For the Birds: Good news from the Winter Finch Forecast

Photo by Chris Bosak A pine siskin perches on the top of an evergreen in Danbury, CT, March 2019.

The 2020-21 Winter Finch Forecast is out and it looks like it could be an exciting next several months in New England.

This is the first forecast by Tyler Hoar. Ron Pittaway did the forecast for several decades before passing the torch to Hoar this year. The Winter Finch Forecast is a prediction of what finch (and other) species may irrupt into New England and parts south and west. An irruption is when northern birds move to or through an area in abnormally high numbers. For example, many years we get very few or even no pine siskins. Other years we get so many we can’t fill the feeders fast enough. Irruptions occur mainly due to food availability, or lack thereof. If it is a bad crop year up north for a certain type of food, such as pine cone seeds, irruptions may occur as birds move in search of food sources.

According to Hoar, this is shaping up to be a good year for purple finches and evening grosbeaks. It is also a year when red-breasted nuthatches are moving south in high numbers. Perhaps you’ve seen more of these small, charismatic birds than usual in your yard this fall already. I hadn’t seen or heard a red-breasted nuthatch in my yard for about four years. This fall, I’ve had three already. I’ve seen only one, and heard the other two. Red-breasted nuthatches have higher-pitched songs and calls than their cousins, the white-breasted nuthatch. It’s an unmistakable difference once you learn it. Red-breasted nuthatches are the more common nuthatch throughout much of New England, particularly up north. In southern New England, irruption years of red-breasted nuthatches are a special treat as they are not resident birds.

The Winter Finch Forecast covers finches such as redpolls, crossbills and siskins, as well as a few small birds that aren’t finches. Irruptions are not limited to these small birds, of course. Who can forget the winter of 2013-14 when snowy owls were all the rage and showed up in places they’d never been seen before?

To see the full forecast, enter “2020-21 Winter Finch Forecast” into a web search and have at it. Are we likely to see common redpolls this winter? I’ll leave that research up to you. I’m always looking forward with excitement regardless of the season, but the Winter Finch Forecast offers that much more incentive to cheer on winter and the colder months. Winter is not so bad after all.

For the Birds: Early fall sightings

Photo by Chris Bosak Praying mantis at Highstead in Redding, CT, summer 2019.

In my opinion, September ranks up there as one of the best months for wildlife watching in New England. Top two or three, I’d say. I like each of the months, of course, and you could make an argument for pretty much any of them being in the top five. May is hard to beat as it is the height of the songbird migration in New England and comes on the heels of several months of cold weather. Also, the flowers start blooming and trees fully leaf out, adding color to a landscape that had been mostly gray for far too long.

So May, I think, has to be number one.

April, September and October duke it out for second. To me, September gets the nod. Like May, September is a transition month. The fall migration begins in earnest during September, but summer still hangs on tightly. Not only do we get to see the fall migrants pass through, but all of the things that make summer special remain. Loons and hummingbirds are around for much of September, but they are mostly gone by October.

September is a great time to take a walk in a field. The goldenrod is in bloom and if you look closely, you can often find interesting critters such as a praying mantis or yellow garden spider. It is interesting to note that praying mantises are not native to North America. Also, male yellow garden spiders are small and brownish; only the female has the intimidating size and colorful pattern.

September also marks the beginning of the southward hawk migration, which is a highlight of the year for many birdwatchers. September features the massive broad-winged Continue reading

Odds and ends …

Photo by Chris Bosak A hummingbird moth sips nectar from a butterfly bush in New England, summer 2019.

Odds and ends from the natural world:

I led you astray in a recent column and I’m here to own up to it and make it right.

I wrote about and included a photograph of a tomato hornworm caterpillar being covered in the small white cocoons of a wasp parasite. That part was true. It was a tomato hornworm and it was covered in the cocoons of braconid wasps. These wasps start their life cycle as an egg laid inside the giant green caterpillar and eat their way out to build their cocoons.

I was mistaken, however, in saying that the caterpillar would have turned into a hummingbird moth – at least the kind we enjoy watching around our flowers in the summer and early fall. That moth is the hummingbird clearwing moth and is not Continue reading

For the Birds: Micro-level horror show in the garden

Photo by Chris Bosak A tomato hornworm is covered in braconid wasp larvae on a tomato plant in New England, August 2020.

(Note: This post has been updated from its original content to correct information about the hummingbird moth caterpillar.)

I was all set to follow my last column about fall migration with a closer look at some of the songbirds, including warblers, that are heading south now and will be for the next several weeks.

That column has been put on hold as I saw something in the garden last week that just can’t wait. Experienced vegetable gardeners have likely seen this before, but it was a first for me and I was amazed at the gruesome details when I researched it online.

First, a little background. It is a first-year garden plot. I dug it during April at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak in the Northeast. More than anything else, it was a diversion from the nuttiness going on in the world; something to keep my mind and body occupied during quarantine. I’ve never had a green thumb and I had little hope in the garden ever yielding impressive crops.

As it turns out, my pessimism was warranted. Once the leaves popped on the giant oaks that surround my property, the garden didn’t stand a chance. Tomato plants require how much sunlight? Continue reading

For the Birds: Hummingbirds and cuckoos

Photo by Chris Bosak A female ruby-throated hummingbird sits on a rope in a backyard in New England, August 2020.

I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed watching the hummingbirds ignore the stormy weather of Aug. 4 and visit the feeders. As you’ll recall, last week I wrote about the tiny birds going about their day as usual as rain fell and wind whipped all around.

I heard from Deb from Royalston, Mass., who said her hummingbirds “had no problem with the fierce winds and rain. All this year’s babies are there now, so we had more than a dozen.” She said it was hard to count them there were so many. I, of course, had only one visit my feeder that day as it was a dominant female who “owns” the feeder.

Jill from Keene wrote: “I too was amazed during the storm the hummingbirds seemed unfazed.” Jill also had a peaceful gathering of hummingbirds and sent me a few photos showing six of them on the feeder at once.

“They did not fight much at all and it was eerily quiet as I usually have several swooping and ‘chirping’ noisily,” Jill added.

A few days later, Jill wrote to say: “The peaceful dinner party was really an anomaly, as they are back to fighting and chasing each other!”

John and Joanne of Dover noted: “We also Continue reading

For the Birds: Hummingbirds ride out the storm

Photo by Chris Bosak A female ruby-throated hummingbird hovers in a backyard in New England, August 2020.

Tropical Storm Isaias really put on a show as it blasted its way through New England. Wind, rain and tornado warnings ruled the day last Tuesday as the storm packed a bigger punch than expected.

My sons and I stood on the screened-in porch and watched as 50 mph winds roared through the woods in the backyard. We ignored the occasional rain that wind gusts blew through the screen. Small maples bent like those inflatable tubes you see outside some businesses. Dead or dying ash trees threatened to topple and, indeed, many did throughout the neighborhood. We were lucky. At one point we heard the alarming sound of a huge tree or branch cracking. I was ready to scramble into the house for protection, but Andrew pointed out that the fracture was occurring in the woods safely away from the house. He pointed out a massive branch high around the top of a gigantic oak tree that had peeled away from the trunk. It never did fall as it got stuck among the canopy branches of nearby trees.

We lost power before 2 p.m. Tuesday and, as I write three days later, it hasn’t been restored. It may take a few more days as trees and power lines are down all throughout the neighborhood. We are hardly alone. More than a million households lost power throughout New England, including more than 700,000 in Connecticut alone.

It’s safe to say Isaias was a major event. I won’t soon forget the sights and sounds of the beast roaring through the woods and leaving a wake of destruction as it headed north. Through it all, believe it or not, my hummingbirds visited the feeder as if nothing was happening. I have three hummingbirds that visit daily: two females and one male. One of the females rules the roost and is constantly chasing the others away. She sat contentedly on the feeder as those 50 mph winds violently swayed the clothesline on which it hangs. The boys Continue reading

For the Birds: Ticks taking down New England moose

Photo by Chris Bosak A cow moose and two calves eat aquatic vegetation from a pond in northern New Hampshire, July 2020.

I never met Bill Silliker Jr., but I am a fan of his work. He was a nature photographer who passed away in 2003. He was based in Maine, and his specialty was moose. His work graced calendars, magazines, books, you name it. The other day I pulled his book “Moose — Giant of the Northern Forest” off the shelf. He wrote it in 1998 and it is, of course, richly illustrated with his fantastic moose photos.

Again, I never met Mr. Silliker, but his writing comes across as down-to-earth, compassionate and deeply caring about the animals he photographed. The book’s chapters discuss various aspects of moose: history, behavior, rut, etc. At the end of the book, he discusses the many threats to moose. Among them are car and train accidents, predation by bear and wolves (Alaska and western U.S.), and humans by way of pollution and habitat destruction.

He also notes that brainworm “may be the most serious health hazard moose face in regions where their range overlaps with that of the parasite’s carrier, the white-tailed deer.” That concern is indeed playing out, particularly in southern New England, where brainworm is thought to be the chief enemy of the moose population, according to biologists in the region.

Mr. Siliker also writes that tick infestations “sometimes play a role in depleting the health and resistance of moose.” Fast forward 20 years from the book’s publishing and ticks have Continue reading

For the Birds: Thankful for a lone moose sighting

Photo by Chris Bosak A cow moose and a calf eat aquatic vegetation from a pond in northern New Hampshire, July 2020.

It’s going on 30 years that I have been making frequent trips to the northern tip of New Hampshire to look for moose and other wildlife. Thirty years? Hard to believe.

I’ve seen a lot of changes in the Great North Woods over the decades, some positive and some negative. Granted, the trips have become less frequent lately, but I still try to make it up at least once a year.

A positive I have noticed is an increase in loon and bald eagle sightings. Both those species have bounced back from low population numbers and now seem to be doing much better. That is thanks in large part to groups like the Loon Preservation Committee, which Continue reading

For the Birds: Whole-bird approach to birdwatching

Photo by Chris Bosak A gray catbird perches on a branch in New England, July 2020. Merganser Lake.

Look up “wood duck” in a cheap field guide and you’ll likely see a beautiful duck with green, pewter, tan, white and even some blue plumage. That is, indeed, a wood duck — a male wood duck in its breeding plumage.

If you saw a female wood duck, immature wood duck or male wood duck in its non-breeding plumage, you’d never find it in that field guide and you’d have a hard time believing someone who told you it was a wood duck because it looks nothing like the beautiful bird in the field guide.

Sometimes field guides lie. Well, they leave out a lot of the truth at least. There are top-quality field guides out there and even they can’t portray every bird in every possible plumage. Between the breeding, non-breeding and transitional plumages, it’s impossible to fit every variation of every bird into a book. That’s not even to mention all the other plumage oddities, such as leucism, albinoism and other conditions.

The same can be said for bird sounds as well. There are dozens of apps and websites out there now that feature bird sounds, but as terrific and helpful as they are, they can’t Continue reading

For the Birds: Complain and they will come

Photo by Chris Bosak A female ruby-throated hummingbird visits a flower in New England, July 2020.

Here’s the latest For the Birds column, which runs weekly in several New England newspapers …

Apparently, all I had to do to get my hummingbirds back this summer was complain to my neighbor.

I had had frequent visits from both male and female hummingbirds early in the spring. The daily visits continued for a few weeks and then stopped abruptly. Last year, and the year before that, the visits never stopped and I saw them daily until the fall.

This year, June was largely a hummingbird-free month in my backyard. 

During a walk around the neighborhood last week, I noticed a neighbor had bird feeders on her deck so I stopped to chat about what birds she had been seeing. She had a few of the usual suspects but didn’t mention hummingbirds. 

I inquired about the tiny birds and she said: “Yes. I see them every day.”

“That’s great,” I replied. “I haven’t seen mine in a while.”

I went on to bore her with the details of my previous years’ good fortune. She feigned interest, we chatted a little more and then said goodbye. 

The birding gods must have heard me griping and took pity on me because, the very next day, a female hummingbird showed up at my feeder. She has been back every day since, too. It is very territorial as I have seen her chase away other hummingbirds. Another female and a male have started showing up now and then, too, when the queen is away.

In previous years, a female has dominated my feeders throughout the summer so I wonder if she is the same bird I have been seeing for years. At any rate, it is nice to see the hummingbirds back in the yard. It is also nice to know there are several of them, even if I get only brief glimpses of the other ones before they are chased away.

I have a few feeders and several flowers to lure the hummingbirds. She prefers the feeders, but on occasion will sip from the flowers. This year, most of my flowers are red salvia, an annual with tubular shaped blooms. In the past, I’ve seen hummingbirds visit my coneflower and even sunflowers.

Complaining usually doesn’t solve problems and often makes them worse, but in this case, things worked out pretty well. I plan to take a trip to northern New England in a few weeks in the hopes of finding some of New England’s disappearing moose. Maybe I should proactively start complaining now in the hopes of getting the same results for that trip?