For the Birds: May is prime time

Where to begin? May is a firestorm of birding activity in New England.

I’ll recap a few of my recent highlights and then expand, where necessary or otherwise interesting, in subsequent columns.

A warbler by any other name: Many warblers actually have the name warbler in their name. Yellow warbler, chestnut-sided warbler, worm-eating warbler and so on. Many, however, don’t have warbler in their name. Common yellowthroat, American redstart to name a few.

A few warblers don’t have warbler in their name and look like they belong in the thrush family. The ovenbird and waterthrushes (northern and Louisiana) could easily pass for thrushes with their brown bodies and spotted chests. Heck, the waterthrushes even have thrush in their name. But they are all, indeed, warblers.

That warrants a column unto itself. I’ll dig into that in the coming weeks.

Dueling grosbeaks: I heard a rose-breasted grosbeak singing in a tree during the tail end of one of my recent walks. I paused enough to find its perch. As soon as I spotted the beautiful bird, another male rose-breasted grosbeak dive-bombed the original bird, and they started chasing each other through the woods. The action caught the eye of a third male grosbeak and that one joined in the chase as well. That was a first for me. Rose-breasted grosbeaks, with their white wing bars, are just as impressive-looking in flight as they are perched.

The warbler tree: Back to warblers for a minute. I was lured to a flowering apple tree by a northern parula, another warbler without warbler in its name. I tried, mostly in vain, to get a photo of the tiny bird as it moved from bud to bud looking for morsels. Finally, I stepped back from the tree and noticed the parula was not alone. A black-and-white warbler, blue-winged warbler and American redstart were also moving about the tree. I don’t think I had ever seen four warblers in one tree at the same time before.

New tune to me: I didn’t know what it was at first, but I knew it was something I hadn’t seen before. I heard a strange, but awesome, song coming from the thicket and wondered how long it would take me to find the singer. It wasn’t long at all as the white-eyed vireo was on an obvious perch singing its heart out. Southern New England is the northernmost range for this southern bird so I was surprised and happy to see it.

Tons of towhees: I usually see a lot of eastern towhees starting at the end of April and going through the summer. This spring, however, I seem to be seeing way more than usual. I’ve seen at least a dozen individuals on more than one walk this spring. I hope that means good things for the towhee population.

That’s about it for now. There are a few more hectic weeks of birding ahead until it slows down a bit as birds settle in to raise families. Many birds, of course, have already started that process and are perhaps already onto a second brood. Either way, the action will slow down as we approach summer, so get out and enjoy these wild weeks of spring migration. And, as always, let me know what you are seeing out there.

Red-winged blackbird, just because

Photo by Chris Bosak – A red-winged blackbird in New England, May 2022.

Red-winged blackbirds may be known as an early migrant into New England with their arrivals starting in February or March, but they are common sightings throughout spring and summer until their fall southward migration. I’m posting this now just because I got this shot the other day and it’s a cool-looking bird.

For the Birds: Warblers return

The warblers are back and delighting, confusing, and frustrating birdwatchers throughout New England.

Warblers are small, usually colorful, passerine (perching) birds that migrate into New England every spring. Many nest here while others continue north to nest in Canada. In the fall, they head to points south such as southern U.S., the Caribbean, Central America or South America. The odd warbler shows up on New England Christmas Bird Counts from time to time, but for the most part, they are gone before the snow starts to fly. 

To me, the quintessential warbler is the yellow warbler. It is small, brightly colored, numerous throughout the region and sings its ubiquitous song (“sweet sweet I’m so sweet”) over and over from the brush. It is all yellow with some rusty streaking on its chest and belly.

Warblers come in all colors, however. Many are mostly yellow and many others have flashes of yellow in their plumage. Some are black and white, and some are mostly brownish. A few are mostly blue. It’s no wonder that the spring migration, highlighted by warblers, is the favorite time of year for most birdwatchers.

In the Americas, we see the New World warblers. There are Old World warblers in Europe and Asia, but they are completely different birds from our warblers. There are close to 120 different types of New World warblers. We get about 40-50 species in New England. Approximately 25 warbler species nest in New Hampshire.

The fall warbler migration is notorious for frustrating birdwatchers as there are many plumage variations to be aware of. Many of the male warblers have molted out of their crisp spring plumage and sport a much more drab outfit. Females often lack the bright colors of the males and many first-year birds have not attained adult plumage. 

But the spring migration can be frustrating as well, particularly when the leaves come out. It can be vexing to hear a bird overhead and not be able to find it. 

That’s when birding-by-ear skills pay dividends. It’s much easier to find something if you know what you’re looking for. Learning the songs of the many warblers takes time, patience and practice. I’ve been birding for many years and I know a few dozen warbler songs. But that leaves a few dozen left to learn. Small steps.

In addition to the many warblers that return in April and May, several other of our favorite migrants return as well. I’ve already seen some rose-breasted grosbeaks, orioles (Baltimore and orchard) and thrushes. I’m waiting for my first scarlet tanagers and indigo buntings. 

It’s an exciting time to be a birdwatcher in New England. The time, however, is fleeting, so get out and enjoy it. As always, feel free to let me know what you see out there.

White-eyed vireo: New England first-timer for me

I saw a white-eyed vireo in Florida when I visited my brother in February. I thought it was an interesting bird and was happy to see it.

Well, yesterday morning I saw one in New England for the first time. Southern New England (Connecticut, Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts) is the northernmost range of the bird. It’s a cool-looking bird, but its song is what makes it stand out. I was instantly drawn to the thicket from where the song was coming. You can hear the song here.

Another good spring sighting!

Here’s a photo of the one I saw in Florida (plus a few others.)

Another aptly named sparrow

Yesterday, we looked at the field sparrow, and discussed how habitat is often an important factor in identifying sparrows. Today, it’s the swamp sparrow. I found this bird lurking near a swampy (no surprise there) area during a recent walk.

Again, borrowing a description from allaboutbirds.org, here’s what they say about the habitat of the swamp sparrow: “Swamp Sparrows nest only in wetlands. In the northern parts of the range, they use fens and bogs that have patches of open water, especially those dotted with shrubs. They also nest in peat bogs with little open water. Through most of the breeding range, look for them in freshwater marshes with cattail, sedges, and other tall reeds, rushes, or grasses; these areas often have willows or alders around their edges.” More information may be found here.

Here’s yesterday’s post in case you missed it.

A few more field sparrow photos

Photo by Chris Bosak – Field sparrow, New England, May 2022

Here are a few more photos of a field sparrow I got during a recent walk.

Habitat is an important factor when determining what sparrow you are looking at. This one, obviously enough, was found in a field. Here’s a description of their habitat from allaboutbirds.org: “Field Sparrows seek out open habitat with low perches, such as abandoned agricultural fields and pastures, fencerows, road and forest edges, and openings in wooded areas. You may also spot them occasionally in Christmas tree farms, orchards, and nurseries.” Ream more.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at another handsome sparrow named for its preferred habitat.

Photo by Chris Bosak – Field sparrow, New England, May 2022

For the Birds: Goldfinches delight year round

Photo by Chris Bosak An American goldfinch perches on a wire in New England, March 2020.

I’ve been getting a lot of inquiries about goldfinches lately. Everything from how to attract them to why am I suddenly seeing more of them to why do some of them seem much duller than other ones.

To answer the question about how to attract them, you have to start with Nyjer seed. Nyjer seed, also sometimes called thistle, are the tiny seeds that are a fraction the size of a sunflower seed. Birds such as goldfinches, pine siskins, and indigo buntings love Nyjer seeds. It is hard to imagine there is a whole lot of meat inside the shells, but apparently, it is enough to satisfy the smaller birds.

Goldfinches also prefer tube feeders. If you get one with several ports there will be times when all of the perches will be occupied by goldfinches. So the best way to get goldfinches is to offer Nyjer seed in tube feeders.

But that is not the only way to attract goldfinches. Goldfinches will also eat sunflower seeds and visit hopper or platform feeders. They will also eat Nyjer seed from a mesh “sock.“

Goldfinches will also visit flowers such as sunflowers, coneflowers, and black-eyed Susans. But you have to wait until fall to see them eating those seeds. Goldfinches will also readily visit birdbaths. In fact, they are one of the most frequent visitors to my birdbath.

As to why some of them look different, that is a somewhat tricky question. The obvious answer is that females are duller and males are brighter. However, a goldfinch’s plumage is constantly changing and some males may be ahead of others in obtaining their breeding plumage. 

Even males are drably colored in the winter and slowly gain their famous bright yellow feathers by the spring. This week, I have seen some goldfinches that are already fully decked out in their splendid yellow. Others are still splotchy with some bright and some dull plumage.

Well-known ornithologist David Sibley has a great article with photos, or more accurately drawings, of what a goldfinch’s plumage looks like each month throughout the year. The article can easily be found with an Internet search by entering “goldfinch monthly plumage” in the search field.

Females are duller in color year-round. Like other dimorphic birds (male and female have different appearances), females are more dully colored to offer protection from predators. The flashy males attract the attention of predators and cause a diversion away from the females on nests.

I have always had decent luck attracting and finding goldfinches. There are certain birds I just can’t seem to find, but goldfinches, thankfully, have never been one of those problematic species.

Goldfinches are also nomadic. If you have goldfinches throughout the day, it is likely that you are seeing more than one group of goldfinches. Perhaps that explains why some people are seeing more of them lately. The goldfinches have only recently discovered the feeding station.

Goldfinches are a favorite bird of many people, and with good reason. They are striking with their bright yellow plumage, they are common backyard inhabitants, and they are year-round New England residents, not fair-weathered friends. What’s not to like?