By now the January/February issue of Birding magazine has arrived in your mailboxes along with the 2013 Bird of Year stickers. Andrew Guttenberg's Common Nighthawk profile is a pretty sharp design if I do say so myself, and the stickers are a nice addition to my own bins even if I'm now wondering what I'm going to do with the 2014 edition as the real estate rapidly disappears...
We want to know what you're doing with your stickers. Even if you're just sticking them on your bins, take a photo and send it to boy AT aba.org. We''ll put together a gallery on the Bird of the Year site if we get several responses.
And be on the lookout for those Nighthawks, because there's no better field mark for an ABA member!
This image has been kicking around on the ABA's Facebook profilesfor the last week, but it certainly deserves wider exposure. Soon after Bird of the Year coordinator Robert Mortenson released his really fun announcement video, he put his photoshopping skills to good use to create a Richard Crossley-style field guide plate acting as the 2013's BOY, the Common Nighthawk.
The result, a moment of true birding brilliance.
As you can see, we're pretty excited about the Common Nighthawk here at the ABA, and we hope you are too.
Just like last year, we'll shortly be announcing the start of a Multimedia Art Contest wherein you can send us your most creative Common Nighthawk photos, artwork, songs, poetry and prose. But take note, our Bird of the Year coordinator has set the bar very high, indeed.
After Robert Mortensen's goofy, fun, 2013 Bird of the Year introduction yesterday, we'd like to present the lovely paintings that Andrew Guttenberg did for use in the Bird of the Year program. Above is the portrait that will grace the coming issue of Birding.
Below is the head study Andrew did on which we based the Bird of the Year stickers.
I'll end with a shot of Andrew and me taken just a couple of days ago in Bozeman, Montana, where Andrew lives and attends Montana State University. We had a really fun conversation about these paintings, Common Nighthawks in general, and Andrew's development and plans as a bird artist. Look for that interview here soon.
Thanks, Andrew, for helping us honor the Common Nighthawk in style!
The era of the Evening Grosbeak, a singularly worthy Bird of the Year for 2012, is drawing to a close. And though it pains us to give that noble finch a shortened reign, we're putting all future Bird of the Year announcements on the traditional calendar from here on out.
Which means the announcement of the 2013 BOY is imminent.
Check back Monday morning, January 7th, for the official announcement!
In his article in the November 2012 issue of Birding, Aaron N. K. Haiman introduces ABA members to the five “types” of Evening Grosbeaks. What are these types? For starters, they are more-or-less geographically discrete populations with different flight calls. But what are they? Are they just different populations? Are there genetic differences among the populations? Do the flight calls serve as barriers that promote reproductive isolation? If so, could this mean that the five different populations correspond to five different species of Evening Grosbeaks? And what are the conservation consequences of all this variation within the population of birds currently classified as the Evening Grosbeak?
We’ll soon be unveiling the 2013 ABA Bird of the Year, but the story of the 2012 ABA Bird of the Year, the Evening Grosbeak, continues to unfold. For one thing, Aaron Haiman still has to finish his Ph.D. dissertation on Evening Grosbeaks! Speaking of Aaron, he presents below a primer on variation in Evening Grosbeak call types, he readily acknowledges that questions remain unanswered, and he’s asking YOU for help. Seriously, you can contribute to our basic understanding of one of the most fascinating birds in North America, and, in so doing, you will help advance the cause of bird conservation. And who knows? Maybe we’ll get a split or five out of all this!
One facet of my research on the Evening Grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus) that I aim to strengthen is my survey of where the different flight call types occur, what they are doing, and what they are eating. To give a bit of background, five different variants of Evening Grosbeak flight calls have been observed. These different variants have been labeled Type 1 through Type 5, and although the differences are subtle to the human ear, they are distinct enough that with practice they can be identified in the field. They are also different enough that the grosbeaks themselves can almost certainly tell them apart as well, and so may play an important role in group membership identification.
The geographic ranges of birds that make these different
flight call types have been generally worked out. Type 1 is found mostly in the
Pacific northwest and central Rocky Mountains, Type 2 is found mostly in the
Sierra Nevada and southern Cascade Mountains of California and Oregon, Type 3
is found mostly around the Great Lakes and in New England and southeast Canada,
Type 4 is found mostly in the southern Rocky Mountains of Colorado and New
Mexico, and Type 5 is found mostly in the mountains of central Mexico and
Right: The author is working toward his doctorate at the University of California–Davis.
I say “mostly” a lot in the preceding assessment because there is a lot that we don’t know. There is a fair bit of overlap in where the different flight call types have been recorded. In the Sierra Nevada, although most of the birds give Type 2 flight calls, some birds give Type 1 flight calls as well. In Wyoming, where Type 1 is expected, Type 1 birds are the most commonly observed, but Type 4 birds occur in smaller numbers as well. There are also parts of the continent where it is not well understood what type might be the most common. The area in central Canada between Type 1 and Type 3 is filled with question marks. Nevada and Utah are between the Type 1, Type 2, and Type 4 regions. This area does not have a lot of Evening Grosbeak habitat, but it seems plausible that the species does occur on high mountain ridges. Grosbeaks may or may not breed there, but even knowing what birds pass through the area would be interesting. Another huge area of unknowns involves Type 5. Very little research has been done on where Type 5 Evening Grosbeaks occur. Even the portion of the range that is in the U.S. in Arizona and possibly New Mexico is not well established.
An even less understood aspect of the Evening Grosbeak’s natural history is that of diet. Most bird books give the very general “eats seeds and insects” with little or no elaboration on which seeds and which insects. Do birds that make different flight call types eat different foods in their respective different ranges? No one knows. When individuals that produce different flight call types find themselves in the same place, do they then retain any differences in diet, or do they all simply eat whatever is around? Again, no one knows.
So here is my call for aid. I want to collect information on the calls and diets of Evening Grosbeaks across North America. This will take a very long time if I do it all myself, but I am hoping that you might be willing to help. There are two ways you can help.
After you have made an observation or recording, make a note of the date, time of day, location (be as exact as possible; GPS locations would be great), and any notes on behavior or habitat that seem interesting to you. Then send them along to me by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
This is going to be a long and slow accumulation of knowledge, and that’s why I am starting now. I will be collecting this information for years. Don’t worry about being too late—the data will always be of use, whenever you submit it. Thanks in advance!
—Aaron N. K. Haiman
This month concludes the very impressive reign of the Evening Grosbeak as the 2012 ABA Bird of the Year. Could we have chosen a better year to highlight this amazing bird?! We are getting reports from folks seeing Evening Grosbeaks in places they've not been seen in thirty years. One might imagine that Jeffrey & Liz Gordon have been secretly raising thousands of Evening Grosbeaks behind the ABA office in Colorado Springs and they've been generously distributing them about the country during their travels - just like that jolly elf that comes around this time of year spreading joy. But the reality surrounding this mysterious bird irruption is all the more amazing!
eBird sightings from Aug-Dec 2011 (above)
eBird sightings from Aug-Dec 5th 2012 (below)
In this month's issue of Birding, UC-Davis Ph.D. candidate Aaron Haiman shares his personal experiences studying Evening Grosbeaks. He presents a lesson on sympatric and allopatric speciation that I found very enlightening. Then leads into a discussion of his work identifying the three to five variants or types of Evening Grosbeaks in North America by flight call and their related geographies. It's a fascinating read and we hope you'll want to comment about it here. Aaron's research continues and we as capable birders and citizen scientists can help! Report your Evening Grosbeak sightings to eBird. Take photos. Record their calls if you can. Then contact Aaron directly by email or via his blog.
So, while the Evening Grosbeak's reign may end with the year, we are still in the midst of an amazing EVGR movement worth watching and celebrating.
The ABA Bird of the Year Multimedia Art Contest results are in! Congratulations to all the participants and huge thanks to the prize sponsors.
Contributions by Ned Brinkley, Ted Floyd, and Jeff Wells.
Evening Grosbeak is a species as enigmatic as it is striking. When many thousands of them descended upon feeding stations in the East from the 1950s through the early 1980s, birding newsletters, magazines, and journals were filled with word of their complex movements and backyard antics. Despite the considerable expenses involved in hosting this species at a feeder—a large flock can consume more than $100 of sunflower seed per day—birders couldn’t get enough of these great finches. Because this bird still holds so much mystery, because of its charm, because of its fragile and threatened habitats, and because it is certainly a “data-deficient” species, as conservationists say, the ABA in 2012 elected to name Evening Grosbeak its Bird of the Year for 2012.
And of course that’s not the beginning of the story. In rich detail, ornithologist Arthur Norton recounted the “great migration” eastward of Evening Grosbeaks in winter 1915-1916 (Auk 35: 170-181). An even more remarkable eastward incursion was documented in winter 1889-1890; five articles appeared in April–June 1890 issues of The Auk. It seems the birders of yesteryear were every bit as compulsive about their records as we are!
We think of Evening Grosbeaks, and finches generally, as seed eaters, based on what we observe of their feeding habits in the nonbreeding season, when most of us have the pleasure of their company. But during the breeding season, Evening Grosbeaks, like many other passerines, require insect matter to raise their young. And as it turns out, spruce budworms, both the Eastern and the Western species, are their preferred food at this time of year. Many birders are aware the outbreaks of these insects are linked to surges in populations of the “spruce budworm specialists,” warblers such as Cape May, Blackpoll, and Bay-breasted, which feed these insects to young, sometimes raising several broods per season. Populations of these species also increased sharply in the 1960s and 1970s, when the grosbeaks were last abundant in the East. And many ornithologists are of the opinion that the last big “irruptions” of Evening Grosbeaks in the East were a result of the extensive outbreak of Eastern Spruce Budworm (Choristoneura fumiferana) during that period.
There are hints, collected by eBird and by ABA’s North American Birds reporting networks, that counts of the spruce budworm warblers—and even of Evening Grosbeak—are increasing in the past year or two, most notably in the past few weeks! Could this be a result of a resurgence of spruce budworm over the past several years? News coming from the Canadian boreal forest, where many Evening Grosbeaks nest, suggests that it may well be. Just in the past two years, the area of defoliation caused by spruce budworms has almost doubled in some areas, mostly in mixed forests with plenty of White Spruce or Balsam Fir, the trees preferred by Eastern Spruce Budworms. Ontario had outbreaks reported around Manitoulin, Espanola, north of New Liskeard, and around Sault Ste. Marie. Southwestern Quebec has had a growing and relatively severe outbreak for at least five years now. Foresters in neighboring New Brunswick, where they have not been troubled by the pest since the mid-1980s, are monitoring border areas for signs of spread. To the west, the Eastern Spruce Budworm infestation in northern Alberta and Saskatchewan has continued to grow slowly over the past five years, despite programs of aerial pesticide spraying. Farther west, British Columbia’s forests, as around Kamloops, have suffered from a plague of Western Spruce Budworm (C. occidentalis), which defoliates Douglas-fir. (Another species, the Western Black-headed Budworm, is also active in the past few years in British Columbia.) Could the recent small, scattered “flights” of Evening Grosbeaks, spanning from the Upper Midwest to northern New England to Appalachia, be the first signs of another wave of this species, such as we saw in the beginning in the late 1950s?
Evidence of a budworm-fueled resurgence of grosbeaks comes from the southern Rocky Mountains in the past several years, too. After many years of apparent paucity at such well-birded locales as Rocky Mountain National Park, Evening Grosbeaks are suddenly “everywhere,” “easy to find,” even “abundant”—if you believe the listserves and other sources of birder chatter. David Leatherman, a well-known Colorado birder and professional entomologist, notes that an ongoing budworm outbreak may be at play here. Particularly interesting and sobering is that the southern Rockies’ massive die-off of Lodgepole Pine—widely thought to be caused by human activity—may be driving the budworm outbreak, but much more study is needed to confirm this suspicion.
In California, birders also witnessed an irruption of Evening Grosbeaks in fall 2010 “on a scale not seen since the late 1980s.” The flight began in September on the coast of northwestern California and the northern Central Valley and then spread quickly southward, reaching areas well south of San Francisco in October. West Coast irruptions of this sort, fairly frequent before 1990, were usually assumed to be of the grosbeak subspecies that nests in the high mountains of the state (brooksi). However, audio recordings of several 2010 grosbeaks from Santa Cruz County matched vocalizations given by birds that nest in the Pacific Northwest and throughout the northern Rockies, not those of California nesters. Could all of the birds seen in the California flight of 2010 have come from areas far to the north and northeast, where budworms had been very active? (And yes, like Red Crossbills, Evening Grosbeaks have distinctive Call Types. See: Sewall, K. B, T. R. Kelsey, and T. P. Hahn. 2004. Discrete variants of Evening Grosbeak flight calls. Condor 106: 161-165.) As is true of recent irruptions in the Northeast and the Rockies, the California flight involved much smaller numbers—in this case, about 600 birds were reported—than historical flights, but the geographic span of the flights has been similar.
In a provocative 1984 article entitled “How much is an Evening Grosbeak Worth?” (Journal of Forestry 82: 426-428), John Takekawa and Edward Garton argued that these “voracious” finches would prove a more effective, and cost-effective, way to control outbreaks of Western Spruce Budworm than to spray insecticides from the air, which cost about $1820 per square kilometer. Grosbeaks are free, unless they visit your feeding station. Unfortunately, few forestry officials have availed themselves of this wisdom, and campaigns that apply chemicals continue. And so it will be difficult, even impossible, to make sense of the ebb and flow of this great species’ populations in North America without suitable studies, ideally studies that examine the impact of budworms in very similar stands of treated and untreated forest.
Making the story of the population fluctuations of Evening Grosbeaks even more complex is the equally complex recent history of industrial land-use activities in its Canadian boreal forest breeding range. The scale of this industrial footprint—including forestry, oil and gas extraction, hydro-power, mining, and other activities—is immense, with approximately 180 million acres of the southern boreal forest already impacted. The forest in eastern Canada, the Maritime Provinces, and northern New England is now a changed landscape of much younger forests, often with fewer coniferous tree species than it had before the advent of industrial-scale logging activity. How these changes have affected or will affect populations of Evening Grosbeaks, other birds, and insects is uncertain, especially during the current period of rapid climate change. About 40% of Evening Grosbeak’s Canadian boreal breeding range overlaps with areas of intense industrial land-use activity—one of the highest proportions of any bird species. Only 9% of its Canadian boreal range lies within protected areas. Read more about this on the website of the Boreal Songbird Initiative.
Birders can contribute massively to our dim understanding of populations of Evening Grosbeaks by searching for them in appropriate habitats and seasons and submitting information to eBird. It’s helpful to include photographs in your checklists and whatever details on nesting and foraging you can provide. In that way, scientists trying to sort out the puzzle of this species’ changing distribution will have access to a large and informative database that includes clues on the phenology of migration and nesting.
In many ways, we know as little today about population instability in the Evening Grosbeak as we did a century ago. As Arthur Norton wrote in his article in The Auk:
It seems to require no draft upon the imagination, and no step into the realm of speculation, to realize that in this hasty review of this interesting history, we have seen the Evening Grosbeak, forced against the impassable barrier to its southern migration at the prairie region, slowly and steadily take its way eastward, to the Atlantic coast. Thus has our generation witnessed a species overflowing the bounds of its original habitat, and forming its route of migration along the line of congenial conditions as they exist today!
Time is replete with instances no less remarkable than this, but it is indeed rare that man is permitted to witness them in the making.
Norton’s words offer both caution and inspiration. On the one hand, the Evening Grosbeak story is complex. Unstable populations are an undeniable aspect of the species’ natural history, and our human understanding of the phenomenon has long been, and still is, rudimentary. We need to tread cautiously here. On the other hand, something remarkable is going on with Evening Grosbeaks right now. And today, as never before, we have the resources—both in terms of technology and widespread birder interest—to figure out, compellingly and definitively so, what is going on with Evening Grosbeaks. If you encounter this species in your birding, be sure to record accurately how many you saw, where you saw them, and maybe even try to work out which Call Type. And be sure to record your observations through eBird!