Classic For the Birds: Much learned; much to learn

Here’s a For the Birds column from 15 years ago. Yes, I’ve been writing it for that long, and even longer. Enjoy …

Photo by Chris Bosak A Snowy Egret looks for food in Norwalk Harbor.
Photo by Chris Bosak
A Snowy Egret looks for food in Norwalk Harbor.

It’s funny how things that seem so difficult at the beginning eventually become so easy.
It can be said of just about any hobby, but it certainly applies to birdwatching.
I can remember struggling with differentiating great egrets from snowy egrets. It seems somewhat silly now. Great egrets are markedly larger, have yellow bills and black legs and feet. Snowy egrets, aside from being much smaller, have black bills and yellow feet.
The differences are clear and obvious now. But, as a beginner, I saw only tall white birds and telling them apart was a challenge.
Similar experiences occurred with wood thrushes and hermit thrushes, downy and hairy woodpeckers, black ducks and mallards, house finches and purple finches. Now these are all fairly easy to differentiate.
But just when you think you’ve got this birding thing down, there’s something to knock you down a peg or two to show you how much more there is to learn.
Sure, wood thrushes and hermit thrushes are easy now, but what about if you throw in Swainson’s thrush and gray-cheeked thrush? What about northern waterthrush and Louisiana waterthrush? Common tern and Forster’s tern? Least sandpiper and semipalmated sandpiper?
Unless you are an expert or have a special birding gift, there will always be something to learn. There will always be something to throw you for a loop just when you start feeling a little too confident.
It’s easy to get frustrated when that happens. “Semipalmated sandpiper or least sandpiper? Geez, I should know that by now. What’s wrong with me?”
When frustration sets in, it’s important to look back on how far you’ve come, even though that’s not so easy when the frustration is at its peak. That’s good advice for anything in life, really.
I thought about that the other day as I watched a lone great egret and lone snowy egret hunting the same hot spot along the Long Island Sound.
As the waders crossed paths and briefly stood right next to each other, the differences were glaring. The great egret towered over the snowy and the snowy’s yellow feet glowed like beacons.
I love watching egrets. I slow the car when I see them along the roadside, and take time to enjoy them when I’m birdwatching or simply taking a walk. Seeing egrets reminds me of how far my birdwatching skills have come.
There are plenty of reminders out there about how far my skills still have to go, so I may as well cherish the ones that show the progress I have made.

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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.”

For the Birds: Dragonfly fun facts

Photo by Chris Bosak Meadowhawk dragonflies mate in Selleck's/Dunlap Wood in summer 2014.

I’m a big “fun facts” guy. Thankfully, the internet is filled with these interesting tidbits of information. 

You could find amusing information on just about anything you can think of: politics, art, sports, human biology, libraries, history. You name it, it’s out there on the web.

The animal world, of course, is no exception. Fun facts abound on the internet about earthworms, cicadas, robins, moose, musk ox, and countless other fascinating members of the animal kingdom.

I wrote recently about a few hot-weather walks I took through New England meadows. I focused that column primarily on butterflies, but I want to turn the attention to another common sighting I had on those walks: dragonflies.

These large insects have fascinated people for as long as people have been fascinated by things. Dragonflies can arouse amazement, fear or curiosity in humans. For me, it’s a combination of amazement and curiosity. I used to fear them when I was a kid due to a lack of understanding about them. They may be intimidating-looking, but they are as harmless as they come in the insect world — at least the ones we have in New England. (See, I snuck in a fun fact without even setting it up.)

OK, now for the set up: Dragonflies arouse curiosity in people for many reasons, such as their menacing appearance, aerial acrobatics, and ability to eat copious amounts of mosquitoes. Here are some other facts about dragonflies that you may or may not have known previously.

Dragonflies have two eyes, but each compound eye is made up of up to 30,000 ommatidium, or facets. The eyes make up most of a dragonfly’s head.

Dragonflies can fly in any direction and can hover for long periods of time. They can also fly upwards of 30 miles per hour.

That flying ability makes dragonflies excellent hunters, eating large amounts of small flying insects, but they can also be the hunted. I’ve seen birds such as green herons and purple martins snatch dragonflies out of the air.

Dragonflies are insects and therefore have six legs, a head, thorax and abdomen. They also have four wings, and the fore wings and hind wings are controlled separately, hence their awesome aerial abilities.

Dragonflies can be monomorphic (male and female look alike), dimorphic (male and female look different) or polymorphic (much variety even among males and females.) The most common colors for dragonflies in New England are blue and green, but there are also red, amber and white dragonflies here.

There are only a handful of dragonfly families that occur in New England (such as skimmers and darners), but there are about 200 species among those families in our region. The largest dragonfly in New England is the green darner, which is more than three inches long.

Dragonflies live all over the world, although most live in warm climates.

Eggs are laid in or near water and larva live for about a year in the water. After emerging, dragonflies live for only a few months as adults, if they are not eaten by something else sooner than that.

A group of dragonflies is called a swarm. They are multi-generational migrants, meaning the ones that fly south are not the same ones that return north.

Dragonflies make for interesting photo subjects. They often return to the same perch over and over, making it easier on photographers. 

What’s your story about dragonflies? Let me know at the email address below.

For the Birds: Another hot summer’s day walk

Photo by Chris Bosak Eastern tiger swallowtail, Brookfield, CT, summer 2019.

Birds were scarce on the walks, as they usually are on hot summer afternoons. In what has become somewhat of an annual event for me, I picked a blisteringly hot and soakingly humid summer afternoon and went to a New England meadow to see what critters were flying, jumping and crawling about.

Butterflies were the main attraction, as they usually are, followed closely by dragonflies. Monarchs were the dominant butterfly species, but eastern tiger swallowtails were in abundance as well. There were also high numbers of black swallowtails, skippers, buckeyes, sulfurs and other delicate winged beauties.

It was nice to see so many monarchs, of course, as this iconic species is in serious decline and in recent memory was thought to perhaps be going extinct. From what I have read, the 2019 population is well above the previous year, which is terrific news. It is not time to let down our guard, however. Populations of animal species can vary widely from year to year and we want to make sure we keep doing all we can to help monarchs survive.

The meadow in which I walked is teeming with milkweed. That, of course, is the main food source for monarch caterpillars, but also a favorite nectar stop for adult monarchs and other butterfly species. I would say at least 80 percent of the butterflies I saw feeding during my walks were sipping from milkweed flowers.

Yes, the butterfly season is definitely in full swing. It will remain that way for the next several weeks before tapering off as we head into fall. I will return frequently to this and other meadows to see the butterflies and other critters getting ready for the colder months.

As I mentioned, the bird activity on these walks was rather slow, but not nonexistent. I did notice a rather large flock of bobolinks, a mixed flock of males, females and youngsters, flying around, which was nice to see.

I also saw a few immature bluebirds with their dull plumage and spotted chests. Goldfinches were a frequent sighting, and without a doubt, the most numerous bird I saw. Besides that, a song sparrow or two and the odd hawk flyover were about it for bird activity.

These sweltering strolls into the meadows each summer have become one of my favorite annual traditions. I’m certainly not saying butterfly photography is easy, but they are certainly more cooperative than most birds. Plus, the colors you get on the photos from the butterflies and flowers are always inspiring.

Many more photos of the walk are available on the website www.birdsofnewengland.com. Feel free to check it out and also remember to send me your most recent sightings, be it birds, butterflies, or whatever else you have seen in the natural world.

For the Birds: Sandpiper in the puddle

Here’s the latest For the Birds column …

Photo by Chris Bosak
A least sandpiper seen in New England.

This moment existed only because of the heavy rains we experienced last week. The body of water was small, shallow, algae-ridden and not at all something to behold.

OK, it was a puddle. No more, no less … your typical run-of-the-mill puddle.

Until a least sandpiper showed up and transformed the puddle into an exotic waterscape. The small shorebird was migrating south earlier this week and saw the puddle as the perfect place to rest and perhaps find an easy meal.

It had flown in from somewhere up north and was on its way to points south. But for a few hours anyway, home was a puddle in New England.

The bird paid little attention to me as I watched and photographed it for several minutes. Migrating birds can be like that. They are intensely focused on fueling and resting for their long journey.

The funny thing about the sighting was the location of the puddle. It exists on and off — depending on the weather — at a dirt parking area that Continue reading

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