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, I hear the adults and youngsters calling constantly at the feeders. I always know when a chipping sparrow is coming to a feeder because it announces its arrival well ahead of time.

Chipping sparrows are, well, sparrow-like in appearance, measuring about five to five-and-a-half inches. They have whitish-gray bellies with classic sparrow-like brown and black backs. It has a black eye stripe, white eyebrow and chestnut cap.

When I feature a specific bird in a column like this I always like to throw in a fun fact about the bird in question. While reading about tanagers in “The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior,” I came across this gem about the chipping sparrow.

After Sibley writes about how male and female tanagers feeding their young, he adds: “There have been several cases of interspecific helping, in which male scarlet tanagers fed young chipping sparrows, at least until their own offspring hatched.”

Who knew? Imagine seeing that in your backyard.

As I said before, I’ve seen plenty of chipping sparrows, but I’m noticing them with greater abundance and frequency these days. It’s been an enlightening and welcome discovery.

Advertisements

Latest For the Birds column: Persistence pays off in birding

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

Photo by Chris Bosak A Great Egret stands on a deck railing overlooking the Norwalk River in Norwalk, Conn., April 2016.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Great Egret stands on a deck railing overlooking the Norwalk River in Norwalk, Conn., April 2016.

Photo by Chris Bosak A Snowy Egret looks for food in Norwalk Harbor.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Snowy Egret looks for food in Norwalk Harbor.

Persistence, practice and patience will often make things that seem so difficult at the beginning become relatively easy.

It can be said of just about any hobby, but it certainly applies to birdwatching.

I can remember struggling with differentiating great egrets from snowy egrets. It seems somewhat silly now. Great egrets are markedly larger, have yellow bills and black legs and feet. Snowy egrets, aside from being much smaller, have black bills, black legs and yellow feet.

The differences are clear and obvious. But, as a beginner, I saw only tall white birds, and telling them apart was a challenge.

Trying to decide if I was looking at a downy or hairy woodpecker was another early sticking point. It took me years to come up with an easy way to tell the species apart. Aside from size, downys and hairys are identical — right down to the difference between the sexes. Over time, however, I had seen enough of both to know that a hairy woodpecker’s bill, even without a size reference, is substantially larger than that of a downy’s.

Similar experiences occurred with wood thrushes and hermit thrushes; black ducks and mallards; house finches and purple finches.

Just when you think you’ve got this birding thing down, though, there’s something to knock you down a peg or two to show you how much more there is to learn.

Sure, wood thrushes and hermit thrushes are easy to tell apart now, but what if you throw in Swainson’s and Bicknell’s thrush? What about northern waterthrush and Louisiana waterthrush? Common tern and Forster’s tern? Least sandpiper and semipalmated sandpiper?

Unless you are an expert or have a special birding gift, there will always be something to learn. There will always be something to throw you for a loop just when you start feeling a little too confident.

It’s easy to get frustrated when that happens.

Semipalmated sandpiper or least sandpiper? Geez, I should know that by now, I’d think. And then I’d wonder what was wrong with me.

When frustration sets in, it’s important to look back on how far you’ve come, even though that’s not so easy when the frustration is at its peak. That’s good advice for anything in life, really.

I thought about that the other day as I watched a great egret and snowy egret hunting the same hot spot along Long Island Sound. As the waders crossed paths and briefly stood right next to each other, the differences were glaring. The great egret towered over the snowy and the snowy’s yellow feet glowed like beacons.

I love watching egrets. I slow the car when I see them along the roadside, and take time to enjoy them when I’m birdwatching or simply taking a walk.

In inland New Hampshire, snowy egrets are a rare sighting indeed — in fact, they are rarely seen away from the coast. Great egrets are more common in the Monadnock Region, but far from a daily occurrence.

But I look forward to seeing these birds when I visit the coast, especially farther south. They are plentiful and fun to watch.

Besides, seeing egrets reminds me of how far my birdwatching prowess has come.

Sure, I’ll get knocked down a time or two, but I won’t forget the progress I’ve made.

Keep that in mind when you are confronted with having to make a tricky ID.

For the Birds: Watching the babies grow

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

Photo by Chris Bosak  An adult male downy woodpecker, left, feeds an immature male downy woodpecker near a birdfeeder in New England, summer 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak
An adult male downy woodpecker, left, feeds an immature male downy woodpecker near a birdfeeder in New England, summer 2018.

They grow up so fast.

I was working at my computer at home, tending to the order of the day, when a flash of brown darted across the window and caught my attention. I followed the bird as it made its way through the thick cluster of branches in the front yard. It settled on a branch near the base of one of the many dying hemlocks.

It was a female rose-breasted grosbeak. Good sighting, I thought, especially considering the suddenness of the whole thing. It got better, though.

A few seconds later another flash — this one black, white and red — burst upon the scene. The male rose-breasted grosbeak flew from branch to branch and finally settled a few inches away from the first bird. The original bird tilted back its head, opened its beak and fluttered its wings. The male, who had been collecting worms from the various branches it had previously landed on, fed the youngster and went about looking for more food.

That scene made me question my original thought of it being a female rose-breasted grosbeak. Clearly, it was a youngster and born only a few weeks prior. From the distance and angle, I couldn’t tell if it was a male or female youngster as they are very similar in appearance at that age. Males develop the trademark rosy red, upside down triangle on their chests later in the summer. Hopefully it will visit my feeders throughout the summer and I’ll be able to watch it grow.

Later in the day, as I took my usual spot on the lounge chair on the deck, I watched as both downy and hairy woodpeckers visited the suet feeder and fed their youngster nearby. It was funny to see a bird as big as a hairy woodpecker begging for food. The youngster, which resembled the adult with only slightly duller plumage, was as large as the parent making it easy to forget the bird was only weeks old.

It was interesting to note that both male and female adult woodpeckers of both varieties helped in the feeding of young.

As the sun set and I reflected on the day, I became impressed with the male rose-breasted grosbeak. He had visited the feeder several times over the spring to partake in the free and easy sunflower seeds. But, instead of feeding the youngster seeds or anything else from the feeding station, he worked the trees in search of protein-rich worms and insects. It’s not that I thought any less of the woodpeckers, but it stuck out in my mind as an impressive feat to work hard for “wild” food instead of simply visiting the feeder.

I’m sure I caught the woodpeckers at a certain moment in time. At other times, I’m sure, the parents are out among the trees teaching the youngsters to find “real” food. Many people worry that by feeding birds in the summer, we are robbing young birds of their instinct to learn to fend for themselves in the wild. I don’t buy into that theory as I’ve seen parent birds teaching their young to hunt — using feeders as a supplement, not the primary means of sustenance.

Studies have shown that to be true for feeders in general. Birds get a relatively small percentage of their diet from feeders and the rest comes from natural sources, which is fun to watch, too, if you’re lucky enough to witness that.

As much as I enjoy watching my feeders, I really got a kick out of watching that grosbeak fly around looking for worms.

For the Birds: The difference, or not, between the sexes

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

..

Photo by Chris Bosak A female rose-breasted grosbeak visits a feeder in Danbury, Conn., during the spring of 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A female rose-breasted grosbeak visits a feeder in Danbury, Conn., during the spring of 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak A male rose-breasted grosbeak visits a feeder in Danbury, Conn., during the spring of 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak A male rose-breasted grosbeak visits a feeder in Danbury, Conn., during the spring of 2018.

I heard its call and knew the indigo bunting was close.

Suddenly, it burst from the tall grasses and wildflowers and perched at the top of a blade of grass. The blade bent, but held the bird’s weight.

Once the bird settled, my first thought was “Oh, just the female.” The male indigo bunting is on many New England birdwatcher’s “most-wanted” list. Its brilliant blue plumage is one of the most inspiring sights in New England’s natural world. The female? Well, it’s brown and rather sparrow-like.

My attitude toward the female bunting changed quickly as I realized any indigo bunting sighting is worth celebrating, regardless of whether it’s a male or female. I snapped one photo before the female bunting left her perch and disappeared again into the tall grasses.

The indigo bunting is a prime example of sexual dimorphism. I’m usually not the type to throw out terms like that, but this one is worth knowing. Sexual dimorphism is the difference in appearance between males and females of the same species.

New England is filled with great examples, even among our common, year-round species. Cardinals are an obvious example. The males are brilliant red and females are a duller olive green or light brown.

Our most colorful songbirds, such as the scarlet tanager and rose-breasted grosbeak, are other fine examples. The females of both species are dull in color, while the males sport brilliantly colorful plumage.

I thoroughly enjoyed looking at the male and female rose-breasted grosbeaks at the feeder this spring and early summer.

Many female birds are duller, of course, so as to not attract attention, especially during nesting season. Let the males be the targets and keep predators away from the nest.

Other extreme cases may be found by looking at our water birds. The wood duck is about as colorful a bird as you can imagine. The male, that is. The female is muted browns and tans. Even the mallard, our most common and well-known duck, is an example with the shiny green head of the male and overall brown of the female.

Now, let’s look at some examples from the other side — the monomorphic birds. Male and female blue jays, for instance, have a similar appearance. The same goes for chickadees and mourning doves and many other common New England species.

Some species straddle the line and have less obvious differences. The male Baltimore oriole is a brilliant, vibrant orange, while the female is a duller orange. Male eastern towhees are black, white and rufous, while the females are similarly designed with brown instead of black plumage. The difference between sexes is even closer with the American robin, with the males having a slightly more polished coat.

Birds of prey are an interesting study in sexual dimorphism. In their case, the females are usually slightly larger. The bald eagle is an extreme case as the females can be up to 30 percent larger.

Sexual dimorphism is not exclusive to the bird world. Male deer and moose have antlers, females don’t. That’s one obvious example, but in most cases, male and female mammal species look pretty much alike.

Eventually, I found the male indigo bunting, too. He was keeping watch among the top branches of a nearby tree. While it was great to see the electric blue of its plumage, as I look back, I was just as happy to the see the muted brown of the female.

Continue reading

Well, now I know what’s stealing my seeds

Photo by Chris Bosak  A chipmunk looks up after grabbing sunflower seeds from a feeder in Danbury, Conn., during the summer of 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A chipmunk looks up after grabbing sunflower seeds from a feeder in Danbury, Conn., during the summer of 2018.

“I could have sworn I just put a handful of seeds down,” I mumbled to myself as I threw yet another handful of seeds on the platform feeder on my deck.

I scratched my head, turned around and walked back inside. I returned to my makeshift office in my son’s room to get back to work. As I wrote one thing or another, I glanced out at the feeder and saw a head pop up from behind the tomato plant that obstructs part of the feeder. Aha, that’s the culprit: a chipmunk. It dropped its head back down and a minute later ran across the railing of the deck with a mouthful of seeds.

I’m sure it’s not the only chipmunk out there. Squirrels like to join in that fun, as well. The birds still keep coming, despite the competition, so I guess I shouldn’t complain. Plus, I’m basically serving it to the rodents on a platter — no wait, that’s exactly what I’m doing — so what should I expect.

Photo by Chris Bosak  A chipmunk runs back toward its home after grabbing sunflower seeds from a feeder in Danbury, Conn., during the summer of 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A chipmunk runs back toward its home after grabbing sunflower seeds from a feeder in Danbury, Conn., during the summer of 2018.

For the Birds: The tricky nesting season

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

Yellow-bellied sapsucker cleans out its nest.

Yellow-bellied sapsucker cleans out its nest.

The nesting season can be tricky for birdwatchers.

Just when you are sure certain birds are nesting on your property, something happens that makes you question whether it’s true.

You would think a bird going in and out of a birdhouse would leave no doubt that the bird is, indeed, nesting there. But that’s not always the case. In fact, it’s often not the case.

I have four birdhouses strategically placed throughout my property and not a single one is occupied. I’ve seen black-capped chickadees go in and out of two of them on different occasions this spring. Yet, as I continue to monitor those houses, I see no activity.

I likely caught the birds checking out the houses and, apparently, they didn’t like something. Whether it was the location in the yard, the dimensions of the house, or they just didn’t like the vibe, they moved on and hopefully found a suitable place elsewhere.

At least the chickadees checked out the houses and moved on. Wrens will continue to tease homeowners into thinking they are nesting in the house. Of course, teasing the homeowner is Continue reading

For the Birds: Persistence pays off in birdwatching

Photo by Chris Bosak A Chipping Sparrow raises its crest while standing on a log in Danbury, Conn., summer2016.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Chipping Sparrow raises its crest while standing on a log in Danbury, Conn., summer2016.

I wasn’t about to let this one slip away.

I’ve said that to myself plenty of times over the years and most of the time it does, indeed, slip away. But not this time.

Persistence is often necessary when trying to nail down a bird’s identity. The problem is this: The bird doesn’t know this and often (usually?) flies away before you can study it long enough to get that ID.

This latest bird was driving me crazy. It sang loud and clear from the depths of the woods. The song appeared to be an endless series of robin-like phrases sung over and over. Despite the constant notes, I couldn’t find the bird in the treetops.

My first thoughts were that the bird was either a Baltimore oriole, rose-breasted grosbeak or scarlet tanager. I was thinking big in terms of color apparently. I looked in the tree tops, but saw nothing.

Eventually, I eliminated those birds from consideration because the song was too constant. The aforementioned birds take at least a little break between repeating their respective songs.

My next thought was a gray catbird as the song had a bit of a squeakiness to it. It wasn’t the right habitat for catbirds, however, as the scene was heavily wooded.

I recorded the song in case the bird decided to fly away, leaving me frustrated without a positive ID. I’ve tried that before, however, and it rarely seems to work. Just like birds Continue reading