For the Birds: Winter of the Bluebird brewing?

Photo by Chris Bosak
An eastern bluebird scans a yard in Danbury, CT, March 2019.

I thought it was going to be the winter of the junco again, but it’s looking more and more like the winter of the bluebird.

Last year was the winter of the barred owl. As you recall, barred owls were being seen in great numbers all throughout New England. Experts had conflicting theories on why so many of these beautiful owls were being seen, but there is no denying that more than usual were found. On one trip to visit my brother in upstate New York, I found two barred owls. The second owl was perched atop a Welcome to New York sign on the Vermont border.

Several years ago, Christmas Bird Count results were teeming with huge dark-eyed junco numbers. Whereas there are usually hundreds of juncos in a particular count area, there were thousands that year. I dubbed it the winter of the junco and have been on the lookout for similar anecdotal phenomena since then.

Who can forget the winter of the snowy owl a few years back? I can recall robins and pine siskins being highlighted in previous winters.

As I drive to work every day, one stretch of a particular road often has a large flock of juncos. They scatter as I drive by; their white-outlined tails giving away their identity. I had seen several other large flocks of juncos in other areas so I was convinced it was going to be another banner year for the small sparrows.

As the winter progresses, however, I’ve seen fewer juncos. Meanwhile, my inbox has been lighting up with people seeing eastern bluebirds throughout New England. Personally, I haven’t seen many bluebirds this winter, but a lot of people have, that’s for sure.

Bluebirds are not a rarity for a New England winter. They are not common by any means in the winter, but a certain number each year brave our coldest seasons. I remember when I was looking to purchase a house about five years ago. It was early March and as we pulled into one particular driveway, a small group of bluebirds was resting on a blanket of fresh snow on a bush along the driveway. I ended up buying the house.

I’ve heard from several readers about their eastern bluebird sightings this winter. Marge from Sullivan wrote to say she had several bluebirds at her suet feeder one morning. Raynee from Walpole sent in a photo of a bluebird inspecting a birdhouse in her backyard. She mentioned she does not have nesting bluebirds. It could be that the bluebird was looking for suitable respite from the cold. Jane from Marlborough had a pair of bluebirds visit her feeders a few weeks ago. She sees them in the summer but can’t recall ever seeing them in the winter before.

What about you? Can you confirm more bluebird sightings or is there another surprise visitor in your yard? Drop me a line and let me know.

Susan Stevens of Portsmouth NH, took this photo of a group of Eastern Bluebirds eating hulled sunflower seeds at her window feeder in March 2015. She said the bluebirds also eat suet.
Susan Stevens of Portsmouth NH, took this photo of a group of Eastern Bluebirds eating hulled sunflower seeds at her window feeder in March 2015. She said the bluebirds also eat suet.

For the Birds: New Year's birding resolutions

Photo by Chris Bosak
Blue-headed vireo, Pillsbury State Park, N.H., June 2019.

Last year at this time I wrote about my New Year’s resolutions to help birds. They largely focused on citizen science projects I would either undertake for the first time or continue to be involved in.

Looking back, I could say that I did fairly well with my resolutions. Some of them, however, like most resolutions, just never came to fruition.

I did participate in a number of citizen science projects. I have done the Christmas Bird Count and the Great Backyard Bird Count for many years continuously. This past year was no exception.

Also, last year was the second year of the three-year Connecticut Breeding Bird Atlas, an ambitious project to document what birds are breeding in that state. I have an adopted area and look forward to this spring to add to my breeding bird list. I also beefed up this past year my contributions to eBird, a free app in which all reported sightings are entered into a massive database.

I fell short in a few areas. I never did take the steps to join Project FeederWatch, which I had vowed to do. Maybe this year.

I will take a slightly different approach to my bird New Year’s resolutions this year. I will continue to do the citizen science projects, of course, but will also add some resolutions of a different sort.

I have been thinking about and being encouraged to write a book or two about my birding adventures. I haven’t done so after all these years because I wasn’t sure how to go about it or even how to take the first step. Well, like anything, the first step is committing to doing it and getting started, no matter if it’s the right place to start or not. So this year I resolve to take that first step.

I also want to expand my birding network throughout New England. I have many friends in the birding community and it is a community that is open and very willing to share knowledge. This year, I hope to attend more birding events, go on more bird walks in the company of others, and visit some places I haven’t been to yet.

Many years ago, I made a resolution to learn a few new bird songs. It was so many years ago that I can’t remember if I actually did learn anything new that year or not. At any rate, I’m going to repeat that resolution. I can recognize many bird songs and calls, but there are plenty more to commit to memory. I am reminded of that every spring when the warblers and vireos start singing from the leafy trees.

Speaking of vireos … my final resolution is to learn that family of birds better. Vireos are small, migratory songbirds that return to us every spring. They are typically less colorful than warblers and hang out in the tops of trees. They do have distinctive songs that can give away their identification and I plan to learn a few more this year. I know a few of the vireos pretty well, but there are at least six that inhabit New England during the spring and summer. Now about those flycatchers …

What about you? Do you have any bird or nature-related resolutions? Drop me a line and let me know.

Photo by Chris Bosak A Blue-headed Vireo perches in a tree at Selleck’s/Dunlap Woods on Sunday, May 4, 2014.

For the Birds: Christmas Bird Count is always a highlight

Photo by Chris Bosak
Common loon in winter plumage on Long Island Sound.

The birding had been slow — not dreadfully slow, but slower than usual, for sure — when we rolled up beside some evergreens in a front yard. We noted a flurry of activity (finally) and stopped for a closer inspection.

A half-dozen juncos flitted close to the ground, flashing their white-edged tails. Suddenly, a yellow bird flew from one tree to another. Any yellow bird that is not a goldfinch is cause for “ID at all costs” during a Christmas Bird Count. Not that goldfinches aren’t welcomed species, but they are rather expected to be seen in New England in December. Other yellow birds, not so much.

It landed just long enough for us to get a decent look and for Frank to get a few good-enough photographs. It was a warbler, for sure. We immediately thought orange-crowned warbler as they are the warblers most often seen during a New England Christmas Bird Count. Frank inspected the photos on his camera — something that wouldn’t have been possible 20 or 25 years ago — and determined it was a Nashville warbler instead. In the flurry, we also noted a ruby-crowned kinglet scurry from one bush to another. All the while, a Carolina wren belted out a song from a telephone wire across the street. As a birdwatcher, you love those flurries. You really love them during a Christmas Bird Count.

Frank and I cover a coastal area of Connecticut and have done so for going on 20 years. For that area, we finished the Count with 52 species and close to 2,000 birds. Not bad, not great. We’ve had better years, to be honest.

The Christmas Bird Count is an annual citizen science project that has grown from 27 participants in the inaugural Count in 1900 to now more than 75,000 participants each year. Keene was one of the original 25 Count areas. The data is used by ornithologists and other scientists to track long-term trends of bird populations.

Yes, it’s scientific and for a great cause. But, really, most people do it because it’s great fun. It’s an excuse to take a December day and watch birds from sunrise to sunset (even longer for the owlers.) It does, however, become a responsibility for participants. You don’t want to miss a day and let down the birds or your fellow birders.

Weather plays a big role in the amount of fun you have. Here in New England, a mid-December day can be 50 degrees or zero degrees. It can be sunny, cloudy, rainy, snowy, or any combination thereof. I’ve done Counts in blizzards and I’ve done Counts when it feels like early September.

This year’s Count was cloudy, cold and breezy. I’ll take it. It could have been a lot worse. The breeziness may have kept some birds hunkered down, but I don’t think the lack of birds we saw was due to the weather, except for the freshwater ponds. We visited a few ponds that had been frozen a few days prior to the Count so most ducks flew off for open water. We did see a lot of gadwall, a few ring-necked ducks and hooded mergansers, and, of course, tons of mallards.

We had other successes, too, such as the Nashville warbler and kinglet. Other highlights included several hundred brant, a gray catbird, a peregrine falcon and seven common loons on Long Island Sound.

Frank and I discussed the demise of the monk parakeet. We used to count dozens of the bright green birds along the coast and this year we had only one fly over our heads. Its squawking alerted us to it. Monk parakeets, of course, are not native to New England, but an escaped shipment from JFK Airport decades ago led to an established colony along the Connecticut coastline. They used to thrive here; now, they are all but gone. They build huge, heavy nests made of sticks on utility poles, so we concluded that the utility companies must have had something to do with their disappearance. That’s just a guess, however.

Want to get involved with a Count in your area? Most local Counts have been done already this year, but start planning now for next year. Do an Internet search for “How do I join the Christmas Bird Count” and the first result will be a link to the National Audubon Society’s CBC page. You can also check out historic local results from your area.

If you do sign up, be prepared to have fun. Just be ready to bundle up.

For the Birds: Welcome mat for the typical birds

Here is the latest For the Birds column, which runs in several New England newspapers. Thanks for checking it out …

Photo by Chris Bosak A blue jay grabs a peanut from a deck railing in New England, fall 2019.

The word typical often has a negative connotation.

It is usually used to describe something boring or mundane. “Just a typical day at the office.” Or worse, as a word of exasperation to draw attention to a recurring negative behavior: “He said what? Oh, that’s so typical of him.”

But I’m going to use typical in a positive way here. After all, Thanksgiving is a fresh memory, the holiday season is upon us, and 311 is my favorite band. The band encourages “positivity” and closes its concerts with “Stay positive. Love your life.” So I will do that here with the word typical.

The other day, all the “typical” birds showed up at my feeder. And that’s a good thing.

My typicals include black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, white-breasted nuthatches, downy woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers and blue jays. You can throw juncos in there, too, during the winter — and late fall as they have already arrived.

Other birds visit from time to time, but those are the birds that are always here. Many people have written to me lately about a lack of chickadees at their feeders. It’s definitely a trend to keep an eye on, but thankfully, I still have plenty of chickadees visiting my feeders. I still haven’t solved the mystery as to why so many people are experiencing a scarcity of chickadees, but I can tell you that I see them often.

I’m not trying to be boastful about my feeders or the fact that I see a lot of chickadees. There are some obvious bird species that I hardly ever see in my backyard.

Cardinals, for whatever reason, are rare sightings at my feeders. I see them all the time in the bushes along the sides of the road when I am driving through the neighborhood, but they avoid my yard like the plague.

Although I get more than my share of juncos in the winter, I rarely see white-throated sparrows — a usual accompaniment of juncos. At my previous houses, white-throated sparrows were a common winter occurrence and easily outnumbered all other winter birds. Here, I barely see them. I’ve seen more fox sparrows here than white-throated sparrows and that’s just plain odd.

I do see a ton of chipping sparrows in the spring and summer, but not enough to add them to my typical list. I am lucky enough to get good numbers of rose-breasted grosbeaks each spring, but their length of stay is too short to make the list. I do enjoy that short window each year, though.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds miss the cut by the barb of a feather. I see them daily from late April until the end of September, but I couldn’t bring myself to include a bird that is not a year-round New Englander. The hummingbirds are off sunning themselves and gorging on insects in Costa Rica or thereabouts, not like the chickadees, titmice and nuthatches that visit me daily regardless of the temperature.

I don’t just give out the title of “typical” to anything, you know.

For the Birds: Cold is no problem for birds

Here’s the latest For the Birds column, written just before the cold snap last week. Now it’s back up in the 50s, go figure.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A mourning dove and chickadee share a platform feeder during a snowfall in Danbury, Connecticut, February 2019.

Birds would fare just fine without human interventions such as bird feeders, birdhouses and birdbaths. They were, after all, here long before we were.

Even in the most extreme cold conditions, such as those we experienced last week and will certainly feel again soon, birds would do just fine without us. Without a doubt, the aforementioned human interventions make birds’ lives easier in the winter. Feeders are an easy source of energy, birdhouses offer refuge from the wind and heated birdbaths are a water source when everything else is frozen.

But, still, the majority of birds would survive even without those things. But how? They are small, delicately built (seemingly) and exposed to the elements. They are not, however, defenseless. They have plenty of strategies to survive the extremes. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

They know to seek shelter. When a driving wind accompanies cold temperatures, you won’t find birds out in the open. A hungry bird or two may brave the wind to visit a feeder briefly, but for the most part, birds hunker down.

That’s when birdhouses come in handy. Birdhouses should be cleaned after the nesting season for sanitary reasons and to make room for birds in the winter. Old woodpecker holes are utilized as well. I once saw a chickadee huddled in the corner of an eave during a snow storm. It was so small and still I almost missed it.

I have a sizable brush pile in my backyard and junco and white-throated sparrows love it. They use it to hide from predators under normal conditions and hunker deep in the crevices during cold, windy weather.

Birds will often huddle together in these shelters, too, for extra warmth.

Many birds will also puff up their feathers to trap warm air near their bodies and keep cold air away. Some tiny birds such as chickadees and white-throated sparrows look almost comical with their feathers puffed up as if they are trying to look big and tough. Not that the birds really care what I think about them, especially when it’s 10 degrees out.

Birds do not hibernate, at least not really. They do sometimes enter a state of torpor, a temporary hibernation-like state in which their body temperature lowers and their metabolism slows. Shivering is another strategy employed by birds to retain heat.

Surviving extreme temperatures and blustery snowstorms is all part of the risk our year-round birds take by forgoing migration.

Migration is fraught with danger. There are buildings to crash into, exhaustion to fight, predators to avoid, and hundreds of miles to navigate without getting lost.

Staying in New England has its challenges, too, as I mentioned above.

For me, I appreciate our year-round birds immensely. Winter is long and dark in New England and I can’t image how dreary it would be without our chickadees, blue jays and other year-round birds.

For the Birds: Keep an eye out for kinglets

Photo by Chris Bosak A ruby-crowned kinglet inspects sedum for food in New England, fall 2019.

I’ve seen them in the deep woods, in my flower garden, in suburban parks and even at a sandy beach.

There are no excuses for missing out on kinglets during the fall migration. That is, unless you aren’t outside enough looking for them, which is unacceptable.

Last week, I wrote about the tiny kinglets being tough creatures able to withstand extremely low temperatures. This week, I’ll take a closer look at kinglets, a good reliable sighting throughout New England during migration periods.

We have two types of kinglets in New England: the ruby-crowned kinglet and the golden-crowned kinglet. Don’t let the names fool you, the color of the crown is not a good way to distinguish the two species in the field. First of all, you hardly ever see the crowns in the first place — especially that of the ruby-crowned kinglet — and secondly, the colors don’t Continue reading

For the Birds: Many sturdy birds from which to choose

Here is the latest For the Birds column, which runs in several New England newspapers …

Photo by Chris Bosak
A ruby-crowned kinglet inspects sedum for food in New England, fall 2019.

I was recently interviewed about birds and bird population trends by radio show host John McGauley of WKBK.

John had a lot of interesting questions and, following the interview, one in particular stood out in my mind. He asked: “What are the more sturdy birds? Are there any that are especially hardy and durable?”

My on-the-spot answer was hawks and other large raptors. While hawks are indeed large and strong and fierce, I wish I had would have responded differently. All birds, large and small, are hardy and durable. It would have sounded like a wishy-washy answer, but I could have explained it.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds, weighing in at about three Continue reading