Evening grosbeaks, like this male at Harriman State Park, are a treat to see any time.
As I pulled into a parking space at Harriman State Park for Heritage Days last week, a small flock of birds flushed from the gravel. I didn’t pay them much mind at first, thinking instead how to best set up my display to sell a few more copies of my book. But then a flash of color caught my eye and I reached for the binoculars.
Suddenly, they weren’t just birds, they were evening grosbeaks, handsomely attired in yellow, black and white. My mind immediately retrieved a memory of my first encounter with evening grosbeaks at a birdfeeder on my deck in Kamiah, on the Clearwater River of North Idaho. Since then, I have only seen evening grosbeaks on occasion, making each chance meeting a special pleasure.
I watched these birds as they hunted for just the right gravel pieces to aid in digestion or perhaps seeds wedged in and among the gravel. They weren’t especially shy and allowed me to grab a couple of quick photos.
From the accompanying photo, it is pretty easy to see where grosbeaks get their name. All grosbeaks have enormous bills for their size. The bill is conical and thick, capable of crushing seeds far larger than other seedeaters, such as pine siskins and redpolls, can handle. Smaller seed eaters often follow evening grosbeaks at feeders to glean from their scraps.
Grosbeaks are members of the finch family, but are far more heavy-bodied than most finches. The male is the more colorful of the sexes, with a dark head, yellow eye stripe, yellow chest and white wing patches on black wings. Females and juveniles are mostly gray with black and white wings. They also have a greenish bill while the male’s bill is lighter colored.
Evening grosbeaks are western birds and were once rare east of the Rocky Mountains. But during the late 1800s, each successive winter found them a little further east. By 1910 they had reached Rhode Island. For many years evening grosbeaks enjoyed prosperity in the east. However, over the last 50 years evening grosbeak numbers have declined. Scientists have documented a 97% decline in eastern populations but can only speculate on the cause.
I have often wondered why my success in seeing evening grosbeaks has been so sporadic. It turns out that it isn’t just me. These birds are gregarious, often moving in large flocks. So, seeing them is a sort of feast or famine. You may see a large group or nothing at all.
They mostly forage at the tops of tall coniferous trees looking for insects. They are particularly fond of spruce budworm and the presence of many evening grosbeaks is often a harbinger of a spruce budworm outbreak. However, it is difficult to see them at the tops of the trees.
Finally, they are notorious for their wandering habit. They may visit a bird feeder one winter and then not again for several years. Evening grosbeaks may spend all year in Eastern Idaho, never really migrating, but in the eastern states, they are considered irruptive, showing up in great numbers some years and are scarce in others.
I look forward to each and every encounter I have with the pretty evening grosbeak. I won’t hold my breath waiting for the next time though.
Wildlife License Plates
Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.
No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.
Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.
Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program. Go figure.
"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson
That is embarrassing but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), The Best of Nature is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.
Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.
Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.
"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman
"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.
To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version
Copies are also available at:
Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls
Idaho Falls Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center (425 Capital)
Perfect Light Photo Supply
Museum of Idaho
Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming
Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah
Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho