About Chris Bosak

Bird columnist and nature photographer based in New England.

For the Birds: Vireos and flycatchers often overlooked

Photo by Chris Bosak A red-eyed vireo is stuck in a bird-banding net in New England, spring 2021.

I have said many times that one of the great things about birdwatching is that there is always something to learn at all levels.

A beginner, of course, has a lot to learn as the world of birds is vast. An intermediate-level birdwatcher has a lot of knowledge, but there is still plenty more to learn, such as hybrid species and plumage phases. Even experts have a lot to learn as it is impossible to know everything about every bird in the world, and there are species and discoveries yet to be made.

Over the last few weeks, I have been writing a lot about warblers and other spring songbird migrants such as tanagers and grosbeaks. In my opinion, those types of birds straddle the line between beginner and intermediate-level birdwatching. There are a lot of nuances in that statement, however. Identifying warblers by sound is clearly a more intermediate or even advanced intermediate skill. But identifying a rose-breasted grosbeak at a feeder is more of a beginner skill.

There are many other types of spring migrants passing through or settling now in New England that fall clearly into the intermediate, or even expert, category. Vireos and flycatchers, I believe, are two types of birds that can be tricky to learn and therefore require a higher level of skill to identify. Both types of birds tend to favor the tops of trees and are difficult to get a good look at. Often, the sun is either hiding behind clouds or in your face, which makes identifying a bird even more difficult as the colors are not showing well through the binoculars.

A few of the vireos can be relatively easy to identify if you get a good, close look. The blue-headed vireo, with its obvious white spectacles, is one example. The red-eyed vireo is another example, but it is pretty rare that you get a good enough look to determine eye color. Similarly, great-crested flycatchers, with their relatively large bodies and boisterous songs and calls, can be another fairly easy identification.

But most vireos and flycatchers are largely brown or gray with subtle markings, making identification difficult for even intermediate birdwatchers. That is when learning their song and calls becomes important. But that, of course, is a more advanced skill, particularly when one is already trying to learn the song of warblers and other more common birds, such as Baltimore oriole and rose-breasted grosbeak.

In my opinion, vireos and flycatchers are often overlooked, or even ignored, by many birdwatchers. I myself am guilty of this as I rarely write about them in my column. The other day, however, I was struck by the beauty of a red-eyed vireo. I had a rare, extremely close look at the bird. I was walking through a small conservation area where bird banding was taking place, and the vireo was tangled in one of the mesh nets. I took a quick photo with my iPhone and rushed to alert one of the banders of the catch.

That sighting got me thinking about the other vireos and other birds such as flycatchers that are flitting among the treetops with little fanfare.

Several years ago, I brought my boys to a bird-banding area, and one of the banders allowed us to participate in the release of the birds. After all the pertinent information about the bird was collected, Andrew got to release a gray catbird, and Will, who was about 5 years old at the time, released a yellow-bellied flycatcher.

The vireo sighting the other day made me recall the release of the yellow-bellied flycatcher. Rarely on a bird walk are those birds found, and rarely are they discussed when the topic of New England bird comes up. But they are out there and count just as much as the warblers and other ballyhooed birds of New England.

Birdwatching can be a fairly easy hobby. If you are content to know a few common backyard birds such as robins, mourning doves, blue jays and cardinals, that is pretty easy to pick up. If that is your end goal in birding, that’s perfectly fine. If you desire to learn more and take the hobby to another level, that can be done, too, as birdwatching can be as difficult as you want to make it. I look at birds like vireos and flycatchers as birds that definitely take a birder to another level.

For the Birds: Birding by ear, for starters

Photo by Chris Bosak An American Redstart sings from a perch in Selleck's and Dunlap Woods in Darien, Conn., May 2015.
Photo by Chris Bosak An American Redstart sings from a perch in Selleck’s and Dunlap Woods in Darien, Conn., May 2015.

Any walk through deciduous woods when the leaves are out drives home the importance of knowing what birds sound like. It can be a lesson in futility to try to find a tiny warbler at the top of a giant oak tree covered in leaves. The exercise can lead to frustration and a condition known as “warbler neck.”

My birding-by-ear skills are average at best, and I was reminded of this during a recent walk through the woods under a thick canopy. I heard several warblers and other birds, and, while I saw only a few, I was able to recognize the songs of several others. There were many birds, however, I could not find through my binoculars nor recognize by their songs or calls. As I mentioned before, it can be frustrating, but I have reached an age where I can let go of the frustration quickly and not dwell on the bird that got away. In years past, I would often hold onto the frustration long after the walk, which, after all, is supposed to be enjoyable.

Birds don’t always look exactly like they do in a field guide, whether the images are photos or illustrations. There are different plumages depending on time of year, age, sex and other factors. There is also slight variation among individuals of a species. Not every male robin looks exactly the same.

That said, birds don’t always sound exactly like they are supposed to either. A bird’s song is only one of the sounds they make and even their songs can vary greatly. Cardinals, for instance, have distinctive high-pitched call notes. They also have a distinctive song, but there are several versions of the song. The cardinal in your forsythia may have a song that is greatly different from the cardinal across the street. All of the songs are loud, clear and beautiful, but very different. Don’t get stuck thinking that the cardinal song you hear every day is the only one cardinals have. Many other birds are the same way as well.

My advice if you are just starting to learn bird sounds is to learn the common and obvious ones really well. Study what the robin sounds like. Their typical song is often translated to “cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up.” But there is much variation in the song, and they have several calls as well, such as the “tut, tut, tut,” call.

Robins are very common in New England, so if you learn the sounds of the robin, you can save yourself much frustration on your walks by not getting hung up on a bird you will likely come across several times.

Get to know the various calls and songs of blue jays, cardinals, nuthatches, chickadees and titmice. You will hear those often throughout the year, and you can eliminate other birds in the spring when you hear those sounds during a song-filled spring morning.

Warblers and other migrants are a different story. We do not hear them year-round, but rather for only a few weeks out of the year. That is a short window to try to learn those songs in the field. Birding Internet sites and phone apps are filled with recordings of bird songs and calls. I would encourage you to learn a few warbler songs each year so as to not try to pack too much information in your head and end up not remembering anything. Learn the yellow warbler and common yellowthroat, for instance, as those are commonly heard in the spring and summer throughout New England.

Warblers are difficult to learn because there are so many of them and many of their songs are similar to each other’s. But, as I said, learn a few a year and within a couple of years you will be picking out many of the songs you hear in the woods in April and May. And if you just can’t pick it up, don’t fret or stress. Study a little more, and get it next time.

A walk on saved land

Pointing out the warblers seen with the help of an awesome assistant.

The annual (except for last year) spring bird walk at Oak Hill Park took place last Saturday. (Actually, there were two walks, back-to-back.) I hope a good time was had by all. Oak Hills Park is primarily a golf course and a driving range was proposed for the wooded area where the bird walks take place. Thankfully, the woods and those who love it won out and that land is now preserved as a nature sanctuary. Here’s more info and photos from the day.

For the Birds: One of those walks

Photo by Chris Bosak A yellow warbler perches in a tree in New England, spring 2021.

It was the type of walk you anticipate for about 11 months.

It started fairly slowly with robins and red-winged blackbirds as my only visible avian companions while a lone song sparrow sang in the distance. Soon enough, I heard a mockingbird going through its repertoire from a nearby shrubby patch. They usually belt out their songs from a fairly obvious perch and this guy was no different as I found him easily at the end of a branch.

As I watched and listened to this talented songster, a female ruby-throated hummingbird entered the scene. It hovered briefly at the honeysuckle but did not stay long as the blossoms were not quite ready to provide nectar.

A familiar song then permeated the area as dueling male yellow warblers proclaimed ownership of their respective patches. I was stuck in the middle of the rivals and enjoyed the sweet music. To us, it’s entertainment. To them, it’s a turf war with much at stake.

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Yellow warbler again

Photo by Chris Bosak A yellow warbler perches in a tree in New England, spring 2021.

Yellow warblers are one of the more reliable warblers in New England. Pretty much any walk in New England in May or June is enhanced by the song and/or sight of a yellow warbler. Here are a few shots of one I saw the other day.

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Snow in May

Photo by Chris Bosak A blue-winged warbler perches on snowy branches at Bennett’s Farm State Park in Connecticut during a rare May snowfall in 2020.

It sounds like something one of your grandparents would say: I remember when it snowed during the second week of May.

But it wasn’t that long ago when it snowed in May in southern New England. It was last year, in fact. It was overnight May 8 into May 9, to be more specific. That’s exactly one year ago today (at the time of this posting, anyway.)

Granted, it wasn’t a big snow and what little covered the ground was gone by mid-morning, but still …

Here are a few photos I took the morning of May 9, 2020. I may never see a blue-winged warbler in snow again. And that would be just fine with me.

Photo by Chris Bosak A blue-winged warbler perches on snowy branches at Bennett’s Farm State Park in Connecticut during a rare May snowfall in 2020.
Photo by Chris Bosak A blue-winged warbler perches on snowy branches at Bennett’s Farm State Park in Connecticut during a rare May snowfall in 2020.

For the Birds: Welcome to May!

Photo by Chris Bosak A chestnut-sided warbler lurks in the brush in New England, May 2020. Merganser Lake.

Welcome to May, arguably the best month of the year for birdwatching.

So many exciting things happen in the bird world in May that it’s hard to know where to begin. The breeding season is in full swing and our year-round birds as well as newly arrived migrant birds are either looking for nesting sites or already raising young. Suddenly our feeders are visited by colorful newcomers such as rose-breasted grosbeaks, Baltimore orioles or indigo buntings. Waders are back in full force stalking our ponds and rivers.

When it comes to May, however, talk of the birding world has to begin with warblers, those small and often colorful Neotropical migrants that add life to our neck of the woods every spring. Some of these warblers will simply stop by for a few days before heading farther north to their breeding grounds. Many, however, will find a suitable place to raise young and will be with us until the fall.

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A few other birds that may be showing up

Photo by Chris Bosak A Rose-breasted Grosbeak visits a feeder in Danbury, Conn., May 2016.
Photo by Chris Bosak A Rose-breasted Grosbeak visits a feeder in Danbury, Conn., May 2016.

I’ve posted several warbler photos over the last week or so, but early May isn’t only about warblers. Here are a few other birds that may show up in your backyard (if they haven’t already.)

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For the Birds: Spring feeding and purple martins

Purple martins with dragonflies.

I don’t see a lot of press releases now that journalism is no longer my full-time profession, but I did receive a few last week that caught my eye.

One was from Cole’s Wild Bird Products and the other from the Purple Martin Conservation Association. The topics were very different but did have one important commonality: spring.

Cole’s, which makes a red-hot blend that I’ve used and the birds loved, sent some spring bird-feeding tips. Many people stop feeding birds in the spring for a variety of reasons, including bears and not wanting birds to become dependent upon feeders, but I’m a big fan of spring bird feeding. It’s a great way to get close, long looks at birds such as grosbeaks, orioles, buntings and even a few warbler species if you’re lucky.

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