BRAINERD, MINN. – During these difficult times, the outdoors has become the place to be, a safe place so it seems. Thankfully, Minnesota has a lot to offer those willing to step outside.
Bird-watching, or birding as it is called, is more popular then ever. And this winter, birders are especially excited about an "invasion," or movement southward out of Canada, of evening grosbeaks, a large, heavyset, colorful and relatively tame member of the finch family.
I grew up on the north side of Brainerd. My family fed birds, as did many of our neighbors. Evening grosbeaks were common visitors to backyard feeders during winter, the males sporting attractive plumage of yellow, black and white. The females are striking, too, though more subtly plumed than the males.
As colorful as they are, evening grosbeaks were no big deal back in the 1960s and '70s. We watched them shell sunflower seeds, one after another, with their heavy, stout beaks, littering the snow with hulls as they fed. Grosbeaks are noisy birds, too, and can usually be heard emitting sweet chirps.
In the world of evening grosbeaks, a lot has changed in the past 50 years. Numbers of the popular bird have plummeted.
For example, I took the image on this page in 1995. As a wildlife photographer I, of course, spend a great deal of time outdoors. Since 1995 I have had zero opportunities to photograph evening grosbeaks in or around Brainerd. I own land south of town, land that I extensively manage for wildlife, which includes bird feeders. Still, no evening grosbeaks.
Admittedly, had I traveled north I could have found grosbeaks to photograph, but my point here is to demonstrate how scarce the birds have become in central Minnesota.
This winter might be different because of the "invasion." Evening grosbeaks are being spotted in locations outside of the normal range where at least a few show up each winter.
"We are definitely seeing more evening grosbeaks this winter," said Butch Ukura, an avid birder who lives near Deerwood. "The problem is, grosbeaks have been 'one-day wonders.' Here today, gone the next."
Evening grosbeaks are social but somewhat nomadic. They often wander widely in response to changing food supplies.
Ukura, 72, has been birding for about 50 years. He has not had evening grosbeaks at his feeders yet this winter but is remaining hopeful.
"Grosbeaks have been spotted in the Willmar area, and even in the metro, and last week near Garrison," Ukura said.
So, why the decline in evening grosbeaks, and why are the birds moving south in greater numbers this winter?
"Usually, a lack of natural food in Canada and northern Minnesota will send grosbeaks south," Ukura said. "Grosbeaks like the seeds of ash, box elder and maple trees."
As kids, my friends and I would wander through the wintry woods and look for ash and box elder seeds, or "helicopters" as we called them, lying on the snow. That told us evening grosbeaks had been feeding in the tree above and might possibly return.
The reason for the decline in evening grosbeak numbers over the years is something of a mystery. According to Ukura and various internet sources, some likely causes are salmonella, logging of spruce and tamarack bogs and the follow-up spraying of pesticides to control spruce budworm (a summer food of grosbeaks), and West Nile disease. It's possible, too, that modern forest management, which favors fast-growing trees such as aspen and pines, instead of the slower-growing, seed-producing trees like maple and box elder, also is a factor.
But there is hope more evening grosbeaks will show up this winter. In mid-December, during a Christmas bird count (CBC) held in the Sax-Zim Bog, a world-renowned birding location about an hour northwest of Duluth, 112 evening grosbeaks were spotted.
The CBC record of 203 evening grosbeaks dates to 1995, another "invasion" year.
The Sax-Zim Bog is a 300-square-mile spruce and tamarack lowland and is likely the best spot to find evening grosbeaks for those willing to travel. It is also a great location to view owls, in particular great gray owls and hawk owls, as well as many other birds and mammals. Bird feeders are located throughout the bog and are hot spots for finding evening grosbeaks and other colorful winter finches such as redpolls and pine grosbeaks.
If planning a trip to the bog, check out the website at www.saxzim.org. The welcome center is closed because of COVID restrictions.
I'm keeping my fingers crossed that evening grosbeaks will visit my yard this winter. Be aware they prefer black oil sunflower seeds dispensed in a platform-type feeder. If you're lucky enough to have grosbeak at your feeders, cherish the experience; it might be years before another "invasion" occurs.