Over the last month I have seen four different species of grosbeaks right here in Prescott! Not familiar with grosbeaks? The name says it all. This is a family of birds that is defined by a unique, shared trait — a massive beak, for cracking open nuts and seeds.
The most common species of grosbeak in the Prescott area is the black-headed grosbeak. It is a migratory bird that spends the summer in the intermountain west. At the higher elevations, this species of grosbeak starts to show up in Arizona around mid-April. Its summer range is mostly from the Rocky Mountains west to the Pacific Ocean.
Males are very handsome, with a striking pattern of black, white and orange plumage. They frequent backyard seed feeders where their preferred diet is both black oil and gray-striped sunflower seeds. I saw my first black-headed grosbeak of the year on April 22, on the tray feeder in my yard.
It was only a few days later, on April 25, when I saw my second grosbeak species of the year. This time it was a rose-breasted grosbeak, a rare visitor to Arizona. This is a species that winters down in the tropics of Central America, and summers at the northern latitudes of eastern North America, clear up into Canada.
The normal migration route for this species is east of the Rockies. However, every so often, one will get its directions mixed up and take a left when he should have taken a right.
Fortunately, the bird had enough sense to show up at one of our customer’s homes—and the customer just happens to be an accomplished birder. He sent out a rare-bird alert email, notifying fellow birders of his rare visitor. I went to his home the first day he reported it, but didn’t have any success in finding it. I went the next day, again with no luck. By day three, I just assumed the bird was long gone, so I didn’t even try to go see it.
Later in the day, I found out it was still there. On day four I went again—and success! What a beautiful specimen—a male in breeding plumage.
My next grosbeak species was on May 3, at Watson Woods and on the Peavine Trail. I went birding early one morning and it seemed as if there were blue grosbeaks everywhere! The males of this species spend a lot of time vocalizing and chasing one another as they try to create and defend a breeding territory. Blue grosbeaks are stunning birds—so pretty in the sunlight.
My fourth grosbeak sighting was this past weekend. Last Friday, I received an email from customers stating they had two evening grosbeaks in their yard—and they had pictures to prove it! This species of grosbeak is quite erratic in its occurrence.
There are some years where there will be a lot of them in the Prescott area and then we’ll go years without any sightings of them. Since I hadn’t seen any this year, I figured this was my best chance to see them. The customers called and invited me out to their home—but, unfortunately, I was at work and couldn’t get away.
However, the next morning I received a phone call at 6:21 a.m., informing me they had just seen the grosbeaks. I jumped in the car and raced to their home, and after about forty-five minutes of waiting, the two birds showed up at one of their seed feeders. Success! I just scored a grosbeak grand slam—four species in four weeks.
Until next week, Happy Birding, and be well!
Eric Moore is the owner of Jay’s Bird Barn, with two locations in northern Arizona—Prescott and Flagstaff. Eric has been an avid birder for over 50 years. If you have questions about wild birds that you would like discussed in future articles, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.