For the Birds classic: Monarchs and milkweed

Here’s an old summer For the Birds column originally published in 2008, reprinted just because …

Photo by Chris Bosak
A monarch caterpillar eats a milkweed leaf.

Keep at something long enough and eventually you will succeed.

I learned several years ago that monarch butterflies lay their eggs exclusively on milkweed. Since that time I’ve inspected every milkweed patch I’ve come across in my wanderings in search of monarch caterpillars. That’s a lot of inspecting considering the proliferation of milkweed. It grows in wild places, it grows in gardens, it grows through cracks in the cement.

In fact, a largely overgrown and overlooked stretch of pavement near The Hour’s parking lot is filled with milkweed. One day I noticed a maintenance worker about to weed-whack the entire patch to the ground. I asked the president of The Hour to intercede and he graciously allowed the patch to grow wild, despite its unsightliness (to an untrained eye, anyway.) For the rest of that summer the ugly, often ignored patch of weeds was dubbed “The Chris Bosak Monarch Refuge.” A makeshift sign made by co-workers marked it as so.

The sign is long gone, but the milkweed remains. Every day I drive by the weeds and never once have I seen a monarch caterpillar. In fact, never had I found a monarch caterpillar on any milkweed, no matter the location. I was zero-for-six million in terms of finding a monarch caterpillar. Not a very good average.

Before I go on, let me explain my desire to find a monarch caterpillar. Simply put, they’re cool looking. They’re large, colorful, exquisitely decorated.

Finally, as if you haven’t guessed already, I found one. I wasn’t necessarily looking for it, which is to say I wasn’t inspecting the plant, but I did look at the milkweed as it has become a habit over the years. These days I just look at milkweed without even thinking about it.

Turns out there was no careful inspection necessary to find this caterpillar. I just looked Continue reading

Advertisements

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

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

A nice spring bird walk (aren’t they all?)

Photo by Chris Bosak
A bobolink perches at the end of a branch in Brookfield, CT, May 2019.

I checked out Happy Landings, an open space of fields and shrubby areas in Brookfield, Connecticut, after dropping off my son Will at middle school the other day. With its huge fields, the protected space is a rare haven for bobolinks in New England. There should be more such field habitat. Anyway, I wanted to see if the bobolinks were back and sure enough, they were — along with plenty of other birds. Take a look …

Happy birding and let me know what you see out there this migration period.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A yellow warbler sings from a perch in Brookfield Conn., May 2019.
Photo by Chris Bosak
A yellow warbler perches on a branch in Brookfield Conn., May 2019.

Continue reading

For the Birds: Get out and count – for the birds

Photo by Chris Bosak An American Robin perches on a rock at Weed Beach in Darien, Conn., in Jan. 2015.
Photo by Chris Bosak
An American Robin perches on a rock at Weed Beach in Darien, Conn., in Jan. 2015. Flocks of robins often show up during winter bird counts

I am guilty. I admit it.

Even though I have preached in this column before about the importance of participating in citizen science studies and turning in results, whether those results are good or bad, I often do not submit my “bad walks.”

Take eBird, for example.

Even though it would valuable to report all of my walks to this online bird database, I often submit only results for the walks that yield unique or plentiful species. I saw only two chickadees and a turkey vulture flyover, I say to myself. How is that data going to be valuable?

In reality, that data is just as valuable as the results I turn in when the birding is good. Scientists who track this data need to know what’s going on out there at all times, not just when a lot of birds are around.

Is there a problem brewing with a certain species? Biologists will never know Continue reading

How birds stay warm in winter (a For the Birds rerun)

Here’s a For the Birds column I wrote a few years ago. Seems appropriate with a cold, gusty wind blowing today.

Photo by Chris Bosak An American Tree Sparrow perches near a feeding station during the snowstorm of Feb. 13, 2014.

One of my favorite times to watch birds is when the snow is falling. Not a driving snow with icy temperatures and high winds, but an otherwise rather pleasant day with frozen crystals falling from the sky and covering everything with a fresh coat of white.

I do not shy away from taking walks to look for birds when the snow is actively falling, in fact I thoroughly enjoy walks at such times. But I also enjoy very much watching the activity at the feeders during snowfalls.

As long as the snow is not falling at too fast a rate, the birds will continue coming to feeders. Indeed, during light and moderate snowfalls the birds may be seen at higher-than-usual numbers at backyard feeders.

I will often grab my camera, open a window, pull up a seat and capture images of the hungry birds as snow falls and collects around them. I could do that for hours. Heating bills be damned. The usual suspects such as Northern Cardinals, Downy Woodpeckers, Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice and White-breasted Nuthatches are typically seen in high numbers during snowfalls. It’s also a great time to see birds such as Carolina Wrens and Dark-eyed Juncos.

But what about when it’s a heavy snowfall? I mean, right in the middle of the worst of it? Birds are scarce then. Wouldn’t you be, too?

Where are the birds then? Most humans are holed up at home or work or some other place of shelter. Birds do pretty much the same thing. Whether their shelter is an evergreen bough, a patch of thick brush, a bird house, an old nest hole in a tree, or even under the snow, birds do their best to stay out of the harsh weather. 

Birds don’t have the luxury of a thermostat to crank up during these times. They don’t need artificial sources of heat, however. They have several natural defenses against the cold. One such defense is to puff up their feathers to trap warm air within their down feathers. This keeps the cold air away from their bodies. It’s the same principle as us putting on a jacket (especially a down-filled one.)

Depending on the species, they may also huddle together for warmth, often holing up together in a birdhouse. That’s why it’s important to keep your birdhouses up all year and to clean them out after the nesting season. Some birds, such as grouse, will even use the snow to their advantage by burying themselves into the snow for shelter. Those birds are insulated by the snow and out of the elements. The danger with that strategy is sometimes snow will turn to ice and a hard surface may form on the top of the snow.

Birds also know beforehand when a storm is coming. Sensing a change in air pressure, the birds build up their fat reserves to use as energy during the storm. That, obviously, makes the time leading up to harsh weather a good time for us to watch feeders, as well. Food, eaten beforehand, is important to birds’ survival of storms.

So make sure your feeders are well stocked this winter and offer a variety of foods in different feeders. I’m sure more snow is coming before too long. 

Latest For the Birds column: Another Christmas Bird Count in the books

Photo by Chris Bosak A large flock of Brant at Calf Pasture Beach, April 2015.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Brant were once again numerous at Calf Pasture Beach in Norwalk, Conn., during the 2016 Christmas Bird Count.

Here’s the latest For the Birds column, which runs weekly in The Hour (Norwalk, Conn.), The Keene (NH) Sentinel and several Connecticut weekly newspapers.

Buffleheads were everywhere. Not in great numbers, particularly, but they were everywhere we looked.

Norwalk Harbor, Norwalk River, Long Island Sound off Calf Pasture and Cedar Point Yacht Club, the small pond at Taylor Farm … it seemed the bufflehead was the duck of the day for the most recent Christmas Bird Count. As I have for the past 16 years or so, I participated in the Westport Circle count and covered East Norwalk with Frank Mantlik.

The Christmas Bird Count is the world’s largest citizen science program, with data going back to 1900. The data helps scientists track bird populations and is valuable in determining what steps, if any, need to be taken to help certain species.

Frank and I found a total of 53 species, which is about typical for us. The weather was wet and gray, so that may account for the slightly lower total. I can’t complain, though; Continue reading