About Chris Bosak

Bird columnist and nature photographer based in New England.

For the Birds: Scarlet tanagers can be elusive

Photo by Chris Bosak A Scarlet Tanager perches in a tree in Danbury, Conn., July 2016.
Photo by Chris Bosak A Scarlet Tanager perches in a tree in Danbury, Conn., July 2016.

This has been the first spring/summer since I can remember in which I have not seen a scarlet tanager. I was hot on the trail of a few in the spring, but I never did spot the birds.

Granted, my birding this year has been hampered by foot ailments, but I have still spent enough time out there that I feel I should have seen one or two of these beauties.

The scarlet tanager is one of the most sought-after species in New England in the spring. Their electric red bodies with contrasting black wings make it one of our most unique and beautiful birds. The problem with tanagers is that they mostly hang around the tops of tall trees. Even a bird as bright as a teenager can remain hidden in a full canopy of oak or maple leaves.

When I had my house in the woods a few years ago, I had scarlet tanagers nesting nearby and they would come to the yard frequently. During those years, I would see dozens of tanagers. Well, probably not dozens of different scarlet tanagers, but dozens of sightings of the same few tanagers.

Female scarlet tanagers are even more difficult to find. The species is about as sexually dimorphic as they come and the drab females can hide even better in the tops of the trees. Now that it is August, soon the males will shed their breeding plumage and trade it in for drab olive green feathers, similar to the females and youngsters. That is why you rarely, if ever, see bright red tanagers during the southward migration.

As difficult as it can be to find tanagers sometimes, it can also be tricky to hear them, or at least to identify their song. Scarlet tanagers have been described as sounding like robins with sore throats. I think it is an apt description so when you cannot see the birds, it is hard to tell whether it is a robin or a scarlet tanager up in the canopy. Throw in the somewhat similar song of the rose-breasted grosbeak and you’ve got another point of confusion when it comes to hearing a scarlet tanager’s song.

What is extremely helpful, however, is to learn the call of the scarlet tanager. It sounds like no other bird and is heard often in the woods of New England. Phonetically, it has been described as “chick bree“ and that sounds about right.

Find the call of the scarlet tanager on an app or online field guide such as www.allaboutbirds.org, and listen to the “chick bree“ call of the tanager. Next time you hear it in the woods, you will recognize it as a tanager and know where to look. Even if you don’t find the bird, you can take heart in knowing that it is up in the canopy somewhere.

Speaking of identifying birds by their songs and calls, I received an email the other day inquiring about how to learn bird calls and songs. I responded by saying there are apps and websites where you can listen to bird sounds, and there is also an app called Merlin that will identify a bird song or call in real time for you based on a recording taken with your smartphone. I could not vouch for the accuracy. In fact I expressed doubt about its accuracy because there are so many factors when it comes to identifying birds by sounds.

Curious, I downloaded the app and give it a shot. Of course, in the summer there aren’t many birds singing, so my sample size was pretty small. I was impressed with the results, although not blown away. It recognized the call of a black-capped chickadee and the song and harsh notes of a Carolina wren, but it missed a few other sounds and told me a pileated woodpecker was nearby when I am quite sure that one of these large woodpeckers did not make any sounds while I was making the recording. That would have been hard to miss. 

I am looking forward to giving it a shot and putting it to a more stern test next spring. I’m curious how it does when several soft-singing warblers are in the area. For those of you who have tried Merlin, or some other bird song identification app, drop me a line and let me know your thoughts about its effectiveness.

In the meantime, enjoy the rest of summer and keep your eyes open for young birds in the woods and at the feeders. 

For the Birds: Chipping sparrow the source of the chirping

Photo by Chris Bosak A chipping sparrow perches on a garden stake in New England, July 2020. Merganser Lake.

The chirping was coming from the small tree right next to me. That much was clear. What wasn’t clear was where the bird was exactly or what type of bird it was. 

I looked among the leaves for a minute or two to no avail. Then the bird jumped down to a dead branch just above eye level. It was a chipping sparrow. If it had been singing instead of chirping/calling I would have recognized it without having to see it. I can recognize many calls or chips but apparently not the chipping sparrow’s.

I was glad the bird hopped down to offer a good look. Too many times to count I’ve zeroed in on a bird following its song or call only to have the bird eventually fly off with me never having seen it or identified it. It’s one of the more frustrating things when it comes to birdwatching. 

It’s not a surprise that I couldn’t find the bird in the tree initially. Chipping sparrows are one of the smaller birds in New England and a single maple leaf can easily conceal the bird’s whereabouts.

Hummingbirds, at about 3 to 3 1/2 inches long, are our smallest birds, followed by the kinglets at about 3 1/2 to 4 inches long. Chipping sparrows are roughly the same size as a chickadee — about 4 1/2 to 5 1/2 inches long. 

By comparison, house sparrows and white-throated sparrows are 6 inches long, or slightly more. Even juncos are an inch or so longer than chipping sparrows. 

So it’s no wonder I couldn’t find it in the leafed-out maple. Thankfully, it made an appearance on a dead branch and lingered there for several minutes.

Chipping sparrows, in my opinion, are one of our more handsome sparrows as well with a rusty cap, black eye stripe and bright white stripe in between. Their song is also easy to recognize and rather ubiquitous in the spring. The song, as the bird’s name suggests, is a series or trill of chips. It can easily be confused with the song of the pine warbler or junco, but the chipping sparrow’s trill is heard most frequently in New England, particularly after April.

Chipping sparrow numbers have declined by an estimated 28 percent between 1966 and 2019, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, but thankfully their numbers remain high and are of low conservation concern.

The chipping sparrow, it seems to me, is one of New England’s more underrated birds. It has a pleasant song, beautiful plumage and is a common sighting throughout summer when many birds have seemingly disappeared. Sometimes, they even find obvious perches when someone is looking for them.

For the Birds: Wrens, bobolinks and cranes (yes, cranes)

Photo by Chris Bosak – Bobolink in New England field.

House wrens and American goldfinches have been my main source of avian entertainment this past week.

Both of these birds nest, on average, later than most other songbirds. While birds such as phoebes and robins get started in March or April, house wrens and goldfinches start in late spring/early summer. I hear the disjointed, but still rather cheerful, song of the house wren every time I walk out my door. The goldfinches are more quiet, but highly visible in their bright yellow plumage going back and forth to the nest site.

Goldfinches feed their babies a vegetarian/seed diet so the early insect hatch that prompts so many other songbirds to nest is of no practical to goldfinches. Rather, they must wait until flowers to bloom and go to seed before raising their young. Their primary diet consists of milkweed, thistle and other “weeds.”

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For the Birds: Watching the babies grow

Photo by Chris Bosak — Three young eastern phoebes getting ready to fledge.

As big a thrill as it is to have a bird visit your backyard feeder, it’s an even bigger thrill to have a bird visit a birdbath in your yard. Having a bird land on and eat the dried seeds of a flower in your garden tops both the feeder and bath sighting, in my opinion anyway.

However, a bird nesting in your yard beats them all. Whether the bird makes its own nest in a tree or bush, or if the bird uses a birdhouse, there’s nothing like the thrill of watching birds grow from egg to hatchling to fledgling. 

The birds that nested in my yard this spring have all been very inconspicuous. I see tons of catbirds in my yard and several come around to scold me when I come out to use the grill or sit on the porch. A male cardinal usually joins the admonishment. But I haven’t found a single nest in the brush. 

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For the Birds: Crows and their deserved reputation

Photo by Chris Bosak An American crow in Danbury, CT, winter 2019.

It’s like clockwork.

At 6:45 p.m. the crows glide in and land on the upper branches of the mostly dead, huge maple tree in the front yard.

It’s not a massive number of crows like you’d see in the winter at dusk; rather, it’s a small gathering. First two adults land, then two youngsters follow. They sound a few seemingly innocent caws, but their disagreeable reputation as egg-eaters precedes them.

The crows’ arrival puts the other birds in the neighborhood on alarm. Robins sound off from the surrounding trees but remain out of view. Cardinals, also unseen, use their high chip alert calls to keep in contact with each other. Orioles join in but keep their distance.

Blue jays and grackles are more aggressive in their attempts to drive the crows away from the neighborhood. The blue jays squawk and dive-bomb. More jays emerge from the trees and join the effort.

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For the Birds: Baby birds: Sometimes the best way to help is to do nothing

Photo by Chris Bosak Young Barn Swallows beg for food as a parent returns to the nest with a morsel in this June 2012 file photo.
Photo by Chris Bosak, Young Barn Swallows beg for food as a parent returns to the nest with a morsel.

Here’s a follow-up to a recent column I did about helping birds in the summer. It seems that I missed a few important tips.

I received a text message from a friend last week after she found two baby birds on her deck. They had recently fallen out of a birdhouse she has hanging near the house. What to do with the babies? It’s a question I get fairly often in late spring and early summer.

If you come across baby birds that have fallen out of the nest, the best thing to do is put them back in the nest. That is assuming you know where the nest is, of course. In my friend’s case, she did know and she placed the baby birds back into the house. The mother returned shortly thereafter and all seems to be good.

That advice may surprise some people because the old adage was that you should never touch a baby bird because the mother will reject any baby that has been touched by a human. Birds do not have a great sense of smell (well, most birds anyway) so they will not abandon a baby that was touched. Besides, a mother or father bird has no way of getting the baby back into the next.

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For the Birds: Bluebirds, windows and houses

Photo by Chris Bosak An eastern bluebird gets a drink from a birdbath in New England, February 2020.

I’ve been getting quite a few emails about bluebirds lately. I see that as a good sign about the rebounding eastern bluebird population.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s AllAboutBirds.com, my go-to website for information about North American birds, says the eastern bluebird is a species of “low concern.” The site reads, “Eastern Bluebird populations fell in the early twentieth century as aggressive introduced species such as European Starlings and House Sparrows made available nest holes increasingly difficult for bluebirds to hold on to. In the 1960s and 1970s, establishment of bluebird trails and other nest-box campaigns alleviated much of this competition, especially after people began using nest boxes designed to keep out the larger European Starling. Eastern Bluebird numbers have been recovering since.”

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