Tag Archives: Rose-breasted Grosbeaks

Migrating rose-breasted grosbeaks thrill observers with recent visits

Photo provided by Shannon Stimson • A male rose-breasted grosbeak checks out some well-stocked feeders.

They’re not as dependable as ruby-throated hummingbirds, but they are every bit as impressive. Of course, I am referring to rose-breasted grosbeaks, which have been delighted people across the eastern half of the United States for the past couple of weeks.

Among these grosbeaks, it’s the male that wears the exquisite apparel. Males have a black head, wings, back and tail, with a bright splash of rose coloring across the front of their breast. Males and females exhibit marked sexual dimorphism, which is simply a scientific way of saying that males and females are quite different in their appearance.

The female rose-breasted grosbeak lacks the male’s showy plumage. She could easily be mistaken for a large, chunky sparrow with her brown, streaked feathers. She does have the large beak in common with the male. In fact, the term “grosbeak” is derived from German and simply means “big beak.” Incidentally, I’m told by bird banders that rose-breasted grosbeaks can give a nasty nip with that sizable and sturdy beak.

My email in-box and my Facebook page have been active this migration season with reports from people eager to share observations of these showy songbirds.

Carla Honaker sent me an email on Monday, April 27, about visiting rose-breasted grosbeaks.

“Two days ago I ran out of bird seed and changed from a mix to a black oil seed,” Carla reported. “I had heavy bird traffic yesterday and this morning my mother went over to open the blind that faces the front yard where the bird feeder hangs on a limb in a dogwood tree. To her surprise, there was a rose-breasted grosbeak sitting on the feeder eating the sunflower seeds.”

Understandably, Carla and her mother were very excited to see this unknown visitor at the feeder. Curious about the bird’s identity, Carla used the app Cornell Lab Merlin and made the identification.

Photo by Paintspreader/Pixabay.com • Male rose-breasted grosbeaks provide a jolt of excitement during migratory stopovers in yards and gardens throughout the eastern United States every spring.

Carla said the grosbeak stayed around for a few more minutes, long enough for her to take a picture of the side of his wing and back and tail.

She also had a question, asking if there are many rose-breasted grosbeaks in this area and whether there is a chance he will be a regular at her feeder.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male rose-breasted grosbeak perches in a tree on Roan Mountain in Tennessee.

Alas, rose-breasted grosbeaks are usually only spring and fall migrants unless one lives in the higher elevations of some of our local mountains. Visit area mountains in summer if you want to see these birds away from your feeders. They’re still fairly common in the region, but sadly, their numbers have declined overall.

I also let Carla know that grosbeaks are very fond of sunflower seed, so changing the mixed seed to black oil sunflower was probably helpful in attracting the visitor.

Elizabeth “Liz” Wynacht, who lives outside Atlanta in the town of Roswell, Georgia, also shared her own rose-breasted grosbeak story in an email she sent to me on Wednesday, April 29.

Elizabeth provided some interesting background to preface her story. “A few years ago, I looked up and saw this bright red “kiss” on this creamy colored breast of a bird,” she wrote. “I ran in to get my camera but he was gone when I got back. After researching what I thought I saw, my guess was a grosbeak. I have been looking for him ever since.”

Photo Provided by Byron Tucker • A male rose-breasted grosbeak squares off with a red-bellied woodpecker in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia.

After a couple of years, her wait ended. “This past Friday, while sitting on my porch, I looked up from my phone, and I saw that beautiful red kiss coming toward the feeder,” she wrote. “Of course, my movement startled him and he flew away.”

Once again, she fetched her camera and waited. Liz reported that the male grosbeak showed up again along with his little wife. They visited for three days.

“He was a wonderful surprise in the midst of this crazy pandemic,” Liz wrote. “Really lifts the spirit to see such a beautiful bird.”

Shannon Stimson sent me an email on Monday, May 4, with some attached photos of male rose-breasted grosbeaks. “I had three males at my feeders two days ago followed by one female,” Shannon wrote. “One male that looked less mature stayed on for two days gorging on nuts and seeds for hours and engaging in a slight disagreement with a red-headed woodpecker over possession of the feeder.”

Sadly, Shannon reported that the grosbeaks moved on, but noted that their visit brought a great deal of cheer in this isolating time.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A rose-breasted grosbeak finds a meal of sunflower seeds at a feeder.

Kaylynn Wilster, who lives in Jonesborough, Tennessee, emailed me on Thursday, April 30, about her own rose-breasted grosbeak sighting. “He was not afraid of me and let me walk around the yard,” she wrote.

The very same day that Kaylynn saw her grosbeak, I looked out my window and saw one at my feeders. There had been a storm the previous night, so I suspect that helped “persuade” the bird to visit.

I posted on Facebook about my sighting and several friends shared their own.

“I was just reading an old article of yours about rose-breasted grosbeaks and, lo and behold, I have a flock of them hanging out on my feeders for the first time ever,” wrote Mary Ragland in a Facebook message to me.

Carolyn Grubb in Washington County, Virginia, reported seeing one.

Amy Wallin Tipton, who lives in Unicoi County, Tennessee, reported that her parents had been hosting a male and female rose-breasted grosbeak for the past two days.

James and Pattie Rowland, of Erwin, Tennessee, also reported on Facebook sightings of rose-breasted grosbeaks.

Keep the reports coming. If nothing else, sharing bird sightings is a way to feel less socially distant from others.

Photo Provided by Elizabeth “Liz” Wynacht  • A male rose-breasted grosbeak visits a feeder in a suburban area near Atlanta, Georgia.

Hummingbirds not the only birds returning to region as spring migration advances

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Ruby-throated Hummingbird perches on a sugar water feeder.

A voiceover for a promotional trailer for an upcoming movie in the Jurassic Park franchise asks the question “Do you remember the first time you saw a dinosaur?” and answers it with the sentence “The first time you see them, it’s like a miracle!”

Obviously, dinosaurs aren’t walking the earth — except in this highly successful movie franchise — although experts maintain that dinosaurian descendants (birds) still roam the world.

Dinosaurs, of course, have impressed humans with immense size ever since their enormous fossils began to be uncovered. Hummingbirds also impress with size, or rather the lack of it. It’s that tiny size that has prompted people to describe them as “miracles” from the time the first European explorers sailed to the New World in the late 1400s. When Spanish explorers first encountered them, they had no equivalent birds in Europe to use as a reference. They referred to hummingbirds as “joyas voladoras,” or flying jewels.

So, how many remember their first sighting of a hummingbird? These tiny birds, still accurately and often described as flying gems, are worthy of the word “miracle” being used to define them. When we see the ruby-throated hummingbirds return to the region every spring, our belief in miracles is strengthened.

I still have readers sharing reports of their first hummingbird sightings this spring.

• Marty Huber and Jo Ann Detta in Abingdon, Virginia, sent me an email about their first spring hummingbird sighting.

They reported that they got their first look at a spring hummingbird on April 18 at 5:04 p.m. “We were excited and have been looking since the beginning of the month,” they wrote. “Last year we didn’t see our first until April 23.”

• Ed and Rebecca Feaster of Piney Flats, Tennessee, put out their feeders after reading one of my columns earlier in April.

“We are happy to report that we saw a little female ruby-throated hummer on the morning of April 20,” they wrote in their email. “We were thankful to offer her nectar as she seemed very, very hungry!”

The Feasters noted that they have been in the Tri-Cities area for three years.

They had previously lived more than 20 years in the Roanoke Valley. “Birders in that area said to look for the hummers to arrive when the azaleas bloom,” they wrote. “The same seems to hold true here as the ones around our home began to blossom just a couple days ago.”

• Jane Arnold, a resident of Bristol, Virginia, sent me an email about her first hummer sighting.

“Just wanted to let you know that my first hummer of the year arrived at 10:20 a.m. Saturday, April 21,” she wrote. “I was so excited to see him! I had taken my feeder out to hang (it was sitting on a table) and [the hummingbird] flew to it.”

• Don and Donna Morrell emailed me with their first hummingbird sighting of spring. “My wife Donna and I saw our first hummingbirds on April 22,” Don wrote.

The Morrells saw both a male and female hummingbird. “We are located behind South Holston Dam,” Don added. “We are glad our friends are back. Also on that same day we saw an eagle and white crane.”

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A migrating Great Egret makes a stop at a golf course pond.

Most likely the white crane was a great egret, which is also migrating through the region right now. Although often called cranes, egrets are part of the family of wading birds that includes herons. North America’s true cranes are the endangered whooping crane and the sandhill crane.

• Facebook friend Sherry Thacker reported a first sighting of a ruby-throated hummingbird on April 22.

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Photo Courtesy of Helen Whited • A Baltimore Oriole visits a feeder “baited” with an orange slice.

“It came looking at the thistle seed feeder that is red,” she reported. “I had not put up the sugar water feeder, but I did today.”

Sherry reported seeing some beautiful hummingbirds last year.

Of course, we are in the midst of spring migration, which means hummingbirds are hardly the only new arrivals.

• Helen Whited in Abingdon, Virginia, has seen two very brightly-colored species of birds pass through her yard this spring. On April 17, her feeders were visited by male rose-breasted grosbeaks. “I am so excited to see my first grosbeaks,” she shared in an email that also contained a photo featuring two of the visiting grosbeaks. On April 21, Helen sent me another email with a photo of a male Baltimore oriole visiting a specially designed feeder made to hold orange slices to attract fruit-loving orioles. Grosbeaks and orioles are two migrant species of birds that deliver splashes of tropical color to the region each year.

Helen had prepared for the visit by the Baltimore oriole. In an email from last year, she had told me that her husband had promised her an oriole feeder for her birthday. I’m glad she’s been able to report success in bringing one of these bright orange and black birds to her yard.

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Photo Courtesy of Helen Whited • A pair of Rose-breasted grosbeaks take turns visiting a feeder.

• Anita Huffman of Rugby, Virginia, saw a male rose-breasted grosbeak on April 22. She reported her sighting on Bristol-Birds, a network for sharing postings about bird observations in the region.

• John Harty, a resident of Bristol, Tennessee, sought my help with identifying a new bird in his yard. Based on his description of the bird — the shape of a robin, reddish-brown coloration and a taste for suet cakes at John’s feeder — I suggested that his bird was probably a brown thrasher.

Brown thrashers returned to my home in late March and almost immediately sought out my suet feeders. Other recent arrivals have included several warblers — hooded, black-throated green and black-and-white — as well as tree swallows, which immediately got down to the business of selecting a nesting box. All of these birds nest in the gardens and woods around my home.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Brown Thrasher perched in a Mimosa Tree.

Some birds, however, announce their arrival not with bright colors but with beautiful songs. On April 23, I listened as a wood thrush sang its flute-like song from the edge of the woods just outside my bedroom window. The sweet song of this thrush is one of my favorite sounds of spring.

Every bird is a miracle, whether you’re seeing or hearing them for the first time or welcoming them back for another spring and summer season.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • The Wood Thrush often sings its flute-like song from deep under cover in dense woodlands.

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks provide splash of springtime excitement

 

Other than Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, the one bird whose return in the spring is guaranteed to generate excitement is the Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Every spring, I get phone calls and emails from people wanting to share the thrill of seeing these vibrant birds in their back yards.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A Rose-breasted Grosbeak finds a meal of sunflower seeds at a feeder.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A Rose-breasted Grosbeak finds a meal of sunflower seeds at a feeder.

The spring arrival of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks is a temporary visit. Finding the arrangements, which can consist of well-stocked feeders and perhaps a convenient water source, the migrating birds may linger for several days. These birds nest at higher elevations, however, and are usually impatient to continue the journey to where they will spend the summer months tending to their young.

This year, my first Rose-breasted Grosbeak arrived at my home on Simerly Creek Road in Hampton around 3:30 p.m. on Friday, April 25. I saw a glimpse of black and white with a hint of red that lifted my spirits instantly. I had been hoping for about a week that migrating grosbeaks would visit as they often do in the spring. The lone male settled onto a small hanging feeder and began enjoying an offering of black-oil sunflower seeds. He made repeated trips throughout the afternoon and evening, allowing me to take several photos through a window.

Some of my posted photos drew enthusiastic comments from my Facebook friends. Dani Sue Thompson shared that the beautiful Rose-breasted Grosbeak is one of her favorite birds. Her mother, the late Donna Adams, was a huge fan of the related Blue Grosbeak, which is a less common visitor to Northeast Tennessee than the related Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Donna and I share many a grosbeak story over the years.

Byron Tucker, a friend from Atlanta, notified me on Facebook the day before the Rose-breasted Grosbeak arrived at my home that he was hosting them in Georgia. From a single bird to a flock of three males and three females, these visitors were a first for Byron. He was excited to host these colorful birds for several days at his feeders.

Photo Courtesy of Byron Tucker A Rose-breasted Grosbeak joins a Red-bellied Woodpecker at a feeder in Atlanta.

Photo Courtesy of Byron Tucker
A Rose-breasted Grosbeak joins a Red-bellied Woodpecker at a feeder in Atlanta.

Single birds are occasionally the first to arrive, but Rose-breasted Grosbeaks do form flocks when migrating. Even if a scout shows up alone at your feeders, he will often soon be joined by other grosbeaks. My recent visit by a single male led to two and then three males visiting the feeders. Eventually a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak also made an appearance.

Plenty of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks pass through Northeast Tennessee, and a few even decide to make mountains like Unaka, Holston and Roan their home for the summer. However, these birds spread out widely across the eastern half of the North American continent, ranging from northeastern British Columbia to Quebec and Nova Scotia in Canada. They also range south from New Jersey to Georgia. The Rose-breasted Grosbeak also reaches Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas.

For the most part, however, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak is replaced in the western United States by the closely related Black-headed Grosbeak.

As fall approaches, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak migrates south to a winter range that spans central Mexico, Central America and northern South America. As they depart, many of these migrating birds will make autumn visits to again partake of offerings of sunflower seeds at backyard feeders. So, if you don’t get to see these showy birds in the spring, you get another chance in September and October.

The male Rose-breasted Grosbeak gives this species it name. Males are the epitome of the birds that make their home for part of the year in the American tropics. The contrasting black and white plumage is emphasized by a triangular slash of rosy-red color on the breast. Put all those elements together and the male Rose-breasted Grosbeak is not a bird that would be mistaken for any other.

The female grosbeak, however, doesn’t quite stand out in the same way. She is much less colorful than the male. With her brown and white plumage, she is often mistaken for a large sparrow or finch.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A young male Rose-breasted Grosbeak visits a feeder in September of 2013. Young males resemble females but show a splash of orange on the breast that will be replaced the following spring by the familiar rosy-red patch.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A young male Rose-breasted Grosbeak visits a feeder in September of 2013. Young males resemble females but show a splash of orange on the breast that will be replaced the following spring by the familiar rosy-red patch.

Both sexes have a massive bill, which they use to hull sunflower seeds at feeders or glean insects from leaves and branches. It’s the heavy, blunt bill for which the term “grosbeak” is derived. “Gros” is a German term for large or big, so grosbeak simply means a large-beaked bird. People who band birds to further the study of them will tell you that Rose-breasted Grosbeaks have a wicked bite and are capable of delivering quite a nip. In Northeast Tennessee, bird banders frequently encounter Rose-breasted Grosbeaks in their mist nets — and bear the scars to prove it.

With some birds, males play only a minor role in the nesting process. That’s not the case with the Rose-breasted Grosbeak male. The males help with nest-building chores and share responsibility with the female for incubating the eggs.

The female lays three to five eggs in a cup-shaped nest. It’s not easy to locate the nests since the birds usually place them in trees at least 20 feet above the ground. Within two weeks, the eggs have hatched and the parents are kept extremely busy finding enough food to satisfy the voracious nestlings. Well fed by both parents, the young grow quickly and usually are ready to leave the nest within 12 days. Often, when a first brood of young departs the nest, the male will care for the rowdy group of fledglings as the female starts a second nest to capitalize on the long days of summer.

Away from our feeders, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks feed on insects, seeds, fruit and even some leaf buds and flowers. I’ve seen these birds satisfying a sweet tooth — or should that be sweet beak? — by feeding on jewelweed flowers and apple blossoms. If sugar’s good for hummingbirds, I am sure it is a valuable energy source for Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, too.

The Rose-breasted Grosbeak is a cherished spring visitor that never fails to disappoint by bringing a hint of the tropics to the mountains of Northeast Tennessee. I’m hoping many readers are also enjoying their own opportunities for hosting this delightful songbird.

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The bird walk at Tipton-Haynes Historic Site on Saturday, April 26, yielded a good range of birds, including American Robin, House Wren, Cardinal, Song Sparrow, Carolina Chickadee, American Goldfinch, Tufted Titmouse, Crow, Canada Goose, Chimney Swift, Brown Thrasher, Barn Swallow, Eastern Towhee, European Starling, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Chipping Sparrow, Mallard, Red-winged Blackbird, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Turkey Vulture, Black Vulture, Northern Flicker, Grackle, Gray Catbird, Blue Jay, Mourning Dove and Eastern Bluebird.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A pair of Brown Thrashers provided quite a show for attendees at a recent bird walk at Tipton-Haynes Historic Site.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A pair of Brown Thrashers provided quite a show for attendees at a recent bird walk at Tipton-Haynes Historic Site.

Attending the walk were Heather Jones, Charles Moore, David Thometz and myself. We enjoyed perfect spring weather and also admired the many wildflowers in the gardens and woodlands at the Johnson City historic site.

Members of the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society will also hold a bird walk at 8 a.m. on Saturday, May 10, at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton. This walk is held in honor of International Migratory Bird Day and should provide participants with an excellent opportunity for seeing some fine birds.

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I enjoy hearing from readers. Share a sighting, ask a question or make a comment by emailing me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or posting to my Facebook page.

Photo by Bryan Stevens The Rose-breasted Grosbeak never fails to impress.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
The Rose-breasted Grosbeak never fails to impress.