Greetings from Pillsbury State Park

Photo by Chris Bosak
A common loon swims at May Pond in Pillsbury State Park in New Hampshire in June 2019.

The recent camping trip to Pillsbury State Park in New Hampshire was a blast, as expected, with good birding every day of the outing. The loons, of course, were the highlight and we heard them from our waterfront campsite day and night.

One morning — the one when it wasn’t raining — I got great views of three loons as I noticed them from far away and just drifted in my canoe and let the loons come to me. It took a bit of time and a lot of patience, but they eventually came toward me and offered close views. At one point, one surfaced very close to me and started preening. They dived and surfaced in the vicinity of my canoe for several minutes before continuing about their day. I didn’t give chase as loons face enough struggles as it is without any added pressures from photographers.

So, here are a few of the loon photos. More to come soon, in addition to some other birds I saw on the trip.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Common loons swim at May Pond in Pillsbury State Park in New Hampshire in June 2019.
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Monitoring a phoebe nest

An eastern phoebe finally built a nest on a large piece of wood I had nailed to the underside of my porch three years ago.

Unfortunately, a brown-headed cowbird egg is among the five eggs currently in the nest. Brown-headed cowbirds are brood parasites and lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. Conventional wisdom says to remove the egg, but that would likely result in the vindictive mother cowbird coming back to destroy the other eggs.

Also, a new line of thinking says to let nature take its course and not let human values interfere with nature. It’s difficult, but I’ll leave the nest alone. I’ll check it daily to see how this all shakes out.

The first egg was laid on Tuesday, June 11. On Wednesday, another phoebe egg and the cowbird egg was discovered. Thursday and Friday brought one phoebe egg each for a total of four phoebe eggs and one cowbird egg.

Here’s the progression of the nest …

For the Birds: Gray jay is out; Canada jay is in

Photo by Chris Bosak A gray jay perches on the roof of a car in Pittsburg, N.H., November 2018.
Photo by Chris Bosak A gray jay perches on the roof of a car in Pittsburg, N.H., November 2018.

Well, I did it again. Apparently I’ve been using the wrong name for a bird for the past year or so.

Recall a few weeks ago when I wrote about the common gallinule that had been seen near the Dillant-Hopkins Airport. Many people, myself included, initially referred to the bird as a common moorhen, the name previously used for the bird. In 2011, the American Ornithologists’ Union changed the name to common gallinule after splitting the species from a similar bird in Europe and Asia.

I’m not as far behind on this latest name change. In May 2018, just about a year ago, the union changed the name of the gray jay to the Canada jay. The handsome, bold bird of the north was historically called the Canada jay anyway, so it was really a change back to an old name.

I wrote a column back in November about a trip to Pittsburg, during which Savanna and I encountered several gray jays, as I referred to them. By that time, the name had already been changed to Canada jay, so I led my readers astray. My apologies.

It doesn’t change the fact that the jays were the highlight of the trip. Wildlife sightings were scarce, but the jays were near constant companions. They ate out of our hands, were the only visitors to the bird feeder I hung at our cabin and greeted us on many of our hikes.

During breakfast one morning in the North Country, we started a conversation with a group of local women at a diner. One of the ladies said she lived right across the street. I noticed there were bird feeders in her yard, so I asked what birds visited. She said some of the usual suspects with a few northern birds, such as pine grosbeak, thrown in.

They asked us what birds we had seen on our trip so far. I had mentioned gray jay a few times and one of the ladies finally asked: “Gray jay? That’s the same as Canada jay, right?” I said yes, as I knew many people referred to the bird as Canada jay. Just like many people call it whiskey jack.

I didn’t think much of it until a few weeks ago when I saw a Facebook posting from a friend who had traveled to the Adirondacks and posted a photo of the bird in question. It was labeled Canada jay. I wondered if I was missing something. Was I using the wrong name for a bird again?

Yup.

I did an Internet search and came up with a great article on audubon.org written by Katie Valentine. The title of the story was “The Gray Jay Will Officially Be Called the Canada Jay Again.”

The article states that from the mid-1800s to mid-1900s, the bird was called the Canada jay. In 1957, the American Ornithologists’ Union listed the bird as gray jay in its Checklist of North and Middle American Birds. Although some people never stopped calling it the Canada jay, it was officially gray jay until the middle of last year, when it was changed back to Canada jay. The complete story is still available at audubon.org and includes an interesting history of the name and the people behind getting the name returned to Canada jay.

Bird names change fairly often and it’s interesting to note what some birds were previously called. I’m going to look through a few old field guides I have and write a column in the near future about some of the name changes I come across.

Every bird column I write is fun, but this one will be particularly amusing, I’m sure.

Classic For the Birds: Paddling freshwater

I’m heading to New Hampshire for a few days of camping. It’s been a while since I’ve paddled any lake, pond, or river in the Granite State and I’m looking forward to seeing what wildlife will be around. Of course, I’ll let you know when I return. In the meantime, here’s a For the Birds column from 2004 about this very subject …

Photo by Chris Bosak A Great Blue Heron stands on a piling along the Norwalk River on Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014.

A great blue heron lifted its skinny four-foot frame out of the water and used its six-foot wing span to carry it to another spot on the lazy river. It was spotted again around the next corner.
A wood duck skulked into the vegetation and disappeared without a trace. Once a wood duck vanishes into the sea of huge green leaves, you can forget about seeing it again.

A muskrat braved a crossing at a swelled portion of the river, using its tail as a rudder. Marsh wrens proudly belted out their peculiar, almost comical, song.

Meanwhile, there were many constant companions. Red-winged blackbirds boisterously claimed various plots of the river’s edge as their own, dragonflies zigged and zagged in search of food and mates, unseen bullfrogs provided a bass backdrop among the din of buzzing insects, and painted turtles by the dozens lounged on fallen logs.

It was a hot and sunny late spring afternoon — a perfect time for a paddle in my trusty canoe. On this particular day, I was floating on the Bantam River in White Memorial near Litchfield, Conn., but similar scenes would have played out on any number of freshwater bodies in New England.


I love paddling the remote, still waters of New England — be it a snaking river, wooded pond, or vegetation-thick, buggy marsh. I love these waters because they are predictable. I love them because they are also unpredictable.


Paddle any freshwater in the spring and you’re likely to see red-winged blackbirds, mallards, Canada geese, painted turtles, dragonflies, and water lilies. There’s a good chance you’ll happen upon great blue herons, kingbirds, black ducks, cormorants, song sparrows and grackles.


Perhaps you’ll see kingfishers, green herons, wood ducks, muskrats, snapping turtles and white-tailed deer.

If you’re lucky, you’ll see loons, American bitterns, ospreys, northern harriers, beavers, otters and water snakes.

If you don’t have a canoe or kayak or aren’t able use one, a walk around a freshwater body may yield the same birds and animals.

Where you are in New England also determines what you might see in, on or around the water. Hit New England’s northern waters and perhaps you’ll come across a moose eating underwater plants. Southern New England waters will yield egrets and mute swans.

While freshwater will never compare to saltwater in terms of shorebirds, if you hit the right place at the right time, you’ll see the random shorebird such as yellowlegs or semipalmated plover.

Time of year is a big factor in what you’ll see as well. The waters will be filled with various waterfowl from late fall to early spring, but nearly void of ducks — other than mallards, wood ducks and black ducks — during the summer.

It was a quest to photograph a wary flock of common mergansers on Powder Mill Pond in Hancock, N.H. that had me in my canoe nearly every day several years ago. My “canoeing career” was just starting out and, while the mergansers were my quarry, I learned about countless other species as I stalked the fowl.

One morning while paddling to my find my mergansers, I discovered that much of the water had frozen overnight. A bald eagle alternately soared and perched near the pond while waterfowl of all sorts shared an unfrozen pool.

It was one of those amazing, unpredictable moments that nature hands you every so often.

No such magical moments occurred on my latest paddle on the Bantam River. Everything I saw fell into the “likely to see” category. But I didn’t really feel that way. Just floating on that river all alone was magical enough. It made me feel as if everything I saw should be categorized as “lucky to see.”

https://birdsofnewengland.files.wordpress.com/2015/10/merglake5.jpg
Photo by Chris Bosak
A foggy morning on Merganser Lake. A perfect day for a canoe ride.

For the Birds: More sightings from readers

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Scarlet Tanager perches in a tree in Danbury, Conn., July 2016.

The sightings emailed in from readers have been so interesting that they have warranted being the topic of columns for several weeks in a row now. It’s creating a backlog of column ideas for me, but that’s a good problem to have. Besides, spring is the most active time for birdwatchers, so I shouldn’t be surprised.

A quick rundown of my own highlights as spring migration trails off and the birds get down to the important business of nesting:

I haven’t seen my rose-breasted grosbeaks in a few weeks. I’m hoping they are hunkered down on nests. I have, however, seen my ruby-throated hummingbirds on a daily basis. That likely means there’s a nest nearby, which is good news.

I’ve also heard in the distance the “chick-burr” call of the scarlet tanager. If they were nesting nearby, it would make my summer.

I’ve seen a few house wrens checking out my birdhouses but none have stuck around as far as I can tell. I’ve never had much luck attracting house wrens. Perhaps it’s time to adjust the locations of my birdhouses.

Finally, I got some good looks at a yellow-throated vireo. It is one of the more colorful vireos and it sang from the tops of my oak trees for hours one day last week. Vireos are small migratory songbirds that pass through or nest in New England each spring. They are overshadowed by the excitement caused by warblers, but they are an interesting study unto themselves.

Here’s what else has been happening around the region:

Tom from Keene had a memorable birding moment a few weeks ago when he saw five male scarlet tanagers at the cemetery on Washington Street. He said the bright red-and-black birds remained for much of one day and then all but disappeared the next day.

Wild turkeys are apparently getting less modest as they continue to adjust to the suburbs. Last week, I received two separate photos of wild turkeys copulating in backyards. Both photos were terrific — one coming from Gino from Jaffrey Center and the other from Wayne from Pepperell, Mass.

Dick and Pat from Westmoreland earlier in May had indigo buntings, rose-breasted grosbeaks and hummingbirds. That piles on to the indigo bunting sightings submitted a few weeks ago from other readers. Hopefully, all these buntings will have successful breeding seasons and next spring will bring even more sightings from throughout New England.

Roxanne from Swanzey has also seen buntings, as well as a rose-breasted grosbeak, blue-winged warbler, yellow warbler, eastern phoebe, ruby-throated hummingbird and house wren. She also spotted a magnolia warbler in her birdbath. It’s always a thrill to see any bird using a birdbath. A warbler makes it that much more notable.

I also heard from Carol, who lives in a coastal town in southwestern Connecticut. Her sightings remind us that New England is more than vast inland woods and fields. New England boasts magnificent ocean and Long Island Sound coastlines as well, and they are never more than a few hours’ drive away.

Carol visited Long Beach in Stratford, Conn., and saw nine pairs of piping plovers and several pairs of American oystercatchers. Eight of the plovers were on nests and she also spotted one oystercatcher nest. She has visited the area annually in the spring and noted that the oystercatcher nest this year was built higher on the beach and within the enclosures used to protect plover nests. In previous years, the oystercatcher nest was built lower on the beach and got washed away by high tides.

Carol also noted that she saw ruddy turnstones and sanderlings on the shore.

Photos from several of these sightings, including both copulating turkey incidences, may be found at www.birdsofnewengland.com under the “reader submitted photos” tab. The activity is slowing down as birds become less visible and vocal for the nesting season, but there is still plenty of birding action going on. As always, feel free to email me news of your sightings and photos.

A random bobolink photo — why not?

Photo by Chris Bosak A bobolink perches on a branch in Brookfield, CT, May 2019.

I got this shot a few weeks ago of one of my favorite New England summer birds, the bobolink. They are black, white and yellow (like the Steelers) and have a crazy song that sounds like R2D2. What’s not to like?

One thing not to like is that bobolinks are in decline throughout their range because of habitat destruction. Bobolinks nest in fields of tall grass and that habitat is disappearing fast as developers eye it for condos or shopping centers, or towns see the potential for more soccer fields instead of critical wildlife habitat. Bobolinks aren’t alone as many field species are in similar peril. All one has to do is walk through a field or meadow in the summer to appreciate how valuable that habitat is to wildlife.