About Chris Bosak

Bird columnist and nature photographer based in New England.

Crazy year of bird feeding with many firsts

Photo by Chris Bosak A yellow-rumped warbler and pine warbler share a suet feeder in New England, April 2020. Merganser Lake.

I cut back on my bird feeding last week as my visitors have dwindled to a handful of species.

I am still putting out enough to keep those birds coming back and happy, but I retired many of the feeders until the fall. A big, homemade platform feeder is still on the deck keeping the downy woodpeckers (family of four), cardinals, catbirds and house finches around.

At my previous houses, by this time of year only house finches would be coming around so I would stop feeding altogether in the summer. With the nice variety of birds still coming around, I will continue to throw out a little seed and suet.

Taking down some of the feeders made me think about what a strange year it has been for feeding birds, at least in my yard. I have been feeding birds for decades now and this year marked several firsts. It started in February with the eastern bluebirds. I have never had bluebirds at my feeding station before this year, so you can imagine how thrilled I was to see them arrive. They showed up every day from February until the end of May and even brought their youngsters around for most of May. I still don’t know exactly where they nested, but it must have been somewhere fairly close. It was surprising because there isn’t what I would consider typical bluebird nesting habitat anywhere in my neighborhood.

I have seen catbirds at my feeders before, but only on rare occasions and it has been years since the last time. This spring and summer, however, I am getting at least two different catbirds visiting every day eating suet. They are bold and noisy, belting out their cat-like mew from mere feet away from me. Speaking of suet, it was the attraction that lured my first Baltimore orioles. I have tried for years to attract orioles with all of the things that are supposed to attract them, such as grape jelly, orange halves and nectar (similar to hummingbird food but less sugar). No luck. This year, they visited for several days in late April and early May and always went right for the suet. I hear them calling from high in the treetops on occasion still, but I haven’t seen them at the feeders since early May.

I’ve also never had robins at my feeder before. This year, they visit daily to grab a few mealworms. Mealworms were the main food source that kept the bluebirds coming back as well.

Earlier in the spring, I had daily and frequent visits from pine warblers and yellow-rumped warblers. I have had pine warblers in the past, but that was about three years ago. I had never had yellow-rumped warblers before this year and several showed up daily for weeks on end.

After all these years of feeding birds, it seems strange to get so many first-timers and ones I hadn’t seen in so long all in the same year. Could it be that they have been coming all these years and I just never noticed because I’ve been going off to work every day? Has the opportunity to work from home allowed me to see things that I’ve been missing previously? I don’t think that is the case as even in years when I am going to work daily, I still have mornings, evenings and weekends to stare at my feeders.

There must be another explanation. But what is it?

I don’t know the answer, but I will think of some theories as the summer wears on and the birding continues to be relatively slow. At any rate, I am not complaining, of course, it has been great to see all these new birds in the yard.

Bonus close-up of rose-breasted grosbeak

Photo by Chris Bosak A rose-breasted grosbeak perches on a branch in New England, June 2020. Merganser Lake.

A Day on Merganser Lake

Here’s a random close-up of a rose-breasted grosbeak. Why not?

Photo by Chris Bosak A rose-breasted grosbeak perches on a branch in New England, June 2020. Merganser Lake.

Not a bird, but still welcome: striped skunk

Photo by Chris Bosak A striped skunk visit a backyard in New England, June 2020. Merganser Lake.

A Day on Merganser Lake

I have two skunks that visit my yard each night. They are both striped skunks and one looks very much the part, as if it stepped out of a field guide. The other, shown above and below, is predominately white. Both are welcome, of course. As long as they stay out of my garden.

Photo by Chris Bosak A striped skunk visit a backyard in New England, June 2020. Merganser Lake.

Next wader up: Yellow-crowned night heron

Photo by Chris Bosak A Yellow-crowned Night Heron in Norwalk, Conn., summer 2017.
Photo by Chris Bosak A Yellow-crowned Night Heron in Norwalk, Conn., summer 2017.

The yellow-crowned night heron resembles the black-crowned night heron (featured a few days ago) with a few differences. The yellow-crowned night heron has a skinnier neck, for one. Just like the great egret may be found on the coast or inland, while the snowy egret tends to hug the coast; black-crowned night herons are more likely to be found away from the coast than yellow-crowned night herons.

Next wader up: Snowy egret

Photo by Chris Bosak A Snowy Egret looks for food in Norwalk Harbor.
Photo by Chris Bosak A Snowy Egret looks for food in Norwalk Harbor.

Just like yesterday’s great egret photo, this photo of a snowy egret has stood the test of time. The copyright says 2015, but the photo was taken many years before that, in the Norwalk Harbor in Norwalk, Connecticut.

Snowy egrets are less likely to be seen away from the coast than great egrets, which can often be found far inland. Snowy egrets are much smaller than great egrets, as the name suggests. The photo below is pretty low in quality, but it gives you an idea of the size difference between the two. The snowy egret is on the left.

Next wader up: Great egret

Photo by Chris Bosak cGreat Egret in Central Park, NYC.
Photo by Chris Bosak Great Egret in Central Park, NYC.

I took the above photo almost 20 years ago and it’s still one of my favorites. Central Park in New York City is a great place to see and photograph birds. It’s a large green oasis among a sea of concrete and steel.

The egret below was photographed in a slightly more “wild” place: the Norwalk River.

Photo by Chris Bosak A Great Egret stands on a deck railing overlooking the Norwalk River in Norwalk, Conn., April 2016.
Photo by Chris Bosak A Great Egret stands on a deck railing overlooking the Norwalk River in Norwalk, Conn., April 2016.

For the Birds: Right or wrong, appreciate the sighting

An eft works its way through the woods in Danbury, Conn., during the summer of 2018.
Photo by Chris Bosak An eft works its way through the woods in Danbury, Conn., during the summer of 2018.

To err is human and I am about as human as they come.

Of course, no one is perfect and trying to solve nature’s mysteries is fraught with pitfalls.

I was walking down a trail one morning not too long ago. It had rained heavily the night before and the trail was damp. I had to watch my step because there were so many efts on the trail. I remembered a time when I mistakenly referred to the bright orange amphibians as newts.

I wasn’t completely off base, of course, as efts are the terrestrial stage of the newt. After being born in the water and then crawling around the ground as an eft for a while (sometimes a few years), they return to the water to live out their time as a newt.

That is just one example of many mistakes and misidentifications I used to make. I’m sure there are some things I currently mistakenly identify and there will certainly be things in the future that I errantly call the wrong name.

Here are some examples I often hear from others that are not correct. There is no judgment, of course, as we have already determined that no one is perfect.

I think I hear the “fisher” called a “fisher cat” more often than its proper name. The fierce, large member of the weasel family is simply called a fisher, no “cat” necessary. Indeed, it is not a cat at all. It is a weasel. Now that the red-bellied woodpecker is expanding its range north throughout New England, it is a good time to remind everyone that it is not actually a red-headed woodpecker. The red-bellied woodpecker does indeed have a mostly red head, but the name red-headed woodpecker is already taken by a bird that does indeed have a fully red head. Adding to the confusion is that the reddish-pink belly of the red-bellied woodpecker is not often seen and not an obvious field mark.

Here’s a tough one that took me years and years to get: the difference between a house finch and purple finch. They look very similar and many people automatically default to the purple finch, which is understandable as it is the state bird of New Hampshire and native to New England. House finch, however, is far more common these days even though they are transplants from western U.S. Purple finches are more colorful (at least the males), slightly larger and have more substantial bills. No, not the type of bills that are due every month.

I often hear people think an owl is singing during the day when they hear a mourning cooing. The mourning dove’s song does have an owl-like quality to it, but it is softer and unique to the dove. The owl that typically sings during the day is the barred owl and its song is much more gruff sounding than the cooing of a dove.

Finally, the osprey is sometimes confused with the bald eagle. Both are large, majestic birds of prey with white heads found near water so the confusion is understandable. The best way to tell them apart is by size. As impressive as the osprey is, the eagle is substantially larger. The typical wingspan of an osprey is about five feet, while an eagle’s is six-and-a-half feet. Also, the underside of an osprey is white and that of an eagle is brown. Either way, it’s great to see the population of both species rebounding so significantly.

In the end, whether people get the name or identification correct pales in comparison to the species being noticed and appreciated.

Next wader up: Green heron

Green Heron in southern Connecticut, November 2013.

I find that green herons are typically difficult to photograph because they tend to be wary. On occasion, I have come across green herons that are so wrap up in finding food that they basically ignore me. Those are fun.

Photo by Chris Bosak A green heron on a railing of a walkway at Assateague Island, Maryland.

Next wader up: Black-crowned night heron

Photo by Chris Bosak A Black-crowned Night Heron looks for food in Holly Pond in Stamford in summer 2015.
Photo by Chris Bosak A Black-crowned Night Heron looks for food in Holly Pond in Stamford in summer 2015.

Yesterday I started a series of wader photos. I kicked off the series with the great blue heron, which is probably our most common and well known wader. The black-crowned night heron is not as well known, although it is fairly common along the coast and some inland waters during the summer.

Here’s what a young one looks like …

Back to the adult …

Photo by Chris Bosak A Black-crowned Night Heron perches on a railing at a marina along the Norwalk River, Norwalk, Conn., spring 2016.
Photo by Chris Bosak A Black-crowned Night Heron perches on a railing at a marina along the Norwalk River, Norwalk, Conn., spring 2016.