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. 

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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: Up to the roof to get close to a Scarlet Tanager

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

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

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.

Thankfully the trees are fully leafed out. My neighbors probably would have started to wonder about me. Of course, that process likely started long ago.

I found myself standing on my roof, camera in hand, keeping an eye on a male scarlet tanager that was singing his heart out among the oaks.

I had noticed the brilliant red-and-black bird a few days before. I was writing at my computer at home when I spied him through the window eating berries from those ubiquitous wild raspberry bushes, which are really invasive wineberries from Asia. The bird was impossible to miss with that beaming red plumage that puts cardinals to shame. (No offense to our beloved cardinals.) The tanager was gone by the time I opened the front door for a better look.

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?

Clearing out my 2014 photos, take 7: Northern Cardinal

Photo by Chris Bosak A Northern Cardinal perches on a branch in New England in spring 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Northern Cardinal perches on a branch in New England in spring 2014.

Here’s my next photo in the series of 2014 photos that I never got around to looking at and posting.

Everybody loves Northern Cardinals. I took this shot in 2014, but to be perfectly honest, I don’t really remember the details. I found it in a random folder and only sort of remembered even taking the photo. Some days of shooting are like that: The action is so fast it’s hard to keep track of what you’re shooting. Other days, of course, not so much.

I believe I took this shot at Cove Island Wildlife Sanctuary, but it was definitely in 2014. Trust me on that one.

A few more Hermit Thrush photos; and a link to column

Photo by Chris Bosak A Hermit Thrush perches on a branch at Selleck's/Dunlap Woods this fall.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Hermit Thrush perches on a branch at Selleck’s/Dunlap Woods this fall.

Here are a few more photos of Hermit Thrushes, a species profiled in my last post a few days ago. Also below is a link to my latest For the Birds column, which appears weekly in The Hour (Norwalk, CT) and The Keene Sentinel (Keene, N.H.)

Here’s the link.

Photo by Chris Bosak A Hermit Thrush rests on a log at Selleck's/Dunlap Woods this fall.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Hermit Thrush rests on a log at Selleck’s/Dunlap Woods this fall.

Great Blue in the Great North Woods

Photo by Chris Bosak A Great Blue Heron flies across the scene at a pond in northern New Hampshire, Oct. 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Great Blue Heron flies across the scene at a pond in northern New Hampshire, Oct. 2014.

Here’s a Great Blue Heron I found while I was canoeing on a small pond in northern New Hampshire during my recent trip to the “Great North Woods,” as the marketers have dubbed the area.

Many of the birds there had already moved south, but a few bird species were still around. I’ve already posted photos of Belted Kingfishers and Common Loons, and now here’s a heron. I have a few more to post before closing the books on my annual trip up north.

Photo by Chris Bosak A Great Blue Heron hunts on the shore of a pond in northern New Hampshire, Oct. 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Great Blue Heron hunts on the shore of a pond in northern New Hampshire, Oct. 2014.