Monday, January 13, 2020

Cracking The Code of The Rebus: A Band Return For an Evening Grosbeak

Do you get to see Evening Grosbeaks often? I don't. I haven't seen one in years. The lowlands of the South Bay are, unsurprisingly, a poor place to live if you want to encounter this charismatic species very often. A quick check of eBird confirms my already dire suspicions...I haven't seen an Evening Grosbeak since 2013, when I made a rare foray into my now current county to see them in suburban Sunnyvale.

2013? Good lord. It has been too long.

But the winter of 2019-2020 has not been like most other winters. It has been an invasion year for Red Crossbills and Evening Grosbeaks in much of California, and as the old saying goes, I was "on heightened alert due to the Grosbeaks". You may not remember that one, but I assure you it's a thing. Luckily I was not the only one on heightened alert, and local birders found a flock of grosbeaks in downtown Los Altos, where they settled down and were too good to pass up. 

As you have already figured out, I found them. After some mixed success with getting looks at the flock, I stumbled on to the main group of birds while walking back to my car a few blocks away. No birders were there, no people on the street asked me what I was doing, and cops ignored me as I tried to crush the brazen grosbeaks raining down berries upon me from low overhead. It's rare to be birding around tons of people and not get interrupted, so I had a particularly excellent time.

This is what Evening Grosbeak habitat looks like in Los Altos. It's a weird place to be birdwatching.

The name of the Evening Grosbeak game around here is Chinese pistache, an ornamental tree commonly planted in the area that get fully loaded with berries in late fall and early winter. Lots of birds love pistache berries, including the grosbeaks. Just look at this glutton.

After my time with this gripping little flock, I was sated. Fingers crossed to not wait another six years to see them again.

But the good grosbeak times did not stop when I left the birds behind. Several days later I uploaded my photos and was shocked to plainly see a band on a female I had taken quite a few pictures of.

Finding bands on birds is always fun, but finding a band on a passerine someplace where there is no banding going on is almost unheard of. I also had no idea the bird was banded while I was taking pictures of embarrassing.

A few days later, Friend of The Blog David Tomb contacted me and told me had refound the banded bird. This is what finally got me to actually look closely at the band...I had assumed that there was no way I had good enough photos of the band that the entire code could be readable. USFWS songbird bands are tiny and definitely not meant to be read while the bird wearing it is moving around uninhibited.

I was wrong.

I was shocked, again, to find that I could make out 8 consecutive digits of the band numbers in my photos. That's not supposed to happen. Then another thing that wasn't supposed to happen a Hail Mary check of eBird photos, I found that one other observer had put up a photo of the banded bird. The one and only number she could make out was the one I was missing. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

Lo and behold, I had somehow gotten the entire band number of a tiny band I had no idea was there when I was staring right at it. This is not how it is supposed to go. I got the banding info immediately, and there it is. The bird is from western Oregon, or at least spent time there in the past, which makes it presumably a Type 1 Evening Grosbeak, as opposed to the Type 2s that are found in the Sierras. It's not a young bird either! 

Pretty chuffed about the whole thing - I might never recover a songbird band in this manner ever again!

I will leave you with a fitting passage on Evening Grosbeaks, from the inimitable William Leon Dawson, back in 1923:

His garb is a patchwork; his song a series of shrieks; his motions eccentric; his humor phlegmatic; and his concepts beyond the kin of man. Although at times one of the most approachable of birds, he is, on the whole, an avian freak, a rebus in feathers.


  1. This is super cool! I bet you made that bander's day.

    1. If this did not make the day of "Dr. RICHARD D BENEDICT" then nothing can.

  2. That's fantastic. I band larger birds "upside down" for this very reason. I've managed partial reads on a number of birds over the years, but nothing complete other than gulls and goose. Incidentally, there were loads of Type 1 EVGR around Tahoe this fall, the most I can recall.

    1. Wise! Partial reads are so frustrating...I was positive that's all I would get with this.

  3. once or twice a year, I get locally uncommon songbirds stopping for a bath, drink and brief rest. I often get only seconds of viewing, and have no camera, however this teaches me to CHECK FOR BANDS in case I could pass on the BOTL alert. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot indeed.

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