For the Birds: Where are the birds?

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

Photo by Chris Bosak A tufted titmouse perches on a homemade birdfeeder in Danbury, Conn., March 2017.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A tufted titmouse perches on a homemade birdfeeder in Danbury, Conn., March 2017.

It started with one, like nearly all things do. Then another came in, and they kept coming.
“Where are the birds?” was the similar question in the emails and phone calls.
Here are few examples:
“Why am I not seeing as many birds at my feeders for the last two to three weeks?”
“I’ve probably seen a woodpecker or two since the beginning of September! What is going on? Why don’t the birds find us again?”
“The birds I feed here in Richmond have disappeared. Myself and my neighbors haven’t seen them for several weeks.”
Becky of New Hampshire offered some hope, however. She said crows were more numerous than in past years and that the smaller birds stopped coming.
“They are just lately slowly reappearing,” she wrote.
So they are coming back. My guess is that all of the writers asking where the birds have gone will soon get their birds back.
Why do yards with bird feeders go through slow times? It’s not in the owners’ imagination. It actually happens and for several potential reasons.
Two reasons, which I’m fairly sure are not the case with my readers, are dirty feeders or spoiled seed. It’s important to keep feeders clean for the health of the birds that visit. It’s also important to change the seed if it has been in the feeder for too long. High temperatures or precipitation can cause the seed to go bad.
Many people suggest changing your seed offerings to bring the birds back. Try using safflower or different blend, they say. I don’t necessarily subscribe to that way of thinking. If your birds have enjoyed black-oil sunflower seeds for years, why would they suddenly snub their beaks at it? If, on the other hand, a particular type of seed has never really worked, then yeah, try a different type.
Predators often cause a temporary loss or reduction of birds that visit feeders. First-year accipiter hawks – sharp-shinned and Cooper’s — are learning to hunt on their own and stalking feeders. The adults could be out there lurking, too. Perhaps a new cat is in the neighborhood and scaring the birds away from yards and into the safety of cover.
Finally — and to my thinking the most plausible reason — the birds are perhaps finding all they need from natural sources. There is plentiful food out there in the real world for birds in the fall, especially a fall like this that has been warm and dry.
There are seeds galore to be had from flowers such as coneflower, black-eyed susan, coreopsis, sedum, and sunflowers, as well as countless weed and grass varieties. The birds don’t really need the feeders in this time of plenty. Sure, they often do come when natural food is plentiful, but sometimes they don’t.
When they don’t come to feeders, it’s a temporary pause. The birds will be back. Weather will turn for the worse soon enough and natural food sources will decrease dramatically. That will bring the birds back to the feeders for supplemental food sources again.
So they will be back. I promise. Make sure the seeds in the feeders are fresh. If birds haven’t visited in a few weeks, it’s probably a good idea to change out those seeds with fresh ones. Rain or humidity could have seeped in and made the seeds moldy or otherwise spoiled.
Are you experiencing a slowdown at your feeders or is it business as usual? Let me know by dropping me a line at http://www.birdsofnewengland.com

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For the Birds: Busy Kinglet is in constant motion

Photo by Chris Bosak A Ruby-crowned Kinglet perches on a branch in New England.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Ruby-crowned Kinglet perches on a branch in New England.

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

I thought it was going to be the easiest bird photo I’ve ever taken.

There was the kinglet, literally right at my feet. It was hopping along the beach a few weeks ago looking for small insects among the plants popping out of the sand. It was a male ruby-crowned kinglet and he was alone at this stage of his migration.

I grabbed the camera from the front seat and got out of the car for what I thought would be a quick strike. It wasn’t. The kinglet didn’t fly away and didn’t run away. It just wouldn’t sit still — not even for a second. Now I know how department store children’s photographers feel on their bad days.

First, let’s familiarize ourselves with the kinglet. There are two types of kinglet: ruby-crowned kinglet and golden-crowned kinglet. The ruby-crowned kinglet has an eye-ring that doesn’t quite make it all the way around its eye. The golden-crowned kinglet has no eye-ring, but rather an eye stripe.

To tell the species apart I like to think of a “ruby ring.” Hey, it works for me.

The male ruby-crowned kinglet has a small patch of red on the top of his head, while the female has no patch. With the golden-crowned kinglet, the male has an orangish patch outlined in yellow and the female has a yellow patch.

Keep in mind that the colorful patches are not always visible, especially on the ruby-crowned.

Usually the species stick together, but I’ll never forget the time I looked out a window of my house and saw a ruby-crowned kinglet and a golden-crowned kinglet cross paths on a hemlock branch. If I ever wanted a side-by-side comparison, that was my chance.

The kinglets are also among the smallest birds we see here in New England. The golden-crowned measures about 4 inches, while the ruby-crowned is a whopping 4 ½ inches. By comparison, the black-capped chickadee is about 5 inches (slightly larger than both kinglets) and the ruby-throated hummingbird is almost 4 inches (only slightly smaller than the kinglets).

Their tiny size makes it a challenge to photograph them. Even with a powerful lens, it’s tough to fill the frame.

But the real challenge is their energy. They don’t sit still. By the time the camera’s auto-focus feature nails the subject, the bird is gone. It’s not far away, perhaps only an inch or two, but far enough to throw off the focus.

Now back to my beach-combing ruby-crowned kinglet.

I performed the auto-focus dance for a while before switching to manual focus, which proved to be even more frustrating. Usually focusing required only a slight turn of the lens one way or the other, but I always picked the wrong way. By the time I corrected the error — you guessed it — the bird was elsewhere.

The bird never went very far and at one point was about a foot away from my shoes. I had already determined before that moment that my presence didn’t bother him. The last thing I’d want to do is deny a hungry migrating bird of a good food source, which it obviously had found at the beach.

I wasn’t disturbing him, but he certainly wasn’t cooperating with me either. He was very busy. No time for posing.

After several minutes of trying to catch the little guy, I remembered the last time I had tried to photograph kinglets. I was at a Connecticut park and there were kinglets all over the place in the bushes. In a way that experience was even more frustrating because I didn’t know which kinglet to target and, no matter which one I picked, it was constant motion. I never did get a great photo that day, despite there being dozens of little subjects flitting around the bushes.

But on this day there was only one subject on which to channel my efforts. The results were not much better. I got a couple of decent photos and a bunch of blurry images of a male ruby-crowned kinglet’s tail. A few photos showed nothing but landscape: sand and weeds, no bird. I missed the little guy by a split second, but it may as well have been an hour.

But I can laugh about it now. My therapist says that’s a good thing. He also suggests that I just look at kinglets from now on and not try to photograph them. What does he know? Next time I’ll do better.

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For the Birds: Fall has it all

Photo by Chris Bosak A green Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly clings on to a vine wrapped around a stalk on a meadow property of the Darien Land Trust, summer 2013.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A green Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly clings on to a vine wrapped around a stalk on a meadow property of the Darien Land Trust.

Here is the latest For the Birds column that runs in several New England newspapers.

Early fall is an exciting time, not only for birdwatchers, but for watchers of nature in general.

Male white-tailed deer and moose have their antlers fully grown and ready for the rut, or breeding season. What were little nubs of antlers in early spring are impressive racks for fighting, intimidating other males and showing off in front of the females.

Some say that spring is the best time for watching nature, but only in the fall can we appreciate the beauty and majesty of fully grown antlers. 

Seeing a bull moose in July is a memorable experience. Seeing a bull moose in the fall is an unforgettable experience.

Early fall is also a time when a birdwatcher can really pile on the numbers for a species-seen list. Herons and egrets are still around. Shorebirds are still migrating. Songbirds are moving south as well. Waterfowl start migrating through New England. Continue reading

For the Birds: Hawkwatching season in New England

Photo by Chris Bosak A Red-tailed hawk at Weed Beach in Darien, Conn., January 2015.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Red-tailed hawk at Weed Beach in Darien, Conn., January 2015.

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

The seasons are changing, and there’s a lot going on in the birding world.

Warblers and other songbirds are migrating south. Shorebirds — many species of which have long migrated already — continue to move through New England. Other small winged creatures — monarch butterflies — are also seen more often now as they prepare for their generational migration.

On the ponds, the waterfowl migration hasn’t started with verve yet, but wood ducks, which spend much of the summer hiding out, are more often seen and heard in the fall. At the same time, herons and egrets are still with us in large numbers, and feeder birds continue to keep us company in our backyards. 

Yes, a lot is going on in early fall as we birdwatchers start to shift from a summer frame of mind to a winter one.

With all that’s going on, one type of bird still manages to take center stage in September and October: hawks.

Hawkwatches are the primary destination for birdwatchers this time of year as birds of prey by the thousands ride the wind south. Pick the right day with the ideal weather conditions, and a birdwatcher may see hundreds of hawks, falcons, eagles and vultures soaring overhead.

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For the Birds: Goldfinches brighten the landscape

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

Photo by Chris Bosak An American Goldfinch rests on a sunflower in New England.

Photo by Chris Bosak
An American Goldfinch rests on a sunflower in New England.

N othing cheers up a day like a goldfinch. Those little, bright bursts of yellow are always a welcome site at your feeder, bird bath or perched on a flower in your garden.

I especially appreciate goldfinches in the dead of summer. I remember taking a walk a few years ago on one of those classic hot, humid days in August. It was the middle of the afternoon and, not surprisingly, I was finding very little in terms of wildlife. Dragonflies were dancing all over the place, but even the butterflies seemed to be hiding from the heat.

Suddenly, I heard the cheerful song of a goldfinch in flight coming up from behind me. I turned just in time to see the bright yellow bird perch on the top of a thistle flower. The pink-and-purple flower rocked back and forth as it reacted to the weight of the tiny bird. When the flower settled, the goldfinch went about its business of picking at the flower.

I watched the scene briefly, and continued my walk. About five minutes later, I heard the bird again. I looked up to see it fly over my head and disappear into the distance. Despite its tiny size — about 5 inches — the goldfinch is an easy bird to identify in flight. It flies quickly in an undulating fashion — like a roller coaster with small rises and falls — usually uttering its potato-chip, potato-chip song as it bounces up and down.

I didn’t see any other birds on that walk, but the single goldfinch perched on the flower made it all worthwhile.

Goldfinches also score points with me as they are frequently seen in my garden. I’ve seen goldfinches perched atop coneflower and black-eyed Susan flowers, picking away at the seeds. I’ve also seen them on sunflowers.

Goldfinches, of course, are also reliable feeder birds, often occupying every perch of a tube feeder. I love to see all six perches of my blue tube feeder occupied by the bright yellow birds.

Goldfinches will eat sunflower seeds and will visit platform or tube feeders. A sure way to attract goldfinches is to offer Nyjer in a tube feeder specifically designed for the tiny seeds. Do not try to use thistle seeds in a regular feeder as the tiny seeds will spill through the holes.

“Sock” feeders stuffed with thistle seeds are a good alternative.

Goldfinches visit feeders at any time of the day. It’s interesting to note that goldfinches move on frequently so the birds you see at your feeder in the evening are not likely the same ones you saw in the morning.

Goldfinches are found throughout the country and many remain in New England through the winter months. They are not the flashy yellow birds we love so much in the summer, though. We still love them in the winter, of course, but they are much duller, often appearing olive or brownish.

It’s fun to see the splotchy male goldfinches in the early part of spring as they slowly regain their bright yellow plumage. Only the males are bright yellow. Females are a duller yellow.

They also have black caps and black wings with white stripes. My brother Ed and his wife, Debbie, are big Pittsburgh Steelers fans, so the goldfinch is a favorite in that household.

Of course, you don’t have to be a Steelers fan to appreciate the beauty of a goldfinch. The bright yellow speaks for itself. Throw in a purple or pink flower and you’ve got real proof that Mother Nature likes her colors.

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For the Birds: Brown thrasher — talkative entertainer

Photo by Chris Bosak A brown thrasher checks out its surroundings in New England.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A brown thrasher checks out its surroundings in New England.

It’s usually not easy and this time was no exception. It took a little coaxing to get the bird to show itself.

Eventually the brown thrasher flew out of the thicket and landed at the top of a tall shrub to check out its surroundings and sing a few notes. Once a brown thrasher gets going vocally, it rarely lacks for something to say. It can go on and on for hours.

This bird, however, instead of breaking into its incredible repertoire of songs and mimicry, simply repeated its nonmusical call note.

 I watched for a long time as the bird afforded me a close view. From my experiences, brown thrashers are usually skittish, but every so often one will allow for long observation. Another problem is, I don’t find them often enough. A few times a year is about the extent of my brown thrasher sightings.

Many conservationists worry about the status of the brown thrasher. Most would agree that the population is in decline, but the extent to which is up for debate. From my experiences, I’ve never had much luck finding them, so it’s hard for me to form an opinion based on my own anecdotal evidence.

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For the Birds: Growing up quickly in the bird world

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

Photo by Chris Bosak Young Blue Jay at birdbath

Photo by Chris Bosak
Young Blue Jay at birdbath

They grow up fast, don’t they?

I’m not even talking about my own boys, who are eating me out of house and home with their darn growth spurts. I’m talking about the other youngsters growing up on my property — the birds, or course.

Watching the activity at the birdbath recently has been an education in just how quickly birds grow. I was watching a blue jay the other day and it took me a while to realize the bird looked a little different from the blue jays I was used to seeing. Mostly around the face, the bird just didn’t look right.

It was a youngster, or a fledgling to be more scientific. It doesn’t take long before young blue jays look just like their parents. It takes even less time before they are the size of their parents. This bird was in that short in-between phase when it was the size of an adult, but didn’t quite obtain the adult plumage.

The juvenile plumage disappears quickly in most songbirds, unlike some other types of birds when it can take years. A bald eagle, for instance, doesn’t obtain its white head for four or five years. But in songbirds, it’s a matter of a few short weeks.

The juvenile blue jay I watched tried a defense mechanism Continue reading

For the Birds column: A return to Pittsburg

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

Photo by Chris Bosak Tiger Swallowtails gather at the edge of the pond at Deer Mountain Campground in Pittsburg, N.H., in summer 2017.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Tiger Swallowtails gather at the edge of the pond at Deer Mountain Campground in Pittsburg, N.H., in summer 2017.

 

My trips, or as I like to call them pilgrimages, to the Great North Woods have changed over the years.

Back when I was making the trips alone, I would have a hard time sleeping the night before so I would eventually just get out of bed and hit the road around 2 or 3 in the morning. That would get me to my destination, usually Pittsburg, N.H., shortly after sunrise.

On one of those overnight drives I saw the most spectacular sunrise while driving through the White Mountains.

Lately, however, I have been making the trip with one or both of my sons. They are excited to get up there, but do not share my neuroses about it and can sleep through the night. Even so, I usually toss and turn most of the night wishing we could just get on the road already. I typically allow them to sleep until 5:30 or 6 before I start rallying the troops.

Such was the case a few weeks ago, when I made my first trip of the year up north. My older son, Andrew, now 14, Continue reading

For the Birds: Answering the call of the woods

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.

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

With so many other temptations, sometimes it’s easy to forget about the most fundamental outdoor escape — a simple walk in the woods.

The Atlantic coast beckons with promises of egrets, shorebirds, terns and perhaps — if you’re lucky — an oystercatcher or black skimmer.

Local freshwater bodies of water woo nature watchers with wood ducks, red-winged blackbirds, herons and maybe a bittern. Fields attract butterflies by the score, as well as bobolinks, meadowlarks, and a rainbow of wildflowers. It’s hard for nature-watchers to resist sometimes.

Of course there’s always the backyard, too. There’s no need to get in the car or invest any amount of time. Look out the kitchen window or sit on the patio and enjoy cardinals, blue jays, catbirds, chickadees and other backyard favorites.

And there is the woods — waiting patiently for us to return.

I returned a few days ago and was reminded over and over why outdoors enthusiasts have a natural instinct that draws them back.

I left the parking lot and began walking. I had no route planned, no idea where I would end up. When I came to a fork in the trail, I took the one that seemed to lead deeper into the woods.

The first bird I saw once I lost myself among the trees was an ovenbird, a small, ground-dwelling warbler noted for its “teacher-teacher” song. As far as warblers go, ovenbirds are rather nondescript. Named for the shape of their nests, they look like a small thrush with orange on its crown. Ovenbirds are fairly common and easy to find during spring migration, but occasionally you’ll run into one in the summer.

Then the common birds of the woods began coming. I heard the “yank yank” of a nuthatch in the distance and soon spotted a different nuthatch near the trail. Chickadees were in abundance, keeping me company as I meandered about the woods.

I stopped to watch a robin that was puffing out its orange breast from an obvious perch, but my attention was soon diverted by a flurry of woodpecker activity.

First, I heard and soon found a red-bellied woodpecker. As I followed its flight from one tree to the next, my eyes crossed paths with a downy woodpecker. As I studied the downy, a hairy woodpecker flew in and landed on an adjacent tree. I was looking at three species of woodpeckers in one field of view. All I needed was a pileated woodpecker to join the party. That didn’t happen on this day.

I kept an eye out for the larger creatures of the woods such as deer, wild turkey and hawks, but did not have any luck.

I did hear a scratching noise toward the end of my walk that I recognized immediately. I looked down and, with very little effort, found an eastern towhee shuffling around the ground litter looking for insects.

As my haphazard route finally led me back toward the parking lot, I thought about what a great walk it had been. I had seen a lot of different types of birds and felt as if I had nearly satiated my natural instinct, once again, to enjoy the woods.

Something was missing, though. I didn’t know what it was until I heard it: The song of the wood thrush. To me, nothing says the woods quite like the wood thrush, especially its flute-like song.

It completed my outing. I had satisfied that recurring urge to lose myself in nature’s most basic habitat.

The woods will draw me back — they always do.

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Latest For the Birds column: Cedar Waxwings on the scene

Photo by Chris Bosak A cedar waxwing perches on a branch in Brookfield, Conn., spring 2017.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A cedar waxwing perches on a branch in Brookfield, Conn., spring 2017.

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

There I was, minding my own business photographing a song sparrow in the glowing morning light when out of nowhere a small flock of cedar waxwings appeared on the scene.

Cedar waxwings, in my opinion anyway, are one of the most attractive songbirds we have in New England. They have a nice blend of light browns, tans and grays to go along with their trademark red-tipped wings and yellow-tipped tails. Their thin black eye masks make them look a bit mischievous.

Cedar waxwings are not uncommon, and they can be fairly tame, but quality opportunities to photograph them over the years have been somewhat scarce for me. I see regularly the classic photos of cedar waxwings eating berries. The only time I got a good, close look at waxwings eating berries was years ago on a dark, gloomy day. The photos I took were even more dark and gloomy.

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