For the Birds: Beginner to expert, do what suits you

Photo by Chris Bosak A blackpoll warbler eats berries in New England, November 2021.

Birdwatching can be as easy or as difficult as you want to make it. I’ve said it before, but that is one of the things I like most about the hobby.

If you are content being able to identify a handful of birds, then that’s fine as long as you enjoy it. If you can’t sleep unless you know the species, age and sex of every bird you see, then that’s fine as well.

Most of us, including myself, fall somewhere in the middle. The middle, of course, is a pretty vast area. Knowing a robin, blue jay, cardinal and a few other species is in one area of the middle. Knowing your sparrows, shorebirds, gulls and ducks falls in another area of the middle.

Warblers are a good indicator of where you fall on the spectrum. Can you identify a handful of male warblers in the spring? Or, can you identify male, female and immature warblers in the spring and fall? Warblers are tricky that way. Similar to my overall knowledge of birds, my warbler skills fall somewhere in the middle.

I know most of the spring warblers, male and female, by sight and sound. By no means have I mastered them, but I do pretty well in the spring. The fall is another story. Obviously, I can identify the warblers that look the same, or very similar, in the fall as they do in the spring. I’ve never struggled to identify a male or female common yellowthroat in the fall. However, many warblers in the fall look nothing like their flashy spring selves. Plus, throw in the first-year birds and it adds greatly to the confusion.

I encountered this challenge a few weeks ago when I saw a small bird eating berries in a bush. I knew it was a warbler, but I didn’t know what kind. It didn’t look like any of the photos you see in a field guide.

I flipped through a few of my field guides and came up with some ideas but nothing that satisfied my inclination to get the right identification. So I did what I always do when I encounter such a challenge. I turned to my friends who are better birders than I am.

In this case, I asked Frank. I have been doing the Christmas Bird Count with Frank for about 20 years so I knew he wouldn’t mind a quick warbler question.

I sent him a photo of the bird. It is always helpful to have a photo. Whether the photo is good or bad, it is good to have. It won’t always positively identify the bird, but it often does. A photo is far better than a lengthy description of what the bird looks like.

In this case, the photo was pretty good, and Frank was able to identify it as a female or immature blackpoll warbler. The faint and splotchy yellow on the bird’s breast and belly, as well as the markings on the face and head, were the telltale descriptors.

To me, it is satisfying to be able to identify the birds you see, particularly if it takes a little research to do so. But I am never shy about asking for help. I would rather ask for help than live with the frustration and uncertainty of not knowing what I just saw.

Besides, I have no delusions of grandeur about my birding skills. Yes, my skills are good, I have lots of experience in the field, and I have a great enthusiasm for the hobby, but I am far from an expert. I am not going to be identifying any first-year Thayer’s X herring gulls any time soon. For the most part, I have found that birders are more than happy to help out another birdwatcher, whether it is identifying a bird or assisting in finding a bird.

Over the years, I have received many messages asking me to identify a bird. Usually I can tell right away what the bird is and reply immediately. Other times, however, the birds are tricky, and I turn to my more knowledgeable birding friends for help. I am always happy to receive and respond to such messages. If you are looking at something and you’re not sure what it is, feel free to snap a picture, regardless of quality, and send it along. I am happy to help and enjoy the challenge.

Happy birding everyone. As winter approaches, be ready for some different birds to show up. Will this be a good year for siskins, redpolls or grosbeaks? We will have to wait and see. Remember, if something shows up at your feeder, or if you see something in the field that stumps you and you’re dying to know what it is, reach out to someone who can help with the ID. If you’re content just enjoying the view, that’s fine too.

For the Birds: The small, but mighty kinglet

People like large birds. Eagles, hawks, owls, even herons and waterfowl, get birders and non-birders alike excited.

Smaller birds? Sure, birders get excited about smaller birds too, but for non-birders, these birds have to bring something appealing to the table.

Everyone likes cardinals. They’re bright red. Everyone likes chickadees. They’re cute, tame and active. Non-birders are split on blue jays. Some like them because they are blue (and fairly large), and some dislike them because they heard jays are bully birds and they can’t let it go.

In fact, many smaller birds go completely unnoticed by non-birders, even when the birds make their presence rather obvious. A flock of white-throated sparrows or dark-eyed juncos can dart in every direction right in front of a non-birder and it will be as if nothing ever happened. A birder, however, will stop dead in his or her tracks, reach for the binoculars and try to find the little birds in the brush just to confirm an ID.

Not that I’m being critical of non-birders. It’s just not their thing. My son Andrew loves cars. When we drive together he points out all the cars that catch his eye. Look, Dad, there’s a BMW X2TR5 or an Audi 627X, he’ll say. Those aren’t the real models, of course. I forget the real model names the second he tells me. I’m glad he has a passion and great knowledge of it, but cars aren’t my thing.

Just like birds aren’t everybody’s thing.

I thought about that during a recent walk. To me, it was a great bird walk. I saw a lot of birds that got my blood pumping and managed to get a few decent photos of some elusive species. The bird list included species such as palm warbler, yellow-rumped warbler, Carolina wren, ruby-crowned kinglet, and the aforementioned white-throated sparrow and dark-eyed junco. Not bad for November.

All of those birds are small and rather nondescript, at least without the aid of binoculars. A non-birder would have been bored silly. I was loving it.

The kinglet got me thinking most of all. They are tiny birds, never sit still and hardly utter a peep when they pass through New England in the fall. I can almost guarantee that a non-birder has never taken even the slightest interest in a kinglet. Yet birders love them.

Kinglets are almost as small as hummingbirds, in size anyway, not necessarily in weight. Ruby-throated hummingbirds are about 7 to 9 centimeters long and ruby-crowned kinglets are about 9 to 11 centimeters long. Hummingbirds are a mere 2 to 6 grams, depending on activity and the last time they ate. Kinglets weigh in at a comparatively hefty 5 to 10 grams. By comparison, black-capped chickadees are 10 to 15 centimeters and 11 to 12 grams.

Kinglets are also rather bland from a distance or by a quick glance. Closer inspection yields an interesting mix of olive green, yellow, black and white plumage. As their name suggests, males have a red crown that is exposed when the bird is excited. In my experience, it is not exposed too often.

Kinglets are a far cry from an eagle or heron, but they are big in character, hardiness and energy. As a birder, I can appreciate that.

For the Birds: Readers take over

Photo by Chris Bosak A red-bellied woodpecker perches on a log.

You’ve heard from me; now find out what others are seeing out there.

Red-bellied woodpeckers continue to proliferate in southern New Hampshire. It wasn’t too many years ago that these large, handsome and sometimes aggressive birds were extremely rare sightings in the Granite State. Their northern expansion has been impressive and now they are seen with much greater frequency throughout the southern part of the state.

I wouldn’t say they are common sightings here yet, but they are getting there. They are now very common in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, so it stands to reason New Hampshire and Vermont are next.

In the last few weeks, I have heard from Monadnock Region residents Cindy and Richard who have each hosted red-bellied woodpeckers at their feeders recently. Cindy from Keene wrote that her bird visits every day. She wrote that the bird’s red head is “almost neon” when the sun hits it just right.

Richard had stopped feeding the birds in the summer due to the mysterious illness that had killed so many birds in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic. He started again in the fall and a red-bellied woodpecker was one of his first customers when the feeders went back up.

Richard had also asked whether last year’s birdseed was still good to offer. As long as the seed was stored properly and looks and feels OK, it should be fine to feed the birds. Like anything, birdseed has a shelf life, though. Try offering a small amount and if the birds eat it and come back, it’s fine. If it’s not good, the birds won’t come back to that feeder. Just make sure you replace it with fresh seed before the next time they visit.

Sticking with the woodpecker theme, Dan and Nancy from Keene had an unusual sighting of about 15 northern flickers foraging in their yard recently. When the birds got startled, they retreated to nearby trees, flashing their white rump patches.

Not everyone has been so lucky as of late. Two separate readers from Connecticut wrote to ask why no birds have been visiting their feeders. I get that question fairly often and I always say to just be patient. The birds are likely finding food from natural sources and will return soon. In fact, one of the readers responded a week or so later to say that the birds were slowly returning with sightings of a hairy woodpecker, two blue jays and two mourning doves. My guess is that action will continue to accelerate as we head into winter.

Lenny from Greenfield sent in a photo of a red-tailed hawk he saw from his tractor while raking hay to bale. Later, he saw two more red-taileds. Lenny said he has seen more red-tailed hawks this year in the hayfields than in years past.

Paul from Swanzey was enjoying his morning coffee when he heard a knocking at his downstairs slider door. He investigated and found two turkeys making the racket.

I also got an email from Roxanne, also of Swanzey, who recommended an article from the Wall Street Journal on the abundance of birds near urban centers during the pandemic. She added that she has a family of turkeys that routinely come to her feeders to eat the seed that has fallen to the ground. They also like the cracked corn she throws out for them. She also cautioned that drivers should be careful as wild turkeys, despite their large size, can be difficult to spot along the sides of the road. She even put up some “Wild Turkey Crossing” signs to warn drivers.

Finally, Patti wrote in with a good question about efts. I had written about the young newts a few weeks ago and mentioned they are toxic to predators. She was concerned because she often picks them up to move out of harm’s way. Efts are only toxic if ingested and many predators know that from the amphibian’s bright colors. Touching an eft is not harmful to humans so, by all means, keep helping the little critters.

The temperatures are getting cooler, but there is still plenty of bird activity in New England. Drop me a line and let me know what you’re seeing out there.

For the Birds: A tree full of birds

Photo by Chris Bosak A palm warbler perches in New England, October 2021.

A pair of ruby-crowned kinglets flitted among the brush, and a crow or two flew overhead. That was all the bird action on the early part of the walk.

Then I heard a commotion coming from a nearby tree. It was a huge, dead maple tree with no leaves on its branches, but various types of vines climbed up its trunk and spread out among the limbs. The vines still had their leaves, making the tree look like nature had splattered various shades of red, yellow, orange and green on the venerable old guard.

Something must have been lurking among the brush because the birds were on high alert. I’ve never seen a more varied collection of bird species in one tree before. I could hardly believe it as I counted out the species in my head.

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For the Birds: Patience pays off again

Photo by Chris Bosak A yellow-rumped warbler eats poison ivy berries in New England, fall 2021.

Any birdwatcher knows that patience and faith are perhaps the two most important components to a successful bird walk.

I started a recent walk with high hopes, as I always do, but as the morning went on and no birds were to be found, I started to lose hope of seeing anything. To compound matters, the field at the park had recently been mowed for the first time of the year, making bird encounters even less likely.

It still would have been a pleasant walk because the autumn morning chill had given way to a beautiful and warm sunny day. But with fall migration in full swing, I was disappointed in the birding results.

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For the Birds: Efts and mushrooms make for a very orange walk

Photo by Chris Bosak An eft works its way across a path in New England, fall 2021.

Orange was the color of the day during a recent morning walk in the woods.

It had rained overnight and the trails were damp in most places and puddled in others. I got a flash of excitement when I saw my first eft. Then I saw another. Then another. Efts were underfoot on every fifth or sixth step.

Efts are eastern newts in the terrestrial stage. Some are brownish but most are bright orange and, despite their small size, very visible on paths in the woods. They can be found any day from late spring into fall, but damp weather is when you are most likely to find them, even if you aren’t looking for them.

Newts have four distinct stages, or life cycles. Females lay eggs on aquatic vegetation in the spring. A month to five weeks later, the eggs hatch and the newts live in water for a few months. At this larval stage, they are less than 1 inch long and have feathery gills. In the fall, they shed their gills, crawl onto land and live as efts for about three or four years. They spend New England’s harsh winters hibernating under logs or rocks.

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For the Birds: Big news week for the birds

Photo by Chris Bosak Yellow-rumped Warbler in Selleck’s Woods, Darien, Conn., April 2014.

Note: This column was originally published in newspapers on Oct. 4.

There was a lot of environmental and bird-related news to come out of Washington this past week.

In case you missed it, the big news was that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials declared the ivory-billed woodpecker extinct. The “Lord God Bird’s” removal from the endangered species list is surprising only because officials are reluctant to declare species extinct. It’s such a powerful word that carries with it such finality it’s a tough tag to put on something.

The dreaded label was also placed on 22 other species of wildlife, including eight freshwater mussels. Sadly, but not surprisingly, 11 species from Hawaii and the Pacific Islands have been declared extinct. That includes many birds.

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For the Birds: Fall’s magic

Fall is an exciting time for birdwatching with hawkwatches, the southern warbler migration, and, later in the fall, the waterfowl migration.

Early fall holds many non-bird surprises in nature as well. On recent walks, I have seen dozens of monarchs and other butterflies. When I walk through fields, I am constantly on the lookout for monarch caterpillars on milkweed plants. Rarely am I lucky enough to spot one, but it does happen on occasion. The other day happened to be one of those occasions.

Monarchs are struggling as a species as habitat loss, pesticides and, potentially, climate change have played a heavy toll on their numbers, particularly out West. I did read an article recently that said the numbers may be rebounding, however. That would be great news.

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For the Birds: Hummingbird feeder timing

Here is the latest For the Birds article. It was published a few weeks ago in newspapers, but is still relevant as September comes to an end.

Photo by Chris Bosak Hummingbirds are migrating now and will be throughout the rest of the month.

When should I bring in my hummingbird feeders? It’s a common question and may be answered the same way as so many other questions may be answered: It depends.

The answer depends on your tolerance for changing the sugar water in the feeders and your patience for watching a feeder that may not receive any visitors. Hummingbirds started to migrate a few weeks ago and some have gone south already.

With migration under way, now is definitely not the time to bring the feeders in. Hummingbirds need to pretty much double their weight to make their arduous migration, particularly when they reach the Gulf of Mexico and fly the 500 miles without rest.

Sure, there are plenty of natural food sources for hummingbirds this time of year, but an easy meal at a feeder now and then gives the tiny birds a bit of a break. Patches of jewelweed are another favorite of hummingbirds and they are still blooming. Other than feeders, I think I’ve seen more hummingbirds at jewelweed (touch-me-not) patches than any other venue.

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For the Birds: A dragonfly bonanza

Photo by Chris Bosak A green darner flies around a backyard in New England following a mosquito hatch in September 2021.

The sun was starting to set behind the marsh, casting a golden glow on the backyard.

In this magical light, we could see dragonflies by the dozens, perhaps hundreds, zipping around the yard. Looking closer, aided by the light, we could see hundreds, if not thousands, of mosquitoes, presenting themselves as tiny specks in the air. Looking even closer, we could see the dragonflies chase down and eat the mosquitoes. The mosquitoes didn’t stand a chance against these perfectly engineered predators.

I went out to try my luck at photographing a dragonfly in midair. It’s been an elusive shot in my catalog of nature photos. Even with the sheer numbers of dragonflies and the perfect evening sun at my back, the shot proved to be a challenge. I somewhat met the challenge, however. I wouldn’t say I nailed the shot as it’s not ideally composed, focused, exposed or any other type of technical photography term you can think of. But, for my purposes, it’s not bad. I’m not shooting for National Geographic or anything.

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