Latest For the Birds column: Tracking down a towhee

Here’s my column from this week in The Hour and Keene Sentinel.

Photo by Chris Bosak An Eastern Towhee at Selleck's/Dunlap Woods in Darien, Nov. 2013.

Photo by Chris Bosak
An Eastern Towhee at Selleck’s/Dunlap Woods in Darien, Nov. 2013.


It was one of those walks I probably shouldn’t have taken. I had only a smidgen of wiggle room if I wanted to arrive at an appointment on time. The woods beckoned, however, and I’ve always felt that a few minutes in the woods was better than no minutes in the woods. The danger, of course, is that I find it very difficult to spend only a few minutes in the woods. One good bird to follow and there goes my couple of minutes. Oh well, I figured, it’s cold and breezy. The birds will be hunkered down and making themselves scarce. I can knock out a quick walk no problem. The plan was working perfectly — fortunately or unfortunately — as only a few White-throated Sparrows scurried in the thick brush. I heard a Red-shouldered Hawk in the near distance but could not spot the bird of prey. Just then a Blue Jay flew across the scene and I knew I had been tricked. Blue Jays often imitate hawks and there is no doubt this Blue Jay just duped me and headed off deeper into the woods. Oh well, nothing else to see. I headed back to the car with dreams of arriving on time to my appointment dancing in my head. Then I heard a familiar bird call and I knew there was no chance of arriving on time. No chance. It was the “chewink” or “tow-hee” call of an Eastern Towhee. I knew I had to find the bird, try (probably in vain) to photograph it and then watch the handsome bird go about its day for a little while. Well, maybe I’ll find it quickly and be only a few minutes late. Nothing is quick with a towhee, however. Finding them is a challenge even if the direction from which the “tow-hee” call is coming offers a big clue. Towhees are also known for their “drink your tea” song, but its call is what birders usually hear during non-breeding seasons. The “tow-hee” is a loud, quick and sharp call with the second syllable much higher than the first. My ears led me to a small trail jutting off the main path. I bent low to find the bird as towhees are often found on the ground scratching among the leaves for morsels to eat. They are also often hidden well among the thick brush. They can be a few feet away and you’d still be hard-pressed to get a look. I was having no luck finding the bird and stood upright thinking the bird must have flown off somewhere. As my back straightened, I noticed a male Eastern Towhee sitting in a branch just above my eye level about 15 feet away. Oh man, I thought, here’s my chance, finally. I’ve been trying to get a nice photograph of a towhee for years. I’ve never been able to find one outside of their natural element of impossibly thick brush. I had plenty of poor and average towhee photos — none good or above. So here was my chance literally staring me in the face. I was certain the bird was going to bolt as soon as I starting lifting the camera. Please don’t bolt, I repeated over and over in my head. The bird did not bolt and was surprisingly cooperative. I could hardly believe it considering the years of frustration I had previously experienced trying to photograph this bird. Then the bird happily left its perch and started hopping along the ground. But it wasn’t hidden among a tangled mess of sticks, stalks and branches. It was in an open part of the woods with only a few obstructions between my camera lens and him. A few more shots and I turned to leave the bird alone in the woods. I didn’t want to disturb the bird as it was already the third week of November and most towhees are far south of New England by that time. This guy needed to fill up and be on its way. I backed away slowly and reached the main path again, thinking about how lucky I was to find this cooperative little guy. Oh no, what time is it? I had been so absorbed in photographing the striking bird that time was the furthest thing on my mind. My smidgen of wiggle room was long gone. Luckily the appointment for which I was now very late was not critical and my arrival would likely be met with a friendly “What? Looking for birds again?” It was. Yes, the towhee did me in. Male Eastern Towhees are strikingly patterned with black heads, throats and backs, white bellies and thick rufous streaks down its sides. The Eastern Towhee was formerly known as the Rufous-sided Towhee, but it was split as species with the Spotted Towhee of the West. The female towhee is also a looker with somewhat similar plumage but light brown instead of black. It’s one of the many flying gems we can see here in New England. No wonder I’m late for everything. For the Birds runs Thursdays in The Hour. Chris Bosak can be reached at Visit his website at

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