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ANHC Staff Chase Rare Birds

Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission - Thursday, December 17, 2020

In November, two exceptionally rare birds in Arkansas — evening grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus) and fork-tailed flycatcher (Tyrannus savana) — were observed in The Natural State for the first time in decades, prompting two ANHC staff members to hit the road and try their luck at spying these special species.

ANHC Grants Coordinator Samantha Scheiman traveled to Mena to see a female evening grosbeak that had been photographed the day before and reported in eBird, a global online bird records database, from the bird feeders of a homeowner who welcomed visitors. Thankfully, the grosbeak was still around, allowing Samantha to admire this large, amber-colored finch at length and add this species to her Arkansas life list, which is a record of all bird species she has seen in the state.

Prior to this observation, evening grosbeak had last been confirmed in Arkansas on December 20, 2000, on the Lake Village Christmas Bird Count. Residents of northern coniferous forests, evening grosbeaks from the northern U.S. and southern Canada used to grace Arkansas more regularly in years when food sources became scarce in the normal part of their range, forcing birds south. As recently as the 1980s, some flocks seen in Arkansas numbered several hundred individuals! However, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, populations of this species declined precipitously between 1966 and 2015, which may be due to increased logging within their normal range, diseases, and a reduction of spruce budworm (i.e., a forest pest that is a component of the grosbeak’s diet), which may be partly attributed to aerial spraying.

That said, 2020 is deviating from the norm (no surprise there!) and proving to be a banner year for evening grosbeaks, which are experiencing their largest southward irruption in more than two decades. The American Birding Association reports that “Ontario and Québec are experiencing one of their most intense spruce budworm outbreaks since the one that peaked in the 1970s and 1980s; this year SOPFIM, Québec’s forest protection society against insects and diseases, had to scale back spraying operations due to COVID-19, which led to population booms in evening grosbeak, purple finch, and to a lesser extent, pine siskin and other finches.” This boost in grosbeak numbers, coupled with a widespread failure in the cone crops on which many finch species depend for food, may be responsible for the single evening grosbeak showing up in Mena, as well as others that are making appearances across the southern U.S. this fall, including as far south as the Florida panhandle.

ANHC Aquatic Ecologist Dustin Lynch recently chased an even rarer bird: a fork-tailed flycatcher, a stray from the tropics that was spotted on power lines near McGehee by an expert birder. This black-and-white flycatcher, which sports a spectacular forked tail similar to that of the scissor-tailed flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus), attracted birders from at least 12 other states, including California and Pennsylvania. For Dustin, this species was an addition to his life list, a listing of all bird species he has seen during his life.

Fork-tailed flycatcher has only been seen once before in The Natural State, on November 14, 1995, in Yell County following an Audubon Society of Central Arkansas birding field trip to Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuge. Both the 1995 and 2020 observations are likely of fork-tailed flycatchers originating from southern South America that have made significant errors when migrating, according to the National Audubon Society.

For Samantha, Dustin, and other birders, spying these rarities has provided something else that has been rare in 2020: pure joy, both in the thrill of the chase and the sweetness of actually finding the birds (many rare-bird quests are unsuccessful). If you hope to attract evening grosbeaks to your yard, your best shot is to place black oil sunflower seeds on a platform feeder. Though chances are slim that evening grosbeaks will find you, your consolation prize could be purple finches (Haemorhous purpureus), which are also experiencing an irruption year and being seen at feeders throughout Arkansas. Both males and females feature a striking dark ear patch. If you hanker to see the fork-tailed flycatcher for yourself, you just might be in luck: it is still around as of this writing (December 14) where it was originally found northeast of McGehee on the power lines along the fields on Highway 4 between the bridge and paper mill.



Sources

“Evening Grosbeak Identification.” All About Birds. Cornell Lab of Ornithology. n.d. Accessed December 9, 2020.

“Fork-tailed Flycatcher.” Guide to North American Birds. Audubon.org. n.d. Accessed December 9, 2020. 

Young, Matthew A. and Ryan F. Mandelbaum. “A Superflight of Finches in the East.” North American Birds Field Ornithology. American Birding Association.org. December 1, 2020. 

Photos: Top right — Evening grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus) perched while sighted in Arkansas. Photo courtesy of Michael Linz.

Photo at left — Evening grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus) on the ground during a recent visit to Arkansas. Photo courtesy of Michael Linz.

Second photo at right — Fork-tailed flycatcher (Tyrannus savana) perched in a tree with a wing spread during a recent visit to Arkansas. Photo courtesy of Michael Linz.

Third photo at right — A fork-tailed flycatcher (Tyrannus savana) in flight while visiting Arkansas. Photo courtesy of Micheael Linz.

Thumbnail photo on main blog page — Evening grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus). Photo by Dustin Lynch.



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