Black-headed Grosbeak

June 3rd, 2020: It’s hard to get bored of the big colourful ones…

Not that we ever really get “bored” of a bird. But the bigger migrants that come through a little later in Vancouver always grab hold of my attention a little harder.

Some of today's Queen Elizabeth Park greenery
Some of today’s Queen Elizabeth Park greenery

I’m thinking specifically of things like Bullock’s Oriole, Lazuli Bunting, Western Tanager, and Black-headed Grosbeak. Since they don’t nest in my local patch, I have to visit them while I can. Queen Elizabeth Park was pretty good today. But I was a little lazy and didn’t get started until 11AM. VERY late for a supposedly respectable birder…

One of my favourite spots under the cherries, and a great spot for migrants when they're in bloom
One of my favourite spots under the cherries, and a great spot for migrants when they’re in bloom

The park was beautiful as always. We’ve been getting more sun lately and the roses in the rose garden are going strong. Most of the migrants have moved on through and/or are establishing territories where they’ll nest. In most birds’ cases, this does not include Queen Elizabeth Park. That leaves a few of the later migrants and those that breed here.

One of many paths through the smaller revitalized quarry
One of many paths through the smaller revitalized quarry

In the latter group, I’m still encountering Hutton’s Vireo regularly, Anna’s Hummingbird, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Brown Creeper, Black-capped Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Northern Flicker, Song Sparrow, Spotted Towhee, Pine Siskin, Mallard, Canada Goose, etc. Of the late migrant group that won’t likely nest there, only Olive-sided Flycatcher, Western Wood-Pewee, and Black-headed Grosbeak still seem to be kicking around. The latter is one of my favourite birds.

A young Anna's Hummingbird at Queen Elizabeth Park
A young Anna’s Hummingbird at Queen Elizabeth Park
A Mallard and her ducklings at one of QE's ponds
A Mallard and her ducklings at one of QE’s ponds

I love all of the grosbeaks. The 4 species we get in Canada exhibit an incredible variety of colours. Pine Grosbeaks, the astonishing rosy-pink, black, and white ones, are a northern species (largely restricted to Canada). They show up mostly in the mountains around here (with an occasional appearance in Metro Van) and are widespread in Boreal forests. My favourite encounters with these birds have been at the Sax-Zim Bog in northern Minnesota.

Pine Grosbeak
Pine Grosbeak at Sax-Zim Bog

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are a widespread, eastern North American bird. We’ve had one or two show up out here in previous years, usually in someone’s backyard. Their name describes the males well.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak in Kingston, ON
Rose-breasted Grosbeak in Kingston, ON

Evening Grosbeaks look like a sunset with a big bill. Is there another bird even close to the subtle beauty of these yellow, black, and white birds? They’re widespread, but can be tough to track down. They can show up just about anywhere in a given season. Some years they’re easy to find in Vancouver. Other years, almost impossible.

Evening Grosbeak
Evening Grosbeak at Sax-Zim Bog

Black-headed Grosbeaks are the easiest to find in Vancouver, but only during the shoulder seasons. These Halloween-coloured birds, with a splotch of yellow on the belly, are the western North American counterpart to the Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Like the Rose-breasted Grosbeak, they eat mostly insects. Evening and Pine Grosbeaks are seedeaters.

Black-headed Grosbeak at Queen Elizabeth Park
Black-headed Grosbeak at Queen Elizabeth Park

They’re progressive birds too, sharing nesting duties pretty evenly with the much drabber females (look for the females’ stark, wide supercilium). And the males don’t actually get their full breeding plumage until age 2 (for most passerines it happens with their first breeding season).

Black-headed Grosbeak at Queen Elizabeth Park
Black-headed Grosbeak at QE

They make themselves heard when they arrive in mid-May, sounding to me like an impatient American Robin: very rapid, brief gestures of only a few notes, and always with a gliss somewhere in the song. I realize that sounds a little music-theory-y (I can’t help myself). Basically, they have a series of short melodies only 2-to-4 notes long with a slide in it somewhere. This helps to easily separate them from American Robin at distance because I’ve never heard a Robin do the slide between pitches: they always have discrete notes in their song.

The timbre differs between birds too, but that can be a little challenging to separate at distance or through trees. Females also sing, but they usually do a simplified version of the male song. Here’s a line-up of similar songs around here in the spring: Black-headed Grosbeak, American Robin, and then Western Tanager (also somewhat similar).

Black-headed Grosbeak song (from
American Robin song (from xeno-canto)
Western Tanager song (from xeno-canto)
Western Tanager's sure don't look like Black-headed Grosbeaks though
Western Tanager’s sure don’t look like Black-headed Grosbeaks though

It was nice to get to enjoy Black-headed Grosbeak song again today. Pretty soon, they’ll be quite uncommon in the park (eBird list).

A Black-headed Grosbeak feeding at QE Park
The Rose Garden at QE in full bloom
The Rose Garden at QE in full bloom

Speaking of singing, here’s a fascinating article about how some birds sing to their young about the climate while they’re still in their eggs! It highlights an amazing adaptation that gives me some hope that some birds may be able to weather climate change a little better than you’d think.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Andrew

    Thanks for the tip about the “slide” in the song, I will listen for that. I also confuse the Purple Finch song with the BH Grosbeak, any tips there ? Just found your blog and am enjoying it. Cheers, Andrew

    1. Jim Palmer

      Good one, Andrew. For me, the timbre of the two birds is different enough, with the Purple Finch sounding much “thinner” to me (i.e. less “rich” sounding). But those adjectives are highly subjective and personal. It strikes me that the easiest way for me to differentiate between the two is the melody/rhythm of the two. For BHGR, the short, choppy 2–3-note gestures make it sound halting, even if they happen really quickly (do-ee-oot|dee-oo-it|etc.). The PUFI sounds like all of its notes are spilling out at once like a waterfall (even though they have such a varied repertoire), as though it can’t control them. (I don’t hear any “gaps” in the phrasing of the finch.) Maybe that distinction would work?

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