For the Birds: Evening grosbeaks remain elusive

Photo by Chris Bosak – Purple finches sometimes irrupt into New England in the winter.

For one of the few times in this column’s history, the accompanying photo will not match the content.

The reason for that is quite simple. I am yet to get a decent photo of the main subject. Even as I receive emails from readers across New England about evening grosbeaks showing up at feeders, I have yet to host them at my feeding station. I am also yet to see them in the “wild” closely enough to get a good photo.

Tricia from Alstread wrote in the day after Thanksgiving to say she had evening grosbeaks at her feeder. She was hopeful there may be an irruption of the birds this winter. I, too, am hopeful.

Norma from Spofford alerted me in early November that she had as many as 11 at her feeder. It was the first time she had seen them in many years.

Deb from Royalston, Massachusetts, had four pairs of grosbeaks later in November. She has had luck in the past attracting them as well. 

Evening grosbeaks are songbirds about the size of a cardinal, but with a more finch-like body. They have thick bills and brilliant yellow, black and white plumage − kind of like oversized goldfinches. Females are duller in color. 

They are boreal birds and have a short migration south in the winter. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, or COA, they have been being seen less frequently in the East since the 1980s. They are listed as a bird of “least concern,” but COA also warns that the population is declining and will require “constant care and long-term assessment to prevent further declines.” According to studies, their population has dropped about 74 percent between 1966 and 2019.

Potential reasons for the decline, according to COA, include logging and development of the of boreal forest, bird diseases, and spraying of trees that are killing their food. COA warns that changing climate may alter their habitat to the point in which they may “completely disappear” from New England. I certainly hope that’s not the case.

I did see a lone evening grosbeak a few years ago during a late fall trip to northern New Hampshire. The beautiful yellow, black and white bird landed in a tall spruce tree. It was not at the top of the tree, but certainly it was well above eye level. I watched the bird for a minute or two, and then walked a few steps back to the car to retrieve the camera. As you can probably guess, by the time I took off the lens cap and twisted out the zoom lens, the bird was gone. It wasn’t elsewhere in the tree or in a nearby tree. It was gone. 

Coincidentally, an evening grosbeak was the subject of one of my very early attempts at nature photography sometime in the mid 1990s. This was also in northern New Hampshire. It was back in the day of film when you had to load a roll into the camera, take your pictures, drop off the film at a drugstore or a photo shop, and wait three to four days to see the results. 

In my early days, the results were often not pretty. In fact, usually they weren’t, and it was the rare photo that turned out pretty well. Those mostly included larger subjects, such as moose or herons. It took many years of photography to learn that you have to get as close as possible to the smaller birds to have them fill the frame. 

That photo of the evening grosbeak, taken along the side of a dirt road, was not very good. The bird filled only a small fraction of the frame and it was probably fuzzy and not composed very well. I don’t think I even have the photo anymore, but I could still recollect it fairly vividly.

So maybe this will be the winter I either get some evening grosbeaks to the feeder, or I find some out in the “wild.” Of course, you will be the first to know if that happens.

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