Adult pileated woodpecker shows youngster the ropes

Photo by Chris Bosak
A pileated woodpecker knocks on a fallen tree trunk as it looks for insects, Danbury, Conn., summer 2019.

I heard a loud banging from my side yard the other day. I assumed a neighbor was doing some work involving a hammer as noises echo and carry far in the small lake community in which I live.

Like any good, nosy neighbor, I stepped onto the deck to see what was going on. The noise was coming from the edge of the woods and it wasn’t a neighbor with a hammer at all, it was four pileated woodpeckers looking for a meal. The main noisemaker was the adult male who was banging away on a tree trunk that had fallen to the ground many, many years ago. He was perched on top of the trunk and a young male was a few feet away on the ground watching his dad go to work. An adult female and another youngster (I couldn’t tell the gender) were working on the trunks of nearby standing trees.

Twice, the adult male found an insect or worm and stretched its neck toward the youngster to offer the morsel. The youngster, of course, accepted. The daddy pileated woodpecker worked its way along the fallen trunk and eventually flew to the nearby trunk where the mother was busy looking for meals. The young male took his father’s place atop the fallen trunk and started pounding some holes of his own. I couldn’t tell if he was successful or not, but he certainly learned a thing or two by watching his parents at work.

Male and female pileated woodpeckers have red heads. Only males have the red “mustache” extending from the bill.

Here’s one of the adult feeding the youngster. I was a fair distance away and didn’t want to get closer and risk breaking up the family group, hence the poor quality of the photo.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A pileated woodpecker feeds a youngster, Danbury, Conn., summer 2019.
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For the Birds: Unexpected, welcome discovery

Photo by Chris Bosak
A gray catbird with food perches on a branch in New England, summer 2019.

I heard what I was pretty sure was a scarlet tanager high in one of my oak trees. The thick foliage makes it nearly impossible to find anything up there. Even a brilliantly bright red bird like a scarlet tanager could easily be hidden from view.

I looked with my naked eye for several minutes, hoping to spot some motion to give away the bird’s location and identity. To my frustration, I couldn’t find a thing, even though I knew right where the song was coming from.

So, I figured I’d try scanning the area with my binoculars with the hopes of catching a glimpse of some bright red among the dark green leaves. Picking out a bird among thickly leafed-out treetops is usually a lesson in futility and humility.

But not this time.

No, I didn’t find a scarlet tanager. I did, however, find the active nest of an eastern wood-pewee. Somehow, my binoculars trained themselves right on the spot. The small, cupped nest is built in the Y of a dead branch sticking out among the impenetrable foliage, about 40 feet high.

I watched the mother pewee for a few minutes before she flew off into the woods. I noticed a bright orange object in the nest. I assumed it was a mushroom of some sort because the dead branch is covered in a white fungus. With my binoculars, however, I discovered it was the mouth of a baby bird waiting to be fed.

Sure enough, about two minutes later the mother bird returned and a few other orange “mushrooms” appeared.

It was the first time I had ever found an active eastern wood-pewee nest Continue reading

‘Volunteer’ sunflowers brighten up flower box

Toward the end of last summer, I purchased a few coneflower plants at a greatly reduced price from a hardware store. I planted them in a large flower box on my deck and the plants flourished into late fall.

While in bloom, the plants made for a photogenic setting as birds perched on them before heading to a nearby feeder. Once the flowers died and went to seed, the plants were visited frequently by goldfinches, chickadees, titmice and other small birds. I certainly got my money’s worth from the plants. Here are some photos I took of the plants in action.

https://birdsofnewengland.com/tag/coneflower/

https://birdsofnewengland.com/2018/11/13/goldfinch-on-coneflower/

Here’s an icy shot of the tough plants.

https://birdsofnewengland.com/tag/birdsofnewengland-christmas-card/

Since coneflower is a perennial, I was looking forward to many years of similar success from these $2 plants. Unfortunately, the plants did not come back this spring. I never transported them out of the flower box and the winter’s hard freeze killed the roots.

But something else popped up this year — at an even better price. You can’t beat free. Remember I had mentioned the nearby feeders? Well, a few of the sunflower seeds that got knocked or carried into the box sprouted. I noticed them in the spring and recognized the tiny stems as sunflowers. Wouldn’t it be cool if they grew to become full plants, I thought at the time. Fast forward a few months and I have three healthy, flowering sunflowers in that flower box. They are not towering plants by any means, but that’s probably a good thing considering their location.

The birds are already using them as perches. I just saw a chipping sparrow on one a few hours ago. Now I can’t wait until later this summer and fall when birds start picking seeds out of the flowers. You know I’ll be posting plenty of photos when that starts to happen. Talk about getting your money’s worth out of a bag of sunflower seeds.

Has this or something similar happened in your garden? Drop me a line and let me know. You can comment on this site, Facebook (Birds of New England), or email me at chrisbosak26@gmail.com.

Eastern wood-pewee nest

Photo by Chris Bosak
An eastern wood-pewee sits on a nest in New England, summer 2019. The small orange thing at the edge of the nest is a newborn pewee.

I was happy to find an eastern wood-pewee nest the other day. I found it quite by accident (full story coming next week in For the Birds column.) It’s about 40 feet high and in the Y of a dead branch in an oak tree. Finding a nest is always a thrill and this is the first eastern wood-pewee nest I’ve ever found, making it even more special.

Again, the nest is high up in a shaded area, hence the poor quality of the photos.

What nests do you have in your yard? Drop me a line and let me know.

Photo by Chris Bosak An eastern wood-pewee tends to a nest in New England, summer 2019.
Photo by Chris Bosak An eastern wood-pewee sits on a nest in New England, summer 2019.

For the Birds: Phoebe and cowbird eggs

Here is the latest For the Birds column …

Photo by Chris Bosak An Eastern Phoebe visits a bird bath in Danbury, Conn., March 2016.
Photo by Chris Bosak
An Eastern Phoebe visits a bird bath in Danbury, Conn., March 2016.

During the first spring at my house three years ago, I noticed a bird going back and forth under my neighbor’s lofted porch.

Closer inspection confirmed my suspicion that an eastern phoebe had a nest there. The mud-and-moss nest was built on an old row boat oar that hadn’t been used or moved in many years.

OK, a flat surface under a protected area, I thought as I plotted to create my own phoebe nest habitat for subsequent springs. I rummaged through the basement and found a rectangular piece of wood, approximately 14 inches by 18 inches. I nailed the wood to some of the 2x8s beneath my own porch. Even if the phoebes don’t use it, surely a robin would, I thought.

First spring, nothing. Second spring, nothing. Third spring, nothing. Three years and not even a stick placed on the platform.

But wait.

Not so fast on the third spring. April and May yielded nothing, but in early June I walked past the platform and noticed a small mud-and-moss nest on the wood. It wasn’t built on the main part of the platform, but rather an excess corner of the wood that jutted beyond one of the 2x8s. My dad would have called the excess “slop” because of its shoddy craftsmanship. But, hey, I wasn’t shooting for perfection, just good enough so a bird could build a nest. Besides, the slop turned out to be a fortunate “mistake.”

As of this writing, the nest holds five eggs. It is likely a second or third brood for this phoebe as they are one of the first birds to arrive in spring — usually by the middle of March.

But the news isn’t all good. Only four of the eggs are white phoebe eggs. A darker, mottled egg of a brown-headed cowbird is also in the nest.

Brown-headed cowbirds are brood parasites and lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, leaving the parental duties to the host bird. Phoebes are a common victim, as are other small birds such as warblers and sparrows. Brown-headed cowbird eggs typically hatch earlier than the other eggs and the baby cowbird grows at a faster rate. This makes the host bird work overtime to raise the cowbird, often at the expense of the other young birds.

Cowbirds do this because of their notorious nomadic nature.

So, just remove the cowbird egg, right? Not necessarily. The female cowbird monitors the nest and may destroy the nest altogether if the cowbird egg is disturbed — either by the host bird or human intervention.

An article I found on audubon.org brings up other legal and ethical questions. It used to be common practice to vilify cowbirds and everything they stood for. The no-good, lazy birds are destroying other birds and should be destroyed, was a common line of thinking — and still is for many people, I’m sure.

The Audubon article, written in 2018 by Amy Lewis, states that people shouldn’t interfere with nests that have cowbirds eggs. Firstly, it is illegal as per the Migratory Bird Treaty Act as cowbirds are native to the U.S. Though, technically, it is illegal to pick up a blue jay feather found on the ground, but not many people I know would hesitate to grab the feather.

The article, quoting several sources, also states that it is best to let nature take its course. Human feelings and morals should not interfere with something that has been going on in nature for hundreds of years.

It’s funny how research and science can change public opinion over time. Ten years ago I couldn’t imagine writing a bird column saying to leave cowbird eggs alone. I’m still somewhat on the fence about the whole thing as I imagine the phoebe under my porch working her tail off to raise a cowbird with possible grave consequences for her own babies.

But I will not interfere. I will watch the nest daily and see what happens. The first phoebe egg was laid on Tuesday, June 11. Another phoebe egg and the cowbird egg appeared on June 12. The phoebe laid another egg on Thursday and another on Friday. Photos of the eggs and nest may be found at www.birdsofnewengland.com.

That’s where we stand as of now. I’ll keep you posted.

Update: As of Friday, June 21, the nest remains with four phoebe eggs and one cowbird egg.

For the Birds: More sightings from readers

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Scarlet Tanager perches in a tree in Danbury, Conn., July 2016.

The sightings emailed in from readers have been so interesting that they have warranted being the topic of columns for several weeks in a row now. It’s creating a backlog of column ideas for me, but that’s a good problem to have. Besides, spring is the most active time for birdwatchers, so I shouldn’t be surprised.

A quick rundown of my own highlights as spring migration trails off and the birds get down to the important business of nesting:

I haven’t seen my rose-breasted grosbeaks in a few weeks. I’m hoping they are hunkered down on nests. I have, however, seen my ruby-throated hummingbirds Continue reading

Back to back For the Birds columns

Here are the last two For the Birds columns, mostly focused on what readers have been seeing this spring.

Photo by Chris Bosak A male indigo bunting eats seeds from a platform feeder in Danbury, Conn., in May 2018.
Photo by Chris Bosak A male indigo bunting eats seeds from a platform feeder in Danbury, Conn., in May 2018.

If the past season was the Winter of the barred owl, this is the spring of the indigo bunting.

I’ve heard from numerous readers and friends throughout New England and even Canada about this bright blue bird visiting their backyards. The cause for excitement is obvious as it is one of our more colorful birds, flashing a brilliant blue plumage. The brilliance of the blue plumage is dependent upon the light.

It is also nice to hear that so many of these birds are around and delighting backyard birders in large numbers. Rose-breasted grosbeaks are another popular bird this spring. I’ve had limited luck with indigo buntings this spring, but for me, it’s been a banner year for rose-breasted grosbeaks. I’ve seen as many as three males in a tree overhanging my feeders. A female visits the feeders often as well.

It’s also been a good spring for warblers and nearly every walk last week yielded yellow warblers, common yellowthroats, black-and-white warblers, chestnut-sided warblers, American redstarts and yellow-rumped warblers.

I’m not the only birdwatcher enjoying a productive spring. Here’s what Continue reading