For the Birds: Ice sends the ducks south

Photo by Chris Bosak
Red-breasted mergansers may be seen throughout winter on the ocean or Long Island Sound.

There are always two ways to look at something.

I don’t remember what it was advertising, but I recall an old television commercial wherein one guy says: “Camping? I hate camping. There’s nobody around.”

The next guy on camera, within the same friend group of the first guy but unaware of what he said, says: “Camping? I love camping. There’s nobody around.”

I guess it all depends on your personal preferences and motives.

I thought of this the other day when I drove by a pond and saw people ice skating on it. I was happy for those people as they got to enjoy a fun winter hobby, but I couldn’t help but think that I would much rather see the pond unfrozen and providing a place for ducks to rest.

As I have mentioned several times before, ducks are my favorite type of bird to watch, and a frozen pond, lake or river isn’t going to have any ducks. To make matters worse, even if the water thaws, the ducks that were previously seen there have likely moved well south only to return in the spring.

No offense to the skaters, hockey players, cross-country skiers, snowmobilers, and ice anglers, but give me an unfrozen pond any day. I get it. This is New England, and those frozen activities are part of the culture and history of the region. I am happy people get to enjoy their hobbies.

It just makes me think of that commercial and how people can see things differently.

There is a solution, however, for people like me who want to see ducks in the winter. It takes a little more effort, but it is well worth it. Simply head to the ocean or Long Island Sound, which remain unfrozen throughout our New England winter.

For the most part, the ducks will be a little different from the ones we saw on fresh water before the freeze. Wood ducks, ring-necked ducks and common mergansers are not likely to be found on the ocean or sound, for instance.

Replacing those ducks will be species such as eiders, scoters, scaup, long-tailed ducks and red-breasted mergansers. Common and red-throated loons are also likely to be found but will be in their drab winter plumage.

Bufflehead and goldeneye are a few species that may be found in both habitats.

Hooded mergansers, one of the more common ducks found on fresh water before the freeze, are not likely to be found far from shore on the ocean or sound but can be spotted if smaller bodies of water remain open nearby. Brackish tributary rivers or marshes are good places to find hoodies this time of year.

Of course, any open fresh water found in the winter, while other waters are frozen, has the potential to be a gold mine for ducks. A large lake with an open pool in the middle, for instance, is a great place to look for common mergansers, ring-necked ducks and other species. A section of a pond’s edge kept open by a stream or river flowing into it is another potential hot spot.

Nature provides for those wishing for frozen water and those wishing for open water in a New England winter. Sure, it’s cold, but why would anybody want to live anywhere else?

Next sparrow up: Song Sparrow

Photo by Chris Bosak A song sparrow perches on a branch following a snowfall in New England, January 2022.

The other day, I posted a photo of a white-throated sparrow. Song sparrows are another frequent visitor to my yard. From a distance, many sparrows look drab, but closer inspection yields an interesting mix of colors.

For the Birds: Gull, take ’em or leave ’em?

Photo by Chris Bosak Ring-billed gulls at a beach in New England.

Gulls? Who would want to write a column about gulls? Or, perhaps more importantly, who would want to read a column about gulls?

Well, I think gulls deserve a little ink considering how easy they are to find and how many of them there are. Nary a visit to any body of water goes by when you don’t see gulls, whether you want to or not. Not many parking lot visits go gull-less either.

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White-throated sparrow portrait

Photo by Chris Bosak A white-throated sparrow perches on a branch following a snowfall in New England, January 2022.

Sometimes you get lucky and the background turns out to enhance the photo. (You can also plan for that, of course, but in this case I was lucky.) I like the soft red/pink color of the background. I don’t even know what the red is. Other than a few small berries remaining from fall, there’s nothing red the background where this photo was taken following a recent snowfall in New England. The colors of the white-throated sparrow stand out with the light, pastel-like background.

For the Birds: 2022 birding highlights

Photo by Chris Bosak A bobcat rests in a field in New England, March 2021. (Huntington State Park)

It’s time for my favorite column of the year; a look back at my top 10 birding highlights from the previous year.

For all its faults, 2021 was a pretty good year for birdwatching. One thing that is not on this list for the first time in nearly 20 years is the Christmas Bird Count. I look forward to the all-day event for months leading up to it, but I had to bail on my birding partner Frank this year. An as-of-yet undiagnosed foot ailment that comes and goes was acting up, so I had to sit out this year’s CBC. Bummer.

But the year did include several highlights. Here are the top 10:

10. Crossbills. A sizable flock of red crossbills entertained New England birdwatchers at a Connecticut beach in March. They flew from spruce to spruce and the birder paparazzi followed their every move. Crossbills are unique in that their upper and lower bills cross rather than meet uniformly. The adaptation helps them get at seeds in spruce cones. Read story here.

9. Loons. If I see loons in any given year, it will make this list. I was camping with Katie at Woodford State Park in Vermont and I was hopeful but not optimistic that we’d see loons. Sure enough, despite the campground being fully booked, a pair of loons swam at the far end of the lake.

8. Feeder birds. My new home is not the birding paradise that my old place in the woods was, but a fair number of birds visit. I get most of the usual suspects, but the highlight was a small number of red-breasted nuthatches that came regularly last winter. Read story here.

7. Fall warblers. Birding in the fall can be tricky with the songbirds passing through in their non-breeding plumage. Warblers can be particularly tricky. But this fall, I had a few walks whereby palm warblers and yellow-rumped warblers (two that are relatively easy to recognize in the fall) were very numerous. It was like a little flashback to spring ahead of the long winter. Read story here.

6. Clapper rail. Katie and I walked along a marsh in the spring and heard the unmistakable call of a clapper rail. We looked at an opening in the marsh and the unusual bird ran across the mudflat and disappeared into the tall marsh grasses.

5. No owl, but buntings. I walked the length of a Connecticut beach where a snowy owl had been being seen reliably for quite some time. I came up empty on the owl, but did enjoy the snow buntings and larks that were there. Read story here.

4. Cooperative indigo bunting. Indigo buntings are a thrill to see regardless of the circumstances. One August afternoon, I came across a brilliant male indigo bunting singing from an obvious perch close to the trail. Bird photography should always be so simple. Read story here.

3. Road eagle. Anyone who drives to work knows the daily commute can get rather monotonous. One morning, as I passed a swollen part of a creek where wood ducks occasionally swim, I noticed a large bird perched on a snag over the water. It was an immature bald eagle either resting or looking for prey in or around the water. A break from the norm, for sure. Read story here.

2. Continuing For the Birds. I have written my For the Birds column for well over 20 years now. I enjoy writing it as much, if not more, than people enjoy reading it. I love hearing from long-time readers as well as new readers. A lot has changed in the world over the past 20-plus years, but New England’s passion for nature has only gotten stronger.

1. Bobcat! Without question, this was the nature highlight of the year. I spotted the bobcat from afar in a field and walked in its direction. It kept walking and going about its day. When it stopped and sat in the field, I stopped and grabbed a few shots with the camera. Then I slowly walked backward away from the impressive animal. Read story here.

I can’t wait to see what 2022 brings. In many ways, it’s off to a poor start, but let’s remain positive and create some great nature highlights. Drop me a line and let me know your highlights.

For the Birds: Birding New Year’s resolutions

Photo by Chris Bosak A black duck hides in the grasses near a pond in northern New Hampshire, July 2020.

I dreaded looking it up, but as it turns out, there was nothing to dread.

Let me explain.

There are a handful of regular birding columns that I write every year about this time. One is on Christmas gifts for the birdwatcher, one is about the Christmas Bird Count, one is on my birding highlights of the year, and one is on my New Year’s resolutions for the coming year.

It is the resolution column that I dread looking back on. There are sure to be many failures, and I just hope there are a few successes to go along with it.

I was surprised when I looked up last year’s resolution column. As it turns out, I didn’t write one last year after all. Maybe there was too much going on, maybe I figured I wouldn’t stick to the resolutions anyway, or maybe COVID’s first Christmas had me so down I just couldn’t bring myself to write a forward-thinking, optimistic column.

Well, COVID is still with us and wreaking havoc on another holiday season, but I am not going to let it win this year. So here’s my latest birding New Year’s resolution column.

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