Just as ornithologists predicted, 2018 is shaping up to be a banner winter for a number of nomadic finches in the Northeast, especially Evening Grosbeaks. Having steadily declined as winter visitors since the 1970s, these predictably unpredictable birds are a welcome sight this year.
Irruption Years: Boom And Bust
Evening Grosbeaks, like several species of “winter finch”, rely on conifer seeds and berries whose yield in the wild (or “crop”) varies intensely from year to year. When cone and berry crops in certain areas of the boreal forest are strong, winter finches stay close to their breeding areas year-round. When cone and berry crops fail, winter finches become nomadic, sometimes moving hundreds of miles to the south and to lower elevations.
Even within the season, these birds move around a ton. After an historic number of Evening Grosbeak sightings this mid-November, things seem to have quieted down a bit. EBird records suggest that as many birds may have moved on from or even “overshot” Massachusetts and landed deeper into the mid-Atlantic. This is unlikely to last though—new pulses of irruptive species will continue into the winter and there is still plenty of finch forage left in the trees.
Misconceptions abound regarding Evening Grosbeaks’ status in Massachusetts, in part because this species’ distribution is in almost constant flux.
The last Breeding Bird Atlas showed these grosbeaks breeding in small but growing numbers in the western highlands of Massachusetts, despite a precipitous decline in winter observations statewide. Climate change is shifting the general range of this species northwards, and the prognosis for breeding grosbeaks in Massachusetts–which rely on climate-sensitive and declining conifer species– is grim. Indeed, eBird data suggest they may have already declined since the last atlas.
Birders who were around in the 1960s and 70s often fondly remember the times when Evening Grosbeaks were abundant every couple of winters. It’s a popular misconception that this species was naturally abundant in Massachusetts, and that climate change alone is responsible for their shifting status.
In fact, breeding Evening Grosbeaks were historically restricted to northwestern North America. Their population slowly advanced south and east during the latter half of the 19th century until a significant irruption brought them into the northeast in 1890. The 1890 irruption carried them as far east as Revere Beach, and in subsequent winters, the birds returned in larger and larger numbers. Nearly 14,000 Evening Grosbeaks were recorded in the 1972 Christmas Bird Count, but in the 1990s and 2000s, their winter range shifted away from Massachusetts dramatically– despite a modest increase in local breeders.
This Year’s Conditions
Winter finch irruptions do not only reflect a snapshot of food availability in the current year, but are affected by longer-term trends. For example, 2017 was an excellent year for cone crops in Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec, leading to increased reproductive success for seed-eating birds. This year, winter finch numbers are high as a result– in a year when food happens to be scarce.
This makes it a particularly good year to put out black-oil sunflower seeds, Evening Grosbeaks’ birdseed-of-choice. While many Evening Grosbeaks have been reported eating crabapples and ornamental tree fruits this winter, they’ve also been showing up in strong numbers at feeders.
Check out Your Great Outdoors for more information on this year’s winter finch irruption!