By Derek Stoner, Conservation Project Coordinator
A bird is sometimes more than just a bird. Or, simply put, some birds take on a greater meaning because of the context in which they appear. For a short fifteen-minute span this morning, the stars aligned and the “perfect bird” appeared at an ideal place to be enjoyed by an appreciative audience.
After a morning of working at Middle Run Natural Area, I’d stopped by Tri-State Bird Rescue to chat with their Executive Director, Lisa Smith. We of course talked about birds and discussed the interesting migrant songbirds seen this Fall just outside the windows at the center. But the staff has been very busy indoors lately, taking care of birds caught in oil spills resulting from Hurricane Sandy. The staff and volunteers soldier on, helping out one oil-coated bird at a time…
As I stepped out the front door of Tri-State, I noticed a bird call I’d never heard before. Briskly walking toward the sound, I soon found myself near Trail Marker 3 on the Middle Run Birding Trail. There at the top of an ash tree was a bird with a very large beak, and I knew what it was before even raising my binoculars. An Evening Grosbeak– right in front of me! I madly dashed back to my car and grabbed a video camera, digital SLR camera, and a spotting scope.
The grosbeak then flew over my head and landed near the end of the Tri-State parking lot, fetching up on a cherry tree adorned in wild grape and Oriental Bittersweet vines (first photo). I alternated between videotaping and photographing the bird, while frantically trying to dial the Tri-State number on my cell phone. I wanted other people to see this great bird!
Incredibly, the grosbeak then flew and landed in a cherry tree right above the front entrance to Tri-State! I hurried over and set up the scope on the bird and hollered to nearby volunteers to alert the staff inside. Soon a number of staffers, including the director Lisa, came outside to see the Evening Grosbeak. Several folks told me that the had never seen this species before, and a couple said that they had seen them at their feeders in the late 1980’s.
Now, what makes this bird particularly special is the context. For the past few weeks, a few lucky people have reported Evening Grosbeaks coming to their backyard feeders in the regions. Small flocks of these seed-eaters descend upon offerings of sunflower seeds and devour the seed quickly. But to see just a single Evening Grosbeak, out in the wild and away from a feeding station– that is a unique observation. And of all the places to land– right above the front door at a bird rescue and research facility!? We watched the bird preen, clean its beak, and make “contact calls” as it sat on a branch for ten minutes. As with many bird sightings, being at the right place at the right time led to an exciting observation.
The Evening Grosbeak is an “irruptive” species, spending most winters much further north in the boreal forests where they breed. The American Birding Association chose to feature this bird as their “Bird of the Year” and their website offers a lot of fun facts about this massive finch species.
This winter, likely due to an extensive failure in the cone crops that this species favors, Evening Grosbeaks are heading south and being seen in places that they have not appeared for decades. I saw my first (and only) previous Evening Grosbeaks way back in 1990 at our family backyard in Lancaster, PA. Even then, they seemed super rare and exciting.
In the coming weeks, perhaps this region will be inundated by Evening Grosbeaks and we will become tired of them, taking down our bird feeders because they eat too much expensive seed. Or, more likely, these birds will remain somewhat elusive and a “lucky few” observers will get to see this iconic species from the Northern Woods. Only time will tell. Until then, keep a close eye on your feeders for this beautiful visitor from the North.