For the Birds: Keep those feeders clean

I’ve been keeping an eye on the news regarding the mysterious disease that has been killing birds in some Midwest and mid-Atlantic states.

It appears that the disease has not reached New England, although nearby states such as New Jersey and Pennsylvania have been impacted. Researchers still do not know what is causing the deaths, but they have ruled out several diseases that commonly afflict birds, such as West Nile, salmonella and avian conjunctivitis.

I did read a report that suggests the situation may be waning, which would be great news. I’d be more than happy if the disease never makes it to New England.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, my go-to source for information about birds, does not directly recommend taking down feeders, like so many other organizations do. Rather, it recommends following the guidelines put forth by an individual’s state fish and game commission.

To recap from last week’s column, most of the birds that have been affected are young grackles, starlings, blue jays and robins. Symptoms include discharge from eyes, seizures and disorientation.

If you do find a dead bird showing any of the symptoms mentioned earlier or find multiple dead birds in one area, contact the N.H. Fish and Game Department’s wildlife division at 271-2461.

Regardless of whether the disease comes to New England, I highly recommend taking the time and effort to clean your bird feeders with a 10 percent bleach solution. This should be done several times a year anyway, but it is particularly important in the summer. Hot, humid weather can really make those feeders nasty breeding grounds for all sorts of things potentially harmful to birds.

If you decide to take down your feeders for the summer, be assured that the birds will find plenty of food in the wild and will return to your yard when the feeders are out there again in fall or winter.

While we’re on the subject, be sure to change the sugar water and clean hummingbird feeders frequently as well. The solution can become rancid quickly during hot weather.

Birdbaths should be changed and cleaned frequently during the summer as well. Not only is it better for the birds, but it lessens the likelihood of the bath becoming a breeding area for mosquitoes.

In other bird news, it was nice to see the Milwaukee Bucks win their first NBA championship in 50 years. I haven’t followed professional basketball since I was a kid, but I started passively rooting for the Bucks a few years ago. What does this have to do with birds?

In 2018, the Bucks opened their new arena, called Fiserv Forum. It is the first certified bird-friendly professional sports complex. It is located in downtown Milwaukee and earned the Bird Collision Deterrence Credit from the U.S. Green Building Council. It minimizes see-through glass and bird-disorienting lighting. When you consider that upwards of a billion birds die in North America each year from building collisions, this type of construction is worthy of high praise.

Hopefully, it’s a trend that other cities will follow.

For the Birds: Any walk is worth it

Photo by Chris Bosak A great blue heron stands on a dock.

Even when nothing out of the ordinary is seen, walks in nature are still valuable and memorable.

While my recent walks haven’t been full of extraordinary sightings, many moments stick out in my mind as enduring.

Here are a few:

A friend and I were taking a walk in a large conservation area dominated by wide swaths of fields. Thank goodness for those areas because birds such as bobolinks need that habitat to nest. While bobolinks were indeed plentiful, another sighting remained with me from that walk.

We were about to round a corner of the path that cuts through the field when we noticed something on the trail ahead. It was large and dark, and I thought at first it was a mammal such as a groundhog. Then I thought it was a turkey. Finally, my eyes and mind started to work together, and I realized it was a turkey vulture.

I could tell from its movements that it was eating something. Why else would a turkey vulture be sitting on the edge of a trail in the middle of a field? I peered through the binoculars and noticed the vulture was eating a dead snake. I tried to determine what type of snake it was, but I couldn’t get a clear enough view. It’s highly unlikely that the vulture killed the snake, but rather a hawk, kestrel or some other large predator.

As a supplemental sighting to that one, a second turkey vulture was perched behind us in a snag. It had gone unnoticed until we walked past it. Our heads turned when it flew off its perch and left the dead branch bouncing up and down like that old drinking bird toy. We heard its wings as it flapped past us. A resident red-winged blackbird did not take kindly to the circumstance and chased after the vulture rather aggressively. The vulture rose quickly, which seemed to satisfy the blackbird.

During that same walk, a multitude of monarchs (I think that should be the official name for a group of monarchs) visited the ubiquitous milkweed in the fields. Several of the monarchs were mating and therefore attached while flying. We found out later that monarchs can be attached like that for up to 16 hours. I’ll be sure to check that milkweed later in the year for caterpillars.

I had mentioned bobolinks earlier. We saw dozens, and several males rose out of the tall grasses to sing their funny, strange and bubbly song.

On a solo walk through the woods, I came across a pond I hadn’t discovered previously. The trail continued through the woods, and there were no side trails leading to the pond. Unable to resist a closer look at water, I bushwhacked to the pond’s edge. A great blue heron stood on the far end of the pond and a small group of wood ducks gathered on a large rock serving as an island in the middle. I hadn’t seen wood ducks in several months and was thankful for the discovery.

Later on that walk, I came across a large swampy area with several snags. A great blue heron perched on one of the snags like the swamp sentinel. It is a rather common sighting to see great blue herons perched near swamps, but it’s always interesting to see nonetheless. One of my first birding memories, before I was obsessed with the hobby, was of a great blue heron perched on top of an evergreen in Green Mountain National Forest in southern Vermont. That moment still sticks with me.

Finally, on two separate walks with a group of friends, the strange song of the veery and the boisterous call of the great-crested flycatcher were constants in the woods, while cardinals and catbirds were most common where fields and woods met.

As I mentioned, nothing extraordinary, but well worth it nonetheless.

For the Birds: Mystery disease killing birds in U.S.

Photo by Chris Bosak An American Goldfinch with Avian Conjunctivitis visits a birdfeeder in Danbury, Conn., April 2016. A different disease is killing birds in the U.S. this summer.

Something is killing birds in unusually large numbers.

An as-of-yet undetermined disease has taken a heavy toll on birds such as robins, blue jays and grackles in about a dozen Mid-Atlantic and Midwest states. The die-off started in May and, while it hasn’t reached New England yet (as far as we know), officials at conservation organizations are encouraging people to take precautions to protect birds. Among the precautions: Stop feeding birds (or at least wash all feeders with a 10 percent bleach solution) and discontinue the use of birdbaths temporarily.

Disorientation, imbalance, lethargy and encrusted or cloudy eyes are among the symptoms of the birds afflicted with the disease. Young birds appear to have been disproportionately impacted. Researchers have confirmed that this differs from the avian conjunctivitis that has plagued house finches and goldfinches for many years. They have also ruled out many other potential causes, such as bacteria, viruses and parasites that commonly afflict birds.

It’s important to know what is not causing the die-off, of course, but finding out what is causing the event is even more significant. Determining that is still a work in progress.

One theory, which has been applauded by some and discounted by others, is that the die-off is related to the 17-year Brood X periodical cicada emergence. The geography of the die-off and emergence appears to align, and the theory suggests that the cicadas, which have been underground for 17 years, have soaked up pesticides, herbicides and whatever other nasty stuff we’ve been using to control insects and grow our grass and crops. It seems to make sense, but as I’ve mentioned, many researchers do not think the link is plausible.

There is also evidence that the outbreak may be subsiding, which would be the best-case scenario. It is important, of course, to continue to research the cause of the die-off to prevent it from happening again.

As of this writing, New England has not been impacted by this mysterious disease — as far as we can tell anyway. Some of the birds have been found close to our region, however, in states such as Pennsylvania and Virginia, so it is certainly not out of the question to think it could get here.

As a precaution, New England conservation organizations are encouraging people temporarily to halt feeding birds and offering water in birdbaths until the situation is under control and, hopefully, the cause is found. The birds will be just fine without food from feeders, especially this time of year when natural food sources are abundant.

If you do find a dead bird showing any of the symptoms mentioned earlier or find multiple dead birds in one area, contact the N.H. Fish and Game Department’s wildlife division at 271-2461.

I’ve mentioned in previous columns that I don’t like when birds are in the news because it’s usually bad news if the media report on bird happenings. This is certainly the case here, and I’m hopeful that the reports of the event subsiding are true. We’ll continue to follow the story.

For the Birds: Young birds need close inspection to ID

Photo by Chris Bosak An immature Peregrine Falcon sits on prey at Veterans Park in Norwalk, CT, Dec. 2013.

Early and mid-summer can be a tricky time for birdwatchers. I know, I know. I say that about a lot of times of the year.

This is a tricky time in that many young birds are fledging, and they don’t always resemble an adult bird yet. When a young bird is found in the field, it is often difficult to determine what exactly it is.

Some young birds are fairly obvious. A young robin may not look exactly like an adult robin, but it is clearly a robin nonetheless. Many birds fall under that category. But there are other birds, such as young warblers and even some ducks and hawks, that do not yet resemble their parents and therefore require some study to figure out what they are.

It is always rewarding to see young birds at your feeder or birdbath. I’ve seen many cardinals over the years teaching their youngsters how to eat from feeders. Last summer, I had the pleasure of watching a bluebird family visit daily for an extended period eating mealworms I had left on the deck railing.

Usually, however, young birds are not so observable as they are found in the woods or fields.

When that happens, you have to use context to determine which type of bird it is. Habitat is particularly important when making this determination. You typically would not find a young bird of the deep woods in a field or any other different type of habitat. Likewise, you wouldn’t find a juvenile bobolink in the deep woods.

Size and shape come into play as well. Birds tend to grow quickly and often are as big as an adult within a few weeks. They are also similar in shape to adults at this time.

I spotted a mystery young bird in a shrub at my neighbor’s house recently. It was fairly large, like a robin, but did not have the right shape or coloring. I snapped a few photos and studied the images when I got back home. Based on where I had seen it and its color, size and shape, it didn’t take long to determine it was a young mockingbird.

Color, however, does not always offer strong clues for making an identification and, indeed, can be misleading. Many young birds do not obtain adult plumage for a long time. Many do not look like their parents until the following spring or summer. Some birds, like the bald eagle, take several years to obtain full adult plumage. It typically takes four or five years before they have their trademark white heads and tails. In the meantime, they have a mottled brown appearance.

Speaking of bald eagles, did you hear about the eagle’s nest with a red-tailed hawk chick in it as well? The latest New Hampshire Audubon eNews edition featured a story and video showing a young bald eagle in the middle of a nest and a fluffy red-tailed hawk youngster closer to the edge of the nest. The nest is located on Bow Lake. The newsletter, quoting raptor expert Iain MacLeod, executive director at the Squam Lake Natural Sciences Center, cites a fascinating potential explanation for the oddity.

“He speculates that this baby hawk likely came into the nest as a food item in the talons of the adult male eagle, but that having survived that adventure, began food-begging which triggered the adult female eagle’s maternal drive to feed young,” the newsletter reads.

That’s one lucky red-tailed hawk chick. I hope the developing story has a happy ending for the young hawk.

It’s a great time of year for birdwatching. (I know — I say that a lot too.) The next generation of birds is taking flight. Even if some of them are difficult to identify, it’s fun to see them grow.

Eastern black swallowtail

Photo by Chris Bosak A black swallowtail sips nectar from a milkweed plant in New England, July 2021.

Butterflies, like this eastern black swallowtail, are a good diversion when the birding is slow on hot, summer afternoons.

For the Birds: Dead or alive, trees are vital

Photo by Chris Bosak A pileated woodpecker works over a tree in New England, May 2020. Merganser Lake.

Every tree tells a story, even the dead ones. In fact, the dead ones may have the most interesting stories to tell.

A recent walk through the woods had me thinking about the trees. These particular woods were a mixture of evergreen and deciduous trees — predominantly deciduous but a few evergreens sprinkled in as well.

A large ash tree was snapped about 12 feet from the ground. The otherwise healthy-looking trunk stood tall and straight, while the rest of the tree bent down into the forest at a 45-degree angle.

I’m pretty sure I know what happened to the tree. A severe wind storm, with spotty tornado touch downs, blew through the area last summer and reduced many trees to tall trunks. It’s funny how storms impact trees differently. Some storms uproot most of the trees they damage. Other storms snap them like twigs. Still other storms, it seems, hardly damage the trees at all.

If the snapped trees were in someone’s yard, they would be chainsawed into 100 pieces and carted away. In the woods, they just stay that way until nature brings the snapped top portion crashing to the ground. Then, the trunk stands erect to rot and what was formerly the top of the tree rests on the ground to rot as well.

Its function as a tree changes dramatically. No longer are they sucking up carbon dioxide and giving oxygen in return. No longer are they producing leaves, which provide shade and shelter for the woods’ creatures.

Even dead, however, the pieces of the once-proud tree provide many functions for the woods and their usefulness is still profound. The long top of the tree will rot and feed the soil so that the woods can grow more trees and other plants. It will provide homes for ground mammals and insects — lots of insects. Those bugs will become food for birds and other creatures.

The trunk, now reduced to a stub in the woods, will also provide food and shelter for birds, squirrels and insects. The numerous holes in the trunk provide evidence of their vital job.

As I pondered the usefulness of trees, alive and dead, I was struck by just how many there are in the woods. Uncountable numbers. It’s rare that I pay so much attention to trees. Paradoxically, they are so numerous that we hardly notice them.

I stopped to look at a swamp and dozens of dead tree trunks of varying sizes stood tall like so many gray fingers pointing to the sky. The cattails and other swamp vegetation were dwarfed by the trunks. Red-winged blackbirds, grackles and swallows flew about the swamp and perched on the tops of these fingers. The cries of recently hatched birds gave away the nest of a tree swallow. The parents dutifully and exhaustingly brought food to the youngsters.

Trees, dead and alive, define the woods. They do not move about, but rather stand guard and act as sentinels to protect their part of the mysterious world we call the woods. All the while, they provide essential resources to their own plant kingdom and unselfishly give the same to the animal kingdom.

For the Birds: Studies show conflicting news about barn swallow population

Photo by CHRIS BOSAK Young Barn Swallows look for food from their mother, which is returning to the nest with food.
Photo by CHRIS BOSAK Young Barn Swallows look for food from their mother, which is returning to the nest with food.

A new study of global bird populations, based mainly on citizen science databases such as eBird, estimates there are around 50 billion wild birds in the world.

Four species, according to the study, have a population of more than one billion birds. On the other hand, about one-tenth of the bird species in the world have fewer than 5,000 individuals. 

A team of researchers at the University of New South Wales conducted the study, which was published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.” The researchers adjusted the citizen science numbers by modeling and consulting birding experts in specific regions.

So what are the four members of the billion bird club? Two of them are rather obvious: house sparrow and European starling. House sparrows, according to the study, are the world’s most populous bird with 1.6 billion individuals. The other two species were less obvious, to me anyway: ring-billed gull and barn swallow. I see a lot of ring-billed gulls pretty much everywhere I go in New England (inland and shore), but I didn’t realize they had such a global presence as well. 

Barn swallow was the one that really surprised me. Not to be a bird snob, but house sparrows, starlings and ring-billed gulls are not what I would consider to be desirable birds. In the case of house sparrow and starling, they are non-native birds that have thrived in North America at the expense of native birds. Barn swallows, in my estimation, are desirable birds and I enjoy seeing them in the field. It was good news to me that this study put the barn swallow in the billion bird club.

I have no reason to doubt these researchers, but I did want to cross reference that number with other recent similar studies. Determining the global population of 9,700 bird species is a tall task and by no means an exact science. Heck, getting a perfectly accurate count of the birds in your own backyard is pretty much impossible. 

Past studies have estimated the global bird population to be anywhere from 200 to 400 billion individual birds. That’s a wide range and not even close to the 50 billion birds estimated by this recent study.

I also found that past studies have estimated the global barn swallow population to be somewhere between 100 million and 200 million. BirdNote, the popular radio program and website, included in an episode that the “worldwide population of barn swallows is estimated to be 190 million.” The bird conservation consortium Partners in Flight estimates a breeding population of 120 million barn swallows. 

So what is it? One billion (or more), 190 million (or less), or somewhere in between? It depends on the study, obviously. Either way, it’s good to see that the barn swallow population is thriving. Or is it? 

A 2014 article published by claims that the barn swallow “has seen a 95 percent drop in numbers across North American in the last 40 years.” The article opens by defining the word “extinction,” and hints that swallows may be heading in that direction. 

One billion individuals or teetering on extinction? That’s a huge difference, but both extremes are reported by seemingly credible sources. I’m sure each research team will vehemently defend their own numbers — at least I hope they would.

A 2019 study of birds in the Western Hemisphere by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, American Bird Conservancy, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and other organizations, garnered a lot of attention and press, and was hailed as a wake-up call to protect birds before they disappear. The study found that one in four birds had disappeared over the last 50 years. This study estimated the barn swallow population in the Western Hemisphere to be around 46 million birds.

The wide-ranging numbers underscore how difficult it is to get an accurate count of global bird populations. Personally, I like to go with the lower estimates. I think there’s no doubt that birds and other wildlife are in decline to some degree. Why not take steps to change that? If we are wrong and the population is thriving, well, then we’d just have more of a good thing. 

For the Birds: Nature’s morning chorus

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.

It was about an hour before sunrise and it was decision time: try to go back to sleep for a few hours or get up and watch the sunrise in the woods somewhere.

Nine times out of ten, going back to sleep wins out and I wake up with the sun fairly high in the sky. This time was different. A few robins were already awake and singing, and I felt as if trying to sleep would be fruitless. I got up, made a cup of coffee and drove to the nearest park.

It was a good call. Nothing too out of the ordinary happened, but being in the woods when the natural world wakes up is always something memorable. In my younger years (not that long ago, mind you), I would do this quite frequently. Lately, not so much.

The sky was already brightening by the time I hit the trail. It was light enough that I didn’t need a flashlight to see where I was going, but it was dark enough that taking a photograph would yield a blurry, indiscernible image. Not that there was much to see anyway.

But there was plenty to hear. Robins, perhaps cousins of those that had awakened me about half an hour earlier, were the dominant sound. “Cheerily, cheerily, cheer up, cheer up,” over and over from all directions in the pre-dawn woods.

Plenty of other birds (and frogs and insects) joined the chorus, but the robins dominated. Most noticeable, and delightful, were the sounds that weren’t being heard: no airplanes overhead, no trucks downshifting from the highway miles away, no leaf blowers, no lawn mowers, no chainsaws. Just nature. It was cool and calm. Later it would be hot and hectic. But not just yet.

The robins had plenty of company in the morning chorus. I heard the Space Invaders-like song of the veery as well as wood thrushes, mourning doves, titmice, red-bellied woodpeckers, song sparrows, eastern wood pewees, red-winged blackbirds and many other bird songs I could not identify. Bullfrogs added a deep and interesting texture to the chorus.

I walked down a narrow path lined with ferns on either side. The lush ferns stretched far into the woods in all directions. I walked past a pond on my right. Fog rose from the water and man-made wood duck boxes were placed strategically around the edges. Grackles, ever ubiquitous, flew among the cattails.

My face and legs broke through hundreds of spider webs and mosquitoes feasted on the back of my neck. A great blue heron uttered its croaking sound as it flew from a nearby marsh and landed in a tall snag towering over the steaming pond. A friend of mine once said the great blue heron’s “song” reminded him of a dying goat. It’s not that far off.

I noticed a snapping turtle between the trail and the water. Years ago, I would have thought it was a rock, but my older, wiser self knew immediately it was a snapper. I pulled out my phone, took a few steps closer, bent low and grabbed a few photos. It was a willing subject.

Eventually, the natural sounds waned and the unnatural ones took over. The distant humming of the highway reminded me that I, too, had responsibilities to tend to. I reluctantly retreated back to the car and returned home. It was still before 7 o’clock in the morning when I got back. I felt as if I had experienced an entire day already. I never did miss those couple hours of sleep.

Photo by Chris Bosak A snapping turtle at a pond’s edge in New England, spring 2021.

For the Birds: Birding still hot in June

Photo by Chris Bosak An eastern towhee seen in Ridgefield, CT, summer 2019.

June may not have the buildup and excitement of May, but it is still an interesting time in the birding and natural world.

By the time June comes around, the swarms of migrating birds have dissipated, having either gone farther north or settled into their breeding territories. June also follows May, which I would argue is the most exciting month for birding in New England. I wouldn’t say June is a letdown, but it lacks the anticipation that May has going for it. May, after all, follows months and months of cold, gray weather. May’s songbird migration is like a reward for enduring winter and early spring.

Early June does have the odd migrant still working its way north, which is nice to see. For the most part, however, the migration is over.

June is a time to recognize, appreciate and take pride in the birds that are breeding in the area. There’s something special in knowing that birds are raising young nearby. The other day, I took a walk and saw or heard eastern towhees (pictured above), yellow warblers, blue-winged warblers, common yellowthroats, indigo buntings, rose-breasted grosbeaks, bobolinks, catbirds, veeries and hermit thrushes. Those are nice sightings regardless of the circumstances, but it was particularly rewarding knowing they are breeding locally. I hope they all have a successful breeding season.

The birds, for the most part, were still fairly vocal. I heard all of the aforementioned birds singing. Finding them proved to be a touch more difficult than in May. In May, birds are still searching for or defending territory and are easy to spot. In June, more birds are hunkered down for fear of giving away their nesting site. The colorful males often jump out to grab attention while the more subtly plumaged females remain on the nest camouflaged from predators.

June also means more insects, which is good and bad. It was nice to see a few butterflies flitting among the early-blooming flowers in the meadow, but the deer flies attacking the back of my neck were not something I was quite ready for. Oh well, it’s all part of living in New England.

As the insects gain steam, the birding action will slow down over the next couple of weeks as they hang low raising young. Morning and evening are always the best times to look for birds, but this will become even truer in July and August as the heat and humidity will keep the birds in the shade during the day. Steamy August afternoons are my favorite times to wander through New England meadows looking for butterflies, dragonflies and whatever other creatures lurk in the tall grasses and flowers.

In the meantime, enjoy June and what it offers birdwatchers. There’s still plenty of action out there.

Children’s story by local author makes for good summer read

It’s summer (unofficially anyway) and time to look for a good summer read. Here’s a recommendation for a child (or an adult to read to a youngster) from a New England author. Carol Story from Norwalk, Connecticut, used her quarantine time to write Ellie’s Day at the Shore. I wish I had used my time as wisely.

Ellie’s Day at the Shore was inspired by Story’s experience as a volunteer shorebird monitor for the Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbirds, whose primary purpose is to monitor nesting activity of piping plovers, American oystercatchers, least terns and other shorebirds along the coast of Long Island Sound. I was a volunteer myself several years ago and it’s a lot of work, but also fun, educational and purposeful.

Ellie’s Day at the Beach tells the story of Carol taking her great niece Ellie to the shore and discovering all sorts of natural goodies, such as horseshoe crabs, terrapins, butterflies and, of course, birds. The book is beautifully illustrated by Story’s friend Pippa J. Ellis.

There is a conservation theme to the story and a portion of the net proceeds will go to conservation charities. Ellie’s Day at the Shore is $12.95 and may be found on Amazon, and through the publisher.

Why not kick off the summer right and help support a local author and conservation organizations?

More details may be found in this article written by The Hour newspaper in Norwalk, CT.

Here’s another story from the Connecticut Audubon website.