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.

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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: 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.

For the Birds: Sometimes change is good

Photo by Chris Bosak A downy woodpecker eats suet nuggets from a tube feeder in New England, summer 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A downy woodpecker eats suet nuggets from a tube feeder in New England, summer 2018.

Sometimes you have to adjust, even in the world of bird-feeding.

Three mornings in a row I went into the backyard to fill the feeders for the day and noticed the hummingbird feeder on the ground. Two of those days the cap to the feeder had been jarred loose.

Clearly, it was time to make an adjustment, so I moved the feeder a few feet away to the clothesline — out of reach of whatever was knocking it down. It was, as I suspected, a raccoon, as revealed by game-camera footage.

The slight change of location has made a tremendous difference. It used to hang from one of the arms of the pole system, sharing space with two other feeders and a potted snap dragon flower. Hummingbirds came to the feeder, but it was dominated by a male and the larger birds that visited the other feeders often scared away the tiny hummingbirds.

The other morning, I headed toward the backyard and noticed three hummingbirds near the feeder. One was on the feeder and two were perched on the c Continue reading

For the Birds: High stakes garden perches

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

Photo by Chris Bosak A ruby-throated hummingbird perches on a stick being used as a garden stake in New England, summer 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A ruby-throated hummingbird perches on a stick being used as a garden stake in New England, summer 2018.

One of the nice things about living in the woods is that you are never at a loss for garden stakes.

Does that tomato plant need support? Take a little walk in the backyard, find a thin but sturdy stick on the ground, and you’ve got yourself a garden stake. Sure, it’s not apt to be perfectly straight, and it might not sport a perfectly pointed end for jabbing into the soil, but that’s nothing a whittle or two with a jackknife can’t fix.

A bonus to using these natural garden stakes, I’ve noticed, is that if they are placed near a birdfeeder, they make for good perches, too. This is especially true if the sticks have smaller branches at the top.

My property is predominantly shaded, but there is a sunny enough area on the deck and a small portion of the yard near the deck. I do a lot of container planting on the deck, so these garden stake/bird perches are high off the ground. Continue reading

For the Birds: A chipping sparrow kind of year

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

Photo by Chris Bosak A Chipping Sparrow visits a homemade birdfeeder in Danbury, Conn., April 2016.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Chipping Sparrow visits a homemade birdfeeder in Danbury, Conn., April 2016.

It’s been the year of the chipping sparrow in my yard. It started in the winter and hasn’t stopped yet.

Like most other birdwatchers, I had more than my fair share of dark-eyed juncos at my feeders this past winter. The other dominant species in winter is usually the white-throated sparrow, but this winter I didn’t see a single white-throat in the yard. I did see plenty of chipping sparrows, though.

When spring arrived, the juncos headed north to their breeding grounds and I haven’t seen one since. Chipping sparrows, on the other hand, have been a daily sighting from those snowy, winter days into spring and even early summer. I don’t think a day has gone by when I haven’t seen a chipping sparrow — and that’s a good thing, of course.

I have seen plenty of these tiny birds in the past, but I don’t remember seeing them in this number or frequency before. It has been a welcome revelation.

Chipping sparrows are small, handsome birds. They rank among the smallest in New England, in fact, outsizing hummingbirds and kinglets, but being comparable to warblers and juncos.

When the leaves start to fall in a few months (not that I’m rushing it), we may discover the nests used in the spring and summer by chipping sparrows. They are tiny structures built in the classic cup shape with material such as hair, mud, and straw. This year for the first time I filled a suet cage with dog hair to see if any birds would come for nesting material. The only taker I saw was a white-breasted nuthatch, but I would bet the chipping sparrows took some hair when I wasn’t looking.

Chipping sparrows are among the more vocal birds in my backyard, too. In the spring, its trilling was a daily auditory treat. Now that the babies have fledged, Continue reading