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BRUCE MACTAVISH: Evening grosbeaks are invading

Many bird feeder watchers are enjoying visits from evening grosbeaks this week.
Many bird feeder watchers are enjoying visits from evening grosbeaks this week. - Bruce Mactavish photo

Every fall a few evening grosbeaks are encountered by birders out in the Avalon Peninsula woods. Their loud call carries a long way as they travel high overhead. It is part of general movement in the fall. Where they come from or where they are going we do not really know but by Christmas all is quiet for evening grosbeaks on the Avalon Peninsula. Central and western Newfoundland always have evening grosbeaks in winter much to the envy of Avalon Peninsula feeder watchers.

The fall of 2018 was different on the Avalon Peninsula. There were above average numbers of evening grosbeaks being heard and seen by the active birdwatchers. Some were even stopping to feed at birdfeeders. That was all very nice and within expected possibilities. But then literally overnight the grosbeak influx got turned up a few notches into a full-blown invasion. Remember that terrific wind storm two Wednesdays back that was powerful enough to be registered on the Richter scale? The first day after the storm the flood of evening grosbeaks poured in. It was like a flash flood. Many Avalon Peninsula bird feeders suddenly had flocks of 10 to 50 evening grosbeaks. For some it was the first time they had seen them in years. Others posted pictures on the Newfoundland Birdwatching Facebook pages inquiring what these gaudy birds were at their feeders that they had never seen before. Birdwatchers were hearing evening grosbeaks flying overhead everywhere they went.

Evening grosbeaks are an unmistakable bird. The males are bright yellow with striking black and white wings. The females are an olive colour with a more intricate black and white patterning in the wings. They have large triangular bills made for cracking open sunflower seeds. They are loud. They have a strong simple clear call that resembles a house sparrow’s call if you are familiar with that. People love their evening grosbeaks.

Will they stay or will they go? That is a question time will answer. Evening grosbeaks being members of the finch family are nomadic wanderers in the winter time. You can never tell what their next move will be. If we can keep them until Christmas then there is a good chance they will stay for the winter. They prefer open platform feeders where the whole flocks can come down from the trees to feed at the same time. They will make do with smaller hanging feeders and take turns if that is the only choice. More than other finches they tend to do things as a flock.

In the summer evening grosbeaks pair up and go off on their own. They are surprisingly difficult to find in the summer. They do nest in central and western Newfoundland. Many years ago, I found an evening grosbeak nest. I saw the pair of birds near the top of tall balsam fir tree. Looking straight up through openings in the branches I was amazed to see a nest of fine twigs. I think it was still under construction. I consider it one of the most unusual bird nests I have ever come across.

News on other finches

That other grosbeak, the pine grosbeak is also around. They travel in small flocks, often just two or three at a time. Pine grosbeaks are more resident in the province usually living in the woods. They are less likely to show up in an urban area and are only learning to come to bird feeders. Some people in central and western Newfoundland have them at their feeder every winter. Being naturally unafraid of people they are easily tamed and can be fed by hand. The males are a beautiful pink colour while the females are gray with a yellowish head. Because of their natural tameness in the woods the local name for the pine grosbeak is mope, not so flattering for a very charming species.

Purple finches are still here in low numbers. They may appear at the bird feeder when the seed in the woods runs out. Small numbers of redpolls are being encountered by the birdwatching group. This is a good sign for later in the winter when they are more likely to arrive in numbers.

A close relative to the redpoll is the pine siskin. These pugnacious brown striped finches are common feeder birds in some winters and none in other winters. They are around in the woods in half-decent numbers. I predict that later in the winter they will be at the bird feeders.

American goldfinches are very common in the woods right now enjoying all that seed found in the conifer trees. Some are already swarming the bird feeders. I am predicting a big crop of goldfinches at the feeders this winter.

This is definitely a good time to get that bird feeder going.

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at

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