For the Birds column: Preening away

Here is the latest For the Birds column, which runs in several New England newspapers.

Photo by Chris Bosak A Red-tailed hawk preens at Weed Beach in Darien, Conn., January 2015.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Red-tailed hawk preens at Weed Beach in Darien, Conn., January 2015.

I thought my cat was bad. The incessant licking to keep himself clean. He’s got to be the cleanest cat ever.

Then I watched a northern mockingbird preening itself. It went on for as long as I could watch and who knows how much longer after I walked away.

Feather maintenance is an important part of life for birds and it takes up a great amount of their time. Feathers play a role in a bird’s ability to fly, attract a mate, hide from predators and protect itself from the weather. Birds are the only living creatures with feathers so it’s no wonder they take such good care of them.

I’ve watched birds preening themselves many times, but I was surprised when I learned what went into preening.

When a cat cleans itself, it’s pretty obvious what’s going on. It licks its fur to keep it clean and healthy. That’s about all there is to it.

But what does a bird do when it preens itself? Several things, really. A bird preens itself to clean and repair its feathers, weatherproof its feathers and to pick out parasites. It still sounds simple enough, but it’s more interesting when you dig a little deeper.

Let’s start with waterproofing. Many birds have a preen gland at the base of the tail from which the bird collects a waterproof substance with its bill and spreads it out among its feathers. Waterfowl, which survive on near-frozen water throughout the winter, spend a lot of time waterproofing their feathers — hence the phrase, “water off a duck’s back.”

The waterproofing keeps the ducks clean and dry. I remember from my Boy Scout days learning that there’s no such thing as being wet and warm when it comes to camping.

Some birds, herons among them, have a special type of feather called powder-down. This feather breaks down into a shiny, waterproof substance that a bird spreads onto its outer feathers. I watched at length a great egret preening itself at Central Park in New York City several years ago. Like the aforementioned mockingbird, the preening went on for longer than I could watch. The egret was most likely utilizing the substance produced from the powder-down.

Another important function of preening, of course, is keeping feathers strong and maintained. Feathers are made up of several parts — shaft, vane, barbs, barbules, barbicels — and need constant attention. The barbicels (hooks) often come detached from the barbules, which impact the strength of the feathers and, therefore, the bird’s ability to fly.

Somehow, birds are able to reconnect these microscopic barbicels using their bills. And to think, I can barely thread a needle with the advantage of opposable thumbs.

Like most things in life, there is more than meets the eye when it comes to a bird preening. In this case, the interest goes all the way down to the microscopic level.

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Latest For the Birds column: Tale of two birdwatching days

Here is the latest For the Birds column, which runs in several New England newspapers.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Snow Bunting at Norwalk’s Calf Pasture Beach, March 26, 2013.

I had two very different birdwatching experiences on consecutive days recently. Both of them were great, of course, but very, very different.

Let’s start with a Wednesday outing. I had some rare time to myself, so I was going somewhere. I didn’t care how cold it was outside, I was getting out of the house.

I had read the previous day on the Connecticut Rare Bird Alert Web site that short-eared owls were being seen at Silver Sands State Park in Milford. I’ve never had much luck finding owls, but figured I’d give it a shot. Maybe this was the day my luck would change. Snowy owls are being seen in larger-than-normal numbers this year, too, so my chances were doubled.

Armed with a heavy winter coat, hat and oversized dorky mittens, I braved the single-digit temperatures and headed to the coastal park. I closed the car door behind me, took about three steps toward the sand and was harshly reminded that weather conditions are usually worse along the shore — especially in the winter.

The ambient temperature was nine degrees. The wind chill at the beach, factoring in the heavy gusts blowing off the partially frozen Long Island Sound, was just plain ridiculous. The sand did not blow, however. It was frozen solid like a huge, flat rock.

I eventually turned away from the beach and walked along a boardwalk that spanned a frozen marsh and ended at an open field. The marsh yielded nothing in terms of bird sightings, although I did hear starlings somewhere off in the distance.

At the field, however, I noticed two birds flying away that were obviously not your common sparrows or starlings. Seeing their landing spot, I pulled off my bulky mittens and trained my binoculars. Eastern meadowlarks. Nice sighting, I thought, and continued on my way.

I walked the field for another 10 minutes when I stopped to inspect a row of tall grasses for sparrows. Knowing the sneaky birds were in there, I went mitten-less again and lifted the binoculars.

My frustration was nearing its peak at not being able to find the little brown birds. My face was too numb to try to “pish” them out. Things looked bleak on this bitterly cold day. Maybe I’ll try to find the meadowlarks again for a quick shot of inspiration.

Then I noticed a shadow quickly moving along the ground. I lifted my head just in time to see a short-eared owl fly over the field and toward the beach. I followed the owl with my eyes for as long as I could, but it eventually blended with the dozens of gulls flying around the beach.

I never got a great look at it and the look I did get was fleeting, but I was happy to see it just the same. In my eternal optimism, I headed toward the beach to try to find it.

Once I got to the beach I remembered why I turned away from it in the first place. Cold and windy doesn’t even begin to describe it. But I was now on a mission so the elements didn’t matter.

I walked the beach for a good long way and saw nothing. Gulls, mallards, black ducks and a few flocks of diving ducks in the distance, but nothing else and certainly no short-eared owl.

The problem with walking a good long way along the beach is that you have to turn around and go a good long way back. In the summer, that’s the good thing about a long walk on the beach. In the winter, not so much. The car, or even the park, was nowhere in sight. I had a miserable several minutes ahead of me — but some good birdwatching memories already behind me.

I woke up Thursday and discovered that it hurt to make a fist. I looked at the back of my right hand — my binocular focusing hand — and noticed it was dark pink, cracked and even speckled with blood at the knuckles. My left hand fared better and was merely dark pink.

With my hands serving as a red badge of stupidity, I shifted gears for this day’s birdwatching moments. I watched the feeders from the comfort of my home.

I saw more variety and had closer looks of the birds than the previous day at the beach. I had just deposited my Christmas tree in the side yard and dozens of juncos were already taking advantage of the shelter. In all, there must have been 50 juncos in the yard.

The juncos were outnumbered only by the crows that stopped by for a visit right before sunset. The oaks on my property were covered with crows and the spill-over black birds crowded on the smaller trees in the front yard. The activity and noise was intense, but short-lived. Before darkness completely set in, the crows — there were at least 200 — took off as one massive flock.

It was a fittingly spectacular finish to a great couple days of birdwatching.

One day challenged me physically and mentally. The other day couldn’t have been more comfortable. Yes, there are as many ways to enjoy this great hobby as there are magnificent species to see. Take your pick.

 

 

Great work by The Trustees on this magazine story

Story in Special Places, the magazine of The Trustees

Story in Special Places, the magazine of The Trustees

Kudos to the layout team at Special Places, the magazine of the The Trustees of Reservations, a Massachusetts conservation organization with many terrific lands under its care. I was asked to write a story on winter birdwatching, which of course I accepted. The editorial and layout team did a great job of packaging the story and making the story look great. (All of the photos are mine, too, except for the nice shot of the snowy owl, which was taken by Ryan Pennesi.)

I know this photo of the layout makes the story close to impossible to read (if not impossible). The text will be available soon at the website of The Trustees. Check out what this great organization has been up to at www.thetrustees.org.

 

Bird of prey indeed

Photo by Chris Bosak A red-shouldered hawk perches on a wire in Brookfield, Connecticut, Jan. 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A red-shouldered hawk perches on a wire in Brookfield, Connecticut, Jan. 2018.

Sorry for the delay on this post … I ended the last post with this:

“I have a feeling this bird is digesting a recently eaten meal. Anybody know what makes me think that?”

Take a look at the bill and talons of the bird. Some small bird or animal found out why hawks are “birds of prey.”

Photo by Chris Bosak
A red-shouldered hawk perches on a wire in Brookfield, Connecticut, Jan. 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A red-shouldered hawk perches on a wire in Brookfield, Connecticut, Jan. 2018.

 

Red-shouldered hawk, part II

Photo by Chris Bosak  A red-shouldered hawk perches on a wire in Brookfield, Connecticut, Jan. 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A red-shouldered hawk perches on a wire in Brookfield, Connecticut, Jan. 2018.

Here are a few more photos of the red-shouldered hawk I spotted the other day in Brookfield, Conn.

Notice how far the head can turn around. Quite an impressive and useful adaptation for birds.

I have a feeling this bird is digesting a recently eaten meal. Anybody know what makes me think that?

Photo by Chris Bosak  A red-shouldered hawk perches on a wire in Brookfield, Connecticut, Jan. 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A red-shouldered hawk perches on a wire in Brookfield, Connecticut, Jan. 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak  A red-shouldered hawk perches on a wire in Brookfield, Connecticut, Jan. 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A red-shouldered hawk perches on a wire in Brookfield, Connecticut, Jan. 2018.

A little late, but here are my 2017 top 10 birding highlights

As I do every year, I wrote my Top 10 Birding Highlights of the Year column a few weeks ago for the New England newspapers that run For the Birds. Thing is, I forgot to post it here. So, without further delay (I think three weeks is enough delay), here it is …

…..

Photo by Chris Bosak A Great Gray Owl perches in a tree overlooking a field in Newport, N.H., in March 2017.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Great Gray Owl perches in a tree overlooking a field in Newport, N.H., in March 2017.

I almost forgot to write my favorite column of the year: A look back at my year’s top birding highlights.

With Christmas and New Year’s falling on Mondays, I got a brief reprieve from my column, and last week I was eager to share the results of the local Christmas Bird Counts.

What should I write about for my next column, I thought one day last week? Oh yeah, I never did get to my 2017 top 10 birding moments, did I? Thankfully, I remembered just in time.

So, before it gets too far into 2018, here’s my highlight list from 2017.

10. Camping with my son and his friend. Between coaching baseball and other excuses, it had been a few years since I had taken my boys camping. This past summer, my older son, Andrew, got done with school a week before my younger son, Will, so I took the opportunity to visit my favorite spot in Pittsburg. Andrew brought a friend with him. and we swam, hiked, canoed and talked by the fire. They are also old enough now that I was able to leave them alone for a few hours while I went looking for birds.

9. The spring got off to a good start as a good number of eastern towhees showed up before the warbler rush. This April, as I eagerly awaited the return of the warblers, tanagers and buntings, a good number of towhees were reliable sightings Continue reading

Bird on a wire — this one a red-shouldered hawk

Photo by Chris Bosak  A red-shouldered hawk perches on a wire in Brookfield, Connecticut, Jan. 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A red-shouldered hawk perches on a wire in Brookfield, Connecticut, Jan. 2018.

When I drove past this red-shouldered hawk near Brookfield (Conn.) High School, I doubted I would be able to find a place to safely pull off the road and snap a few photos. I had to try, however, so I pulled into parking lot a few dozen yards down the road and started to turn around. I noticed, however, that the parking lot afforded an even better view of the bird and just as close. I’ll take that luck any day. Notice the reddish chest and belly barring, as opposed to the more brownish markings of a broad-winged or red-tailed hawk.