About Chris Bosak

Bird columnist and nature photographer based in New England.

Spring bird feeding basics from Cole’s

Here are some bird feeding tips compliments of Cole’s Wild Bird Products Co.

Photo by Chris Bosak A red-breasted nuthatch grabs a seed from a feeding station in New England last week. (October 2020)

During the global pandemic, and as coronavirus restrictions persist, sales of bird feeders and bird feed continue to skyrocket as people flock to the avian world, right outside their windows where they find the safe and fascinating world of bird watching.

Interest in birding isn’t slowing down; if you haven’t yet tried attracting birds to your backyard, now is a great time to start and for those who are reaping the rewards of watching the birds from home, the experts at Cole’s Wild Bird Products, Co. offer information on bird feed and feeder basics to attract more birds to your backyard this spring.

Spring is a busy season when birds expend lots of energy claiming territory, seeking out mates, building nests, laying, and incubating eggs, and raising their young. It may be weeks before flowers bloom and insects emerge, – which are challenges for birds this time of year. Offering quality feed invites birds to your backyard, and provides a reliable food source, which can have a positive impact on bird’s reproductive success and the survival of their young.

Feeders:

A variety of bird feeder types placed at different heights will always attract more birds than one feeder featuring just one type of seed. Start with two feeder types that will accommodate most feed options:

A couple of birds on a bird feeder

Description automatically generated with medium confidenceBowl feeders are great for serving not only seeds, but also dried mealworms, fruit, and suet in either cake or kibble form. Cole’s Bountiful Bowl Feeder comes with an adjustable dome cover that you can raise or lower to prevent larger birds and squirrels from getting to the food, and it also helps protect from rain.

Traditional tube feeders are a basic, all-purpose feeder and a must-have for bird feeding, especially for finches, nuthatches, and other small birds that cling. The Terrific Tube Feeder is made with state-of- the-art materials to prevent warping and discoloration; but the absolute best feature is the quick clean removable base that makes cleaning fast and easy. You simply push a button, and the bottom of the feeder pops off for super easy access to the inside. Rinse the feeder well with soapy water, dunk it into a nine-to-one water-bleach solution, rinse and dry.  Then just pop the bottom back on and you’re done, there’s no disassembly or assembly of multiple parts necessary. Regular cleaning of feeders is essential, preventing mold, germs, and disease. It’s important to be good stewards when feeding birds by providing safe and clean feeders.

Most Popular Foods for Spring:

1. Birdseed:  Not all birdseed is created equal. Look for quality blends without cheap filler seeds, like red millet and oats. All-natural seed, containing no chemicals or mineral oil are safe and more appealing to birds.  Top seed picks for springtime are all-natural Black-oil sunflower, Cole’s “Hot Meats” (just sunflower meats, no shell, infused with Habanero chili peppers that birds love and squirrels’ dislike!), or try Special Feeder blend, packed with favorites including Black Oil Sunflower, Sunflower Meats, Black Striped Sunflower, Raw Peanuts, Safflower, and Pecans, this blend attracts the greatest number of wild birds! Cole’s offers a wide variety of feed, researched, and specifically formulated to attract certain bird species as well as the largest number of birds and the greatest variety of birds. Check out all feed options here.

2. Dried Mealworms: Full of energy, essential nutrients, fats and proteins, mealworms are a preferred food for adult insect loving songbirds. Plus, in early spring if the ground is still hard, birds may struggle A picture containing ground

Description automatically generatedto extract insects and worms from soil so providing them with a supply of mealworms can help them get the protein and energy they need. Dried mealworms are easy to feed, less messy, and there’s no “ick” factor experienced with live worms.

3. Fresh Fruit: Apple and orange halves and chunks of banana are favorites for orioles and tanagers.  

A picture containing bird, outdoor, sitting, perched

Description automatically generated4. Suet: Perfect for insect-eating birds, high-fat food provides abundant calories and rich nutrition. Some believe suet should only be offered in winter months due to possible melting, but Cole’s no-melt suet can be served all year long. Suet is a favorite of woodpeckers all year, but in spring, tanagers, warblers, and bluebirds love this high-energy treat.

* Add water- Although natural sources of water will be much more abundant, it’s still a good idea to provide a fresh water supply, particularly if birds are nesting in your backyard. Providing a nearby water source means birds don’t need to go too far from the nest to drink and bathe which could leave their eggs or hatchlings vulnerable to predators.

Using the right feeders and high-quality feed will enhance and entice more birds to your backyard for your ongoing enjoyment.

For the Birds: Waxwings are always a welcomed sighting

Photo by Chris Bosak A cedar waxwing perches on a branch in New England, spring 2021.

I had hobbled almost all the way from the car to the entrance of work when I noticed a flock of cedar waxwings picking off leftover berries in a nearby tree.

Even with the persistent tendinitis in my feet acting up, I made my way back to the car to grab the camera. Usually, in situations like this the camera is sitting at home, but this time I was prepared for the unexpected. Cedar waxwings, in my experience anyway, are always unexpected. They are fairly nomadic, and it’s hard to go out looking specifically for them. But they appear now and then and it’s always a thrill to see them.

I retrieved the camera and hobbled back through the parking lot to the tree in question. Of course, the tree was empty when I got back as the waxwings had taken off for parts unknown.

Things like that have happened far more than I’d like to admit, so I just reported for duty and got to work. Thankfully, the window from my office has a view of that tree, and about 15 minutes later the waxwings were back in force. I slowly made my way back outside and, as is often the case with waxwings, they obliged by going about their business and not minding the click of the camera.

I got my fill of photos and then did a quick scan for any random Bohemian waxwings that may have been mixed in with the flock. Bohemian waxwings on rare occasions can be seen in New England with cedar waxwings. I have yet to see one, but I have read several reports of that happening. Bohemian waxwings are a larger cousin of the cedar waxwing.

Upon getting home that evening and checking the results of the photos, something jumped out at me regarding the waxwings I had photographed. None of them had the telltale and namesake red waxy wingtips. What kind of waxwing doesn’t have waxy wings, I asked myself, even though I suspected I knew the answer.

I was correct in assuming that these are young birds that haven’t developed this feature yet, most likely first-year birds. Upon further research, it is believed that the red waxy wingtips are a sign of maturity and social standing in waxwings. The more red the wingtips, the older and healthier the bird. None or only a few waxy wingtips means it’s a younger and more inexperienced bird. That is the current understanding of the purpose of this feature anyway.

What makes for waxy wingtips? you may ask. Also thanks to the Internet (a blog on nature.org to be specific), I discovered that: “The red wax tips are appendages on the bird’s secondary feathers. They’re colored by astaxanthin, a carotenoid pigment.” Now you know.

Cedar waxwings, of course, also have yellow-tipped tails as another distinguishing feature. These are not waxy, just yellow. A change in diet can alter that yellow to yellowish-orange or orange.

I love when I stumble across cedar waxwings. I think if I ever made a top 10 list of my favorite birds they would probably be on it. I would imagine they would fall on the top 10 list of many other birdwatchers as well.

This latest sighting was a welcome prelude to the upcoming warbler and spring migration season. Waxwings may be found in New England throughout the year and they are a welcomed sighting at any time. This sighting was particularly timely as it helped to bridge the gap between winter and the onset of spring migration.

Happy spring everyone, and let me know what you are seeing out there.

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

For the Birds: Spring sightings

Photo by Chris Bosak A red-shouldered hawk perches in the wood in Brookfield, CT, March 2019.

I’ve seen a few reports of pine warblers showing up in New England already. The thick of warbler season is still weeks away, however, so let’s put warblers on the back burner for now.

Phoebe reports are bursting all over the region. Those small, rather nondescript songbirds are an early spring migrant and get a head start on the competition by their early arrival. The risk, of course, is that winter lingers into spring in New England, and phoebes have a hard time coping with the weather. It’s all about risk-reward strategy when it comes to migration for birds.

The juncos that have delighted backyard bird feeders all winter are making their way north and becoming more scarce. I saw a red-breasted nuthatch the other day at the feeder. It won’t be long until those little birds are all back up north on their breeding grounds.

I recall a hike I took in Pittsburg, N.H., last summer to the top of Deer Mountain. Aside from a dilapidated fire tower and piles of moose droppings, dozens of red-breasted nuthatches were about all there was to see as a reward for finishing the hike. Clearly, it is a prime breeding area for the birds.

Robins are hopping on lawns all over the region. They, of course, are the traditional harbinger of spring. There are robins in New England throughout the winter, but it certainly feels like spring when you see them hopping along the green grass.

The chorus of spring peepers and wood frogs echoes throughout the woods now. Spring peepers make the familiar high-pitched drone near swampy areas. They are impossible not to hear but almost impossible to find as they go quiet upon approach and are tiny creatures hidden among the leaves. Wood frogs sound like mallards are at the pond, but there are no ducks to be seen.

There are ducks to be seen, however, on plenty of water bodies as the fowl make their way north. I saw a male wood duck resplendent in its breeding plumage the other day along the side of a road in a temporarily flooded area. The “pond” couldn’t have been more than a few inches deep. It just goes to show you never know what you’ll see or where you’ll see it, so be on the lookout at all times.

Most birds of prey are already well into their breeding season, but I came across a mating and territorial pair of red-shouldered hawks the other day. They get my vote for the most boisterous hawks in New England. Osprey have returned in great numbers, particularly in coastal areas, but also some inland waters as well.

Bears have awoken from their slumber and are raising young. Be on the lookout and bring in your bird feeders at night if you live in an area where bears roam. Those areas, by the way, seem to be more numerous than in the recent past as the bear population grows.

In other words, it’s spring. There is a lot going on out there. Keep your eyes and ears open, and let me know what you see out there.

Photo by Chris Bosak A red-shouldered hawk perches on the top of an evergreen, Brookfield, Connecticut, January 2019.

For the Birds: Surprise and welcomed bobcat sighting

Photo by Chris Bosak A bobcat rests in a field in New England, March 2021. (Huntington State Park)

The large field is bordered by hedgerows on three sides and woods on the fourth. Additional hedgerows divide the field perpendicularly about every 100 yards with small cutouts where the trails pass through.

I emerged from the woods and spotted something large walking along the east hedgerow about 40 yards away from the trail. It was tan, but then again so was everything else around it: the grass, the weeds, the hedgerow. I stopped in my tracks to watch it.

Before my brain fully comprehended the situation, I thought it was either a deer or a mountain lion. I quickly eliminated deer as it was clearly a large cat based on its smooth, stealthy and powerful stride. Can I finally put the mountain lion (or cougar or catamount) debate to rest with solid photos documenting the sighting?

I entertained that idea for about two seconds before my brain said, “Hold on. That’s a bobcat.”

I dug out my binoculars and confirmed that it was indeed a bobcat. It was my first bobcat sighting in many years and by far the closest and best look I’ve ever had. What a magnificent animal. Now I see why many people mistake them for mountain lions. Bobcats are much more substantially sized than a “large house cat,” as I have heard them described in the past. I have a good-sized house cat at home, and there’s no comparing it to the bobcat. Male bobcats average around 28 pounds and females around 18. The New Hampshire record, however, is 51 pounds.

I fished my camera out of my backpack and took a few photos of the bobcat walking along the hedgerow. I continued along the trail, which soon curved and headed in the direction of the bobcat, which at this point still hadn’t acknowledged that it knew I was there. I made a loud noise to get its attention. With the trail veering closer to the bobcat, I didn’t want to surprise the animal. I figured it would run or trot off when it heard me, but it froze in its tracks and hunkered down to blend in with the surroundings. If I hadn’t been watching it all along, I never would have spotted it among the sea of tan.

I was surprised the bobcat sat still instead of running away. It reminded me of an American bittern trying to elude detection by raising its neck and swaying among the reeds.

I continued along the trail, walking backward to keep an eye on the hunkered cat. When enough distance was between us, I turned and finished my walk. I did look over my shoulder several times to make sure I wasn’t being stalked.

Bobcats are the only wild cat throughout most of New England. Lynx may be found in the northern part of the region, and the mountain lion debate is too hot a topic for me to get into right now. Bobcats may be found in each of the region’s states.

They are shy and avoid people, although many wander into backyards looking for easy meals near bird feeders or chicken coops. Habitat changes and destruction, coupled with unregulated hunting, caused bobcat numbers to drop significantly in New England throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s. Recent protections have led to a strong rebound for the bobcat. With the population rebounding, I hope it’s not quite as long between bobcat sightings for me.

The first warblers

Photo by Chris Bosak A pine warbler visits a backyard in New England, April 2020, Merganser Lake.

Other than the very few warblers of various types that remained in New England all winter, the pine warbler and palm warbler will be the first arrive in the region. I have seen them show up on rare bird alerts already but they will return in larger numbers over the next two weeks. Keep you eyes on your feeders as pine warblers are one of the few warbler species that will visit feeders. I’ve seen them eat suet, suet nuggets and meal worms. Above is the pine warbler; below is the palm.

Photo by Chris Bosak A palm warbler rests on a wire fence in a backyard in New England, April 2020. Merganser Lake.

For the Birds: Readers share what they’ve been seeing

Rosalie Boucher captured this photo of an American Woodcock in her yard in Norwalk, Conn., in March 2014.

Woodcock are being seen and heard at dusk, phoebes are showing up slowly but steadily, mixed flocks of blackbirds are headed north, and the weather is sunny and warm one day and freezing and wet the next. It must be March in New England.

As we get ready for migration to pick up steam, here’s what readers have been reporting over the last few weeks. Bill from Keene wrote to say he’s hearing spring songs from the woods, which is always a good sign and pleasing chorus. Spring peepers, wood frogs and some birds are starting to call. I’ve heard cardinals almost daily now, which is a most welcomed, cheerful song.

Jeannie from Marlow wrote to say she has had upwards of four red-breasted nuthatches visiting her feeders at once. I thought my two-at-a-time visits were good. Jeannie also sent along a terrific photo of a barred owl having its feathers blown around by a strong wind. The photo may be found at www.birdsofnewengland.com under the “Reader Submitted Photos” category.

Jane from Marlborough wrote, questioning whether a small bird of prey she saw take a chickadee could be a merlin. Merlins are small falcons that breed mostly north of New Hampshire, but some do breed in the state and many pass through during fall and spring migrations. So it is very possible that her bird in question was a merlin.

Here’s what the N.H. Fish and Game website says about the merlin’s range: “Expanding range southward in NH. Currently breeds in the north and at scattered locations in central and western parts of the state. Occurs statewide during migration which peaks during September and early October; occasionally winters along the seacoast or in southern suburban areas.”

Thanks to the Keene Lions Club for having me as a guest speaker via Zoom last week at its meeting. I enjoyed meeting everyone virtually and appreciated the many thoughtful questions at the end. A question was posed that I didn’t have the answer for at the moment. I had referenced early in the presentation the 2019 study that shows there has been a decline of 2.9 billion birds in the U.S. and Canada over the last 50 years. The question came up as to what percentage that number represented. I thought it was a great question as numbers are sometimes presented to show a point, but proper context is missing.

I looked back at the study and found out that the 2.9 billion missing birds represent a 28 percent decline — roughly down from 10 billion adult breeding birds to 7 billion. That is a substantial number no matter how you look at it, but when you consider birds of certain habitats have declined by more than 50, the number becomes even more stark. Grassland birds, for instance, have declined by 53 percent since 1970, according to the study. That is fewer than half of the meadowlarks, bobolinks and more of our favorite grassland birds remaining.

On the bright side, which I was reminded of when I looked back on the study, numbers of waterfowl, raptors and woodpeckers have increased in the last 50 years.

The study, by the way, is entitled “Decline of the North American avifauna” and was conducted by researchers from several organizations such as Cornell Lab of Ornithology, American Bird Conservancy and National Audubon Society.

I hope everyone is ready for spring migration. Be sure to let me know what you’re seeing.

More bobcat photos

Photo by Chris Bosak A bobcat rests in a field in New England, March 2021. (Huntington State Park)

As promised (and expected, I’m sure), here are a few more photos of the bobcat I saw the other day at Huntington State Park in Redding earlier this week. Here’s the original post with more details.

I first noticed the bobcat walking in a field.

Photo by Chris Bosak A bobcat walks through a field in New England, March 2021. (Huntington State Park)

It sat down when it heard me walking along a trail.

Photo by Chris Bosak A bobcat rests in a field in New England, March 2021. (Huntington State Park)

Then it lay down and blended in with the field. I never would have noticed it if I hadn’t seen it walking.

Photo by Chris Bosak A bobcat rests in a field in New England, March 2021. (Huntington State Park)

I grabbed a few shots and let it go about its day. It continued to walk along the edge of the field and eventually disappeared into the bordering brush.

Photo by Chris Bosak A bobcat rests in a field in New England, March 2021. (Huntington State Park)

Finally a bobcat sighting

Photo by Chris Bosak A bobcat rests in a field in New England, March 2021. (Huntington State Park)

I came out of the woods and started walking through a field at Huntington State Park in Redding, Connecticut, Monday evening. I noticed something walking through the field parallel to my path about 50 yards to the east. As you can see from the photo, it was a bobcat, a photographic target of mine for years. Finally, I had found one. I can understand why some people mistakenly think they see a mountain lion when, in fact, they see a bobcat. It was much larger than I thought it would be. I’ve heard bobcats described as looking like “large house cats.” I don’t believe that does the bobcat justice. I have a fairly large house cat at home and this bobcat was much, much larger. More photos to come … of course.