About Chris Bosak

Bird columnist and nature photographer based in New England.

For the Birds: Chickadees, sumac and disc golf

Photo by Chris Bosak A black-capped chickadee eats staghorn sumac berries in Hoosick Falls, N.Y., February 2020.

The temperature when we started our walk was a whole 1 degree Fahrenheit. That number, however, was slowly climbing and there wasn’t a hint of wind to speak of. The sun was shining brightly, and the sky was as blue as you can imagine. In other words, a perfect day to spend several hours outside.

I was visiting my brother in upstate New York near the Vermont border, and two other brothers from out of town were there as well. Paul and I took a relatively short and absolutely birdless walk before returning to Gregg’s house. We both commented on how the single-digit temperatures were having little effect on us because it was a deadly calm day. So why go back inside just because the walk is over?

Gregg lives near an expansive field bordered by woods so Paul opened the hatch to his car and broke out a bag of flying discs. One of his hobbies is disc golf and he’s always prepared — just like I always have a pair of binoculars in the glove compartment.

I had never really played disc golf before, so Paul taught me the basics of how to throw the discs. It is, as you can probably imagine, very similar to throwing a regular Frisbee, but it is a little different. I don’t know if it will become my next great hobby, but it was a fun learning experience and it was nice to be outside. Besides, Paul has been on countless bird walks with me and he’s not a birdwatcher, so it was only fair that I give his hobby a shot.

Even as we walked back and forth in about 5 inches of hard snow to retrieve the discs, the birds remained at bay. You didn’t think I was going to be in a field bordering woods and not keep at least one eye out for birds, did you? A loan pileated woodpecker that I had heard pounding on a tree trunk and later found high in a bare oak tree was the only bird I saw, except for a crow flyover or two.

Finally, as I approached a row of bushes in Gregg‘s yard, most likely to retrieve one of my errant throws, I noticed movement among the branches. They were chickadees and there were a lot of them. The chickadees were moving up and down the long row of bushes and pausing for several minutes at a small cluster of staghorn sumac trees. Time for a short break from throwing discs. I retrieved my camera (I’m always prepared too), got the sun behind me and snapped off a few photos of the chickadees before returning to my new sport.

It was interesting to see the chickadees work the clusters of sumac berries. I believe it was the first time I had seen chickadees devour sumac berries and I was intrigued. Upon later researching it, sumac is a very valuable tree for birds. The berries, of course, provide food for chickadees and many other birds. The berries also are home to insects, which are eaten by birds that prefer insects.

Sumac is also used for nesting sites in the spring and summer. Sumac grows wildly and easily, so it would be a good tree to add to someone’s landscape. It is also a native planting, which makes it that much more appealing.

Sumac trees are not to be confused with poison sumac, which is an unrelated plant more closely related to poison ivy. Sumac is also often confused with another nefarious plant: Alanthus, or Tree of Heaven, closely resembles sumac in appearance, but is not native and very invasive and undesirable.

The New England landscape can appear rather dreary and muted in the winter, with brown and gray tree trunks the dominant sight. To see the bright red clusters of berries being worked over by chickadees was a welcome sight indeed. Add in the brilliant blue sky, perfectly calm weather and a new hobby, and it was a fine way to spend a few hours with family.

Finally some bluebirds of my own

Photo by Chris Bosak
An eastern bluebird visits a backyard feeder for mealworms in New England, Feb. 2020.

After several weeks of writing about eastern bluebirds that other people have seen, I finally got a few of my own this weekend. I caught a glimpse of one flying away from my feeding station that includes suet, sunflower seeds and Nyjer seed. My guess is that the bird flew away disappointed as mealworms are their favorite food (at least in terms of backyard feeding.) So, of course, I rushed out there with a handful of mealworms and spread them out on the deck railing. Within half an hour a male and female bluebird were enjoying the dried morsels.

More on this to come! In the meantime, here are a few more shots. Also, feel free to look back on some past posts on this site to see how this has become the Winter of the Bluebird in New England.

Photo by Chris Bosak
An eastern bluebird visits a backyard feeder for mealworms in New England, Feb. 2020.
Photo by Chris Bosak
An eastern bluebird visits a backyard feeder for mealworms in New England, Feb. 2020.

For the Birds: Winter's wonderful flurries

Photo by Chris Bosak A Song Sparrow seen in Selleck’s/Dunlap Woods in Darien, Conn., March 2014.

You always hope for a storm, but sometimes all you get is a flurry or two.

I’m not talking about a high school student who didn’t study for a test and is praying for a snow day. I’m talking about birding, of course.

The other day I visited a preserve in southern New England for the first time. I was struck immediately by the vast fields and several small wooded areas that looked to me like islands among the grassy expanse. My first thought was that this place is probably hopping with bobolinks, bluebirds and all sorts of other birds in the spring and summer.

But this wasn’t spring or summer. It was a dreary, raw winter day and the grass was short and brownish-yellow. Lifeless. The wooded islands were void of leaves and you could see the gray sky through the tangle of trunks and branches.

My plan was to walk along the edge of the wooded areas and see what was lurking in there. The anticipation of the new walk at a new place faded over time as close to an hour had passed and a few crows cawing in the distance was the only sign of birdlife I had noticed. I wanted to zero in on the crows to see if they were mobbing a hawk, owl or some other intruder. I couldn’t even find the crows in the sky, let alone zero in on them.

The anticipation may have faded, but my appreciation of the walk remained high. I spent much of 2019 battling off-again, on-again tendinitis in my right foot and hobbling around by putting pressure on the part of my foot that hurt the least. Walks on uneven terrain were out of the question. To be able to walk pain-free is something I’ll never take for granted again.

So I was enjoying the walk, birds or not. I made plans in my mind where I would walk when I returned in the spring. I exchanged pleasant hellos with the only two other people I saw. I started thinking about where I’d grab lunch. Or should I just wait until I got home to eat? It would be cheaper that way.

Suddenly, as is often the case when on a bird walk, the birds appeared in a flurry. It started with a few sparrows. They scurried from the grass and into a thicket bordering the woods. I found one hiding among a thick tangle of branches. White-throated sparrow. I spotted a few more white-throats before a curious song sparrow took a conspicuous perch on the top of a bush. The song sparrow and white-throats started calling to each other and it was like a bugle call for all birds in the area.

A northern mockingbird emerged from the center of a tall bush and settled on a branch where I could see it. It was there the whole time, but I was daydreaming and had completely missed it. A female cardinal burst onto the scene and perched a few branches higher than the mockingbird.

A group of four eastern bluebirds flew from one nearby tree to one a bit closer. A mourning dove pushed off the ground and landed on an overhanging branch. A small flock of American goldfinches took off from various points among the thicket and flew in their undulating pattern across the field and out of view. A red-bellied woodpecker and downy woodpecker made their presence known in the woods.

Heard, but not seen, were a group of blue jays and a Carolina wren. I went from seeing nothing to seeing an entire walk’s worth of birds in a matter of seconds. The feeling of anticipation and optimism returned and I continued my walk along the edge of the wooded areas. Nothing. I walked for about another hour. Nothing. I did find the four bluebirds again as I got closer to the car, but that’s about it.

Not that I’m complaining. I did get my flurry of birds and my feet held up just fine. I’ll take it.

For the Birds: New England's unpredictable winters

Photo by Chris Bosak A young Cooper's Hawk eats a squirrel in southern New England in Feb. 2015.
Photo by Chris Bosak A young Cooper’s Hawk eats a squirrel in southern New England in Feb. 2015.

Ah, a New England winter. There’s nothing like it.

Zero degrees one day and mid-50s a few days later. Arctic chill to pleasant spring-like weather in the blink of an eye.

Personally, I enjoy both extremes of a New England winter. I’ve said before that one of the great things about being a birdwatcher is that the hobby can be enjoyed regardless of the weather: hot, cold, rainy, snowy. The biggest impact weather — temperatures, anyway — has on birdwatching plans is whether or not the ponds will be frozen.

In the extreme cold, everything is frozen. Small ponds, large lakes and wide rivers are frozen solid. When that happens, I do my birdwatching at home and in the woods. (Lately, it’s been mostly at home, to be honest.) The feeders get particularly active in bitterly cold weather as birds feed with a sense of urgency to fuel up for the cold night ahead. All the birds you’d expect to see over the course of a winter sometimes show up in one day, especially in extreme weather. Cardinals, blue jays, mourning doves, juncos, white-throated sparrows, house finches and, of course, titmice, chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers can all show up on those days. Who knows? A pair of Carolina wrens may even show up.

Those types of frenetic feeder days are often accompanied by a visit from an opportunistic sharp-shinned or Cooper’s hawk, but I haven’t seen them around this winter yet.

The woods are usually fairly quiet during a deep freeze, but you can come across the occasional titmouse or chickadee.

Then a thaw will come. The feeder activity slows, but the ice recedes, too. Time to hit the ponds and see if any ducks are still around. For the first day or two when open water returns, typically nothing is found — or maybe a few mallards if you’re lucky. But persistence may pay off if you check daily. Maybe a nice group of ring-necked ducks or a handful of hooded mergansers will join the mallards.

In a way, I almost prefer a deep freeze over the thaws. We live in New England, right? What’s a New England winter without some bitterly cold temperatures? It makes us appreciate the other seasons that much more.

That said, I will admit that I’m often guilty of allowing some false hope about spring to creep into my mind. Spring is not too far away, really. As proof, this week I walked past a flower bed at work and saw snowdrops poking out of the ground.

I hope those flowers know what they’re doing. It’s not wise to underestimate a New England winter.

For the Birds: Bluebird finale

Annette Connor of New Hampshire got this shot of an eastern bluebird this winter.

The reports keep coming in so I’m going to ride the Eastern bluebird train for one more week.

In what is shaping up to be the unofficial Winter of the Bluebird, many sightings continue to come in from throughout New England, and beyond. Bluebirds, as I’ve written before, are not uncommon in New England in the winter, but the sheer number of reports this year is unique.

In case you missed the column from a few weeks ago, each winter seems to have a bird that shows up more frequently and noticeably than in typical winters. In recent years we’ve had the winter of the snowy owl, barred owl, American robin and dark-eyed junco. I’m sure you’ve figured out by now that this is highly unscientific and based on my own observations and the anecdotal observations of others.

I’ll run down the most recent sightings sent in and then close with a few fun facts about bluebirds.

Dick and Pat from Westmoreland wrote to say they had four bluebirds on their roof one recent morning, presumably drinking melted snow as it rolled down the shingles.

What’s better than having three bluebirds show up in your yard on a consistent basis in the winter? Having four show up, of course. That’s what Kathy from Swanzey is experiencing this year. She was pleasantly surprised to host three bluebirds last winter; this winter she added one to the count.

“We see them almost every day. It’s wonderful to hear their chirping on a cold winter day,” she wrote.

They also have two bluebird and two swallow families in their boxes each summer.

Margaret in Meredith was sad when their summer bluebirds disappeared. Her husband discovered them back in the yard a few weeks ago and since then the couple has seen them numerous times each day. They have had as many as six at one time and, like many other people, have had luck attracting bluebirds with dried mealworms. “Bluebirds of happiness. Yes, they are!” she exclaimed.

Anne from Sandwich also has mealworm-eating bluebirds this winter. “I have lived in Sandwich for 50 years and have had bluebirds every summer in my three boxes but never (before) in the winter,” she wrote.

Bill and Annette of Somersworth had four bluebirds at their feeders this winter. Guess what the birds were doing? If you guessed eating mealworms you are right. The couple sent photographic proof of their visitors too. They also have at least 50 juncos visiting daily eating sunflower seeds and cracked corn.

I even heard from southwestern Pennsylvania where Julie wrote to say a small flock of bluebirds is hanging out in her yard.

Now for those fun facts I promised you:

Homemade birdhouses have led to a remarkable population comeback for bluebirds.

Bluebirds often have two (or even three) broods in one year and the young birds from the first brood sometimes help raise the babies of the later broods.

Adult bluebirds typically return to the same nesting area each year.

Bluebirds are only found in North America.

The song of the bluebird, according to AllAboutBirds.org is “a fairly low-pitched, warbling song made up of several phrases, each consisting of 1-3 short notes. Harsher chattering notes may be interspersed with the whistles.”

For the Birds: More on those bluebirds

Photo by Chris Bosak An eastern bluebird, Brookfield, CT, fall 2018.

Here’s the latest For the Birds column, which runs in several New England newspapers …

It’s still too early to make any official declarations, but it is looking more and more like the Winter of the Bluebird.

After last week’s hint that it might be heading in that direction I received several more emails from astute birdwatchers finding eastern bluebirds. It’s not that bluebirds are a rare New England winter sighting but it appears that more people than usual are reporting them.

Similar to the American robin, another member of the thrush family, many eastern bluebirds remain with us throughout the winter. The trick is finding them. 

Although I have still been shut out of the bluebird frenzy this winter, many others have written to tell me about their encounters. I appreciate the reports. Keep them coming.

Celia from Keene said there was “no missing the blue” of the bluebirds she saw on the rail trail in her city. She said they were the first ones she had seen during the winter. 

Celia added that bluebirds nested on her property for the first time last summer. The way she described it explains in a nutshell why I love New England so much: “We put a bluebird house up in our yard overlooking the pumpkin patch …” Who else but a New Englander could start a sentence that way?

Elena from Winchester reported that a friend of hers saw a large flock of bluebirds near the Connecticut River in the Hinsdale area. Elena, like me, has been shut out of the bluebird party this winter so far, but she did report that a small flock of red-winged blackbirds continues to eat suet and sunflower seeders from her feeders.

Marie Anne from Guilford has had bluebirds visit her backyard for the past seven winters. She has had as many as eight but this year she has four “cranky little guys arguing over the mealworm feeder.”

“Their winter presence brings me as much peace and joy as their sweet complaints do during the gardening season,” she wrote.

Last but not least, Andrew wrote to let me know that bluebirds were at Brentwood Golf Course in Keene last week. I didn’t save this sighting for last because I’m going to make a birdie joke, I’ll spare you that much, but it’s a good segue into how to find bluebirds in the winter.

Just like in the spring and summer, bluebirds are most often seen in open spaces in the winter. Golf courses and cemeteries are good places to look. For whatever reason, I’ve always had good luck finding bluebirds around playgrounds in the winter. My yard backs up to thick woods and I’ve seen them in the trees on the edge, but never very deep in the woods. 

Bluebirds are a good conservation success story. Changing landscape (fields and farms to woods) and competition for nest cavities from house sparrows and starlings depleted the bluebird population in the early 20th century. Conservation efforts and manmade bluebird boxes, thankfully, led to a strong rebound for the iconic species.

And thankfully, many of them stick with us throughout the winter. There’s nothing like seeing that bright baby blue color against the backdrop of freshly fallen snow. Well, except for maybe the red of a male cardinal against snow. Tough call.

Chris Bosak may be reached at chrisbosak26@gmail.com or through his website http://www.birdsofnewengland.com