Ocean Views: Evening grosbeaks and other winter finches

Fri, 12/21/2018 - 6:00am
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Winter finches: purple finch, common redpoll, white-winged crossbills, pine siskins, and evening grosbeaks — all members of the finch family Fringillidae — are expected to be seen in unusually high numbers this winter as far south as New York and New England, and maybe even beyond.

On Block Island, only the purple finch is a relatively common sighting; and on Block Island pine siskins and evening grosbeaks have already made unusual and stunning appearances this late fall.

This year’s increase of numbers into southern New England – an irruption – is the result of a near failure of their winter food crops: seeds and berries from conifers and deciduous trees, such as spruce, ash, and other boreal forest trees.

Each of these finch species are interesting subjects and could be discussed more fully here, but it is the evening grosbeak that has captured the attention of many during the past two weeks.

Shortly after evening grosbeaks were reported on mainland Rhode Island, there came three different, nearly simultaneous, reports of them on the island.

Bruce Duarte reported that he had about 20, males and females, at his feeder on Nov. 28, 2018; then Cathy Joyce and Nigel Grindley had about seven; and Heather Hatfield had at least 15 at her feeder.

Evening grosbeaks, although commonly seen at feeders throughout the winters in the more forested and northern parts of New England, are a rare sighting on Block Island. One or two have been observed at west side bird feeders over the past 10 years; a dead one was found at the base of Harbor Church in 1985; a total of 17 have been banded at the Block Island bird banding station, most recently in 1976; and, there is one in the Elizabeth Dickens Bird Collection that was found by Michael Wagner on Nov. 18, 1959.

This year’s irruption of evening grosbeaks has been thrilling for many: birders and casual observers alike.

It is a stunning and unusual-looking bird.

The males have bold yellow, black, and white markings; the female’s coloring is more subtle, with yellow fading to grey; and both of course, have a distinctive large (seed-crushing), conical bill.

First described in 1823 in the mid-west, the species moved easterly in fits-and-starts, so that by 1900 there was a fairly regular pattern of west to east movement during some winters.

And, as the century progressed, the species became well-established during northern New England winters.

In spite of the fact that large groups of evening grosbeaks are often observed during the winter at northern bird feeders, evening grosbeak populations are declining, and are considered rare visitors in southern New England.

If you want to see evening grosbeaks, without traveling to more northern climes, this may be the year to go in search of them in your own Block Island (or southern New England) backyard.

To learn more – and possibly see – evening grosbeak and other rare winter finches, join the annual Community Bird Census on Wednesday, Dec. 26.

Also, go to https://bit.ly/2DAmjsy to learn more about this winter’s irruption of evening grosbeaks.

The Community Bird Census is an annual event held on December 26 (traditionally the day that Elizabeth Dickens led the Christmas bird counts). This event encourages all who are interested in birds and enjoying the beauty of the island to spend part of the day keeping track of the birds they see. The short-term result of the day’s observations is the compilation of an island-wide bird list comprised of the sightings of many citizen scientists. In the long term, these annual bird counts continue the work of Elizabeth Dickens and contribute to a much larger body of information.

All levels of participation are encouraged, from watching your bird feeder to traipsing the island. For details about Community Bird Census, see the schedule below.

18th annual Community Bird Census, Wednesday, Dec. 26

Feel free to participate as much or as little as you would like.

• Meet at 9 a.m. at Sachem Pond, where a spotting scope will be available for some early morning duck watching, and join with others to make a plan for a day of birding.

• Bird Walk led by Kim Gaffett at a location determined at 9 a.m. based on wind and weather.

• During the middle of the day, participants will employ whatever means desirable to make a list of birds seen that day. The options for making these observations range from taking one or more walks, to watching your bird feeder from the warmth of your house.

• At 4 p.m. reassemble at Harbor Church’s kitchen parlor to compare notes, to start to compile the community list, share cider and cookies, and to revel in the stories of the day.

Anyone wishing to call in his or her Block Island observations may call Kim Gaffett at 466-2224 or email kimgaffett@gmail.com.