Evening grosbeaks arrive across the Great Lakes

Despite the range decline of evening grosbeaks over the years, it is predicted that this winter of 2018/2019 will be an irruption year.

An evening grosbeak sits in a tree at Hartwick Pines in Michigan.
An evening grosbeak sits in a tree at Hartwick Pines in Michigan in 2017. Photo: Francesco Veronesi

Bird watchers across the Great Lakes region and even farther south are eagerly watching their feeders this winter hoping for the chance to see a bird species that is elusive to many feeder watchers. The evening grosbeak is a large finch species that is highly nomadic with a home range that expands across most of the boreal forest in Canada. The species is striking with the males having bright yellow facial markings which many think are akin to a super heroes mask. They are about twice the size of an American goldfinch and have robust cone shaped bills which have amazing strength to break through seeds, one of their favorite menu items. There are actually several subspecies which can be distinguished by their vocalizations, and much is still being learned about how distinct these groups are and where each can be found. Matt Young, Tim Spahr, and Andrew Spencer of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology describe more in an article posted on the website eBird.

Range has decreased over years

 In the 1960s through the 1990s Evening Grosbeaks experienced a significant range expansion in the eastern US. They became quite common in the winter months frequenting bird feeders from Maine to Minnesota and as far south as Carolinas and the mountains of Georgia. However, over the past 30 years the birds range has restricted greatly and they are now far less common south of the US border and areas near it, even in winter months. Habitat loss in the bird’s core range, along with reductions in spruce budworm numbers, have led in part to the bird’s population decline. This has led to the bird now being listed as a species of special concern in Canada.

Irruption expected

Despite the decline of evening grosbeaks, it is predicted that this winter of 2018/2019 will be an irruption year. Irruption, in biology, is a term that describes an event in which there is a sudden change in a creatures’ population density and location. For bird populations, an irruption year is a year in which a bird species will be seen in large numbers outside its typical range. Northern finch species like purple finch, crossbills, evening and pine grosbeaks, and pine siskins are known to be some of the birds most prone to have irruptions, often tied to the success or lack of cone crops in the northern Canadian forests. Each year for the past few decades, ornithologists Ron Pittaway of Toronto, Ontario, has painstakingly compiled information on the status of forest cone crops, bird populations and other forecast features to predict what birds may be likely to irrupt each year. His yearly winter finch forecast is a great resource for birders looking to find a rare winter finch. This year conditions are good for a number of species to be found south of their normal range, with the most likely irruption to be that of evening grosbeak. According to eBird range maps these birds have shown up across southern Michigan, Wisconsin, and even into Ohio and Pennsylvania in fairly decent numbers.

Fill your feeder!

For those hoping to attract an evening grosbeak to their feeder, black oil sunflower seeds are one of their preferred foods. If you don’t have luck bringing them into your own yard, try taking a trip to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where they are much more regularly seen in most winters. MSU Extension’s Michigan Sea Grant Program has worked with the North Huron Birding Trail to create an Eastern UP winter birding map which points out many of the places you can go to look for these and other winter birds. Visit the North Huron Birding Trail website for help planning your own trip to try and view some wonderful winter finches.

Michigan Sea Grant helps to foster economic growth and protect Michigan’s coastal, Great Lakes resources through education, research and outreach. A collaborative effort of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University and its MSU Extension, Michigan Sea Grant is part of the NOAA-National Sea Grant network of 33 university-based programs.

This report] was prepared by Michigan Sea Grant under award NA14OAR4170070 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce through the Regents of the University of Michigan. The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Commerce, or the Regents of the University of Michigan.

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