What in the world is this?


Any plant experts out there? Because I certainly have no idea what is going on with this leaf.

This is a leaf on an unknown vine that is growing among a large patch of wineberry, an invasive and nonnative bush that produces edible berries. This patch just happens to be in my yard. I noticed this leaf a few days after my son Will and I picked the plants clean of their berries. (We made jam for the first time and, boy, is it good.) 

The vine may be a wild grape, but I’m not positive. It is the only such vine growing among the wineberry, so far as I can tell. The leaf appears to have red double-sided daggers sticking out the top and bottom. Perhaps it is a growth coming from either direction. I have no idea. It is the only leaf that looks like this. Of the thousands of leaves surrounding it, this is the only one with this phenomenon.

So, any ideas??

Here are a few more photos. 

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For the Birds: The amazing oystercatcher

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

An American Oystercatcher seen at Milford Point during the summer.

An American Oystercatcher seen at Milford Point during the summer.

Most birds make a statement with their plumage, be it with bright and flashy colors or muted, subtle tones.

Some birds stand out from the crowd with other features, such as the heron’s long legs, the Atlantic puffin’s oversized bill, an owl’s huge eyes, or the northern mockingbird’s incredible repertoire of songs.

One New England bird seems to make a statement with everything it does. The American oystercatcher is large, has handsome brown, black and white plumage, has strikingly colorful features, and is loud and conspicuous.

Despite all this, the oystercatcher still seems to fly under the radar of the birding world’s consciousness. It is strictly a coastal bird and is somewhat wary, so the inland or casual observer of nature may rarely see one.

It is common enough that serious birders do not consider it an out-of-the-ordinary sighting and uncommon enough that non-birders likely wouldn’t recognize it if they came across one.

I see oystercatchers frequently and never tire of them. American oystercatchers are large for shorebirds, about the size of a fat crow. They have black heads, brown backs and white underparts. The wings show flashes of white when the bird is in flight.

The bill is the oystercatcher’s most distinguishing feature as it is long, thick and bright red. The bill is capable of prying open the shells of oysters and other coastal delicacies.

American oystercatchers’ eyes are a spectacle unto themselves. While many birds simply have black beads for eyes, the oystercatcher has large bright yellow eyes with a black dot in the middle. The eye is also surrounded by a thick bright red eye ring, similar to that of a wood duck.

If all that weren’t enough, oystercatchers are one of the more noisy birds along the coast. Spend enough time at a coastal beach — either on Long Island Sound or Atlantic Ocean — and you’ll become familiar with the oystercatcher’s repeated piercing “weep” call.

I was on one of the islands off the coast of Connecticut recently when I heard the unmistakable call of the oystercatcher. I turned to see seven oystercatchers flying in unison to a nearby island. They breed extensively along the coast and nearby islands of Fairfield County and this flock was likely a new family or two. Young oystercatchers look similar to adults, but have dull bills instead of the trademark red bills.

When I volunteered to monitor piping plovers years ago, I came across baby oystercatchers a few times as well. The fluffy white balls of down would freeze and hunker among the rocks when they noticed me. If I hadn’t noticed their movement prior to their freeze response, I would never have seen them as they blended in perfectly with the small rocks on the beach. It makes me wonder how many I actually did miss.

At that size, they are extremely vulnerable to predators — such as gulls — as their parents leave the chick so as to not attract attention. I made sure to make a quick exit from the area when I noticed the chicks. The last thing I want is even less red-billed, yellow-eyed American oystercatchers on our beaches.

For the Birds: Sometimes change is good

Photo by Chris Bosak  A downy woodpecker eats suet nuggets from a tube feeder in New England, summer 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A downy woodpecker eats suet nuggets from a tube feeder in New England, summer 2018.

Sometimes you have to adjust, even in the world of bird-feeding.

Three mornings in a row I went into the backyard to fill the feeders for the day and noticed the hummingbird feeder on the ground. Two of those days the cap to the feeder had been jarred loose.

Clearly, it was time to make an adjustment, so I moved the feeder a few feet away to the clothesline — out of reach of whatever was knocking it down. It was, as I suspected, a raccoon, as revealed by game-camera footage.

The slight change of location has made a tremendous difference. It used to hang from one of the arms of the pole system, sharing space with two other feeders and a potted snap dragon flower. Hummingbirds came to the feeder, but it was dominated by a male and the larger birds that visited the other feeders often scared away the tiny hummingbirds.

The other morning, I headed toward the backyard and noticed three hummingbirds near the feeder. One was on the feeder and two were perched on the clothesline nearby. I’ve never seen three hummingbirds that close together at my house before. The male is very territorial and tolerates nothing around “his” feeder.

Perhaps the crowd at the feeding station had something to do with it because he is now much more chill about it all. The extra space around feeder and the built-in long perch of the clothesline apparently make him feel more comfortable.

I strongly suspect — and hope — that the extra hummingbirds showing up now are first-year birds, hatched and fledged either in my yard or nearby. I’ve also seen several first-year birds of other species, such as downy and hairy woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatches, cardinals, tufted titmice and black-capped chickadees. I even see “my” rose-breasted grosbeak pair on occasion at the feeders.

That is one of the great joys of year-round bird-feeding. Many people stop feeding birds during the summer for one reason or another — bears being a big reason. I used to stop feeding birds in the summer because house finches would be my only visitors and they were eating me out of house and home. At my (relatively) new house, I hardly ever see house finches, so the seeds go longer. Unless, the chipmunks come, but that’s a story for another day.

Speaking of summer bird feeding, here are a few tips:

Put oranges out for orioles. I’ve tried this with no success, but that doesn’t mean it won’t work for you.

Put out mealworms for bluebirds. I live in a wooded area, so I don’t see bluebirds that often. Let me know if this works for you.

Keep the seed dry. Summer is hot, humid and rainy. Don’t let your seed spoil.

Change hummingbird food often. Hot, humid weather will spoil sugar water in a day or two.

Clean the feeders more frequently. Same reasoning — hot, humid weather is ideal for bacteria and other nasty stuff.

Put suet in the shade. A hot, sunny day will wreak havoc on suet cakes.

Have fun enjoying the birds as we head into the dog days of summer. And, of course, let me know what you’re seeing.

For the Birds: High stakes garden perches

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

Photo by Chris Bosak  A ruby-throated hummingbird perches on a stick being used as a garden stake in New England, summer 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A ruby-throated hummingbird perches on a stick being used as a garden stake in New England, summer 2018.

One of the nice things about living in the woods is that you are never at a loss for garden stakes.

Does that tomato plant need support? Take a little walk in the backyard, find a thin but sturdy stick on the ground, and you’ve got yourself a garden stake. Sure, it’s not apt to be perfectly straight, and it might not sport a perfectly pointed end for jabbing into the soil, but that’s nothing a whittle or two with a jackknife can’t fix.

A bonus to using these natural garden stakes, I’ve noticed, is that if they are placed near a birdfeeder, they make for good perches, too. This is especially true if the sticks have smaller branches at the top.

My property is predominantly shaded, but there is a sunny enough area on the deck and a small portion of the yard near the deck. I do a lot of container planting on the deck, so these garden stake/bird perches are high off the ground.

I set up a desk and computer in a room that looks directly at the feeders for those days when I work from home. (Of course, I did. Why would I not do something like that?)

The other day I looked out at the feeder for a good amount of time and noticed these stakes were quite busy at their side job. The variety of birds using the sticks surprised me, especially since it is the middle of summer.

The most exciting sighting was a male ruby-throated hummingbird. It was one of about three regular perches he used to keep an eye on “his” feeder.

It was also fun to watch when the American goldfinches made their rounds in the yard. Three or four of these small, but colorful and lively birds would utilize the sticks at once.

The stakes are not particularly sturdy, so the larger birds tend not to use them. My guess is that they tried to use them at a time when I wasn’t watching and found them to be too flimsy. Not that I would mind the cardinals and blue jays using the perches, but they are relegated to thicker branches still attached to trees.

Sometimes being cheap, I mean resourceful, pays off. Not only are my tomatoes, beans and peppers standing upright, my birds are happier, too.

For the Birds: Early-morning wake-up call

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

Photo by Chris Bosak An American Robin perches on a gravestone at at a cemetery in Darien, Conn., April 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
An American Robin perches on a gravestone at at a cemetery in Darien, Conn., April 2014.

A raccoon knocked over something in the backyard around three in the morning. The crash woke me from a dead sleep, so I got up to investigate. A quick look in the pitch-dark with a cheap flashlight did not yield the cause of the crash. The potted plants looked to be intact and the birdfeeders seemed to be in their place.

I went back to the screened-in porch to continue my night’s sleep, but sweet dreams eluded me. I used to be the world’s best sleeper; able to sleep anytime, anywhere. As I’ve gotten older, however, it’s gotten less easy.

So, I stared into the dark woods, listened to the night sounds and hoped to doze off again. When the robins started singing I gave up. I checked the time: 4:45. Still dark. I got to thinking as I sat there waiting for the sun to rise about why birds would sing before dawn in the summer. I can understand in the spring, as the male birds want to attract females, so why not get an early jump on the competition.

But in the summer, why sing so early? Why sing at all, really?

The breeding season, for the most part, is over, so impressing females shouldn’t be at the top of their list. That is the beauty of thinking, of course. You come up with theories, right or wrong, about your questions. Robins are the most-hearty singers in the morning in the summer, at least at my place. Robins are early nesters, getting started before a lot of our songbirds. They also have several broods each year — two or three in New England.

So, it made sense to me that a robin would be singing that early because he may still be in the breeding season.

In my weary ruminations, I thought of another reason. Birds sing for two main purposes: to attract females and to protect their territory. The breeding season might be over, but the task of raising young is still at hand. A bird waking up that early to sing is calling out to other birds that they are alive and well to stay the heck away.

Now for the beauty of the Internet: You can discover what others think on the subject. There are other theories on why birds sing so early — atmospheric condition is one theory — but I will leave the scientific research to those more capable.

I did find some interesting tidbits on singing. Bird pairs recognize each other’s “voice.” It is mostly the males that sing, of course, but all birds call to each other. The songs and calls may all sound the same to us, but birds can recognize individuals by the nature of the sounds.

Some females do sing. I’ve heard female cardinals singing on plenty of occasions. I’ve read that female grosbeaks and orioles also sing.

Sleeping outside (the screened-in porch is close enough to outside) opens your eyes and ears to the dark side of nature. I mean dark in a literal sense, of course.

Also, when sleep escapes you, it gives you time to ponder.

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Walking through the woods: Eft

Here’s the start of an occasional series of photos of images captured during typical walks in the woods. I hope you enjoy them.

An eft works its way through the woods in Danbury, Conn., during the summer of 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak
An eft works its way through the woods in Danbury, Conn., during the summer of 2018.

I got this guy (or gal) after a rainy weekday afternoon. This is an eft, the terrestrial stage of a newt. The next stage will be adulthood, when the critter returns to the water (where it started as a larva.) They are commonly found in New England woods, especially after wet weather. They can be so common, in fact, that hikers have to watch their step if the timing and weather conditions are just right for efts to be out and about.

Here’s another shot …

An eft works its way through the woods in Danbury, Conn., during the summer of 2018.

An eft works its way through the woods in Danbury, Conn., during the summer of 2018.

For the Birds: A chipping sparrow kind of year

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

Photo by Chris Bosak A Chipping Sparrow visits a homemade birdfeeder in Danbury, Conn., April 2016.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Chipping Sparrow visits a homemade birdfeeder in Danbury, Conn., April 2016.

It’s been the year of the chipping sparrow in my yard. It started in the winter and hasn’t stopped yet.

Like most other birdwatchers, I had more than my fair share of dark-eyed juncos at my feeders this past winter. The other dominant species in winter is usually the white-throated sparrow, but this winter I didn’t see a single white-throat in the yard. I did see plenty of chipping sparrows, though.

When spring arrived, the juncos headed north to their breeding grounds and I haven’t seen one since. Chipping sparrows, on the other hand, have been a daily sighting from those snowy, winter days into spring and even early summer. I don’t think a day has gone by when I haven’t seen a chipping sparrow — and that’s a good thing, of course.

I have seen plenty of these tiny birds in the past, but I don’t remember seeing them in this number or frequency before. It has been a welcome revelation.

Chipping sparrows are small, handsome birds. They rank among the smallest in New England, in fact, outsizing hummingbirds and kinglets, but being comparable to warblers and juncos.

When the leaves start to fall in a few months (not that I’m rushing it), we may discover the nests used in the spring and summer by chipping sparrows. They are tiny structures built in the classic cup shape with material such as hair, mud, and straw. This year for the first time I filled a suet cage with dog hair to see if any birds would come for nesting material. The only taker I saw was a white-breasted nuthatch, but I would bet the chipping sparrows took some hair when I wasn’t looking.

Chipping sparrows are among the more vocal birds in my backyard, too. In the spring, its trilling was a daily auditory treat. Now that the babies have fledged, Continue reading