About Chris Bosak

Bird columnist and nature photographer based in New England.

For the Birds: Spring sightings

Photo by Chris Bosak A red-shouldered hawk perches in the wood in Brookfield, CT, March 2019.

I’ve seen a few reports of pine warblers showing up in New England already. The thick of warbler season is still weeks away, however, so let’s put warblers on the back burner for now.

Phoebe reports are bursting all over the region. Those small, rather nondescript songbirds are an early spring migrant and get a head start on the competition by their early arrival. The risk, of course, is that winter lingers into spring in New England, and phoebes have a hard time coping with the weather. It’s all about risk-reward strategy when it comes to migration for birds.

The juncos that have delighted backyard bird feeders all winter are making their way north and becoming more scarce. I saw a red-breasted nuthatch the other day at the feeder. It won’t be long until those little birds are all back up north on their breeding grounds.

I recall a hike I took in Pittsburg, N.H., last summer to the top of Deer Mountain. Aside from a dilapidated fire tower and piles of moose droppings, dozens of red-breasted nuthatches were about all there was to see as a reward for finishing the hike. Clearly, it is a prime breeding area for the birds.

Robins are hopping on lawns all over the region. They, of course, are the traditional harbinger of spring. There are robins in New England throughout the winter, but it certainly feels like spring when you see them hopping along the green grass.

The chorus of spring peepers and wood frogs echoes throughout the woods now. Spring peepers make the familiar high-pitched drone near swampy areas. They are impossible not to hear but almost impossible to find as they go quiet upon approach and are tiny creatures hidden among the leaves. Wood frogs sound like mallards are at the pond, but there are no ducks to be seen.

There are ducks to be seen, however, on plenty of water bodies as the fowl make their way north. I saw a male wood duck resplendent in its breeding plumage the other day along the side of a road in a temporarily flooded area. The “pond” couldn’t have been more than a few inches deep. It just goes to show you never know what you’ll see or where you’ll see it, so be on the lookout at all times.

Most birds of prey are already well into their breeding season, but I came across a mating and territorial pair of red-shouldered hawks the other day. They get my vote for the most boisterous hawks in New England. Osprey have returned in great numbers, particularly in coastal areas, but also some inland waters as well.

Bears have awoken from their slumber and are raising young. Be on the lookout and bring in your bird feeders at night if you live in an area where bears roam. Those areas, by the way, seem to be more numerous than in the recent past as the bear population grows.

In other words, it’s spring. There is a lot going on out there. Keep your eyes and ears open, and let me know what you see out there.

Photo by Chris Bosak A red-shouldered hawk perches on the top of an evergreen, Brookfield, Connecticut, January 2019.

For the Birds: Surprise and welcomed bobcat sighting

Photo by Chris Bosak A bobcat rests in a field in New England, March 2021. (Huntington State Park)

The large field is bordered by hedgerows on three sides and woods on the fourth. Additional hedgerows divide the field perpendicularly about every 100 yards with small cutouts where the trails pass through.

I emerged from the woods and spotted something large walking along the east hedgerow about 40 yards away from the trail. It was tan, but then again so was everything else around it: the grass, the weeds, the hedgerow. I stopped in my tracks to watch it.

Before my brain fully comprehended the situation, I thought it was either a deer or a mountain lion. I quickly eliminated deer as it was clearly a large cat based on its smooth, stealthy and powerful stride. Can I finally put the mountain lion (or cougar or catamount) debate to rest with solid photos documenting the sighting?

I entertained that idea for about two seconds before my brain said, “Hold on. That’s a bobcat.”

I dug out my binoculars and confirmed that it was indeed a bobcat. It was my first bobcat sighting in many years and by far the closest and best look I’ve ever had. What a magnificent animal. Now I see why many people mistake them for mountain lions. Bobcats are much more substantially sized than a “large house cat,” as I have heard them described in the past. I have a good-sized house cat at home, and there’s no comparing it to the bobcat. Male bobcats average around 28 pounds and females around 18. The New Hampshire record, however, is 51 pounds.

I fished my camera out of my backpack and took a few photos of the bobcat walking along the hedgerow. I continued along the trail, which soon curved and headed in the direction of the bobcat, which at this point still hadn’t acknowledged that it knew I was there. I made a loud noise to get its attention. With the trail veering closer to the bobcat, I didn’t want to surprise the animal. I figured it would run or trot off when it heard me, but it froze in its tracks and hunkered down to blend in with the surroundings. If I hadn’t been watching it all along, I never would have spotted it among the sea of tan.

I was surprised the bobcat sat still instead of running away. It reminded me of an American bittern trying to elude detection by raising its neck and swaying among the reeds.

I continued along the trail, walking backward to keep an eye on the hunkered cat. When enough distance was between us, I turned and finished my walk. I did look over my shoulder several times to make sure I wasn’t being stalked.

Bobcats are the only wild cat throughout most of New England. Lynx may be found in the northern part of the region, and the mountain lion debate is too hot a topic for me to get into right now. Bobcats may be found in each of the region’s states.

They are shy and avoid people, although many wander into backyards looking for easy meals near bird feeders or chicken coops. Habitat changes and destruction, coupled with unregulated hunting, caused bobcat numbers to drop significantly in New England throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s. Recent protections have led to a strong rebound for the bobcat. With the population rebounding, I hope it’s not quite as long between bobcat sightings for me.

The first warblers

Photo by Chris Bosak A pine warbler visits a backyard in New England, April 2020, Merganser Lake.

Other than the very few warblers of various types that remained in New England all winter, the pine warbler and palm warbler will be the first arrive in the region. I have seen them show up on rare bird alerts already but they will return in larger numbers over the next two weeks. Keep you eyes on your feeders as pine warblers are one of the few warbler species that will visit feeders. I’ve seen them eat suet, suet nuggets and meal worms. Above is the pine warbler; below is the palm.

Photo by Chris Bosak A palm warbler rests on a wire fence in a backyard in New England, April 2020. Merganser Lake.

For the Birds: Readers share what they’ve been seeing

Rosalie Boucher captured this photo of an American Woodcock in her yard in Norwalk, Conn., in March 2014.

Woodcock are being seen and heard at dusk, phoebes are showing up slowly but steadily, mixed flocks of blackbirds are headed north, and the weather is sunny and warm one day and freezing and wet the next. It must be March in New England.

As we get ready for migration to pick up steam, here’s what readers have been reporting over the last few weeks. Bill from Keene wrote to say he’s hearing spring songs from the woods, which is always a good sign and pleasing chorus. Spring peepers, wood frogs and some birds are starting to call. I’ve heard cardinals almost daily now, which is a most welcomed, cheerful song.

Jeannie from Marlow wrote to say she has had upwards of four red-breasted nuthatches visiting her feeders at once. I thought my two-at-a-time visits were good. Jeannie also sent along a terrific photo of a barred owl having its feathers blown around by a strong wind. The photo may be found at www.birdsofnewengland.com under the “Reader Submitted Photos” category.

Jane from Marlborough wrote, questioning whether a small bird of prey she saw take a chickadee could be a merlin. Merlins are small falcons that breed mostly north of New Hampshire, but some do breed in the state and many pass through during fall and spring migrations. So it is very possible that her bird in question was a merlin.

Here’s what the N.H. Fish and Game website says about the merlin’s range: “Expanding range southward in NH. Currently breeds in the north and at scattered locations in central and western parts of the state. Occurs statewide during migration which peaks during September and early October; occasionally winters along the seacoast or in southern suburban areas.”

Thanks to the Keene Lions Club for having me as a guest speaker via Zoom last week at its meeting. I enjoyed meeting everyone virtually and appreciated the many thoughtful questions at the end. A question was posed that I didn’t have the answer for at the moment. I had referenced early in the presentation the 2019 study that shows there has been a decline of 2.9 billion birds in the U.S. and Canada over the last 50 years. The question came up as to what percentage that number represented. I thought it was a great question as numbers are sometimes presented to show a point, but proper context is missing.

I looked back at the study and found out that the 2.9 billion missing birds represent a 28 percent decline — roughly down from 10 billion adult breeding birds to 7 billion. That is a substantial number no matter how you look at it, but when you consider birds of certain habitats have declined by more than 50, the number becomes even more stark. Grassland birds, for instance, have declined by 53 percent since 1970, according to the study. That is fewer than half of the meadowlarks, bobolinks and more of our favorite grassland birds remaining.

On the bright side, which I was reminded of when I looked back on the study, numbers of waterfowl, raptors and woodpeckers have increased in the last 50 years.

The study, by the way, is entitled “Decline of the North American avifauna” and was conducted by researchers from several organizations such as Cornell Lab of Ornithology, American Bird Conservancy and National Audubon Society.

I hope everyone is ready for spring migration. Be sure to let me know what you’re seeing.

More bobcat photos

Photo by Chris Bosak A bobcat rests in a field in New England, March 2021. (Huntington State Park)

As promised (and expected, I’m sure), here are a few more photos of the bobcat I saw the other day at Huntington State Park in Redding earlier this week. Here’s the original post with more details.

I first noticed the bobcat walking in a field.

Photo by Chris Bosak A bobcat walks through a field in New England, March 2021. (Huntington State Park)

It sat down when it heard me walking along a trail.

Photo by Chris Bosak A bobcat rests in a field in New England, March 2021. (Huntington State Park)

Then it lay down and blended in with the field. I never would have noticed it if I hadn’t seen it walking.

Photo by Chris Bosak A bobcat rests in a field in New England, March 2021. (Huntington State Park)

I grabbed a few shots and let it go about its day. It continued to walk along the edge of the field and eventually disappeared into the bordering brush.

Photo by Chris Bosak A bobcat rests in a field in New England, March 2021. (Huntington State Park)

Finally a bobcat sighting

Photo by Chris Bosak A bobcat rests in a field in New England, March 2021. (Huntington State Park)

I came out of the woods and started walking through a field at Huntington State Park in Redding, Connecticut, Monday evening. I noticed something walking through the field parallel to my path about 50 yards to the east. As you can see from the photo, it was a bobcat, a photographic target of mine for years. Finally, I had found one. I can understand why some people mistakenly think they see a mountain lion when, in fact, they see a bobcat. It was much larger than I thought it would be. I’ve heard bobcats described as looking like “large house cats.” I don’t believe that does the bobcat justice. I have a fairly large house cat at home and this bobcat was much, much larger. More photos to come … of course.

For the Birds: March hints at migration

Photo by Chris Bosak A northern cardinal perches on a hemlock branch in Danbury.

March is an interesting month for birdwatching. In terms of variety and new birds to be found, it does not rank very highly, but March does welcome our first spring migrants.

Red-winged blackbirds have been around for a few weeks already, and in fact, some had never left and remained with us throughout the winter. American Woodcock have been seen and heard throughout New England already. Their aerial displays at dusk are one of the month’s birding highlights for sure.

In a few weeks, eastern phoebes will show up in New England and for me anyway, that really signals the beginning of spring migration.

In March, we also have our remaining winter birds. Juncos and white-throated sparrows are still around my feeders, and a few red-breasted nuthatches are Continue reading

For the Birds: Pausing for horned larks

Photo by Chris Bosak A horned lark looks for food in New England, February 2021.

The crossbills were going to have to wait. I wasn’t about to just walk past a field full of horned larks.

Last week, I wrote about my trip to see red crossbills. The target birds were clearly being seen close by as a crush of photographers and birdwatchers were standing on a boardwalk huddled together as much as possible in these days of socially distancing ourselves. I knew the crossbills were there, but to get there I had to walk along the edge of a field where about a dozen horned larks were hopping about looking for food.

One of the larks made the temptation even greater as it flew in closer to the edge of the field where I walked. It proved to be too much as I stopped my progress toward the crossbills and kneeled down to get a better angle of the lark that was now well within photographic range. The lark looked for food and in doing so, kept inching toward me. I held my ground and put the crossbills on hold.

Eventually, the larks flew off as one to the far end of the field. OK, crossbill time, I thought — just as the crossbills flew away from their convenient spot next to the boardwalk. As I wrote last week, the crossbills settled in a tree not far away and offered plenty of quality time to the photographers and birdwatchers, this time including me. Horned larks are named for the horn-like feathers that sometimes stick up from either side of the birds’ heads. The “horns” were not out on the birds I photographed, but the birds still proved to be handsome photographic subjects.

From a distance, horned larks are not much to look at. They are small birds and appear to be rather bland as you see them from across a field. Many people may see them and not give them a second look.

Closer inspection yields a bird that is mostly white underneath and brown above with decorative yellow and black markings on its face, throat and head. Females are similarly patterned but overall more dull in color.

Horned larks are year-round residents in parts of New England, but they are seen most frequently during the winter. They favor open, barren areas so look in low-cut fields and on beaches for the best chance to spot them. Even snow-covered fields are good places to look as larks seek out seeds that still cling to the grasses that poke above the snow or have been blown on the snow’s surface.

Despite favoring open spaces, they can be difficult to spot. In the winter, the grass and weeds are brown, as is the sand, making it a perfect camouflage for the bird. Usually, it’s their movement that betrays them as they are constantly moving around. They typically gather in fairly large flocks as well, making them easier to find.

Winter can sometimes be a difficult season to get through, but larks are one more reason to get out there and make the most of it.

For the Birds: Redpolls popping up here and there

Photo by Chris Bosak Common Redpolls, Cove Island, Stamford, Ct. Jan. 19, 2013

Here’s a For the Birds column I wrote several weeks ago and neglected to post here for whatever reason. The content is still relevant …

Now the reports of redpolls are coming in.

It has been a winter full of rare-bird alerts where the sightings are coming in from the woods as well as people’s backyards. People have been reporting red-breasted nuthatches and evening grosbeaks at their feeders for a few months already. There have also been reports of pine siskins, but not in the great numbers of the big-irruption winters for that bird.

In the woods and fields, and mountains for that matter, pine grosbeaks, white-winged crossbills and red-winged crossbills have been showing up on reports. Boreal chickadees, long a target bird for life-listers south of the Boreal forest, have been found on the mountaintops of the Monadnock Region.

The exceptional winter continues with sightings of redpolls occurring throughout New England. I have heard from a few readers who have seen these small northern birds and have reported them with rightful delight. There are two types of redpolls that occur in New England: common and hoary. Common, as its name suggests, are the ones more frequently seen in New England. Redpolls somewhat resemble sparrows in size and color but have a red-topped head, black spot under the bill and rosy wash throughout that is more obvious in some individuals than in others.

Sarah from Sandwich last week reported having more than 20 redpolls at a time at her Droll Yankee feeders. Some of the redpolls preferred to grab the seeds from the ground, she wrote. Amy from Harrisville also wrote in to say she has had a lone female redpoll at her feeders.

I had dubbed last year’s cold months as the winter of the bluebird because so many people (including myself) were reporting sightings of these cheerful birds in their yards. The year before that it was the winter of the barred owl as those awesome birds of prey were being found in unusually high numbers. I have dubbed other winters in honor of snowy owls and robins.

Perhaps this is the winter of the rarity with so many different rare birds being found throughout the region. I’m using “rare” in a general sense as these birds are not particularly rare in their normal range, but they are somewhat rare sightings throughout New England. Winter typically features an irruption of a species or two, but not always this many. I can’t remember a winter with so many sightings of siskins, redpolls, red-breasted nuthatches and grosbeaks. This winter (really late fall) also featured a flight of purple finches moving sough through the region.

This could all make for some interesting notations on Great Backyard Bird Count and N.H. Winter Bird Survey checklists. I hope you got out and participated over the weekend. I look forward to seeing the results when they are available. In the meantime, keep your eyes open on your feeders and during your walks in the woods. There is still plenty of winter left, so no one knows what might show up next.