About Chris Bosak

Bird columnist and nature photographer based in New England.

For the Birds: Patience pays off again

Photo by Chris Bosak A yellow-rumped warbler eats poison ivy berries in New England, fall 2021.

Any birdwatcher knows that patience and faith are perhaps the two most important components to a successful bird walk.

I started a recent walk with high hopes, as I always do, but as the morning went on and no birds were to be found, I started to lose hope of seeing anything. To compound matters, the field at the park had recently been mowed for the first time of the year, making bird encounters even less likely.

It still would have been a pleasant walk because the autumn morning chill had given way to a beautiful and warm sunny day. But with fall migration in full swing, I was disappointed in the birding results.

I turned around to finish my walk and decided to go off trail a bit and check out a long shrubby row adjacent to a road on one side and the recently plowed field on the other. At first there was nothing to be seen other than the magical colors of a New England fall, which were pleasing on their own.

Then I saw a few birds spring up from the field and head into the shrubby area along which I was walking. Then a few more birds popped out of the grass and went into the shrubby row. Before I knew it, I was practically surrounded by yellow-rumped warblers.

A few palm warblers were in the mix as well, but it was largely yellow-rumped warblers, and there were dozens of them. It looked like a mix of young and old, male and female.

They stuck mostly to the tops of trees at first. Then they slowly worked their way down and started gobbling up white berries from a vine that had climbed up the tree.

Poison ivy is a much-maligned plant and with good reason. But it does have some good qualities. Not only is the foliage a brilliant red in the fall, but it produces many white berries that a variety of birds love. I’m not saying that is enough to keep poison ivy growing around your yard, but when you come across a patch in the woods, just know that it serves a valuable purpose for migrating birds.

The recently mowed field turned out to be a boon for the birds as well. A bounty of easily accessible seeds and insects must have been created by the cutting because the warblers, along with eastern bluebirds and a variety of sparrows, went back and forth from the field to the berries in the shrubby row frequently. Talk about a balanced diet.

I walked under a dead tree and three eastern bluebirds held their perches on the bare branches. They made their “turalee” sounds and kept an eye on me as I moved along. A few steps later, I focused on an active patch of poison ivy, and one of the bluebirds swooped down to join the feast with the warblers.

The last bit of excitement came when I saw a red squirrel struggling to get a walnut up a tree. The walnut, still with its green husk, was a tall task for the little rodent. The squirrel eventually succeeded and it reminded me to put a few walnuts in the side pocket of my cargo shorts. I’m slowly learning the ins and outs of harvesting wild nuts in New England, and I hadn’t experimented with walnuts yet.

What started as a pleasant walk on a crisp fall day turned out to be an eventful experience only New England can offer. So many walks end up that way.

For the Birds: Efts and mushrooms make for a very orange walk

Photo by Chris Bosak An eft works its way across a path in New England, fall 2021.

Orange was the color of the day during a recent morning walk in the woods.

It had rained overnight and the trails were damp in most places and puddled in others. I got a flash of excitement when I saw my first eft. Then I saw another. Then another. Efts were underfoot on every fifth or sixth step.

Efts are eastern newts in the terrestrial stage. Some are brownish but most are bright orange and, despite their small size, very visible on paths in the woods. They can be found any day from late spring into fall, but damp weather is when you are most likely to find them, even if you aren’t looking for them.

Newts have four distinct stages, or life cycles. Females lay eggs on aquatic vegetation in the spring. A month to five weeks later, the eggs hatch and the newts live in water for a few months. At this larval stage, they are less than 1 inch long and have feathery gills. In the fall, they shed their gills, crawl onto land and live as efts for about three or four years. They spend New England’s harsh winters hibernating under logs or rocks.

They are relatively slow-footed, brightly colored and highly conspicuous when crossing trails or other areas void of vegetation. It would seem to be a recipe for disaster with all the predators lurking in the woods, but remember, bright colors in nature are often a warning to stay away. Efts also have black spots, further warning would-be predators of their toxicity. Indeed, efts secrete a poison from their skin and are most toxic during this terrestrial stage.

Speaking of predators in the woods, efts themselves are carnivorous hunters. They wander the floor of the woods looking for insects, small worms, snails and other small prey.

Finally, the eft returns to the water as a mature newt and lives out its days in an aquatic world. Its tail is flattened and they are tannish or olive green. They range in size from just under 3 inches to a bit over 5 inches.

I watched my steps carefully on this day as the efts were out in force. This particular park is popular with mountain bikers, and I tried not to think of the toll that activity plays on the eft population on damp days.

I continued my walk and noticed a few leaves changing, mostly to orange. Swampy areas tend to change color earliest, and several maples in the swamp were showing off already.

On previous days, I had noticed clumps of shiny, bright orange mushrooms. As I continued this current walk, I saw these fungi from time to time. Then I came across a huge jumble of these mushrooms. The orange cluster in the woods caught my eye from dozens of yards away.

I photographed the clumping from different angles with my phone. From below the mushroom heads, the thick forest of stems seemed to be home to a magical world. What was in this magical world, I have no idea, but a poet or children’s book author certainly could have drawn inspiration from it.

From what I could tell based on an Internet search, they looked like jack-o’-lantern mushrooms. I’m not a mushroom expert (not even close), so I’m not positive of that ID and would never offer advice on whether they, or any mushroom, are edible. One of my pandemic hobbies was to expand my knowledge of edible plants and nuts in New England, but I steer clear of mushrooms. I’m sure mushroom harvesting is a fulfilling and exciting hobby, but given the potential consequences of being wrong, I’ll continue to get my mushrooms from the grocery store.

Greens, browns, grays and blues dominate the New England landscape. Splashes of orange were a welcomed change of pace on this day.

Photo by Chris Bosak Orange mushrooms grow in New England, fall 2021.
Photo by Chris Bosak Orange mushrooms grow in New England, fall 2021.

For the Birds: Big news week for the birds

Photo by Chris Bosak Yellow-rumped Warbler in Selleck’s Woods, Darien, Conn., April 2014.

Note: This column was originally published in newspapers on Oct. 4.

There was a lot of environmental and bird-related news to come out of Washington this past week.

In case you missed it, the big news was that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials declared the ivory-billed woodpecker extinct. The “Lord God Bird’s” removal from the endangered species list is surprising only because officials are reluctant to declare species extinct. It’s such a powerful word that carries with it such finality it’s a tough tag to put on something.

The dreaded label was also placed on 22 other species of wildlife, including eight freshwater mussels. Sadly, but not surprisingly, 11 species from Hawaii and the Pacific Islands have been declared extinct. That includes many birds.

Although many factors go into the decline of a species, officials largely blame habitat loss and climate change for these latest extinctions.

There hasn’t been a confirmed sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker since 1944, and it was believed even then that the species was all but extirpated. I’m sure many of you will recall the alleged sighting in the Arkansas swamplands in 2004. Even though hundreds of expert birdwatchers and scientists converged on the area, the sighting was not confirmed, and the bird was not found again. The video of the bird was too blurry to act as confirmation, and it is widely believed to have been a pileated woodpecker.

The alleged sighting caused great excitement in the birding world, but also divided the birding community. I was hosting a radio show on birds at the time and spoke to several experts. John Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, firmly believed an ivory-billed woodpecker was spotted and brimmed with optimism that the bird would someday be found again. I read an article last week that quoted him as still holding out hope, despite the new designation.

Noted ornithologist David Sibley, however, was skeptical from the beginning. A video of my interview with him discussing the topic is by far my most popular YouTube entry.

The stark announcement by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service came with a dire warning that many more extinctions will almost certainly follow in the next 50 years. Officials are hoping the news and predictions will serve as a wake-up call for humans to do better about protecting the earth’s biodiversity.

Also last week, the White House announced it would bring back rules holding companies responsible for the deaths of birds that could have been prevented. The oil industry and utility companies pushed back on the announcement, claiming they will be held responsible for bird deaths not related to their practices.

A few months ago I wrote about being happy that the Milwaukee Bucks won the NBA championship because their new arena was built with strict bird-friendly measures in mind. Last week, I read that the Salesforce Tower in Indianapolis will dim its lights at night until November to try to protect migrating birds. City lights can disorientate birds migrating at night and result in window strikes, which cause an estimated 300 million to one billion bird deaths each year. That’s a large estimate range, but it’s indisputably large either way.

Speaking of fall migration, if you have the time, check out www.birdcast.info. It shows real-time migration maps and data and is fascinating to explore. It also features predictive technology to estimate how many birds will fly over an area over the next three days and nights.

Happy fall, everyone. Enjoy New England’s most iconic season.

Palm warblers out in force

Photo by Chris Bosak A palm warbler stands on a stone wall in New England, October 2021.

Three species dominated the count total on my morning bird walk today. White-throated sparrows were plentiful and it was great to hear their song again. Yellow-rumped warblers were plentiful, as they often are this time of year. Palm warblers were numerous as well and a flock of five kept me company near a stone wall at Huntington State Park. The fall warbler migration is bittersweet. It’s great to see them, of course, but the crisp air reminds me they will be gone soon and a long winter looms. At least winter is good for birdwatching too.

Photo by Chris Bosak A palm warbler stands on a stone wall in New England, October 2021.

For the Birds: Fall’s magic

Fall is an exciting time for birdwatching with hawkwatches, the southern warbler migration, and, later in the fall, the waterfowl migration.

Early fall holds many non-bird surprises in nature as well. On recent walks, I have seen dozens of monarchs and other butterflies. When I walk through fields, I am constantly on the lookout for monarch caterpillars on milkweed plants. Rarely am I lucky enough to spot one, but it does happen on occasion. The other day happened to be one of those occasions.

Monarchs are struggling as a species as habitat loss, pesticides and, potentially, climate change have played a heavy toll on their numbers, particularly out West. I did read an article recently that said the numbers may be rebounding, however. That would be great news.

Dragonflies are still out in force as well and may keep birdwatchers occupied when birds are scarce.

During a walk after a rain recently, I had to watch my step as dozens of efts, or newts in the terrestrial stage, were scattered along the trail. Luckily, they are bright orange (at least most of them) and easy to spot.

Fall is also the rut for deer and moose. If you are lucky enough to come across a moose these days, the rut is an exciting, but also potentially dangerous, time to see them. Keep your distance and admire them from afar.

Be extra cautious on the roads in the fall as deer are moving about more than usual. Young bucks in particular are on the move looking for potential mates. Keep an eye out, day and night, as these deer have their focus elsewhere, and getting from point A to point B often leads them across roads.

Back to birds … In recent days, I have seen black-and-white warblers, yellow-rumped warblers, a Canada warbler, several Eastern Phoebes, and many common yellowthroats.

The fall warbler season is notoriously difficult for identification purposes as the young ones have not yet attained adult plumage and many of the adults have traded their spring breeding plumage for a duller non-breeding plumage. It can make for some very difficult identifications.

To make things easier, I suggest using a field guide that shows warblers in all of their plumages, including seasonal, age and sex differences. Many field guides show only adult breeding males and females.

I haven’t been to a hawkwatch yet this fall, but I was surprised and happy to watch a northern harrier hunting over a big field recently. Harriers are fun to watch as they glide slowly a few feet above the grass line looking for prey. Harriers are easily distinguished from other hawks in flight by the large white patches on their rumps.

This is a great time to be outdoors. The weather is not too hot and not too cold, wildlife is abundant, and the thought of winter looming makes one feel as if one should take full advantage of these remaining unfrozen days. Drop me a line and let me know what you are seeing out there this fall.

Watch where you step

Photo by Chris Bosak An eft works its way across a path in New England, fall 2021.

If you’ve spent any time in the New England woods in the spring, summer or fall after a rain, you’ve certainly come across an eft or two (probably way more than that.) They wander onto hiking trails and can be quite numerous the day after a rain. I came across several during a recent walk at Huntington State Park in SW Connecticut. Notice the different colors of the two efts pictured. The eft is the terrestrial stage of the eastern newt. The four stages of the newt are described succinctly in the following post by author David George Haskell.

Photo by Chris Bosak An eft works its way across a path in New England, fall 2021.

For the Birds: Hummingbird feeder timing

Here is the latest For the Birds article. It was published a few weeks ago in newspapers, but is still relevant as September comes to an end.

Photo by Chris Bosak Hummingbirds are migrating now and will be throughout the rest of the month.

When should I bring in my hummingbird feeders? It’s a common question and may be answered the same way as so many other questions may be answered: It depends.

The answer depends on your tolerance for changing the sugar water in the feeders and your patience for watching a feeder that may not receive any visitors. Hummingbirds started to migrate a few weeks ago and some have gone south already.

With migration under way, now is definitely not the time to bring the feeders in. Hummingbirds need to pretty much double their weight to make their arduous migration, particularly when they reach the Gulf of Mexico and fly the 500 miles without rest.

Sure, there are plenty of natural food sources for hummingbirds this time of year, but an easy meal at a feeder now and then gives the tiny birds a bit of a break. Patches of jewelweed are another favorite of hummingbirds and they are still blooming. Other than feeders, I think I’ve seen more hummingbirds at jewelweed (touch-me-not) patches than any other venue.

Back to the question at hand. When should you bring in hummingbird feeders? Most of the hummingbirds will be gone by the last week of September or so; therefore I’d keep the feeders going until at least the end of this month.

There are some stragglers, however, so someone with more patience may want to keep the feeders out until the end of October. It’s not likely you will see any hummingbirds in October, but the rare opportunity to see one that late in the season may be enough to inspire some people to keep trying.

If you do extend the hummingbird feeder season, be sure to keep the sugar water fresh. With cooler fall temperatures, it is not necessary to change the water as often as in the summer, but it should still be changed every few days.

As an added incentive to keep the feeders up longer, many of the late hummingbirds (October and even November) are western species that are not often seen east of the Mississippi River, let alone in New England. Rufous hummingbirds are the most commonly seen western species in New England in the fall. Other species, such as Allen’s or calliope, may be seen as well. I remember going to see a black-chinned hummingbird in southern Connecticut back in November 2013. This bird was feeding on a late-blooming flower.

You never know what you’ll see if you keep your hummingbird feeders up later than usual. Odds are, you’ll see nothing. But the rewards can be great.

Future monarch (and a current one)

I always look at milkweed plants for monarch caterpillars. My success rate is about .001 percent, but today I got lucky and found one on a plant right next to the trail. Monarchs lay their eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves and the caterpillar eats the leaf when it hatches. Milkweed is toxic and the caterpillar becomes toxic to would-be predators.

There were a ton of monarchs flying around too, as seen below.

For the Birds: A dragonfly bonanza

Photo by Chris Bosak A green darner flies around a backyard in New England following a mosquito hatch in September 2021.

The sun was starting to set behind the marsh, casting a golden glow on the backyard.

In this magical light, we could see dragonflies by the dozens, perhaps hundreds, zipping around the yard. Looking closer, aided by the light, we could see hundreds, if not thousands, of mosquitoes, presenting themselves as tiny specks in the air. Looking even closer, we could see the dragonflies chase down and eat the mosquitoes. The mosquitoes didn’t stand a chance against these perfectly engineered predators.

I went out to try my luck at photographing a dragonfly in midair. It’s been an elusive shot in my catalog of nature photos. Even with the sheer numbers of dragonflies and the perfect evening sun at my back, the shot proved to be a challenge. I somewhat met the challenge, however. I wouldn’t say I nailed the shot as it’s not ideally composed, focused, exposed or any other type of technical photography term you can think of. But, for my purposes, it’s not bad. I’m not shooting for National Geographic or anything.

Dragonflies are small, fast and can move in any direction. It’s not easy to get a good shot of a dragonfly when it’s perched, let alone zipping around in unpredictable patterns.

I tried to follow an individual dragonfly through the camera lens. That was a lesson in futility. Even if I could follow one (which I couldn’t) it would have been impossible for the autofocus mechanism to keep up. Manual focusing by panning the subject wouldn’t have worked either. Not even close.

So I tried a trick I used sometimes when I was a sports photographer. I focused on a spot and waited for something to enter the frame. Actually, in this case, there were so many dragonflies that they were constantly in the frame so I just held down the shutter. Just because they were in the frame doesn’t mean the shots came out OK. On the contrary, 99 percent of the photos were instantly deleted because they were out of focus, usually by a long shot.

But I kept trying and made adjustments to the camera as I went along and the sun continued to set. I have no idea how many photos I took, but it didn’t really matter. Digital cameras can hold lots of photos these days.

This would have been impossible to do with the “old” film camera. Imagine blowing through several rolls of expensive oil and paying the cost of having them developed only to see a bunch of blurry dots. That was our reality not too long ago.

Clearly, the dragonflies didn’t eat all of the mosquitoes as I donated a few pints of blood trying to get the shots. What is it about my ankles that mosquitoes like so much?

As I mentioned earlier, dragonflies are a perfect predator for their prey and a single dragonfly can catch and eat dozens or even hundreds of mosquitoes in a single day. Their four wings allow them to fly in any direction, or even hover, and their vision is outstanding. They catch prey with their legs and eat the catch immediately.

Despite their awesome flying ability, they can sometimes become the prey as well. I remember watching a green heron at a small pond years ago snapping dragonflies out of the air.

I see dragonflies on nearly every walk I take in the spring, summer and fall. But I don’t remember ever seeing such a scene with so many of them concentrated in one yard. Neither of the neighbors had this spectacle going on. It was ours to watch exclusively. It was one of those moments in nature you stumble upon from time to time.