For the Birds: Flickers everywhere up north

My destination was the northern part of Maine. I’m talking way north. Get to Baxter State Park and keep going for several more hours.

I drove pretty much through the night to get there. I took a few half-hour breaks to sleep and then continued on my way. I have been to northern New Hampshire dozens of times, and I have been to the middle of Maine many times. I’ve always wanted to see what Aroostook County was all about so I took the opportunity to head up there and finally see for myself.

I settled at the border town of Fort Kent where only the St. John River separates the U.S. from Canada. 

Wildlife, of course, was the driving force behind the decision to drive up there. The boreal forest, to me anyway, is a magical place filled with so many interesting creatures. Moose are my favorite creatures, but things like lynx, loons, eagles, grouse, boreal chickadees, Canada jays, and other specialty species unique through the habitat are also a draw.

Some species, such as spruce grouse, I have never seen, and some animals, such as moose, I haven’t seen in a few years. I figured heading up to the extreme northern part of Maine would give me a good chance at finding both of those animals. I drove along the roads the Internet told me to drive on and added many more miles on unmarked dirt roads and came up empty. I logged thousands of steps through the forest to no avail. 

No moose, no spruce grouse. Moose, of course, are dwindling in numbers because of winter ticks and brainworm, but I was hoping to get lucky and be far enough north where the species may not be as heavily impacted. In talking to several locals, moose numbers are hurting just as much up there as they are throughout New Hampshire. I can remember seeing a dozen or more moose on a single trip to northern New Hampshire in the late 1990s. Not so much anymore. 

As far as spruce grouse go, I am starting to give up. When I was a beginning birdwatcher living in the Monadnock Region, I could have sworn I saw one in Pisgah State Park, but I have no proof and certainly can not swear by the identification. Pisgah is well south of where spruce grouse are typically seen. 

While the wildlife sightings proved to be more scarce than I thought, it wasn’t a complete washout. In the few days I was up there, I did find about a dozen ruffed grouse, several white-tailed deer, a red fox, a Canada jay, a wood duck, a few golden-crowned kinglets, and dozens and dozens of white-throated sparrows.

One other species really stole the show, however. This bird was everywhere up there. They were frequent sightings on the dirt roads, and there were so many of them on the grass in the yard behind my cabin that they reminded me of robins in the spring.

They were northern flickers and at one point I counted 11 of them in the yard, sharing the space with just as many blue jays. Northern flickers are large woodpeckers, but they spend most of their time on the ground searching for ants and other insects. You know it is a northern flicker when it flies off and shows a large white rump patch. We have the yellow-shafted variety in New England. Out West, the red-shafted is the predominant northern flicker.

Northern flickers are one of the few migratory woodpeckers. They do not travel extremely long distances and usually settle in the Carolinas or a bit farther south. I wonder if some of the birds I had seen had nested farther north in Canada and were starting their migration or if they were all residents. 

I do know that northern New Hampshire has a healthy population of northern flickers as well. I will always remember the sight of a red fox trotting down Route 3 in Pittsburg, NH, with a northern flicker and its mouth.

I threw a few nuts and seeds out the back door of the cabin to try to lure the blue jays and flickers closer. It took a few days, but they eventually warmed up to the idea and came to eat the treats.

I see plenty of flickers and blue jays in southern New England, but they were a nice treat to watch in northern Maine as well. Like many animal species, the blue jays looked a little more sturdy up there. White-tailed deer seem to be a little more sturdy in northern New England as well.

I didn’t get my moose or spruce grouse, but you can bet I’ll try again next year. The boreal forest always beckons.

For the Birds: Sit or walk? Easy call

I pulled into the tire shop for my appointment the other day, handed over the keys and asked how long it would take. The nice gentleman said it would be at least an hour, but that I was welcome to sit in the waiting area and help myself to coffee.

It was an ideal late summer/early fall day and the fall migration was well underway, so I decided to take a walk instead.

I gave the guy my cell phone number, asked him to give me a call when the truck was ready, and set out to find the nearest place where I might find some birds.

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For the Birds: Shorebirds aren’t only for the shore

Photo by Chris Bosak – A solitary sandpiper on the edge of a pond in New England, August 2022.

When hearing the word shorebirds, most people likely think of sanderlings and other small sandpiper-like birds running back and forth among the waves at the ocean.

Shorebirds, however, are not limited to small “peeps,” nor are they limited to the ocean. While it is true that the ocean and other coastal regions, such as Long Island Sound, are the best places to find shorebirds, inland lakes and ponds have shorebirds too.

I have seen lesser yellowlegs at many inland lakes in New Hampshire, all the way from the northern tip in Pittsburg to southern lakes such as Edward McDowell Lake in Peterborough. Yellowlegs may be seen on the edges of inland lakes during migration periods, such as now.

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For the Birds: Surprises big and small

Surprises come in all sizes in birdwatching.

Sometimes, or more accurately, rarely, a big surprise happens. You look out at your feeder and a bird you hadn’t seen in years is perched enjoying a meal. Or you are taking a winter stroll on a New England beach and notice a snowy owl resting in the distance.

The other day, I was treated to a few surprises on a much smaller magnitude. They came at a small park with a tiny pond in suburbia that typically has your normal birds. Crows and sparrows are the main birds with a few mallards in the pond.

On this particular day, however, things were a little different. 

I normally drive right past the park without stopping or even casting a glance toward the pond, but something big and white caught my eye as being out of the ordinary. It was a great egret standing near the edge of the water. It wasn’t right at the edge where you would typically see an egret but rather 10 to 15 feet into the grass away from the pond. A sizable flock of Canada geese roamed around the grass near the egret.

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For the Birds: Hummingbirds as a conversation starter

Hummingbirds are always a good conversation starter, especially in that time of year after the bird breeding season, but before fall migration begins. My last few columns on hummingbirds elicited a few responses from readers I’d like to share.

Similar to my “problem,” Mary Ellen from Keene has a territorial female hummingbird that keeps all other would-be visitors away. The feistiness of New England hummingbirds, however, pales in comparison to the rufous hummingbirds she observed at her daughter’s property in Colorado at 9,200 feet of elevation.

“This one bird kept all other hummers from feeding. I put up another feeder thinking that would solve the problem but instead of one territorial rufous, we ended up with two!” she wrote.

Mary Ellen did some research and discovered the migration route of the rufous hummingbird takes them over the Rocky Mountains when alpine flowers are in bloom. Sure enough, she wrote, the aggressive rufous hummingbirds left after two weeks and the other hummingbirds were free to enjoy the feeders again.

Mary Ellen also marveled at how far these tiny birds can fly during migration. Ruby-throated hummingbirds are the only hummingbird species that is regularly found east of the Mississippi River. They get to their territory, including New England, by flying nonstop over the Gulf of Mexico, a 500-mile journey that takes about 20 hours. Some hummingbirds, if they are lucky enough to find one, will stop and rest on a boat or oil rig.

Deb from Royalston, Massachusetts, said her six to 12 hummingbirds visit mostly at dawn and dusk.

Zaden commented on my website that: “In Japanese, they call them hachi-dori, ‘bee birds.” I love that word.”

Eunice wrote on my website: “I have three feeders and 30 healthy hummers here in N.H. but hundreds of flowers for them to enjoy. Yes, my visitors hop from one feeder to another, but they all get to feed. Many are babies. It was a good year for them.”

Don and Heidi Nowers from Westminster, Vermont, thought the rose of Sharon bush and nearby feeder would be enough to keep all of the hummingbirds content. Not so. “It appears that after the dominant hummer chases the little guys off, a couple of bees move onto the feeder. When Ruby comes back, it’s game on.” They wrote that the bees and bird chase each other and play a game of cat and mouse. They did once observe a bee and hummingbird sharing the feeder, proving there is enough to go around.

My house in the woods had a lot of rose of Sharon bushes growing wildly and the hummingbirds loved it. There are lists upon lists of the types of flowers hummingbirds are attracted to. I’ve found that hummingbirds will visit just about any bloom to see if it is a potential food source. Sure, they may prefer red, tubular blooms, but they’ll come to just about any flower, I have found.

Deborah from Fitzwilliam had similar thoughts about sharing the wealth when she purchased a second hummingbird feeder. Alas, instead of the birds sharing, Deborah is “still entertained by hummer wars.” Deborah also noted “that the hummingbirds’ warning of flying in an arch while it chirps is similar to a bumblebee’s warning?” I hadn’t noticed that before but will pay attention next time I see bumblebees acting territorially.

Thank you to all who wrote in and shared your stories. Let’s keep the conversation about nature going.

For the Birds: Hummingbird feeders feed other things as well

Photo by Brian Thoele – Brian Thoele of Norwalk, Conn., got this shot of a downy woodpecker on a hummingbird feeder.

Hummingbird feeders, as the name suggests, are meant to attract hummingbirds.

It’s right in the name “hummingbird feeder.”

But, as we all know, it attracts a lot more than hummingbirds. The most common invaders include yellowjackets, hornets, bees, and ants. However, hummingbird feeders also attract larger critters such as bats, squirrels, raccoons, and even bears.

The list doesn’t stop there as a few emails I received this week point out. Other birds enjoy a visit to a hummingbird feeder as well.

Downy woodpeckers are probably the most common other birds that visit hummingbird feeders. Michele from the Monadnock Region wrote in to share that two woodpeckers had dislodged five of the six yellow plastic inserts that go into the feeding ports. The plastic inserts are supposed to keep birds like woodpeckers away, but these woodpeckers found a way around it. Michele did her best to find the inserts and put them back, but the woodpeckers just popped them out again.

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For the Birds: Feisty hummingbirds steal the August show

Photo by Chris Bosak A Ruby-throated Hummingbird perches on a feeder in Danbury, CT, summer 2015.

I’ve seen plenty of hummingbird feeders in New England with a dozen or more of the tiny birds zipping around the ports. 

I stayed at a small motel in Errol several years ago and was amazed at the hummingbird feeder near the office. The birds were constantly at the feeder, from sunup to sundown, and there were a lot of them. The birds were not necessarily cooperative with each other, but at least they were tolerant.

That has never been the case with hummingbirds that visit my yard. All of my hummingbirds are jerks. I’m joking, of course. They are just territorial. Very territorial.

Such is the case this year again. I saw a female hummingbird off and on throughout this spring and early summer. Over the last two weeks, however, I’ve seen her every day and several times each day. 

I’ve also seen a male a few times, but his visits to the feeder are short-lived. As soon as he settles onto the perch and dives his bill into the port, the female appears out of nowhere and buzzes right by his head. The male takes off for cover, followed by the female making sure he knows that the feeder is off limits.

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For the Birds: Scarlet tanagers can be elusive

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

This has been the first spring/summer since I can remember in which I have not seen a scarlet tanager. I was hot on the trail of a few in the spring, but I never did spot the birds.

Granted, my birding this year has been hampered by foot ailments, but I have still spent enough time out there that I feel I should have seen one or two of these beauties.

The scarlet tanager is one of the most sought-after species in New England in the spring. Their electric red bodies with contrasting black wings make it one of our most unique and beautiful birds. The problem with tanagers is that they mostly hang around the tops of tall trees. Even a bird as bright as a teenager can remain hidden in a full canopy of oak or maple leaves.

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For the Birds: Chipping sparrow the source of the chirping

Photo by Chris Bosak A chipping sparrow perches on a garden stake in New England, July 2020. Merganser Lake.

The chirping was coming from the small tree right next to me. That much was clear. What wasn’t clear was where the bird was exactly or what type of bird it was. 

I looked among the leaves for a minute or two to no avail. Then the bird jumped down to a dead branch just above eye level. It was a chipping sparrow. If it had been singing instead of chirping/calling I would have recognized it without having to see it. I can recognize many calls or chips but apparently not the chipping sparrow’s.

I was glad the bird hopped down to offer a good look. Too many times to count I’ve zeroed in on a bird following its song or call only to have the bird eventually fly off with me never having seen it or identified it. It’s one of the more frustrating things when it comes to birdwatching. 

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