybe now that gold and grey is back in vogue, the Evening Grosbeak stands a chance. There was a time when flocks of these parrot-like birds crowded onto backyard feeders preferring sunflower seeds and flat, tabletop feeder sans squirrels. This weekend, I hope to build a large tabletop feeder to see if perhaps I could attract some of these beautiful denizens of the north to our winter table.

Another sketch by my father showing various birding ventures. Also from the 1950's

This year it appears that another record irruptive year is starting, with significant sightings of Redpolls, crossbills and yes, Evening Grosbeaks appearing on on-line bird tracking sites like eBird, and hopefully, at some of our backyard feeders here in central Massachusetts.  Maybe now it's time for me to either join a birding club, drag out my dad's old Forbush Bird Club patches and paraphernalia, the old scope and binoculars which I have not used sine my early college days scoping for snowy owls on Plum Island, and brush up on my ID skills, since the last time I properly identified a kinglet from a kindbird what during my summer college jobs at the Ashby Bird Observatory where I spent many summers collecting migrating songbirds from three miles of mist nets and banding them. ( see, I was pretty serious about it!).

According to Matt Young from eBird, "So far we’ve already seen large movements of  Pine Siskin, Red Crossbill and Red-breasted Nuthatch (an honorary finch) on both coasts. All three have shown up farther south than typical. Red-breasted Nuthatches have been reported in central Florida and throughout the Gulf Coast states. Pine Siskins have smashed records at several sites including Hawk Ridge, Minnesota and Cape May, New Jersey. A flight on Long Island on 21 October yielded an amazing estimate of 20,000 siskins.  Purple Finches are already being reported well into the Southern Appalachians.
Evening Grosbeaks, that favorite feeder bird from yesteryear, looks to be making its largest eastward push since 1997-98. In recent years Evening Grosbeaks haven't appeared in Pennsylvania or Connecticut until November and December, with scarcely any even then, but this year made their first appearances at the end of September. Evening Grosbeaks have already reached Maryland, West Virginia and Delaware, and some should be expected into the Carolinas and perhaps the mountains of Georgia this year.

I sometimes think that there are more photos of bids in our old family photo albums as there are of people. Here, and Evening Grosbeak pair dining on our window feeder in the late 1950's.
After an unprecedented  Red Crossbill flight that materialized in August across the Northern Tier States, crossbills look to be on the move again. In the last two weeks both Red and White-winged Crossbills have been reported nearly daily at Whitefish Point in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and at Hawk Ridge in Minnesota. Migrating Red Crossbills have also been reported several times in recent weeks at Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania, with others in Massachusetts. "


  1. We have not seen any evening grosbeaks, but we are seeing lots of redbreasted nuthatches. We get rose breasted grosbeaks in the spring. I'll keep an eye out for the evening grosbeaks, those would be very exciting to see.

  2. Anonymous7:26 PM

    the 1st picture of the Evening Grosbeaks on the window feeder with the snow covering the ground was like a dejavu! That looks exactly like my window feeders I put up back in 81 or 82..... I loved em and had so many Evening Grosbeaks.... wow, thanx for putting these pictures up Matt. I don't understand one thing tho, who sketched the pictures and/or who is the blogger refering to as "One of my fathers illustrations from our local newspaper documenting a Forbush Bird Club field trip"? I birded with Rodney Jenkins for the first 10 years of my birding adventures. Rodney taught me so much. I was only able to bird with Lloyd a few times....

  3. Anonymous7:28 PM

    I also have a good number of Lloyds Telegram articles from the 70s and 80s


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