For the Birds: Check those blotches carefully

Photo by Chris Bosak A Black-crowned Night Heron perches on a railing at a marina along the Norwalk River, Norwalk, Conn., spring 2016.
Photo by Chris Bosak
A Black-crowned Night Heron perches on a railing at a marina along the Norwalk River, Norwalk, Conn., spring 2016.

Birders have to follow through on the blotches in the distance.

Usually they end up being plastic bags or Mylar balloons stuck in trees, odd-looking knots on tree trunks or some other strange objects that look out of place. Sometimes, though, they end up being birds, which is why we birders have to do our diligence.

One summer morning while canoeing at Pillsbury State Park, I was excited to see a great horned owl sitting at the edge of the pond. Strange place for a great horned owl, I thought as I continued to slowly paddle in for a closer look.

I closed the distance substantially, and the owl remained at the pond’s edge, looking right at me. I slowly got my camera ready and continued drifting toward the large bird. I lifted the camera to my face and zoomed in, ready to capture my best owl images to date.

As I zoomed in I realized something rather embarrassing. My great horned owl was actually the top of a dead tree at the edge of the pond. This tree was a dead ringer for an owl, complete with ear tufts, eyes and rounded body.

I laughed out loud and was thankful no one else was around to witness my buffoonery.

My stories of mistaking plastic grocery bags for hawks along highway roads are practically endless. Mylar balloons are another oft-seen “bird” in the trees.

Last week, though, I was rewarded by following through on a blotch in the distance. It didn’t turn out to be a rarity or a new bird for me, but it was nice just the same to have a blotch actually turn out to be a bird — a black-crowned night heron, to be exact.

I was driving along one side of a pond in southern Connecticut when I stopped at a stop sign to turn right, away from the pond. As I glanced left to check for oncoming cars, I noticed something gray and upright at the far edge of the pond. I figured it was a stick or large piece of trash. I turned right and started driving away from the pond, but the possibility of the object actually being a bird kept nagging at me.

I hit the brakes, found the next safe place to turn around and returned to the pond. A stone wall prevented me from seeing the edge of the pond where I had previously seen the object. I parked, walked to the pond and found the black-crowned night heron standing in the same exact spot where I had seen it before.

I watched it for a couple of minutes as it stood deadly still, as all waders are so adept at doing. Finally it took two slow, careful steps and plunged its bill into the water. It pulled out a painted turtle and immediately returned the prey to the water.

I grabbed a few photographs — they all turned out lousy as the bird was in a heavily shaded area — and started to return to the car when something else caught my eye. It was a big white object on the far side of the pond. I knew immediately that this object was a great egret, not just a blotch.

As I walked toward the egret, I wondered how I missed it the first time I had driven by the pond. I stood behind a tree watching the impressive white bird stalk the pond’s edge as it lunged its head into the water. The egret caught a small sunfish — much easier prey for a bird to handle than a turtle — and adjusted the fish in its bill before finishing the meal.

I’ve seen plenty of black-crowned night herons and great egrets in my life, but I was happy to see the birds that day. I was glad my instincts paid off and convinced me to turn the car around.

Actually seeing real birds made up for a few of those plastic bag “bird” sightings that I’ve had over the years.

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Warbler watch is on

Photo by Chris Bosak A Pine Warbler sits on a deck railing in New England this fall.
Photo by Chris Bosak A Pine Warbler sits on a deck railing in New England this fall.

The early warblers started arriving in New England a week or two ago. Pine warblers and palm warblers are typically the first two species to make their way back this far north and, sure enough, both are back now. This post includes photos of both species so you know what you’re looking for. (Above is the pine warbler; below is the palm warbler.)

The spring warbler season is the highlight of the year for many birdwatchers. It will pick up gradually over the next week or so and then erupt from late April through the middle of May. At the height of the warbler migration, a New England birdwatcher can see between 20 and 30 warbler species in a single day. (It would take some effort, of course, but it’s very possible.)

I’ll post frequently about warblers over the next few weeks and, hopefully, have plenty of fresh warbler photos to share. In the meantime, practice up with this link from AllAboutBirds.org — it includes various warblers and their songs.

Photo by Chris Bosak Palm Warbler
Photo by Chris Bosak Palm Warbler

Gulls: Beauty in the ordinary

Photo by Chris Bosak A herring gull sits on the sand at Calf Pasture Beach in Norwalk, Conn., April 2019.

Gulls often don’t get second looks, but this one caught my eye the other day as I was closing in on a flock of brant near Long Island Sound. A closer look at this herring gull revealed some beautiful and overlooked features.

More brant photos

Photo by Chris Bosak A brant seen at Calf Pasture Beach in Norwalk, Conn., April 2019.

You didn’t think I’d see thousands of brant and limit the experience to just one post, did you? Here is the first follow-up to Saturday’s post. The original post is here in case you missed it.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Brant at Calf Pasture Beach in Norwalk, Connecticut, 2019.

This brant is banded with silver bands on each leg. I can’t make out the numbers and letters, however.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Brant at Calf Pasture Beach in Norwalk, Connecticut, 2019.

Brant haven’t migrated yet and that’s a good thing for New England

Photo by Chris Bosak Brant at Calf Pasture Beach in Norwalk, Connecticut, 2019.

Brant are geese that breed in the Arctic. Many of them spend the winter in New England and massive flocks may be found at various coastal sites in the region. One of those sites is Calf Pasture Beach in Norwalk, Connecticut, where flocks numbering in the thousands hug the coast.

A quick visit to the park yesterday yielded a staggering number of brant. The birds were eating grass in the lawn areas of the park and were surprisingly tolerant of humans walking and jogging close by. Typically, the brant are seen on the beach near the water or on the water of Long Island Sound. Perhaps the birds were more tolerant because they are filling up for the pending migration. Just a thought.

Not all brant will depart at the same time. I’ve seen brant along the Connecticut coast as late as June. Those stragglers are likely young brant that aren’t ready to mate. At any rate, it’s nice to see the brant every year and they add a reliable bit of wildness to our coasts in the winter and spring.

Brant are often confused with Canada geese, but there are obvious differences. Brant are smaller and darker overall and do not have trademark white “chin strap” of the Canada goose. They do have a white marking under their chins, but it is not as large and pronounced as that of the Canada goose. The brants’ call is also croakier and quieter than the loud honk of the Canada goose.

For now, brant are still around in large numbers, which is good for New England birdwatchers. Many of them will depart shortly for points well north. Then we’ll be left to keep an eye out for the stragglers — or wait until late fall.

Here is a photograph showing a small portion of the flock.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Brant at Calf Pasture Beach in Norwalk, Connecticut, 2019.

Here is a shot of Canada geese, for the sake of comparison.

Photo by Chris Bosak Family of Canada Geese in Pittsburg, N.H., summer 2017.
Photo by Chris Bosak Family of Canada Geese in Pittsburg, N.H., summer 2017.

Early nesters are at it already

Photo by Chris Bosak Great blue heron Danbury, CT, March 2019.

While we wait patiently for migrating warblers and other colorful songbirds to arrive in New England, some birds have already started the nesting process. Owls, of course, started a while ago and other birds of prey also get an early jump.

I’ve been watching great blue herons build and repair nests at a small rookery near the Danbury Fair mall. It’s funny to see these large, wild birds fly over a busy shopping mall with sticks in their bills. It is good to see, however, that they are adapting to human encroachment.

The other day I saw two mute swans and one Canada goose on nests at a small pond.

It’s an exciting time of year in the birdwatching world with nesting starting and the spring migration beginning to heat up.

Here’s an old shot I took of an osprey building its nest.

Photo by Chris Bosak An Osprey adjusts a stick in its nest at Veterans Park in Norwalk, Conn., April 29, 2015.