About Chris Bosak

Bird columnist and nature photographer based in New England.

For the Birds: Cedar waxwings’ timely appearance

Photo by Chris Bosak A cedar waxwing looks for berries in a park in New England, January 2021.

With the tendinitis in my foot acting up again, I wasn’t sure how long of a walk I would be able to bear. I had to give it a shot, however, as a few inches of light, fluffy snow had fallen overnight and made the landscape irresistible for anyone with a camera.

As luck would have it, I didn’t have to go very far to get some nice bird photos. I started down a path bordered by thick brush on both sides when I saw a swarm of birds land in a nearby leafless tree. My initial thought was that they were starlings as this flock rivaled in number the large groups of starlings you often see. Something didn’t look quite right, however. They weren’t acting like starlings and they weren’t the right shape.

How cool would it be if they were cedar waxwings? I asked myself. About 10 seconds later the flock descended, one by one, upon the bushes on both sides of me. Suddenly, I was surrounded by cedar waxwings picking off the leftover berries in the bushes.

It is usually about this time when things like this happen that I kick myself for not having my camera with me. This day, however, I was prepared and had my trusty Canon in tow.

The waxwings proved to be tricky photo subjects even though they were plentiful and close. They didn’t sit still for long and the thick brush made it more difficult as most of the birds remained obscured by branches. Occasionally, one would rise to the top of a bush and give me a fleeting opportunity for a nice photograph.

It was the largest flock of cedar waxwings I had seen in a long while. I would estimate the number to be around 100. I checked closely for any tagalong Bohemian waxwings but did not spot any of those larger cousins of the cedar waxwing.

After about 10 minutes, the waxwings gathered in another nearby tree and soon after that flew off to parts unknown. It was then I noticed the other birds around. A decent number of robins were also picking through the leftover berries. Robins are known as a harbinger of spring, but some robins, of course, stick with us through winter.

Then a hermit thrush popped out of the brush to check me out. It hopped to a nearby branch, and then another. Then it skulked back into the thick brush. A hermit thrush is another good winter sighting in New England as most of them have flown south by the end of fall.

Satisfied with the day’s effort and wondering when my foot was going to give out, I headed back to the car eager to check out the waxwing photos on the back of the camera. I was happy with the results even though there weren’t any prize winners among the photos. I was just happy to get some decent shots to mark and memorialize the day. Here’s hoping for more successful bird outings for us all.

For the Birds: NH Christmas Bird Counts record many firsts

Photo by Chris Bosak A boreal chickadee in Pittsburg, NH, summer 2010.

It was a year of firsts and high numbers for many Christmas Bird Counts across the Granite State.

Significant firsts included boreal chickadees on the Peterborough-Hancock Count, a red-headed woodpecker and long-tailed duck in Keene, and a gray catbird in Laconia. Not to mention the sage thrasher found in Hinsdale during the Brattleboro count.

Keene, part of the original Christmas Bird Count in 1900, boasted a record 62 species of birds found. That topped the previous record of 61, which had been recorded four times. A patch of open water on Spofford Lake helped that total as six waterfowl (including the long-tailed duck) and a common loon were spotted there. The long-tailed duck, formerly called oldsquaw, is more often associated with salt or brackish water.

The Christmas Bird Count is the nation’s longest-running community science bird project. It was originally proposed by Frank Chapman, who encouraged people to count birds instead of kill them during the traditional Side Hunt. In 1900, the first CBC took place and included 27 birdwatchers in 25 different areas. There are now hundreds of areas covered throughout North America and thousands of volunteers doing the counting. There are more than 20 counts in New Hampshire alone and a few Vermont counts that include parts of the Granite State.

Phil Brown, the compiler (or organizer) of the Keene Count, said the 9,478 individual birds counted on that overcast day in December was also a record high. While red-headed woodpecker and long-tailed duck showed up for the first time, yellow-bellied sapsucker, swamp sparrow and rusty blackbird made their second or third appearances.

The Keene count also included unusually high counts of red crossbills, white-winged crossbills, evening grosbeaks and pine grosbeaks. Other highlights included a great-horned owl, red-shouldered hawk, common goldeneye, fox sparrow, northern shrike, two hermit thrushes and three northern flickers. There were also 16 barred owls found.

In Peterborough, birdwatchers tallied 52 species (the record is 55) and more than 6,000 individual species. The highlight of the count was the first-ever recording of a boreal chickadee for the Peterborough-Hancock CBC. In fact, two were found on count day. Record-high numbers of red crossbills, white-winged crossbills, northern cardinals, red- and white-breasted nuthatches, titmice, merlin, red-shouldered hawks and Cooper’s hawks were also found.

Pam Hunt, compiler for the Laconia count, was surprised it took this long to find a gray catbird on a count that has been going on for 70 years. But it’s finally in the books. Laconia birders found a total of 57 species, aided by some open water that yielded several waterfowl, including 12 bufflehead.

Congratulations and thanks to all the birders who participated in the Christmas Bird Count. These birdwatchers make a significant contribution to the study of bird populations. If you missed the CBC, don’t forget about the Great Backyard Bird Count coming up in February.

Last week’s other snowy visitor

Photo by Chris Bosak A hermit thrush looks for berries in a park in New England, January 2021.

I posted several photos of the cedar waxwings I saw last week following an overnight snowfall. Here are a few shots of another bird I saw that day among the snowy brush. Hermit thrushes are somewhat of a rare sighting during the winter in New England so I figured I’d give them their own post.

Photo by Chris Bosak A hermit thrush looks for berries in a park in New England, January 2021.
Photo by Chris Bosak A hermit thrush looks for berries in a park in New England, January 2021.

For the Birds: 2020’s Top 10 birding highlights

Photo by Chris Bosak A pileated woodpecker works over a tree in New England, May 2020. Merganser Lake.

It may have been a disastrous year in most regards, but one bright spot is the connection with nature many people made while dealing with the pandemic and associated quarantines, isolation and soul-searching.

Bird-feeding stores reported increased sales as people stuck at home turned to the hobby as a much-needed escape. Nature preserves closed their visitor centers, but most of the trails remained open and people flocked to them to ward off cabin fever.

I worked from home for most of the year and, while I missed seeing my co-workers, I did enjoy watching my backyard bird-feeding station daily as the seasons changed. I never realized how much you miss when you go about your regular routine.

With that in mind, here are my top 10 bird/nature watching highlights of 2020. Feel free to send me an email with some of your highlights.

10. Warblers in the snow

A rare overnight snowfall in early May dropped a coating of snow that lasted until about noon. It provided a short window to see warblers and other migratory songbirds in snow. I managed a few photos of an ovenbird and blue-winged warbler.

9. Love birds

I watched several birds at my feeding station feeding seeds to their mates. Cardinals, blue jays and rose-breasted grosbeaks were among the species I saw.

8. Goldfinches on coneflowers

It’s always fun to watch birds at your feeder, but it’s even more exciting when they grab seeds from flowers in your garden. In early fall, I watched a flock of American goldfinches devour seeds from dead coneflower heads.

7. Pileated works over hemlock

My yard has a lot of dead or dying hemlocks. The downfall of the eastern hemlock is a sad one, for sure. The carnage has been somewhat of a boon for woodpeckers and other cavity-nesting birds, however. One morning, I watched as a pileated woodpecker tore apart the base of a dead hemlock and picked out morsels to eat.

6. Planting a garden

The April quarantine had me searching for a new hobby so I dug up a patch of earth and planted a garden. It didn’t produce very well but it made for some interesting nature sightings as warblers and other birds perched on the fence and garden spiders built their webs among the pepper plants. Seeing a tomato hornworm (a large green caterpillar) covered in braconid wasp larvae was perhaps the most interesting sighting of them all.

5. Christmas Bird Count surprises

The CBC provides some surprise sightings each year. This year it was a prairie warbler, pine warbler, northern pintail and northern shoveler.

4. Florida wildlife

I visited my brother in southern Florida this fall and took a few walks in nearby parks. White ibis were extremely abundant and other wading birds were frequent sightings as well. Of course, alligators were the highlight and we saw several.

3. Busy fox

I watched a fox parent busily hunt for its family every day for a few weeks in the spring. It would trot through my backyard to start the hunt and run back through about an hour later with a mouth full of chipmunks, mice and voles. Amazing.

2. Return to Pittsburg

I visited northern New Hampshire for the first time in a few years and was rewarded with a sighting of a cow moose with twins feeding on the shore of a pond. Moose are my favorite animal and it breaks my heart to see their population depleted because of winter ticks and brain worm. Moose sightings used to be a given up there. Now they are few and far between.

1. Feeder watching

This makes my Top 10 list every year, but this year it tops the list because of the extra time I had to observe the backyard birds. I had regular visits from bluebirds throughout late winter and spring, as well as sporadic visits from yellow-rumped warblers, pine warblers, Baltimore orioles and rose-breasted grosbeaks. Of course, the regular backyard feeders filled in the slow moments and entertained me all year.

Happy New Year, everyone, here’s to normalcy in the year ahead!

Cedar waxwing’s namesake wingtips

Photo by Chris Bosak A cedar waxwing looks for berries in a park in New England, January 2021.

Cedar waxwings are a favorite bird of many people as they are one of the more interesting-looking birds we have in New England. Many people may wonder where it gets its unique name. As the photo shows, the wingtips look as if they are dipped in red wax, hence the name.

A few more cedar waxwing shots

Photo by Chris Bosak A cedar waxwing looks for berries in a park in New England, January 2021.

Here are a few more shots of the cedar waxwings I found during an early morning walk yesterday.

Photo by Chris Bosak A cedar waxwing looks for berries in a park in New England, January 2021.
Photo by Chris Bosak A cedar waxwing looks for berries in a park in New England, January 2021.

Snowy and lucky morning

My first bird walk of the new year proved to be a good one. A fresh but thin blanket of snow covered southern New England on Monday morning making for a quintessential winter scene. I got up with the sun and headed to the nearest park. As I walked along a trail, a large flock of small birds settled into the tall, leafless trees around me. Before I could lift my binoculars to see what they were, they descended upon the berry-covered brush on either side of the trail. Cedar waxwings, lots of them — at least 100. Usually when something like this happens, I don’t have my camera with me for whatever reason. I was prepared this time. A good start to 2021.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A cedar waxwing looks for berries in a park in New England, January 2021.

For the Birds: Snow brings the birds

Photo by Chris Bosak A white-throated sparrow visits to a New England backyard, December 2020.

The first major snowstorm of the year hit New England with a varying degree of impact. Parts of the region were socked with a foot or more, while other parts were hardly touched.

I woke up to about a foot of light snow, and I loved it. As anticipated, the activity at the bird feeder was frenetic. Juncos, dozens of them, along with a few white-throated sparrows and a lone song sparrow grazed nervously on the ground under the feeder. Chickadees, titmice and nuthatches politely took turns at the hopper feeder, and a pair of Carolina wrens occupied the platform feeder.

The wrens were quickly displaced by a boisterous blue jay who made it very clear whose turn it was at the feeder. Not that the blue jay waited patiently in the first place. The big, Continue reading

One more Christmas Bird Count photo

Photo by Chris Bosak A red-tailed hawk perches on the top of a pine tree in New England, December 2020.

Here’s one more shot of the red-tailed hawk that we saw during the Christmas Bird Count on Sunday in Norwalk, Connecticut. We were looking for warblers among the pine trees and this bird flew in out of nowhere to entertain us for a bit.