Birds to brighten your day: April 8

Photo by Chris Bosak
A male northern cardinal visits a backyard in New England, April 2020.

A Day on Merganser Lake 1

As promised, I’ll start a new series today. I’m running out of COVID-19 lockdown themes so from now until things get back to some semblance of normalcy, I will simply post my best photo from the previous day. You could say it fits because of its uncertainty and challenge. I’ll call the series “A Day on Merganser Lake,” even though that’s not the real name of the lake I live near, it’s just a nod to my favorite duck family.

Plus, it’s a great time to do this because spring migration is picking up steam and new birds are arriving every day. Yesterday, I saw my first chipping sparrow and this morning I saw my first pine warbler (not that I got a photo of either one of them.)

I hope you are doing well through this crisis. As always, feel free to send me your bird or nature photos. I’ll post them on my reader submitted photos page. Leave me your name and town, state.

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

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

Latest For the Birds column: Birding and Pokemon

Photo by Chris Bosak cGreat Egret in Central Park, NYC.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Great Egret in Central Park, NYC.

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.

There I was, taking the train to New York City with the ultimate goal of visiting Central Park. It’s something I used to do fairly often during spring migration.

Central Park is a hub for birds, and therefore birders, in the spring. Only this time I wasn’t going birdwatching — not really anyway — I was looking for Pokémon characters.

Technically I wasn’t the one looking for them. I don’t know the first thing about the game or why it’s the hottest thing since the Hula hoop. I brought my boys down to Central Park as they got caught up in the Pokémon Go hysteria. I was there to keep my eye on them and maybe casually look for some birds along the way.

We arrived at Grand Central and started our walk down Fifth Avenue to Central Park. The excitement around the craze was palpable even as we were still far away from the park. It seemed that about half the people on the sidewalk had their phones in front them and were clearly playing the game. Once we arrived at the golden statue at the entrance to the park, it was clear that this was Pokémon Go central.

We lingered briefly before headed down a trail into the park. As I watched people stopping and pointing and getting excited about their finds it hit me — this craze shares a lot of similarities with birdwatching.

The fact that we were in Central Park, where I had done so much birdwatching before, only solidified my thoughts. Birdwatchers are a tightknit group that seek out rare finds, but also appreciate the common ones. I learned enough about the Pokémon Go game to realize that this is what all these people were doing as well – looking for rare characters, but also capturing ones they had already.

As I had that thought, I looked across “The Pond” and saw a Black-crowned Night Heron land on a fallen tree that was already occupied by a few Double-crested Cormorants. A Solitary Sandpiper hunted along the near shoreline. They were fitting sights to accompany that thought. Here I was getting excited about seeing a cool bird, while thousands of people around me were getting excited with their own finds. We were all outside, we were all walking, and we were all seeking.

I did an Internet search a few days after our trip and noticed that some others have made the same comparison. It is a bit of a stretch, but at the same time not really.

There are some glaring differences, of course, the most obvious and prominent being that the birdwatchers are looking for real, living things, while the Pokémon players are looking for computer generated images that randomly pop up on their phones.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, is the diversity of the people enjoying the hobbies. Pokémon drew literally thousands of people to Central Park and the people doing it were as diverse as the city itself. All ages and ethnicities. Male and female. A lot of families, too. They were all sharing a passion for the same thing.

Sadly, from my experience, birding is not so diverse. It is better than it was and some people are making it their mission to increase diversity in the hobby, but there’s long way to go. I don’t typically see a lot of families out birdwatching together either. I do on occasion, but it is a rate sighting indeed.

Another difference between birdwatching and Pokémon Go is that birding will have much more staying power. I am guessing here of course, but I can see this Pokémon Go craze being just another flash-in-the-pan fad. Birdwatching has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for centuries to come.

Yes, Pokémon is vastly more popular at the moment but how long will it last? These games rarely flourish for the long haul. Remember Angry Birds? Great game, but who plays that anymore?

Years from now, maybe even mere weeks, no one will be talking about Pokémon Go. Birding, however, will be going strong.

Who knows? Maybe now that people are getting reacquainted with the outdoors more and actually discovering how wonderful it is to be outside, perhaps birding will win a few converts. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Latest For the Birds column: Wood Ducks show a tame side

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

Photo by Chris Bosak A Wood Duck mother swims with one of her babies at Woods Ponds in Norwalk, Conn., spring 2016.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Wood Duck mother swims with one of her babies at Woods Ponds in Norwalk, Conn., spring 2016.

The Mallards were scattered along the grass and I didn’t think twice about it. I’m used to Mallards being tame and not walking away, or even flinching, when someone draws near.

With many Mallards, even with babies in tow, they show little or no fear of humans. In fact, many even welcome the approach of humans as the ducks hope to get some food.

Photo by Chris Bosak A Wood Duck mother swims with two of her babies at Woods Ponds in Norwalk, Conn., spring 2016.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Wood Duck mother swims with two of her babies at Woods Ponds in Norwalk, Conn., spring 2016.

But in this particular flock of ducks, two females and their babies quickly retreated to the nearby pond. These ducks weren’t Mallards at all, but rather they were Wood Ducks. Two female Wood Ducks and their babies were “hanging out” with the Mallards in the grass near the pond before I pulled into the parking lot.

While the Mallards in the group, which consisted of most of the birds, did not even bother to wake up from their midday nap, the Wood Ducks’ instincts told them to retreat.

But the scene was still extremely surprising to me. First of all, you don’t always see Wood Ducks hanging out with Mallards. And, second of all, Continue reading