For the Birds: The siskins come at last

Photo by Chris Bosak Pine siskins visit a feeder in Danbury, Connecticut, fall 2018.

A wise man once said: “The nature of a winter finch irruption, however, could mean a sizable flock of pine siskins can show up and empty out my Nyjer seed feeder at any moment.”

Just kidding. That was me writing two weeks ago about the hot start to the winter finch season. The wise man part is up for debate.

At the time of that writing, a female purple finch had been my only out-of-the-ordinary sighting at my feeding station. A week later a few fox sparrows showed up. I know fox sparrows are not finches, but they can fit loosely into the category of winter finches because of their sporadic visits to New England backyards.

Then last week, true to the sentence at the top of this column, the pine siskins showed up. It started out with two siskins sharing the tube feeder with a group of goldfinches. The next day, I counted three siskins. The third day, about 20 siskins showed up and occupied every perch on the tube feeder and a nearby hopper feeder. The spillover siskins searched the ground under the feeders for fallen seeds.

They didn’t exactly empty the feeders, however. They ate about half of the Nyjer, or thistle, seed in the large tube feeder and that’s about it. I’ve heard stories of great numbers of siskins staying put in backyards for extended periods and thinning out the wallet of the homeowner. Nyjer seed, their preferred food, is expensive stuff.

The big rush of siskins at my place lasted two days. The feeders were then void of siskins for a few days before about eight more showed up. That’s where I stand now at the time of this writing.

Pine siskins are the most common of the winter finches that irrupt from the north into New England and points south. An irruption is when a species visits an area in large numbers in sporadic years.

Siskins nest in Canada but may be found as far south as Florida and Central America during their irruption years. The pine cone seed crop determines when they head to points south, but it is unpredictable when the irruptions occur. That’s where programs such as Project FeederWatch, Great Backyard Bird Count, Christmas Bird Count, and eBird provide valuable data as scientists try to get a grasp on these irruptions.

Pine siskins are small, brown, heavily streaked birds, with yellow edging on their wings and tail feathers. The yellow edging is more prominent on the males. They somewhat resemble goldfinches, but siskins have a much more streaked appearance. Goldfinches are smoother. To further complicate the ID, siskins and goldfinches favor the same types of food and are likely to visit the same feeders. That can also be an advantage for birdwatchers as the birds often share a tube feeder, offering a side-by-side comparison. When seen next to each other, the differences are obvious.

So, the siskins showed up, finally. Now where are those evening grosbeaks I’ve been hearing so much about?

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Today’s bird walk in photos

Photo by Chris Bosak
A white-throated sparrow in Brookfield, CT, fall, 2018.

This morning’s bird walk brought me to the Still River Greenway Trail in Brookfield, Connecticut. An eastern phoebe (late for this species) was the highlight species, but I failed to get a photo as it disappeared into thin air when I reached for the camera. At any rate, I found more than 20 species, including eastern bluebirds, pileated woodpeckers, and a red-tailed hawk. The dominant species were white-throated sparrows, dark-eyed juncos and Carolina wrens.

Here are some more photos from the walk.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A white-throated sparrow in Brookfield, CT, fall, 2018.
Photo by Chris Bosak An eastern bluebird, Brookfield, CT, fall 2018.
Photo by Chris Bosak A red-tailed hawk, Brookfield, CT, fall 2018.
Photo by Chris Bosak A song sparrow, Brookfield, CT, fall 2018.
Photo by Chris Bosak An eastern bluebird, Brookfield, CT, fall 2018.

More shots of the northern bobwhite

Photo by
Chris Bosak A nothern bobwhite seen at Happy Landings in Brookfield, Connecticut, fall 2018.

Here are some more photos of the northern bobwhite I spotted yesterday at Happy Landings in Brookfield, Connecticut. Click here for the original post.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A nothern bobwhite seen at Happy Landings in Brookfield, Connecticut, fall 2018.
Photo by Chris Bosak
A nothern bobwhite seen at Happy Landings in Brookfield, Connecticut, fall 2018.

Northern bobwhite highlights walk

Photo by Chris Bosak
A northern bobwhite calls at Happy Landing in Brookfield, Connecticut, fall 2018.

I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen a northern bobwhite in the wild. There are several reasons for that; the biggest being that the bird’s population has declined sharply over the years. Another reason is that 99 percent of my birdwatching is done in New England and the bobwhite is more of a southern bird. 

Despite all that I did come across a male northern bobwhite during a walk at Happy Landings in Brookfield, Connecticut, this morning (Dec. 12, 2018). It was walking along the path near a shrubby area and sauntered off into the brush as I continued along the trail. I walked several yards past the point where the bird had ducked into cover and I took a seat on the trail to see if the bird would come back out. Patience is a birdwatcher’s best tool, I reminded myself as I sat there motionless on this cold and sunny morning. 

My patience was never tested as the bird did come back through the brush and onto the trail in a matter of minutes. It stopped and called a few notes (not its trademark “Bob-white” song, but its less distinctive call) as I watched from a short distance away. It sat there still and called a few more times. I didn’t hear any response calls, but there could have been another bobwhite around. 

It’s hard to tell if this was truly a wild bird or a captive-bred bird that escaped or was released. Bobwhite is a popular game and farm bird. I didn’t notice any leg bands, so I’m hoping it was a bona fide wild bird. Either way, it was a treat to see it in New England. 

The sighting became that much more meaningful after reading this northern bobwhite conservation update from The Audubon Society (audubon.org): “Has disappeared from much of the northern part of its range, and has declined seriously even in more southern areas. The causes for these declines are not well understood. At northern edge of range, many may be killed by unusually harsh winters, but this does not explain its widespread vanishing act.”

Photo by Chris Bosak A nothern bobwhite calls at Happy Landing in Brookfield, Connecticut, fall 2018.

Red-shouldered hawk in tree

Photo by Chris Bosak
A red-shouldered hawk sits in a tree in Brookfield, Connecticut, fall 2018.

My son Will and I came across this red-shouldered hawk while we were driving through a neighborhood in Brookfield, Connecticut, the other day. It’s times like this that I usually don’t have my camera with me, but this time I happened to be prepared.

The red-shouldered hawk is one of New England’s most common hawks, along with red-tailed hawk, broad-winged hawk, Cooper’s hawk, and sharp-shinned hawk. There are other hawks in the region, of course, but these are the ones seen most often. I typically see red-tailed hawks most often, but I’ve been seeing more and more red-shouldered hawks of late.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A red-shouldered hawk sits in a tree in Brookfield, Connecticut, fall 2018.

Pine siskin vs. American goldfinch video

Here is a video I put together on the current pine siskin (fall 2018) irruption. Also a description on how to tell siskins and goldfinches apart. Subscribe to my YouTube channel by clicking here.

For the Birds: Northern shoveler highlights trip

Photo by Chris Bosak A northern shoveler seen at 14-Acre Pond in Norwalk, Conn., fall 2018.

Here is the latest For the Birds column, which runs in several New England newspapers …

Each month brings its own gifts for birdwatchers.

November brings ducks in large numbers to our ponds, lakes and rivers. If December is kind, weather-wise, that continues. If December is cold and frosty, which it often is, those bodies of freshwater freeze and the ducks head farther south.

This year, November has been colder than usual; many of these waters are frozen already, threatening to spoil the “winter duck” fun early. A quick thaw can bring the ducks back, but an extended freeze will push the ducks away until early next spring.

When the inland waters freeze, New England birdwatchers still have the Atlantic Ocean and Long Island Sound to get their duck fix. But even that falls short in some regards. While there are some duck species that may be found in fresh or saltwater, most are an either-or proposition.

When the freeze takes over, New England can pretty much say goodbye to species such as wood duck, common merganser, ring-necked duck, green-winged teal and gadwall. Other freshwater specialty species — such as pintail and shoveler — are also south-bounfd following a deep freeze.

I was lucky to spot one of these specialty species the other day while checking out an old haunt of mine in southwestern Connecticut. I scanned 14-Acre Pond in Norwalk and noticed a good number of gadwall, a few ring-necked ducks, a pair of mute swans, and many mallards, domesticated ducks and Canada geese. The domesticated ducks were a surprise. I had never noticed them before when I used to frequent the pond.

One duck stood out among the rest, however. The large white patches that sandwich its otherwise rusty side stood out like a beacon. Even though Continue reading