For the Birds: Big news week for the birds

Photo by Chris Bosak Yellow-rumped Warbler in Selleck’s Woods, Darien, Conn., April 2014.

Note: This column was originally published in newspapers on Oct. 4.

There was a lot of environmental and bird-related news to come out of Washington this past week.

In case you missed it, the big news was that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials declared the ivory-billed woodpecker extinct. The “Lord God Bird’s” removal from the endangered species list is surprising only because officials are reluctant to declare species extinct. It’s such a powerful word that carries with it such finality it’s a tough tag to put on something.

The dreaded label was also placed on 22 other species of wildlife, including eight freshwater mussels. Sadly, but not surprisingly, 11 species from Hawaii and the Pacific Islands have been declared extinct. That includes many birds.

Although many factors go into the decline of a species, officials largely blame habitat loss and climate change for these latest extinctions.

There hasn’t been a confirmed sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker since 1944, and it was believed even then that the species was all but extirpated. I’m sure many of you will recall the alleged sighting in the Arkansas swamplands in 2004. Even though hundreds of expert birdwatchers and scientists converged on the area, the sighting was not confirmed, and the bird was not found again. The video of the bird was too blurry to act as confirmation, and it is widely believed to have been a pileated woodpecker.

The alleged sighting caused great excitement in the birding world, but also divided the birding community. I was hosting a radio show on birds at the time and spoke to several experts. John Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, firmly believed an ivory-billed woodpecker was spotted and brimmed with optimism that the bird would someday be found again. I read an article last week that quoted him as still holding out hope, despite the new designation.

Noted ornithologist David Sibley, however, was skeptical from the beginning. A video of my interview with him discussing the topic is by far my most popular YouTube entry.

The stark announcement by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service came with a dire warning that many more extinctions will almost certainly follow in the next 50 years. Officials are hoping the news and predictions will serve as a wake-up call for humans to do better about protecting the earth’s biodiversity.

Also last week, the White House announced it would bring back rules holding companies responsible for the deaths of birds that could have been prevented. The oil industry and utility companies pushed back on the announcement, claiming they will be held responsible for bird deaths not related to their practices.

A few months ago I wrote about being happy that the Milwaukee Bucks won the NBA championship because their new arena was built with strict bird-friendly measures in mind. Last week, I read that the Salesforce Tower in Indianapolis will dim its lights at night until November to try to protect migrating birds. City lights can disorientate birds migrating at night and result in window strikes, which cause an estimated 300 million to one billion bird deaths each year. That’s a large estimate range, but it’s indisputably large either way.

Speaking of fall migration, if you have the time, check out www.birdcast.info. It shows real-time migration maps and data and is fascinating to explore. It also features predictive technology to estimate how many birds will fly over an area over the next three days and nights.

Happy fall, everyone. Enjoy New England’s most iconic season.

Palm warblers out in force

Photo by Chris Bosak A palm warbler stands on a stone wall in New England, October 2021.

Three species dominated the count total on my morning bird walk today. White-throated sparrows were plentiful and it was great to hear their song again. Yellow-rumped warblers were plentiful, as they often are this time of year. Palm warblers were numerous as well and a flock of five kept me company near a stone wall at Huntington State Park. The fall warbler migration is bittersweet. It’s great to see them, of course, but the crisp air reminds me they will be gone soon and a long winter looms. At least winter is good for birdwatching too.

Photo by Chris Bosak A palm warbler stands on a stone wall in New England, October 2021.

For the Birds: Fall’s magic

Fall is an exciting time for birdwatching with hawkwatches, the southern warbler migration, and, later in the fall, the waterfowl migration.

Early fall holds many non-bird surprises in nature as well. On recent walks, I have seen dozens of monarchs and other butterflies. When I walk through fields, I am constantly on the lookout for monarch caterpillars on milkweed plants. Rarely am I lucky enough to spot one, but it does happen on occasion. The other day happened to be one of those occasions.

Monarchs are struggling as a species as habitat loss, pesticides and, potentially, climate change have played a heavy toll on their numbers, particularly out West. I did read an article recently that said the numbers may be rebounding, however. That would be great news.

Dragonflies are still out in force as well and may keep birdwatchers occupied when birds are scarce.

During a walk after a rain recently, I had to watch my step as dozens of efts, or newts in the terrestrial stage, were scattered along the trail. Luckily, they are bright orange (at least most of them) and easy to spot.

Fall is also the rut for deer and moose. If you are lucky enough to come across a moose these days, the rut is an exciting, but also potentially dangerous, time to see them. Keep your distance and admire them from afar.

Be extra cautious on the roads in the fall as deer are moving about more than usual. Young bucks in particular are on the move looking for potential mates. Keep an eye out, day and night, as these deer have their focus elsewhere, and getting from point A to point B often leads them across roads.

Back to birds … In recent days, I have seen black-and-white warblers, yellow-rumped warblers, a Canada warbler, several Eastern Phoebes, and many common yellowthroats.

The fall warbler season is notoriously difficult for identification purposes as the young ones have not yet attained adult plumage and many of the adults have traded their spring breeding plumage for a duller non-breeding plumage. It can make for some very difficult identifications.

To make things easier, I suggest using a field guide that shows warblers in all of their plumages, including seasonal, age and sex differences. Many field guides show only adult breeding males and females.

I haven’t been to a hawkwatch yet this fall, but I was surprised and happy to watch a northern harrier hunting over a big field recently. Harriers are fun to watch as they glide slowly a few feet above the grass line looking for prey. Harriers are easily distinguished from other hawks in flight by the large white patches on their rumps.

This is a great time to be outdoors. The weather is not too hot and not too cold, wildlife is abundant, and the thought of winter looming makes one feel as if one should take full advantage of these remaining unfrozen days. Drop me a line and let me know what you are seeing out there this fall.

Watch where you step

Photo by Chris Bosak An eft works its way across a path in New England, fall 2021.

If you’ve spent any time in the New England woods in the spring, summer or fall after a rain, you’ve certainly come across an eft or two (probably way more than that.) They wander onto hiking trails and can be quite numerous the day after a rain. I came across several during a recent walk at Huntington State Park in SW Connecticut. Notice the different colors of the two efts pictured. The eft is the terrestrial stage of the eastern newt. The four stages of the newt are described succinctly in the following post by author David George Haskell.

Photo by Chris Bosak An eft works its way across a path in New England, fall 2021.

For the Birds: Hummingbird feeder timing

Here is the latest For the Birds article. It was published a few weeks ago in newspapers, but is still relevant as September comes to an end.

Photo by Chris Bosak Hummingbirds are migrating now and will be throughout the rest of the month.

When should I bring in my hummingbird feeders? It’s a common question and may be answered the same way as so many other questions may be answered: It depends.

The answer depends on your tolerance for changing the sugar water in the feeders and your patience for watching a feeder that may not receive any visitors. Hummingbirds started to migrate a few weeks ago and some have gone south already.

With migration under way, now is definitely not the time to bring the feeders in. Hummingbirds need to pretty much double their weight to make their arduous migration, particularly when they reach the Gulf of Mexico and fly the 500 miles without rest.

Sure, there are plenty of natural food sources for hummingbirds this time of year, but an easy meal at a feeder now and then gives the tiny birds a bit of a break. Patches of jewelweed are another favorite of hummingbirds and they are still blooming. Other than feeders, I think I’ve seen more hummingbirds at jewelweed (touch-me-not) patches than any other venue.

Back to the question at hand. When should you bring in hummingbird feeders? Most of the hummingbirds will be gone by the last week of September or so; therefore I’d keep the feeders going until at least the end of this month.

There are some stragglers, however, so someone with more patience may want to keep the feeders out until the end of October. It’s not likely you will see any hummingbirds in October, but the rare opportunity to see one that late in the season may be enough to inspire some people to keep trying.

If you do extend the hummingbird feeder season, be sure to keep the sugar water fresh. With cooler fall temperatures, it is not necessary to change the water as often as in the summer, but it should still be changed every few days.

As an added incentive to keep the feeders up longer, many of the late hummingbirds (October and even November) are western species that are not often seen east of the Mississippi River, let alone in New England. Rufous hummingbirds are the most commonly seen western species in New England in the fall. Other species, such as Allen’s or calliope, may be seen as well. I remember going to see a black-chinned hummingbird in southern Connecticut back in November 2013. This bird was feeding on a late-blooming flower.

You never know what you’ll see if you keep your hummingbird feeders up later than usual. Odds are, you’ll see nothing. But the rewards can be great.

Future monarch (and a current one)

I always look at milkweed plants for monarch caterpillars. My success rate is about .001 percent, but today I got lucky and found one on a plant right next to the trail. Monarchs lay their eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves and the caterpillar eats the leaf when it hatches. Milkweed is toxic and the caterpillar becomes toxic to would-be predators.

There were a ton of monarchs flying around too, as seen below.

For the Birds: A dragonfly bonanza

Photo by Chris Bosak A green darner flies around a backyard in New England following a mosquito hatch in September 2021.

The sun was starting to set behind the marsh, casting a golden glow on the backyard.

In this magical light, we could see dragonflies by the dozens, perhaps hundreds, zipping around the yard. Looking closer, aided by the light, we could see hundreds, if not thousands, of mosquitoes, presenting themselves as tiny specks in the air. Looking even closer, we could see the dragonflies chase down and eat the mosquitoes. The mosquitoes didn’t stand a chance against these perfectly engineered predators.

I went out to try my luck at photographing a dragonfly in midair. It’s been an elusive shot in my catalog of nature photos. Even with the sheer numbers of dragonflies and the perfect evening sun at my back, the shot proved to be a challenge. I somewhat met the challenge, however. I wouldn’t say I nailed the shot as it’s not ideally composed, focused, exposed or any other type of technical photography term you can think of. But, for my purposes, it’s not bad. I’m not shooting for National Geographic or anything.

Dragonflies are small, fast and can move in any direction. It’s not easy to get a good shot of a dragonfly when it’s perched, let alone zipping around in unpredictable patterns.

I tried to follow an individual dragonfly through the camera lens. That was a lesson in futility. Even if I could follow one (which I couldn’t) it would have been impossible for the autofocus mechanism to keep up. Manual focusing by panning the subject wouldn’t have worked either. Not even close.

So I tried a trick I used sometimes when I was a sports photographer. I focused on a spot and waited for something to enter the frame. Actually, in this case, there were so many dragonflies that they were constantly in the frame so I just held down the shutter. Just because they were in the frame doesn’t mean the shots came out OK. On the contrary, 99 percent of the photos were instantly deleted because they were out of focus, usually by a long shot.

But I kept trying and made adjustments to the camera as I went along and the sun continued to set. I have no idea how many photos I took, but it didn’t really matter. Digital cameras can hold lots of photos these days.

This would have been impossible to do with the “old” film camera. Imagine blowing through several rolls of expensive oil and paying the cost of having them developed only to see a bunch of blurry dots. That was our reality not too long ago.

Clearly, the dragonflies didn’t eat all of the mosquitoes as I donated a few pints of blood trying to get the shots. What is it about my ankles that mosquitoes like so much?

As I mentioned earlier, dragonflies are a perfect predator for their prey and a single dragonfly can catch and eat dozens or even hundreds of mosquitoes in a single day. Their four wings allow them to fly in any direction, or even hover, and their vision is outstanding. They catch prey with their legs and eat the catch immediately.

Despite their awesome flying ability, they can sometimes become the prey as well. I remember watching a green heron at a small pond years ago snapping dragonflies out of the air.

I see dragonflies on nearly every walk I take in the spring, summer and fall. But I don’t remember ever seeing such a scene with so many of them concentrated in one yard. Neither of the neighbors had this spectacle going on. It was ours to watch exclusively. It was one of those moments in nature you stumble upon from time to time.

A few more yellowthroat photos

Photo by Chris Bosak A common yellowthroat perches on a branch in New England, July 2021.

Common yellowthroats are one of most familiar warblers we see in New England. While we are seeing many warblers pass through this time of year on their way south, yellowthroats remain one of the more common sightings. The male (pictured above) is easy to recognize with his black mask, but the female is a little more tricky, particularly in the fall when warblers are notoriously difficult to ID. Here are a few more shots to distinguish the female yellowthroat from other warblers passing through. Click here for a recent For the Birds column on yellowthroats.

Photo by Chris Bosak A common yellowthroat perches on a branch in New England, July 2021.
Photo by Chris Bosak A common yellowthroat perches on a branch in New England, July 2021.
Photo by Chris Bosak A common yellowthroat perches on a branch in New England, July 2021.

For the Birds: An eagle on the edge

Photo by Chris Bosak A young bald eagle perches on a dead tree near Danbury Fair mall in Danbury, CT, March 2019.

It was an eagle. There was no doubt about that. I second-guessed myself only for a second because of where the sighting took place.

It was not on a remote lake in northern New England or on one of the islands in Long Island Sound. It was right along a highway.

We are all used to seeing hawks perched along the highway. In fact, when I drive to Pennsylvania a couple of times a year to visit family, I make it a point to count the number of red-tailed hawks I see perched in trees along Route 86. It’s usually between 10 and 15. Hey, it passes the time on a long drive.

I noticed from far away as I approached the scene that there was a bird perched in a tree overhanging a somewhat busy state highway. Even from a significant distance, I could tell it was not a hawk. The only question was whether it was an eagle or a vulture. It did not have the posture of a vulture, but rather the regal stance of an eagle.

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