About Chris Bosak

Bird columnist and nature photographer based in New England.

For the Birds: Count the birds

Photo by Chris Bosak A Carolina wren perches on a branch following a snowfall in New England, Jan. 2022.

Note: This was written for my New Hampshire audience, but the Great Backyard Bird Count applies to all.

I have received a few emails from folks who have seen evening grosbeaks this winter. There have not been many emails regarding pine siskins or purple finches, and not a single one about redpolls.

As had become typical, there have been plenty of emails about Carolina wrens and red-bellied woodpeckers.

The birds mentioned in the first paragraph as known as irruptive species in New England. Some years we see many of them, some years we see a few and some years we don’t see any. The birds in the second paragraph are species that are expanding their range northward and are now fairly common throughout the southern and middle parts of New England.

Anecdotal evidence plays a large role in monitoring bird populations, but a more scientific approach is even better. That is why there are citizen science projects such as the Christmas Bird Count, Great Backyard Bird Count and Project FeederWatch. These massive databases help scientists track bird populations and see which bird species are thriving and which are struggling.

The Great Backyard Bird Count will be held this year from February 17-20. The GBBC is now a global event with hundreds of thousands of birders participating every year. Researchers from National Audubon Society, Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Birds Canada use the checklists to learn about and protect birds. It is free, open to all and requires as much or as little time as one can spare.

While I would encourage everyone to participate in the GBBC, I would also urge New Hampshire residents to take part in the annual NH Audubon Backyard Winter Bird Survey, which takes place this year on February 11 and 12. NH Audubon is a conservation organization independent of the national Audubon Society.

Similar to the national bird surveys, the Backyard Winter Bird Survey helps biologists from the state get an annual snapshot of what birds are in New Hampshire during the winter. For instance, cardinals and titmice are common backyard feeder birds throughout most of New England these days. A relatively short time ago, however, these birds were considered southern birds and rarely seen this far north.

In fact, according to the NH Audubon website, the project was originally the “Cardinal-Tufted Titmouse Census” before being expanded to include more species in 1987. Cardinals and titmice are still fairly rare in northern New Hampshire, but their numbers are increasing there. Surveys like this help monitor those trends.

It is likely that the Carolina wren and red-bellied woodpecker will continue to expand northward and increase their population where they are already established. The Backyard Winter Bird Survey will play a major role in tracking those populations.

But it isn’t all about cardinals, titmice, Carolina wrens and red-bellied woodpeckers. Nor is it only about the irruptive species such as siskins, redpolls and grosbeaks. It’s about all the species you see in your backyard. It may not seem worthwhile to report every chickadee you see, but what if suddenly chickadees started to appear on fewer checklists and in smaller numbers. Biologists would get an early warning that perhaps something is amiss with the chickadee population.

For this survey, backyard birds go beyond the birdfeeder. Any bird flying overhead, swimming in a pond or lurking in the woods should be counted. In general, any bird you can see while standing in our house or on your property may be counted. Use separate forms if you have two properties and count birds from each.

Forms for the survey are available online and results may be submitted online. Find more information about the survey at nhbirdrecords.org/backyard-winter-bird-survey/ or by calling (603) 224-9909.

Get those results in, but also let me know if you see anything out of the ordinary.

For the Birds: Looking back on a fine 2022

It already seems as if 2022 is a mere dot in the rearview mirror. Before it fades even more, I want to present my annual “top birding moments of the year” column. It’s a tradition that goes back several years and is one of my favorite columns to write. I also encourage readers to send to me their favorite birding (or wildlife) moments of 2022.

10. Bears! On my drive home from looking at land in far north New Hampshire, I noticed three dark blobs at the far edge of a huge field. I hit the brakes, turned around and pulled over. The blobs were three bears — a mother and two cubs. Bears are becoming increasingly common throughout New England. I hope we learn to co-exist peacefully. 

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For the Birds: Hawks in a New England winter

Photo by Chris Bosak – Young Cooper’s hawk in New England, January 2023.

It is not uncommon for birders at designated hawk watch sites to see more than 1,000 hawks in a single day. The fall hawk migration is most certainly a sight to see, particularly if the conditions are right.

With the sheer number of hawks and other birds of prey that migrate south through New England in the fall, it is tough to imagine that any of them remain in our region once the migration is over. But, of course, we do see a fair amount of hawks throughout the winter months in New England. 

Red-tailed hawks, red-shouldered hawks and our accipiters, sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks, are the most common hawks we see in New England during the winter. Other birds of prey that we continue to see in our coldest months are the peregrine falcon, vultures and, of course, bald eagles, which congregate in large numbers where water remains unfrozen.

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More American wigeon photos

Photo by Chris Bosak – An American wigeon in Norwalk, CT.

I posted one American wigeon photograph last month to accompany my Christmas Bird Count article. Here are a few more shots of this interesting duck.

Here is the description of the American wigeon by AllAboutBirds.com, a website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “Quiet lakes and wetlands come alive with the breezy whistle of the American Wigeon, a dabbling duck with pizzazz. Breeding males have a green eye patch and a conspicuous white crown, earning them the nickname “baldpate.” Females are brushed in warm browns with a gray-brown head and a smudge around the eye. Noisy groups congregate during fall and winter, plucking plants with their short gooselike bill from wetlands and fields or nibbling plants from the water’s surface. Despite being common their populations are declining.” Click here for further information.

Photo by Chris Bosak – An American wigeon in Norwalk, CT.
Photo by Chris Bosak – A female American wigeon in Norwalk, CT.

For the Birds: Winter birding delights

Photo by Chris Bosak Redhead seen in a New England pond.

There may be a hot-looking red head at the lake or perhaps a bleach-blonde beauty.

Oh, and don’t forget about that Icelandic number that’s been hanging out at New England beaches.

Don’t worry, you have the right column. I’m still talking about birds.

The aforementioned attractions are just a few of the unusual birds that may be seen in the area during winter.

News of such sightings travel quickly along the grapevine, but Rare Bird Alerts are also available to everyone with access to the internet. Simply do an internet search for “rare birds” for the state or specific location you are interested in. Dedicated birders keep the alert lists updated and it is extremely helpful when you’re trying to track down something rare or unusual, or just interested in knowing what’s out there.

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For the Birds: Good times, bad times …

Photo by Chris Bosak — A northern cardinal and red-bellied woodpecker share a feeding station in New England.

For those who feed birds, it seems that there are slow times, busy times, and routine times.

It can be disconcerting and frustrating during the slow times. You glance out of the window hoping to see a few birds to lift your spirits or to just appreciate a bit of nature during the day, and nothing is there. It can be worrisome because the thought often arises as to whether or not the lack of birds indicates that something is wrong with bird populations.

Populations of many bird species, of course, are indeed in decline. But a slow period at the feeder is typically not an indication of a broader concern. There are certain times of the year when birdfeeders go through a slow period. Seasonal fluctuations are normal. We are perhaps going through one of those fluctuations now as I’ve received a few emails recently wondering why the birds have suddenly stopped visiting. 

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A return to the Christmas Bird Count

Photo by Chris Bosak — American wigeon, Christmas Bird Count, Westport (CT) Circle, 2022.

It was an abbreviated Christmas Bird Count for me this year due to nagging foot problems and family obligations. I’ll take it, though, as I missed last year completely due to the foot problems. Progress is good.

Frank, Tom and I packed a lot into the time we did have together. Tom and I ducked out early, and Frank birded until dark. I was there for a good cross-section of water and land hot spots. Some highlights included 3 warbler species (pine, yellow-rumped and Nashville), red-breasted nuthatch, American wigeon (close views), common goldeneye, common and red-throated loon, and American pipit.

Click here for more information about the Christmas Bird Count, one of the longest-running wildlife censuses in the world.

Here are a few more photos from the day. It was good to be back out there. Hopefully next year I’ll be back at full strength.

Photo by Chris Bosak — Red-breasted nuthatch, Christmas Bird Count, Westport (CT) Circle, 2022.
Photo by Chris Bosak — Red-shouldered hawk, Christmas Bird Count, Westport (CT) Circle, 2022.
Photo by Chris Bosak — Hooded mergansers, Christmas Bird Count, Westport (CT) Circle, 2022.

For the Birds: Bears among us

Photo by Chris Bosak — Black bears in northern New Hampshire.

Bears are among us. We all know that, of course, but it seems that the bear population throughout New England is thriving, and the large animals are showing up more than ever and in places not seen before. 

My closest call with a bear came about three years when I was jogging through the woods. It was a hilly trail with many twists, turns and curves. Heavy metal music blared through my in-ear headphones. My eyes were trained on the ground to watch for roots, rocks, downed branches and anything else that might trip me up. 

I turned a blind corner and noticed a blur cross before me. I stopped in my tracks, killed the music and looked to my left to see a large black bear sitting next to a tree about 15 feet off the trail. The bear had crossed the trail in front of me and settled at that spot. It was as curious of me as I was of it. Thankfully, it was showing no signs of stress or feeling threatened. It was just kind of there looking at me. 

I looked at the beautiful animal for a minute or two and headed back the way I had come.

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