About Chris Bosak

Bird columnist and nature photographer based in New England. Co-managing editor of The Hour newspaper. Bird

For the Birds: Tricky fall warblers

Here is the latest For the Birds column, which runs in several New England newspapers.

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black-throated blue female

A lot of birdwatcherslook forward to the spring warbler migration. Not only do our woods fill with colorful, vocal birds, but the timing is such that it follows winter and several months of gloomy weather.

From late April through early June, the birding world is abuzz and excited with what warblers are being seen and where.

Their fall migration, conversely, creates almost no buzz. Even the warblers themselves are mostly quiet. Instead of heralding their arrival from the tree tops like they do in spring, they lay low silent.

For many species, the blazing colors they sport in May are replaced by drab browns and grays – again, drawing as little attention to the themselves as possible. Because they are quiet and drably colored, the fall warbler migration can be challenging, confusing, frustrating and even humbling for birdwatchers.

On top of that, the first-year birds, now only a few months old, are in their first migration and have not developed their adult plumage. In other words, most warblers look vastly different than they did in the spring and many species resemble each other. Nailing down positive IDs can be a chore.

I’ll stray from the warbler world for a dramatic example, but to some degree or another, the same scenario plays itself out with warbler species. The male scarlet tanager during spring migration is perhaps the crown jewel of all songbirds in New England. Its black wings and tail contrast magnificently with its brilliant, eye-popping red plumage. In the fall, however, those same males are olive green and dull yellow.

Fall warbler plumage can vary by individuals within a species, adding to the difficulty of identifying the birds you see. Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen several common yellowthroats of varying plumage. One male still popped with its familiar spring plumage. The females I saw, however, ranged from having bright yellow throats to being mostly brown with hints of yellow.

The warbler I see the most in the fall is the yellow-rumped warbler. Most are first-year or females, so the plumage is rather bland, but the yellow spot on the rump is always a giveaway – assuming you catch a glimpse from the just-right angle.

I also saw a flash of warblers I couldn’t identify with certainty. That happens a lot in the fall. In the spring, if you see a warbler only briefly, you can use your ears to help spot the tiny bird again among the leaves. In the fall, the birds don’t give away their whereabouts with songs, so the bird is often not found again.

Frustrating and humbling, like I said. But always worth the effort, regardless of whether a positive ID is made or not.

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For the Birds: It’s safe in the woods — mostly

Photo by Chris Bosak
Yellow jackets are one of the few threats to New England wildlife watchers.

Here is the latest For the Birds column, which runs in several New England newspapers.

Being an avid wildlife watcher in New England is a relatively safe proposition.

Notice I included the word relatively.

We do have two types of poisonous snakes in our region, but they are rarely seen and not widespread. Travel south or west and snakes become a bigger concern.

In all of my hours in the New England woods searching for birds, moose and other wildlife, I can count on one finger the number of times I have seen a bear. So, if just seeing a bear is very uncommon then the likelihood of a New England black bear attacking someone is remote at best.

Without getting too deep into the controversial subject of mountain lions in New England, it is safe to say that the odds of being attacked by a catamount in our region are extremely low.

Don’t let the lack of large dangers lull you into a false sense of security, however. Dangers do lurk, but they are smaller in size and more subtle in their “attacks.”

We may not have scorpions, black widows, or tarantulas in New England, but we do have our share of biting and stinging insects and spiders.

I was painfully reminded of this the other day when I grabbed my spotting scope and binoculars and walked to a nearby pond. I noticed a bunch of wood ducks at the edge of the water, so I altered my course through the woods so as to not disturb them. Wood ducks can be extremely wary and I did not want to flush them unnecessarily.

I came to a little clearing in the woods, splayed the legs of the tripod and zoomed in for a closer look at those beautiful ducks. There were about a dozen of them — eight males and four females, to my count — but I may have missed some lurking in the pond’s foliage.

I was fully absorbed in the moment for a few minutes before feeling a stinging sensation on my left leg. I looked down and a pricker bush of some sort was under my feet, so I assumed it was merely sharp thorns causing the sensations. I bent the branch away from my legs and went back to my ducks.

The stinging sensations continued, only this time I looked down to see three yellow jackets on my ankle right above the sock line. I brushed them away from my ankle socks and noticed I was standing next to a hole in the ground that served as the yellow jackets’ nest. Several other agitated yellow jackets swarmed my legs, and I gathered my gear and got the heck out of there before any more could sting me.

Within seconds my ankle was swollen, red, itchy, hot and painful. The same exact thing happened earlier this summer and it literally took weeks until the pain and itching subsided. This time, I think it will be worse because there were several more stings and they were not exclusive to the ankle area. The first stings, which I thought were prickers, were around the knee and thigh area. Those stings are not itchy, but they are painful for sure.

Thankfully, my stings are only itchy and painful. Many people are highly allergic to bees and wasps and the consequences could have been greater — especially alone in the middle of the woods.

To keep it all in perspective, I do not mind the occasional sting from a wasp, because as I said before, New England is relatively safe for wildlife watchers. So, I will take these wounds and count them as payment for all the wonderful hours of pain-free enjoyment I get out of the New England wilds.

Of course, bees and wasps are not the only dangers out there. The most nefarious of the dangers is also the smallest. I’m talking about ticks, and they can have serious long-term effects on people, despite being the size of a pinhead.

Other dangers, such as poison ivy and our unpredictable weather, also call for caution out there. But it’s nothing to deter wildlife watchers from experiencing and enjoying all the region has to offer.

Bumble bee and pollen

One of the nice things about fall — in addition to the foliage, apples, pumpkins and cool weather — is going to the nursery clearance sales. Perennials that were out of my price range in July are suddenly a fraction of the cost. 
Perennials planted in the fall will pop up again next spring just like all the other perennials in the garden. Another nice thing about buying these plants late in the fall is that they are still blooming. Other than the sedum, my other perennials faded a few weeks ago. Now I have some nice pink and white coneflower blooms that are attracting a lot of bees, especially bumble bees.

The bee in the accompanying photos is obviously finding its fill of pollen. 

Happy New England fall!

For the Birds: A vulture eats; a hawk watches

Here is the latest For the Birds column, which runs in several New England newspapers.

Photo by Chris Bosak A turkey vulture eats a squirrel on the side of a road in Brookfield, Conn, fall 2018.
Photo by Chris Bosak
A turkey vulture eats a squirrel on the side of a road in Brookfield, Conn, fall 2018.

I turned the corner at the four-way stop and noticed a big, dark clump on the left-hand side of the road.

It’s either a bag or a turkey I thought, as I approached the object in question. Of those two choices, obviously I was hoping for a turkey.

It turned out I was wrong on both counts, but I was close with the turkey guess. It was a turkey vulture and it was standing on and picking apart a dead squirrel. Not knowing exactly what it was when I turned the corner, I drove past the vulture on the way to my destination. As I passed the bird, however, it didn’t even look up from its meal, so I figured it was comfortable enough that I could circle around and grab a photo or two.

I didn’t want to back up because, first of all, it’s dangerous; and second, from my experience, wildlife usually flee from cars backing up. I think the animal in question feels threatened about the object coming back toward it. Also, cars tend to make more noise in reverse.

The road I was on continues in a circular route that winds up back at the four-corner intersection. So I kept on going and hoped the bird would still be there when I got back. In my rearview mirror, I noticed another big, dark bird in a branch perched above the vulture. I assumed, of course, it was another vulture and told myself I would check it out when I circled back.

I got back to the intersection in a few minutes and, sure enough, the vulture was still on the side of the road picking at the squirrel. I pulled off to the right-hand side of the road, put down the driver’s-side window, and snapped a few photos of the impressive, opportunistic bird.

I started to pull away when I remembered the bird perched above the action. I pulled forward a few more feet so I could get a look at it from the back window and noticed that the bird was still there. It was not, however, a vulture, but rather a very anxious-looking red-tailed hawk.

Clearly the hawk wished it were the one perched on the squirrel enjoying the meal, but the size of the vulture prevented it from taking measures in that direction.

I didn’t see how the scene unfolded prior to my arrival. I don’t know if the hawk had caught and killed the squirrel and the vulture somehow wrestled it away, or if the squirrel had been sitting there for a while and the two birds happened upon it at approximately the same time.

My guess is that the squirrel was already dead and the hawk found it first and started eating it. Then the vulture came around and its menacing 6-foot wingspan chased the hawk off the squirrel and onto a perch safely above the mammoth bird.

Not wanting to interfere with whatever was going to happen next, I pulled ahead and continued to my original destination. I’m inclined to think that, given the size of the vulture, the hawk eventually gave up and flew off to fine food elsewhere.

Looking back, I was surprised that there was only one vulture. I typically see vultures in groups — sometimes small, sometimes big. It’s not often that I see them alone.

The other thing that surprised me is that I actually had my camera with me. I have been lax about keeping it with me lately. There have been many times over the years that I have stumbled upon interesting wildlife scenes and did not have my camera with me. You’d think I would have learned my lesson and always had the camera with me, but that is often not the case. This time, thankfully, it was a lesson learned in a positive way.

For the Birds: Ready for the fall birding rush

Photo by Chris Bosak A red-shouldered hawk perches on a wire in Brookfield, Connecticut, Jan. 2018.
Photo by Chris Bosak A red-shouldered hawk perches on a wire in Brookfield, Connecticut, Jan. 2018.

September is an exciting time in the bird world.

The fall migration is well under way and that means south-bound ducks will be passing through any week now. The duck migration is the highlight of my birding year, and September is when anticipation builds before they start arriving on our ponds and lakes sometime in October. Resident wood ducks, however, are back in their gaudy breeding plumage and quite visible this month.

Songbirds and shorebirds are now pouring through New England on their way south even as we wait for the ducks to arrive. It is exciting to think that many of the birds visiting our yards are first-year birds. They didn’t even exist during the spring migration. Let’s hope they make it back next spring.

Of course, the most popular September birding activity is going to a hawk watch, which take place at various points throughout New England and the country. Mid- to late-September is the time to see great numbers of hawks flying south. The hawk watches continue all the way into November, but don’t miss out on the September rush. Visit any hawk watch site, such as the one at Pack Monadnock in Peterborough, and experts will be there to let you know what is flying overhead. In fact, the experts will pick out and identify the bird when it is a mere speck in the distant sky.

For those who prefer their birdwatching closer to home and, indeed right at home, September is also a fun time to watch the feeders. The regular birds will be there, but some surprise visitors may show up as well.

It was autumn a few years ago when a small flock of pine warblers visited my feeders daily for about a week. Warblers are not typically seen at feeders, so it was a memorable week for me.

Then there are the hummingbirds. I have written about them for the past two weeks, but they deserve at least a sentence or two in this column as well.

I have heard from many readers that their hummingbirds are still around, but I wonder if that will be the case by the time this column goes to print. I had hummingbirds on Sept. 18, but none on Sept. 19, even though I watched off and on throughout the day. I am hoping a late migrant or two will show up in the next few days.

Fall and even into winter is when some “rare” hummingbirds show up in New England. The rufous hummingbird is the most common western hummer to veer into New England.

Two weeks ago I wrote about how it is OK to keep feeding hummingbirds into the fall as their natural instinct will guide them south when it is time to do so. That seems to be the case with “my” hummingbirds and I’m sure all the other hummingbirds passing through New England.

While you are looking at your feeders, take a look at the nearby trees from top to bottom. The aforementioned warblers just may be looking for food in your oaks, maples or other trees. Also, keep an eye out for other small birds, such as brown creepers. They start to show up about this time of year as well.

If you live near a lake or anywhere there are bright lights, such as a stadium or high school field, now is the time to look for nighthawks. You will recognize them because their silhouette and flying pattern is different from most birds we see. They also have white bars under their wings, which are visible when they are flying.

With so much going on in September you never know what you are going to see. Drop me a line and let me know what’s going on in your birding world.

For the Birds: Hummingbird feeders are for hummingbirds

Here is the latest For the Birds column, which runs in several New England newspapers. Yes, back-to-back hummingbird columns.

Photo by Chris Bosak A ruby-throated hummingbirds hovers near a feeder at Merganser Lake in Danbury, Conn., in April 2017.
Photo by Chris Bosak A ruby-throated hummingbirds hovers near a feeder at Merganser Lake in Danbury, Conn., in April 2017.

The hummingbird questions kept coming, so why not devote one more column in 2018 to these little charmers?

This time the question came from Pamela, whose hummingbird feeders in East Alstead are “covered with yellow jackets,” and preventing the intended targets from visiting.

“The poor hummers can’t get near it! The yellow jackets drank the whole thing in one day,” she wrote.

I think we can all relate to this quandary. Whether it’s ants, yellow jackets, or as was my case earlier this summer, raccoons, keeping hummingbird feeders open and available for hummingbirds can be a challenge.

When the raccoons ravaged my hummingbird feeders nightly this summer, I got fed up and simply moved the feeder a few feet way to the clothesline. No more raccoon problem. The hummingbirds found it just fine and actually appreciate the extra-long perch.

So how does that relate to yellow jackets, which certainly aren’t going to be daunted by flying a few feet to the left or right? Well, according to some experts in the field, that just might be enough to discourage yellow jackets.

The educational and fun website Journey North states that insects are “only likely to visit convenient sources and probably won’t search for relocated feeders.”

So, if you’re hummingbird feeder is inundated by yellow jackets, ants or some other insects, try moving it somewhere close so the birds can find it, but still in a place where you can see and enjoy it.

If that doesn’t work and the insects still take over, Journey North offers more tips on discouraging yellow jackets from visiting hummingbird feeders.

First, the site cautions against using cooking oil, petroleum jelly or any other oily substance that can get onto the birds’ feathers.

Clean the feeders regularly. If the sugar water spills or leaks, clean it up and rinse with water. It doesn’t take a genius to know sugar water is going to attract bugs (my words, not Journey North’s).

Use feeders designed to keep insects away.

“Feeders with saucers position the nectar away from the feeding port where long-tongued hummers can reach nectar, but insects cannot,” the site reads. Or, you can try installing insect traps that are sold in bird and hardware stores.

Insect guards placed in the holes of feeders can also be useful, but don’t use yellow ones as bees are attracted to yellow. Yellow guards already attached to the feeder may be painted red with non-toxic paint.

Speaking of red, remember the “nectar” in the feeder does not need to be red, and, in fact, dyes should be avoided. One part sugar to four parts water is all that’s needed.

Because I borrowed so much from Journey North, I’ll add a bit more information about the site and encourage you to check it out. Journey North for more than 25 years has been a citizen science project in North America for children and the public at large. Sightings of creatures, such as hummingbirds and butterflies, are recorded and mapped in real-time to track migration patterns.

One more tip about feeding hummingbirds this time of year. Last week we established that it is OK to keep feeding hummingbirds into the fall and it will not impact their instinct to head south. So, if you are going to keep feeding hummers for as long as possible, make sure the feeder is filled.

At this time of year, with migration on their minds, they are filling up as much as possible. One day, or even a few hours, with an empty feeder could cause the birds to seek food elsewhere and they may not come back until next year.

Good luck and let me know what you’re seeing out there.

For the Birds: When to stop feeding hummingbirds, or not

Photo by Chris Bosak A Ruby-throated Hummingbird perches on a feeder at the Errol (N.H.) Motel in the summer of 2015.
Photo by Chris Bosak A Ruby-throated Hummingbird perches on a feeder at the Errol (N.H.) Motel in the summer of 2015.

A question from Lida in Harrisville came in the other day that I found interesting for two reasons. The question was: “What is the current thinking on when to stop feeding hummingbirds?”

She recalled a time when it was suggested that people stop feeding hummingbirds in August so that the birds would be encouraged to fly south. She added that her feeders remained active with lots of hummingbirds.

The question at face value is interesting because I’m sure it is on a lot of people’s minds now that summer unwinds and fall looms. The question is also interesting because it got me thinking about how opinions change over time depending on knowledge available. This is true for birdwatching and any aspect of life, really.

In the birdwatching world, for instance, the names of bird species change fairly regularly. Long-tailed ducks were oldsquaws not too long ago. Rufous-sided towhees are now eastern towhees. Dark-eyed juncos are either one species with different forms or several individual species, depending on the current thoughts of ornithologists.

It was once taught to never touch a baby bird because the parent will smell human scent and reject the youngster. While it’s true that it is usually best to not touch a baby bird because the parent is likely nearby, a mother bird will not reject a bird because it has human scent on it.

It was once thought that birds are unintelligent, hence the term “bird brain.” Well, we all know that’s not true now.

Now back to the question at hand: When should we stop feeding hummingbirds? Coincidentally, a recent issue of Birds and Blooms magazine addressed this very topic in a myth-buster type of article featuring its bird and garden experts.

The magazine’s bird experts, Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman, wrote that hummingbirds will fly south when they are ready, regardless of whether there are feeders available or not. The Kaufmans wrote that the powerful instinct to migrate is much stronger than a backyard hummingbird feeder. They wrote to “feel free” to keep feeders up as long as there are hummingbirds around.

Given that a hummingbird’s natural instinct is to fly south when the time is right, I would offer a reason to keep filling your hummingbird feeder for as long as possible. Hummingbirds need a lot of energy to make their long journey to Central America. A quick fill-up at New England backyard feeder or garden can give the birds a nice head start on their arduous adventure — just like most people fill up their cars before heading out on a vacation.

Also, let’s say a hummingbird is injured or otherwise unable to fly south when their instincts tell them to do so. A reliable food source while the bird waits out the delay could be important to the bird’s survival.

As of this weekend, I still have my share of ruby-throated hummingbirds that visit the feeder, canna, salvia and fading geraniums. It’s good to hear from the experts that feeding them is not disrupting their natural behaviors.