Be Your Own Birder offers a free bird identification service, and I happily help birders from around the world puzzle out any mystery birds they see. In the past couple of weeks, however, one particular species has popped up at feeders unexpectedly. The robin-like size, bold yellow, olive, black, and white coloration, and preference to travel in groups makes these birds easy to identify, and tell me one thing – evening grosbeaks are on the move.
What Is an Evening Grosbeak?
The evening grosbeak (Hesperiphona vespertina) is a member of the bird family Fringillidae. This family also includes a wide variety of euphonias, bullfinches, rosefinches, seedeaters, linnets, goldfinches, and siskins, as well as many of the Hawaiian honeycreepers. These are seed-loving birds with social habits, and are often seen in active, energetic flocks.
Identifying Evening Grosbeaks
Identifying evening grosbeaks isn’t difficult. The bold plumage colors and broad swaths of color are unmistakable, as are their thick, pale bills. Females are somewhat duller but still share the bulky shape and strong bill. Evening grosbeaks are roughly eight inches from bill to tail, only slightly smaller than the northern cardinal but with a bulkier shape and deeper chest that may make them seem somewhat larger than their measurements indicate.
Will You See Evening Grosbeaks?
These are northern birds, and their breeding range is in the southern boreal pine forests of Canada and into the Pacific Northwest and northern Rocky Mountain regions of the United States. They tend to stay within their range year-round, but are strongly nomadic to seek out food, especially in fall and winter, when they do tend to venture slightly further south.
When northern seed and berry crops are lackluster, evening grosbeaks become irruptive. An irruption is a large-scale, unpredictable migration, when birds wander far more widely than typical and can appear well south of their expected range. Strong irruption years may bring evening grosbeaks as far south as Texas, southern California, along the Gulf Coast, and into Florida.
That I’ve had readers ask for help identifying evening grosbeaks this early – one in Wisconsin, another in New York – could indicate that 2020 will be a strong irruption year for these winter finches. Granted, these early sightings are still within the birds’ typical winter range, and so aren’t particularly unusual. What is unusual, however, is that these finches are already appearing at feeders, which could be a sign of poor natural food sources. If this is true, birders much further south may soon be seeing flocks of evening grosbeaks descend on their feeders for sunflower seeds, safflower seed, and birdseed mixes. Adding extra feeders or choosing feeders with broad, open platforms that can accommodate hungry grosbeak flocks is a great option to welcome these birds and be sure they find enough food. There is no telling just how far south evening grosbeaks may venture this year, but they are on the way.
Other Irruption Birds to Watch For
In addition to evening grosbeaks, other irruptive species may also spread further south this year. While each bird depends on slightly different food sources and fulfills slightly different ecological niches, their irruptions are often tied together. Stay alert to see birds such as common redpolls, red crossbills, bohemian waxwings, purple finches, pine grosbeaks, and pine siskins, all of which may irrupt similarly to evening grosbeaks. Even snowy owls may be more irruptive, depending on how poor seed crops may have impacted their rodent food sources, such as lemmings and voles.
Have you seen any evening grosbeaks or other irruptive birds yet this year? Share your sightings in the comments!