English and Scientific names:

Black-headed Grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus)

Number of individuals: 

1; possibly female or immature

Locality: LOUISIANA: 

St. Mary

Specific Locality:

3.5mi NE of Cypremort Point along LA-3191

Date(s) when observed:

November 2009

Time(s) of day when observed:  


Reporting observer and address:

Erik I. Johnson

Lafayette, LA 70508

Other observers accompanying reporter who also identified the bird(s):


Other observers who independently identified the bird(s)


Light conditions (position of bird in relation to shade and to direction and amount of light):

sunny, mid-morning light from E as I was seeing the bird from the SE

Optical equipment: 

Swarovski 10x40 binoculars, good condition

Distance to bird(s): 

20m at closest point

Duration of observation:

1 min


coastal live oak forest surrounded by marsh

Behavior of bird: 

I found the bird by its call, which was unfamiliar (see below). It was in a mixed flock of migrants, typical for the date.  The grosbeak and most of the birds it was with were generally moving NE along the road (LA-319), as they typically do in fall migration after a passing front.  The grosbeak, though was making 50-100m flights to the NE, stopping and calling from exposed vegetation.  The bird was never seen in one spot for long as I was constantly trying to catch up on foot.


 The bird was clearly bright orange in the chest and into the belly, but otherwise like a typical female-type Pheucticus on the upperparts (streaky brown with white patches).  It had a massive bill.  If the chest had any streaking, it was faint and not noticeable with the looks I had.  The underwing !
 coverts were bright yellow (seen in flight).


calling, but not the squeeky-shoe call of Rose-breasted Grosbeak.  It sounded more hollow and wooden.

Similar species:

Rose-breasted Grosbeak (RBGR) is the only possible contender, but the call note was very different than the typical RBGR squeeky-shoe call.  Later in the week, I examined specimens at the LSUMNS and all female-type RBGR had considerable streaking on the chest or when not streaked, were white-chested.  The bird I saw was clearly different with bright orange on the chest, beyond the range of variation seen in RBGR.  The brightest (buffiest)-chested RBGR also had heavy streaking on the chest, where as the bird I saw had little to no streaking.  Based on these specimens seems that any orange-breasted Pheucticus can be safely identified as Black-headed.  The field guides I examined (Sibley and Nat. Geog.) make the separation more confusing and the illustrations are not consistent within age/sex groups.

Photographs or tape recordings obtained?


Previous experience with this species: 

never before seen (a life-bird), but modest experience with RBGR during migration

Identification aids:

LSU museum of natural history collection (LSUMNS); Sibley and Nat. Geog. examined later that morning; also looked through the internet for photosdescription and behavior

yesThis description is written from: 

paraphrased from notes taken at the time of observation; other notes from memory

Are you positive of your identification? If not, explain: 


The field guides seem to make this identification more complicated than is probably necessary for most birds.  The specimens at the LSUMNS make it pretty clear that orange-chested female-type birds should always be Black-headed Grosbeak - for that reason, I am pretty sure that this is what I saw.

Date and time: 

29 November 2009 7:50pm