For the Birds: March madness in terms of weather

March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. If only it were that simple.

This March, like many before it, seems to be toggling between lion and lamb daily. One day last week, I was at the beach photographing oystercatchers and other shorebirds. The next day, I watched out my window as several inches of snow fell. As with any snowfall, I enjoyed watching my feeder birds. This day’s visitors included bluebirds, Carolina wrens, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, juncos, woodpeckers, and other feeder birds.

Such is life in New England in March, and even early April, as outdoor enthusiasts are subjected to the whims of mother nature. Thankfully, there is birdwatching to be done regardless of the weather.

As I mentioned earlier, I spent a few hours last week at a Connecticut beach watching and photographing shorebirds along the edge of Long Island Sound. The stars of the show, of course, were the American oystercatchers. Oystercatchers have always been a favorite of mine, and seeing their carrot-like bills in March is an underrated, yet certain, sign of spring.

I knew there were oystercatchers at the beach long before I spotted them. Their high-pitched and loud piping notes greeted me as I crested the dune. I nearly missed out on actually seeing them as I had already turned around and headed back when I heard those piping notes again. I wheeled around and spotted two oystercatchers flying my way. Another beach visitor must have spooked them further down the coast and chased the birds my way. I stopped in my tracks and let the bird pick a safe spot to land. To my surprise and delight, they landed fairly close to me and started looking for food.

Oystercatchers are relatively large shorebirds with red and yellow eyes and substantial red-orange bills used for prying open shellfish such as oysters and clams. Their specialized diet keeps oystercatchers close to the shore and you are unlikely to see one inland.

I was also enjoying the large, mixed flock of sanderlings and least sandpipers. They are about the same size, but the sanderling’s nonbreeding plumage is much brighter.

The day at the shore got me thinking that the beach is an underutilized resource for finding signs of spring. You’re not likely to see bulbs poking out of the sand or robins scampering along a grassy area looking for worms, but you will see the movement of birds that herald spring.

The term spring migration can be a bit of a misnomer, and the seasonal movement of shorebirds is a prime example. Many shorebirds head north early, and some even make their southward, or “fall,” migration early in the summer.

Regardless of what mood March decides it wants to be in on a certain day, the bird migration will stay true to its historical schedule. Many shorebirds have already arrived. So have other birds such as red-winged blackbirds and American woodcock. I am expecting to see my first eastern phoebe any day now. Soon, they will all be passing through or setting up homes in our region. It’s an exciting time to be a birdwatcher.

For the Birds: Spring thoughts

Photo by Chris Bosak A female Red-winged Blackbird perches on a tree in New England.

I often preach about enjoying what nature hands you regardless of the season, but I have to admit that my thoughts drifted toward spring a few times this week.

It wasn’t the general mildness of this winter that got me thinking about spring. In fact, I’m still holding out hope for more snow, although that may be an unpopular thought.

But three separate incidences steered my mind toward spring recently. First I noticed buds on the trees that line my street and the crocuses are in full bloom in the garden. Then I visited the neighborhood pond and heard the wonderful chorus of red-winged blackbirds. Finally, I dug deep into my video archive and came across “Spring and Summer Songbirds of the Backyard,” a short documentary narrated by George Harrison (no, not the former Beatle).

With so much mild weather, I wasn’t caught off guard by seeing the buds on the trees or the crocuses in bloom.

The red-winged blackbirds, as we have discussed in previous columns, have arrived a little earlier than usual, but it’s nothing too out of the ordinary. Male red-winged blackbirds arrive much earlier than females in order to find suitable habitat for nesting.

So the buds and blackbirds were not quite enough to get me thinking about spring. It was mostly that darn video. I should have never watched it again. Warblers, hummingbirds, orioles, rose-breasted grosbeaks. Birds we haven’t seen for months are the stars of the video.

It didn’t necessarily make me long for spring, but it did get me thinking about it.

Lush greens and colorful flowers fill the background of the scenes. Goldfinches and indigo buntings in their breeding plumage are additional colorful reminders on the video of what is coming to New England in six weeks or so.

The bright, vibrant colors in the video are in stark contrast to what we’re seeing in New England now. The woods are brown and gray. The fields — and a lot of lawns — are tan. About the only green we see now is that of the evergreens.

Much of the tape is devoted to showing birds building nests and raising young. Harrison shows wrens, yellow warblers and bluebirds hard at work for the next generation.

It reminded me of a time I watched as a mourning dove combed the ground for building material. The dove found a hot spot and returned several times to the same area for straw. This all happened, of course, in the spring.

So, while my thoughts may veer toward spring every so often — and I doubt if I’m the only one — I’m still focused on the task at hand: enjoying the rest of winter. There are still hawks to watch in the leafless trees, chickadees and titmice to observe at feeders or in the woods, owls to try to find, and countless other experiences only winter can offer.

And, of course, there are waterfowl to watch. The neighborhood pond has housed dozens of hooded mergansers for several weeks now. Most recently, though, and most importantly, common mergansers (one of my favorite birds) are back and I’m in no hurry to get rid of them. Yeah, spring can wait.

For the Birds: Mixed bag of birding news

Sharing some birding news from the area and beyond:

Several readers have responded to last week’s column about bluebirds. The spectacular and adored birds are becoming a common sighting in New Hampshire throughout the winter. Jim from Keene, who also made an appearance in last week’s column, wrote in this week to say he had eight bluebirds congregating around his birdhouse. The birds stayed for about 15 minutes. It was the same birdhouse that was used by bluebirds last year, so hopefully that is a good sign of things to come this spring.

I mentioned last week that eastern bluebirds were the only bluebirds that live in the East. That being said, a mountain bluebird has been seen at Great Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Newington, as reported on the birding news page of the American Birding Association’s website. As of this writing, the last sighting was reported on February 28. Visit for updates.

Why would a mountain bluebird, a western species, show up on the East Coast? Birds often get lost due to a variety of factors, such as weather, and end up in places where they typically don’t make an appearance. In New England, I’ve seen a painted bunting, fork-tailed flycatcher, brown booby, and other species that are not typically seen here. The Steller’s sea eagle that has been seen off and on in Maine this winter is another example.

Speaking of eagles, the ABA’s birding news web page seems to be filled with bald eagle sightings. I loosely monitor each of the New England states, and birders in each state seem to be reporting bald eagle sightings. Our national symbol has made an incredible comeback and seeing them is always a thrill. It is also nesting season for bald eagles in New England, and many are sitting on eggs already.

Unfortunately, the pathogenic avian influenza H5N1, which is also responsible for soaring egg prices at the grocery store, is taking a toll on bald eagles in the U.S. Several sources, including the Audubon Society and Smithsonian Magazine, are reporting that the bird flu is killing off bald eagles, most notably in Georgia and Florida, and the birth success rate for bald eagles is dropping dramatically in those places.

H5N1 so far has impacted larger birds more than songbirds, but that is little consolation as the National Wildlife Disease Program (operated by the USDA) has detected the virus in about 150 bird species. Ducks, geese, gulls and terns are among those most impacted. Eagles often get the virus by hunting ducks that are infected.

On a brighter note, Mary Lou of Alstead wrote in to say that she has been recording her first red-winged blackbird sighting since 1992. This year, the first one showed up on Valentine’s Day (February 14), the earliest date since she has been keeping track. I had written a few weeks ago that red-winged blackbirds have been arriving particularly early this spring.

In another response to a previous column, Cynde from Jaffrey wrote in with a fun tip for offering water to birds in the winter. I had written that offering water in the winter is important, but heated birdbaths can be pricey and bubbler systems do not always keep the water from freezing. I also mentioned that I often take pots filled with warm water out to the birdbath and repeat several times if necessary.

Cynde suggests using a heated dog bowl with a few rocks in it to make the water more shallow for the birds. Dog bowls are much less expensive than heated birdbaths. Cynde wrote that several birds visit her “birdbath,” including crows and turkeys. She also had four bluebirds at the same time this winter.

Like many of my columns, it always comes back to bluebirds.

For the Birds: Bluebirds brighten a New England winter

Photo by Chris Bosak An eastern bluebird braves a New England winter and visit a backyard for mealworms, winter 2020.

I did two bird talks in New Hampshire last weekend and loved meeting everyone and talking about birds for a while.

In both talks, many questions and comments were about bluebirds. Everybody loves bluebirds, and these talks only confirmed that is true. And why not? They are beautiful birds and many of them are hardy enough to stay with us all winter. 

I have found that New Englanders appreciate the birds that stick with us year-round. When I did an informal survey many years ago to determine New England’s favorite bird, the chickadee and cardinal were the top two species named. Both birds, of course, are with us spring, summer, fall and winter. 

If I were to redo the survey, I would not be surprised if the bluebird didn’t crack the top two. I’m not sure which bird it would displace, but bluebirds certainly have been getting a lot of love lately.

New Englanders love their common loons as well. While loons may flee New England’s lakes and ponds in late fall, many of them settle for the winter in the region on Long Island Sound or off the Atlantic coast. 

Everybody loves to see bluebirds in the spring at their nest boxes bringing insects and worms to the babies. It is also fun to see them in the summer and fall with their fledglings. But winter seems to be the season when many people get the biggest thrill over seeing bluebirds. It is particularly gratifying to see them while there is snow on the ground and branches. Their bright blue coloring contrasts spectacularly with a fresh coating of snow.

Jim, an attendee at one of the talks, said there is something extra special, even spiritual, about seeing bluebirds. I couldn’t agree with him more.

There are three types of bluebirds in the United States. The western and mountain bluebirds live out West. Eastern bluebirds, as the name would suggest, live in the East. 

What was a little surprising to me is that eastern bluebirds nest throughout the entire East, northward into Canada and southward into Florida and even parts of Central America. For whatever reason, I tended to believe that they were a more northern bird until I saw one nesting in a tree hollow near my brother’s house in southern Florida.

Bluebirds are a prime example of how conservation efforts can work. They were declining significantly as a species due to a loss of nesting sites caused by habitat destruction and competition with introduced species such as starlings and house sparrows.

Thankfully, the decline was noticed (always the first step in solving a problem) and bluebird boxes became a critical conservation tool. The boxes were, and still are, built to exact specifications for the bluebird, right down to the size of the hole. They aren’t foolproof as other species sometimes get to the box first, but there’s no doubt the bluebird box program greatly helped the species.

Many people are surprised when they see bluebirds in the winter and wonder if it is an anomaly. Bluebirds do indeed regularly spend their winters in New England. Well, some of them anyway. Similar to American robins, their cousins in the thrush family, some eastern bluebirds migrate and some don’t. Of those that do migrate, some go a fair distance south and some go only a short distance. Many of the bluebirds we see in winter could be birds that nest farther north and come down here for the winter.

Like many New Englanders, I appreciate the ones that remain with us throughout the winter. New England winters can be long, cold and rather bland. A good bluebird sighting never fails to brighten things up.

For the Birds: Red-winged blackbirds getting an early jump

Photo by Chris Bosak A red-winged blackbird sings from the top of a tree at Happy Landings in Brookfield, Conn., spring 2017.
Photo by Chris Bosak A red-winged blackbird sings from the top of a tree at Happy Landings in Brookfield, Conn., spring 2017.

Winter officially may still have about four weeks to go and, in New England, goodness knows how many weeks or months left unofficially, but it’s not too early to start discussing spring migration.

I’m not trying to jinx the mild weather we’ve had and cause a winter that lingers into May like some of our recent winters. Even if winter does roar back, there are still plenty of birdwatching opportunities to be had. It’s a hobby for all seasons.

Regardless of what happens in the weeks ahead, signs of spring from the world of birds are here already. One morning as I walked to fill the feeders I noticed the extremely pleasant and welcomed sounds of cardinals, Carolina wrens and song sparrows singing their hearts out.  

Red-winged blackbirds, one of the earliest signs of spring, have returned already to many parts of New England. Pat from Sandwich wrote to say she had six red-winged blackbirds in her backyard last week. There have been other reports of red-winged blackbirds in New Hampshire, including one report by Brian of Keene, who included the sighting on the American Birding Association’s bird news website.

The ABA site also includes reports of ravens and crows carrying sticks and other nesting material. Larger birds such as hawks, ravens and crows start nesting earlier than our smaller birds. Owls start even earlier, and many have been on nests for over a month.

What happens to all these birds if the weather does take a prolonged turn for the worse? The larger birds on nests will be fine. They have been nesting this early for years and the birds and nests are built to withstand harsh conditions.

Those red-winged blackbirds, and any other smaller birds that may have returned early, may have a tougher road ahead should we experience a severe cold snap. It’s a risk-reward scenario for those birds. They can return to New England and pick out the best nesting spots and improve their chances of attracting a mate, but they risk freezing to death if the weather turns. Or, they can hold back and risk losing the top nesting sites but have the reward of not putting themselves at the mercy of a New England winter.

Some red-winged blackbirds remain all winter, similar to robins. I received an email from Lenny in Greenfield on December 11 saying he had a small number of red-winged blackbirds at his feeder.

So, the spring migration has already started. It will be slow for the next several weeks, however, as more red-winged blackbirds return to the region. American woodcock will return to our woods and fields by the middle of March, and eastern phoebes and osprey will be back by the end of March.

Things will start to really heat up in April, but we’ll get into that later.

For the Birds: Winter birdbath brings them in

Attracting birds to a birdbath is one of the more underrated joys of the hobby.

Perhaps it is because I failed on my first several attempts to get birds to visit the birdbath I offered. I started to think it was a waste of time to even try, but about then, I glanced out at the birdbath and saw a magnolia warbler cleaning itself. Of course, birds such as magnolia warblers are not going to visit your birdbath too often, but to see even the most common of birds at a birdbath is a thrill.

Many people focus the majority of their attention on bird feeding, and rightfully so, as that has a high success rate of attracting birds. Bird houses are another aspect of the hobby that get a lot of attention, particularly bluebird boxes. That is also understandable as it is nice to know that you are helping to assure the next generation of birds.

I have found that far fewer people discuss the birds that show up at their birdbath. It is a bit trickier to attract birds to a birdbath than to a feeder, but when it does happen, it makes the extra effort well worth it. 

It is particularly rewarding to see birds at the birdbath in the winter. More than any other aspect of birdwatching in any other season, I think a birdbath in the winter is the biggest help to birds.

Feeding birds is really supplementing their diet. It may help the birds more in the winter than in other seasons, but even without birdfeeders, birds would find enough food to survive. There are also many natural cavities in the woods for birds to find homes. Granted, there are far fewer natural cavities because so much land has been developed, but there are still plenty of dead trees for birds to find homes. An argument can be made, of course, for the necessity of bluebird boxes, as that species was in peril due to the lack of suitable places to nest. The bluebird box program has helped the species immensely.

Even birdbaths, while convenient for birds, are not completely necessary for most of the year, as there are plenty of other water sources to be found. But when a hard freeze occurs and those other water sources are frozen, birdbaths are a godsend to the birds, which need to drink and keep their feathers clean for survival.

Which begs the question, how do you keep water in a birdbath unfrozen so the birds can utilize it? There are a few different ways to do this.

The easiest way is to buy a heated birdbath or a heater designed for a birdbath. This requires a bit of an investment to purchase the bath, a sturdy extension cord and a reliable outdoor electrical outlet.

Another way is to try a bubbler system. This requires either a strong extension cord and outdoor outlet, or there are some on the market that run on batteries. I have tried one that runs on batteries and did not have much success as the water simply froze around legs that were supposed to be wiggling.

Or you can try my labor-intensive method, which is to bring a pot of hot (not boiling) water and dump it in the birdbath whenever it freezes. Sometimes this is required only once after a cold night followed by a relatively warm sunny day. Or it requires several trips to the birdbath when temperatures remain bitterly cold throughout the day. To me, it is worth the effort to make these several trips.

Of course, this method works only when you are home and have the time to make those multiple trips. I am lucky enough to be able to work from home a few days a week and those are the days I can take the time to make the trips back and forth. When I am at work, unfortunately, the birds are on their own.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when offering water to birds in the winter. I would not recommend using a glass or ceramic birdbath as they can easily crack or otherwise break when ice forms in the bowl. I lost a nice ceramic birdbath one winter when I let the neighbor kids come over to try to break up the ice with a hammer. Looking back, it was not the most intelligent decision I’ve ever made, but you live and learn.

Putting the bath in a sunny spot will help keep the water from freezing completely. Even if the water is mostly frozen, a few puddles of liquid are better than nothing as the birds can take a drink.

I haven’t seen anything out of the ordinary at my birdbath this winter, but I have had pretty good luck with the more common species. I get daily visits from cardinals, blue jays, song sparrows and mourning doves. Less frequently, there have been goldfinches, chickadees, robins and bluebirds. Then there was the day the Cooper’s hawk perched on the birdbath and used it as a lookout.

Keeping unfrozen water in a birdbath in the winter gives you a leg up on your neighbors for attracting more birds. The birds may still get food from various backyards, but there are likely not too many places to get a drink from a birdbath.

Let me know your birdbath tips and what interesting birds you are attracting.

For the Birds: Variations for a variety of reasons

Photo by Chris Bosak A downy woodpecker with yellow coloration visits a suet feeder in Danbury, CT, May 2019.

Birds don’t always look like they do in field guides.

There are variations within a bird species due to obvious reasons such as age, time of year or sex. Immature birds take time to achieve adult plumage. That could be a few months or, in the case of the bald eagle, four or five years. Male wood ducks, one of the most splendid birds in New England during breeding season, is a dull brown duck after shedding its breeding feathers. Sexually dimorphic birds, such as cardinals, have obvious differences between males and females.

Sometimes, even the sun can make birds look different. Grackles may appear purple, green, blue or black, depending on how the light hits it. Male indigo buntings can look spectacular or rather ordinary depending on the sun.

There are also regional differences among bird species. Blue jays in New England, I have found, are much brighter and larger than the blue jays in Florida. I’m also surprised when I see how small the blue jays are when I visit my brother in southern Florida.

Some bird species have different morphs. Most of the red-tailed hawks in New England are lighter overall than their western counterparts. This is also commonly referred to as a phase. The best example of a morph I can think of is not a bird at all, but the gray squirrel. Gray squirrels also come in white and black. In fact, in some parts of the country, black gray squirrels are the norm and gray ones are the rarity.

Then there are the pigment abnormalities such as albinism, leucism and melanism. Albino birds are fairly rare. Albinism is a condition that prevents the production of melanin, which is the pigment that gives animals their color. Leucism, or partial albinism, is more common. It is still extremely unusual to find a leucistic bird. Robins, juncos and red-tailed hawks seem to be particularly susceptible. I remember seeing a pair of leucistic Canada geese many years ago. They were more white and tan rather than brown and black.

Melanism causes birds to look darker than their “normal” kin. Again, red-tailed hawks seem to be susceptible to melanism. Red-tailed hawks, with their morphs and light and dark pigment abnormalities, definitely do not always look like their picture in the field guide.

Hybridization also impacts the bird world and can make for difficult identifications. Mallards and black ducks often hybridize, making for a duck that looks an awful lot like a mallard, but something is off just a bit. Other ducks and gulls hybridize as well. Oddly enough, there are also many cases of hybrid hummingbirds seen in the West.

A bird’s diet can also impact their appearance. The carotenoids in the algae eaten by the tiny shrimp gobbled up by flamingos give the large birds their pink appearance. With that algae and shrimp, flamingos would appear gray instead of pink.

In New England, sometimes people see an oddly colored house finch. Most male house finches are reddish pink, but every once in a great while, people will see an orange or yellow house finch. This is because the bird’s diet during the molt did not contain the pigments of a house finch’s typical diet that give the birds their normal color.

Finally, sometimes birds look different for unknown reasons. With an estimated 50 billion individual birds in the world, some strange occurrences are bound to happen. I have yet to hear a good explanation as to why some downy woodpeckers appear to be yellow or tan and black instead of the usual white and black. It could be the diet or could be that the inside of the hole in the tree that it calls home rubs off the plumage, but I’ve only seen this in one bird at a time. I would think the bird’s mate would have the similar abnormality.

Who knows? Maybe it was something it ate.

For the Birds: Count the birds

Photo by Chris Bosak A Carolina wren perches on a branch following a snowfall in New England, Jan. 2022.

Note: This was written for my New Hampshire audience, but the Great Backyard Bird Count applies to all.

I have received a few emails from folks who have seen evening grosbeaks this winter. There have not been many emails regarding pine siskins or purple finches, and not a single one about redpolls.

As had become typical, there have been plenty of emails about Carolina wrens and red-bellied woodpeckers.

The birds mentioned in the first paragraph as known as irruptive species in New England. Some years we see many of them, some years we see a few and some years we don’t see any. The birds in the second paragraph are species that are expanding their range northward and are now fairly common throughout the southern and middle parts of New England.

Anecdotal evidence plays a large role in monitoring bird populations, but a more scientific approach is even better. That is why there are citizen science projects such as the Christmas Bird Count, Great Backyard Bird Count and Project FeederWatch. These massive databases help scientists track bird populations and see which bird species are thriving and which are struggling.

The Great Backyard Bird Count will be held this year from February 17-20. The GBBC is now a global event with hundreds of thousands of birders participating every year. Researchers from National Audubon Society, Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Birds Canada use the checklists to learn about and protect birds. It is free, open to all and requires as much or as little time as one can spare.

While I would encourage everyone to participate in the GBBC, I would also urge New Hampshire residents to take part in the annual NH Audubon Backyard Winter Bird Survey, which takes place this year on February 11 and 12. NH Audubon is a conservation organization independent of the national Audubon Society.

Similar to the national bird surveys, the Backyard Winter Bird Survey helps biologists from the state get an annual snapshot of what birds are in New Hampshire during the winter. For instance, cardinals and titmice are common backyard feeder birds throughout most of New England these days. A relatively short time ago, however, these birds were considered southern birds and rarely seen this far north.

In fact, according to the NH Audubon website, the project was originally the “Cardinal-Tufted Titmouse Census” before being expanded to include more species in 1987. Cardinals and titmice are still fairly rare in northern New Hampshire, but their numbers are increasing there. Surveys like this help monitor those trends.

It is likely that the Carolina wren and red-bellied woodpecker will continue to expand northward and increase their population where they are already established. The Backyard Winter Bird Survey will play a major role in tracking those populations.

But it isn’t all about cardinals, titmice, Carolina wrens and red-bellied woodpeckers. Nor is it only about the irruptive species such as siskins, redpolls and grosbeaks. It’s about all the species you see in your backyard. It may not seem worthwhile to report every chickadee you see, but what if suddenly chickadees started to appear on fewer checklists and in smaller numbers. Biologists would get an early warning that perhaps something is amiss with the chickadee population.

For this survey, backyard birds go beyond the birdfeeder. Any bird flying overhead, swimming in a pond or lurking in the woods should be counted. In general, any bird you can see while standing in our house or on your property may be counted. Use separate forms if you have two properties and count birds from each.

Forms for the survey are available online and results may be submitted online. Find more information about the survey at or by calling (603) 224-9909.

Get those results in, but also let me know if you see anything out of the ordinary.

For the Birds: Looking back on a fine 2022

It already seems as if 2022 is a mere dot in the rearview mirror. Before it fades even more, I want to present my annual “top birding moments of the year” column. It’s a tradition that goes back several years and is one of my favorite columns to write. I also encourage readers to send to me their favorite birding (or wildlife) moments of 2022.

10. Bears! On my drive home from looking at land in far north New Hampshire, I noticed three dark blobs at the far edge of a huge field. I hit the brakes, turned around and pulled over. The blobs were three bears — a mother and two cubs. Bears are becoming increasingly common throughout New England. I hope we learn to co-exist peacefully. 

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