For the Birds: Summer’s last grasps

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

Photo by Chris Bosak An osprey eats a catfish at Cayuga Lake State Park, October 2019.

Summer is hanging on, if only by a thread.

It’s always fun to see the nutty people who refuse to dig into their long-dormant jeans pile and insist on wearing shorts even when the temperature dips into the 40s. I see one of those yokels every time I walk past a mirror.

In the natural world, some flowers are still putting on a show, but it’s mostly the late bloomers such as goldenrod and asters. Some, but not many, traditional summer bloomers are toughing it out, but store-bought mums are the most commonly seen flowers these days.

The other day I walked past a pollinator garden and a monarch caterpillar stuck out like a sore thumb on the top of a milkweed plant. I hope the caterpillar does what it has to do quickly before the prolonged deep freezes come. It also made me think of all the fields that have been cut down already and I wonder how many monarch caterpillars lost their homes because of it.

Eastern phoebes, which are one of our first migrants to appear in spring with their late March arrivals, are still seen from time to time. I saw a few perched over a pond and bobbing their tails last week. The tangle of brush a few yards away from the pond was teeming with white-throated sparrows, however; a sure sign of fall and pending winter.

I had another exciting reminder of summer during a recent camping trip I took with some long-time friends. We were having breakfast at the picnic table when Wayne pointed to a distant snag and asked: “Is that a hawk or what?”

We grabbed the binoculars and trained them on an osprey eating a fish. We closed in on the dead tree for a closer look and noticed the bird was eating a fair-sized catfish. No blackened seasoning was necessary as the “fish hawk” tore through the skin and into the meat of the fish. Anyone who has ever caught a catfish knows how tough that skin is. The osprey didn’t struggle in the least.

I attended a presentation last week by Alan Poole, the author of two books on osprey. His latest book is “Ospreys: The Revival of a Global Raptor.”

Poole noted interestingly that an osprey has self-sharpening talons. The hard upper part of the talon, or claw, grows at a faster rate than the softer under part of the talon, leaving the large bird of prey with sharp claws at all times.

The osprey we watched did not push the timetable too far, but most ospreys in New England and nearby states have started their journey south by the end of September. Ospreys are not like most hawks and eagles whereby some individuals remain north throughout winter. All ospreys go south so to see one in October is a nice treat for a birdwatcher.

Poole noted that, while ospreys do mate for life, they go on separate migratory journeys.

Much of Poole’s presentation focused on the amazing comeback of the osprey population. After being nearly wiped out in the 1950s due to heavy pesticide use, the osprey has made a remarkable comeback and is now flourishing in North America and northern Europe, as well as on their winter grounds in South America and Africa.

The population turnaround is welcomed news considering the study released a few weeks ago that shows that North America has lost 29 percent of its birds in the last 50 years.

Poole concluded his presentation with this: “Ospreys are a good example that we can get things right if we pay attention and get organized.

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Osprey eats catfish

Photo by Chris Bosak An osprey eats a catfish at Cayuga Lake State Park, October 2019.

There is more coming on this story next week, but here are a few photos of an osprey eating a catfish. Some longtime friends and I went camping a few weeks ago and spotted this exciting scene.

Photo by Chris Bosak An osprey eats a catfish at Cayuga Lake State Park, October 2019.

For the Birds: Bald eagles and the Endangered Species Act

Photo by Chris Bosak
A bald eagle at Bashakill NWMA, summer 2019.

Here is the latest For the Birds column …

There is something magical about seeing bald eagles. Thankfully, that magic is being felt more and more lately as the eagle population has rebounded dramatically over the last few decades.

Not long ago, bald eagles were rare sightings. You pretty much had to visit a place where you knew they were nesting or overwintering to see them. Now, bald eagle sightings — especially flyovers — can come from almost anywhere. Last winter, I saw a young bald eagle perched on a snag within a few hundred yards of a busy shopping mall in New England.

A few weeks ago, I took a canoe ride at the Bashakill National Wildlife Refuge in New York and saw two adult bald eagles. I spoke with a man in the parking lot after the ride and he said the pair had fledged two young eagles that year. Scenarios like that becoming more and more common, which is terrific news.

The bald eagle rebound may not be as striking as the osprey recovery, but it’s very impressive nonetheless. According to the American Eagle Foundation, the species was nearly extirpated from the lower 48 states and only a handful of pairs nested in 1963. From 1963 to the early 2000s, the bald eagle population rose gradually, but steadily. The last five years, however, have seen steep climbs in the eagle population to the point where there are now nearly 15,000 nesting pairs in the lower 48. Alaska, for the record, has more than 30,000 nesting pairs.

New Hampshire has seen a similarly dramatic increase in recent years. I remember canoeing on Lake Umbagog not that many moons ago and seeing the state’s only known nesting pair. A few years later I met up with Meade Cadot of the Harris Center and others to inspect a new eagle nest on Nubanusit Lake. It was an exciting time.

As of 2017, according to N.H. Fish and Game, there were 59 territorial pairs in the state and 38 of those were successful in fledging young that year. Since 1988, 427 bald eagle chicks have fledged from nests in the state.

In somewhat recent memory, New Hampshire has gone from one nesting pair to 59. That’s dramatic and those involved with the recovery on the federal, state and local levels deserve a lot of credit. Because of the impressive recovery, bald eagles were removed from the state’s threatened and endangered lists in 2017.

Similarly, the bald eagle has been delisted from protective acts on the national level. In 1995, the bald eagle status changed from endangered to threatened. In 2007, it was removed from the Endangered Species list.

Which brings us to the news that broke last week about the changing of the Endangered Species Act, an important piece of legislation that has been protecting animals in peril since 1973. The changes essentially put a price tag on the habitat needed to save certain species. If land needed for an endangered turtle, for example, was deemed to be extremely valuable as a drilling or logging site, then the land could potentially be used as such. 

I don’t like putting a price tag on animal species and I don’t like politics being involved with decisions on whether or not to protect an endangered species. I can foresee money winning out and crooked politicians getting rich in the majority of these cases, even as the announcement made last week said decisions will be made solely on the “best scientific and commercial information regarding a species’ status.”

I do, however, understand the need for upgraded and additional infrastructure as the U.S. population grows. I can also see how Washington would want to take a look at the Endangered Species Act and make modifications to match today’s needs, but the changes announced last week reek of fraud potential. Money talks, after all. 

The Endangered Species Act has helped to save many animals, some of which were on the brink of extinction. The majestic bald eagle is among them. I’m not against opening up the books to make modifications to the Act, but I hope any changes truly reflect the words of U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, who said: “The best way to uphold the Endangered Species Act is to do everything we can to ensure it remains effective in achieving its ultimate goal—recovery of our rarest species.”

Bald eagles steal the show

Photo by Chris Bosak A bald eagle at Bashakill NWMA, summer 2019.

Savanna and I decided to venture outside the friendly confines of New England and take a short drive to the Bashakill Wildlife Management Area. It’s a beautiful area teeming with wildlife, great scenery and surprises around every bend as you paddle along the narrow serpentine river. It is a New York state Bird Conservation Area and located between the Shawangunk (“Gunks”) and Catskills mountains.

I discovered this gem of a place when I worked for a short time in Middletown, N.Y. about 20 years ago. I’ve returned now and then ever since, but it had been quite some time since my last visit. So one day last weekend we strapped the canoe on the car the night before, rose before dawn and headed west.

Other than my usual access road being closed due to construction, everything was as I remembered it. The water channel was a bit more narrow than usual, but that’s because it was August and it hadn’t rained in quite some time.

Wood ducks, as usual, were the dominant species. There must be thousands there and we must have seen a few hundred of them. Red-winged blackbirds and a lone kingfisher were other usual sightings. At one point we saw a bush in the distance in the swamp that was literally bursting with swallows. The swallow migration has begun and this bush looked like a Christmas tree covered with live ornaments.

But the most memorable sightings were of the resident adult bald eagles. We saw the male first and then the female. As with most birds of prey, female bald eagles are larger than males. A man we met in the parking lot later — who identified himself as the “local eagle guy ” — who said there were two young eagles that year, too, but they like to stay hidden in the woods away from the open swamp. It was good to hear that the adults continue to have breeding success there.

Bald eagles are making a strong comeback throughout the U.S. and New England and nearby N.Y. are no exception. Just like the tremendous comeback of the osprey over the last few decades, it’s nice to witness another iconic species on the rebound. Now, let’s just keep it that way.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A bald eagle at Bashakill NWMA, summer 2019.

Zeroing in on an American kestrel

Remember a few weeks ago when I urged readers to “check those blotches” carefully. Here’s the column for those who missed it. Basically, the column said that if something looks out of the ordinary in the distance, it should be checked out. It may be a plastic bag or mylar balloon stuck in a tree; or it may be a hawk, owl or something else of note in the tree.

I took my own advice the other day and checked out a small clump on one of the old windmills that grace the property at Happy Landings, an open space in Brookfield, Connecticut. Turns out, it was an American kestrel, a small falcon that is somewhat Continue reading

Bald eagle sightings on the rise

Photo by Chris Bosak
A bald eagle perches in a tree overhanging Lake Lillinonah in Brookfield, CT, March 2019.

It’s not quite on par with the great osprey rebound, but the recovery of the bald eagle has been fascinating and fun to watch.

Ospreys, once nearly extirpated from New England, have greatly increased their population over the last few decades. They are now common sightings along New England coastlines. Inland bodies of water are also seeing more ospreys but the increase is not as dramatic as along the coast.

Bald eagles are also becoming a more common sighting. I took a canoe ride on an inland lake in Connecticut yesterday and saw two bald eagles — one immature and one adult. (It takes four or five years for an eagle to get its trademark white head and tail.) Later in the day I drove past Danbury Fair, the state’s second-largest shopping mall, and saw an immature bald eagle perched in a snag in a nearby marsh.

I can’t remember the last time I saw three bald eagles in one day. Now that the weather is getting warmer (kind of) and days longer, eagles will be heading north soon. Many eagles, however, will remain in New England to return to nest sites or start new ones. In recent memory, there were no bald eagle nests where I am in southern Connecticut. Now there are several.

Here’s what All About Birds, a website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, says about the bald eagle population: “The Bald Eagle’s recovery is a spectacular conservation success story, and numbers have increased between 1966 and 2015, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 250,000, with 88 percent spending some part of the year in the U.S., 31 percent in Canada, and 8 percent in Mexico. The species rates a 9 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2016 State of North America’s Birds’ Watch List, but are a U.S.-Canada Stewardship Species. Once abundant in North America, the species became rare in the mid-to-late 1900s—the victim of trapping, shooting, and poisoning as well as pesticide-caused reproductive failures. In 1978 the bird was listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Since 1980, gentler treatment by humans along with the banning of DDT (the bird’s main pesticide threat) have led to a dramatic resurgence. By the late 1990s, breeding populations of Bald Eagles could be found throughout most of North America. In June 2007, the bird’s recovery prompted its removal from the Endangered Species list.”

It’s always good to hear those types of stories.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A young bald eagle perches on a dead tree near Danbury Fair mall in Danbury, CT, March 2019.