Wednesday, June 19, 2019

A Rare Sight Today on the Tuolumne River: A Rose-breasted Grosbeak

You just never know when it will happen. You walk the trail that you've been walking on more or less daily for months, dutifully recording bird species and pretty much seeing the same lineup of birds, and that's just fine because there are some really pretty birds. But once in a great while there is something new, and it comes as such a surprise that it takes your breath away for a moment.

The Grosbeaks are my story this week. I expected to see them arriving along the Tuolumne Parkway Trail more than a month ago, but aside from one quick glance of one through the trees at the river, and one surprising moment on our backyard birdfeeder, I haven't seen any in the area. That changed this morning.

I took a walk earlier this week at the Ceres River Bluffs Regional Park and got some fine shots of a pair of Blue Grosbeaks (post coming soon). Then today, I heard a familiar, yet unfamiliar song that made me think of Robins or Grosbeaks in the tree next to the stairway at the west end of the Tuolumne Parkway Trail where I do most of my walks. I started searching in the branches and finally spied a Black-headed Grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus). I got a couple of shots (see below), and then it flew towards me and on to the oak tree at the southeast corner of the parking lot. And then another grosbeak flew by, and then a third. The third one looked different somehow, and luckily it landed where I could get a few pictures. It turned out to be a Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus)!

I had to look it up to identify it, because it is a bird that is rarely seen in our county. According to the eBird records, it has only been seen in Stanislaus County four times, being last observed in 2014. The normal range for the bird is east of the Great Plains, but there are occasional sightings across California. It's known to sometimes hybridize with Black-headed Grosbeaks, so it's no surprise that I saw the birds together.

I'm including the Black-headed Grosbeak picture I got. There's not much similarity in their color pattern, but the short, thick beak is always distinctive.

What a thrilling and interesting day it turned out to be!


  1. No way!!!! That's incredible!!! What a fantastic find and great photos!! I am immensely jealous!

  2. El Granada, CA (just north of Half Moon Bay), I identified a male Rose breasted grosbeak. I have lived here for 53 years and have never seen such a sight as that.
    Then this morning, I identified a female Rose breasted Grosbeak.
    They are way off course for any time of year! J Jasperson