Reader reports rare sighting of rose-breasted grosbeak

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By Sylvia Brockner

A phone call from a reader of this column on Thursday, July 12, brought some exciting news. The call was from Susan Pellegrini, who lives out Brook Forest Drive. She was calling to tell me she had seen her first rose-breasted grosbeak at her feeder. It was an adult male, not all that unusual in itself, but it was the date that excited me.

Rose-breasted grosbeaks are seen almost every spring in small numbers as they migrate through this area on their way north. They are otherwise birds of the Eastern deciduous woodlands. They usually appear here in late May and sometimes linger for about a week before they move north.
I have usually seen them in oak trees when their dangling flowers are in bloom. I have always felt that the ones that went through here probably continued on due north until they reached the many oak trees around Edmonton.
Unfortunately, I was never able to band one of our birds and even if I had, it would have been highly unlikely that it would be recovered in Canada, so I have no actual proof that shows where these birds go. But I do know they did not stay here, and the latest date they were seen in the area was June 10. Now we have a record of an adult male rose-breasted grosbeak on July 11.
This is an amazing record because by July, this bird should be nesting. So far, no one has seen it with a mate, but perhaps Susan will if it continues to come to her feeder. The rose-breasted grosbeak is very closely related to the black-headed grosbeak. They are in the same genus, which means they could possibly mate, and there are records of hybrids.
Perhaps this male arrived here too late to continue on, found a black-headed female that was ready to mate, and are nesting nearby. It will be interesting to see if he turns up at the feeder with young.
The adult male rose-breasted grosbeak has a large brilliant rose-colored triangular patch on its breast. It is a magnificent bird with this blaze of rose on its breast wing, emphasized by their otherwise black-and-white plumage. Also when in flight, you can see that some of this same rose color is present in the underwing coverts.
The female rose-breasted grosbeak looks much like the female black-headed grosbeak except that her supercillium (eye line) is white and the black-headed’s is buffy.
The underwing coverts on the black-headed grosbeak are yellow. These are difficult birds to tell apart, and if the young are hybrids, they will be even more difficult to identify. If they do come to Susan’s feeder, we must get some of the experts to see them for a positive identification.
I saw a hybrid one spring many years ago at Red Rocks Park. It was confirmed by Bill and many others, who were on a Denver Field Ornothologists trip. It looked like a highly colored female black-headed grosbeak except for a very white eye line and a distinguishable triangular area on the breast that was the deep orange of the black-headed grosbeak.
Otherwise it was a funny-looking black-headed grosbeak that didn’t quite fit any description of that bird. I hope someone can see these birds, if the young do come to her feeder.
Young black-headed grosbeaks are already at my feeders. They were a bit early this year, probably due to our very warm early spring. They usually come in late July and early August. They are one of the earliest fall migrants, usually leaving here in mid-August.
If you see any unusual bird, try to get someone to come see it. If that’s not possible, study it carefully and draw what you see. It doesn’t have to be a work of art. Just mark the field marks that you see, such as white supercillium or red arm pits. Don’t think that you don’t need to do this because you will remember. You won’t, or you will be confused or unsure.
I have been finding it interesting to see the differences among the four young black-headed grosbeaks coming to my feeder now with their parents. You wouldn’t think there could be such variation, but there is quite a bit among the six birds.