I enjoy watching the birds at my feeders, but this was a much more entertaining activity in the mid-1990s when I first began feeding birds.
I suppose immediate success can spoil us. For several consecutive winter seasons in the 1990s, I hosted Evening Grosbeaks at my feeders. These large, sociable songbirds travel in flocks, but those visiting my yard and feeders tended to travel in small flocks.
I have observed large flocks of Evening Grosbeaks at homes in Hampton and Roan Mountain, but those experiences took place back in the 1990s.
I still remember the first time these large, chunky finches arrived, literally just outside my bedroom window. That was back in November of 1993, but I still recall the incident quite clearly. I was still in bed when I heard some unusual bird sounds that I could not recognize. I lifted the window shade and stared through the glass at a flock of parrots.
Well, that was my first impression. About a dozen or so large yellow songbirds fought with each other for dominance in the “pecking order” hierarchy at my feeders, which were well-stocked with sunflower seed. As I looked closer at them, I realized that they also possessed white and chocolate brown feathers in addition to the bright yellow plumage. Of course, I am describing the male Evening Grosbeak. The female is more subdued with hues of olive, gray and pale yellow in her plumage. These hungry birds quickly emptied my small hanging feeders. The stout bill of an Evening Grosbeak is quite efficient at hulling sunflower seeds.
Large and brightly colored, the Evening Grosbeak is an unmistakable winter visitor to bird feeders during irruption years. When a flock of Evening Grosbeaks settles down to feed, it can consume a surprisingly large amount of sunflower seeds in a brief visit.
After that initial introduction to Evening Grosbeaks in November of 1993, I didn’t see them again until the winter of 1995-96, when I got re-introduced to this large finch. In November of 1995, a flock of a couple of dozen Evening Grosbeaks visited my home and feeders for about a week. Unfortunately, the Evening Grosbeaks never lingered during these visits to my home.
In February of 1996, I visited the residence of Jack Tolley in the Piney Grove community of Hampton. He was playing host to a couple hundred Evening Grosbeaks, which were voraciously consuming sunflower seed almost faster than he could supply it. He used garbage can lids attached to the railing of his deck as feeders to accommodate the sizable flock.
He had hosted them during previous winters and, in fact, a female Evening Grosbeak once lingered into July at his feeders.
A couple of years later, I visited Hummingbird Hill on Roan Mountain to observe a large flock of Evening Grosbeaks visiting at feeders at some of the cabins at that location. Then, at almost the same time as the arrival of the new millennium, the Evening Grosbeaks simply ceased to visit Northeast Tennessee.
A few birds have been reported sporadically since 2000, but no one to my knowledge has hosted the large flocks again.
I last saw an Evening Grosbeak in 2000 in the Burbank community of Roan Mountain. These large, noisy and conspicuous finches have simply not visited in the last 12 years. At the start of each winter season, I am hopeful that this might be the year the Evening Grosbeaks return. So far, that’s not been the case.
No one is quite sure what’s happened to interrupt what used to be somewhat regular winter visits of Evening Grosbeaks to Northeast Tennessee. The birds have declined over much of their range, and their expansion from their western origins into territory in the eastern United States was probably fueled by the availability of bird feeders and the planting of some seed-producing trees favored by these birds.
The Project FeederWatch Blog, run by personnel associated with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, confirms that the Evening Grosbeak — once one of the most common winter visitors to bird feeders across North America — is becoming less common. The Evening Grosbeak is an irruptive migrant, occasionally moving out of its boreal and montane breeding ares to winter at lower latitudes and elevations. These yearly fluctuations have been documented by participants of Project FeederWatch, allowing researchers at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to track changes in the abundance and distribution of the species. According to a recent study, reports of Evening Grosbeaks at FeederWatch sites declined by 50 percent between 1988 and 2006. At sites where Evening Grosbeaks continue to be reported, average flock size had decreased by 27 percent.
Unfortunately, even the bloggers at FeederWatch remain baffled by the cause of the decline, noting that the factors behind the decreases noted in Evening Grosbeak abundance are still not clear.
Whatever the reason, I certainly miss them. So far this winter, I haven’t hosted any Pine Siskins or Purple Finches. These, like the Evening Grosbeak, are also classified with the irruptive finches that sometimes move south in great numbers. Over the years, I have hosted some large flocks of Pine Siskins. Some of the flocks consisted of as many as 75 to 100 individuals. When joined by large numbers of American Goldfinches, they can certainly make quite the impression at feeders.
My childhood memories offer up the examples of Northern Bobwhite and Whip-Poor-Will. These birds, which were common when I was growing up on Simerly Creek Road in Hampton, are now definitely scarce.
There were probably Evening Grosbeaks around during my childhood, but I didn’t notice them at the time. The Evening Grosbeak is the only bird that has vanished from the region since I began birding in the early 1990s. Perhaps their absence from the winter landscape is a temporary thing. I hope so. Anyone who has ever hosted these colorful songbirds will probably agree that they certainly brighten a winter’s day.
I enjoyed a recent stroll on the trails at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park. I didn’t see a great variety of birds, but I got some good looks at a few. The best observation involved a Hermit Thrush eating some purple berries from a shrub.
The Hermit Thrush is our winter thrush in Northeast Tennessee. When the Veery and Wood Thrush depart in the fall, the Hermit Thrush arrives.
The Hermit Thrush breeds in coniferous or mixed woodlands across Canada, Alaska and the northeastern and western United States. In addition, a few Hermit Thrushes spend the breeding season on Roan Mountain each summer, often in the vicinity of the Roan Mountain Botanical Gardens.
This thrush spends the winter months in the southern United States, with some going as far south as Central America. A few hardy individuals occasionally try to tough out conditions in the northeastern United States.
The Hermit Thrush has also received official recognition as the state bird for Vermont.
The Hermit Thrush is more known for its song than its appearance. The song, often vocalized for high perches, is flute-like and quite haunting. The song of the Hermit Thrush has inspired several well-known poets, including Walt Whitman.
I have had better luck at getting good looks at this thrush, which seems slightly less retiring and shy than such relatives as the Veery and Wood Thrush.
I also saw a Great Blue Heron standing sentry duty on a fallen log in the Watauga River, as well as four Mallards and four Buffleheads swimming in the river.
This past weekend I also discovered an American Kestrel perched in a tree near the Bell Cemetery in the Limestone Cove community of Unicoi County. The fields around the cemetery are a great place to search for Wild Turkeys, but they also provide suitable habitat for open country birds such as Eastern Bluebirds, Chipping Sparrows, Eastern Meadowlarks and the occasional kestrel. It’s been at least a couple of years, however, since I last found an American Kestrel at this location.
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