For the Birds: Check those blotches carefully

Photo by Chris Bosak A Black-crowned Night Heron perches on a railing at a marina along the Norwalk River, Norwalk, Conn., spring 2016.
Photo by Chris Bosak
A Black-crowned Night Heron perches on a railing at a marina along the Norwalk River, Norwalk, Conn., spring 2016.

Birders have to follow through on the blotches in the distance.

Usually they end up being plastic bags or Mylar balloons stuck in trees, odd-looking knots on tree trunks or some other strange objects that look out of place. Sometimes, though, they end up being birds, which is why we birders have to do our diligence.

One summer morning while canoeing at Pillsbury State Park, I was excited to see a great horned owl sitting at the edge of the pond. Strange place for a great horned owl, I thought as I continued to slowly paddle in for a closer look.

I closed the distance substantially, and the owl remained at the pond’s edge, looking right at me. I slowly got my camera ready and continued drifting toward the large bird. I lifted the camera to my face and zoomed in, ready to capture my best owl images to date.

As I zoomed in I realized something rather embarrassing. My great horned owl was actually the top of a dead tree at the edge of the pond. This tree was a dead ringer for an owl, complete with ear tufts, eyes and rounded body.

I laughed out loud and was thankful no one else was around to witness my buffoonery.

My stories of mistaking plastic grocery bags for hawks along highway roads are practically endless. Mylar balloons are another oft-seen “bird” in the trees.

Last week, though, I was rewarded by following through on a blotch in the distance. It didn’t turn out to be a rarity or a new bird for me, but it was nice just the same to have a blotch actually turn out to be a bird — a black-crowned night heron, to be exact.

I was driving along one side of a pond in southern Connecticut when I stopped at a stop sign to turn right, away from the pond. As I glanced left to check for oncoming cars, I noticed something gray and upright at the far edge of the pond. I figured it was a stick or large piece of trash. I turned right and started driving away from the pond, but the possibility of the object actually being a bird kept nagging at me.

I hit the brakes, found the next safe place to turn around and returned to the pond. A stone wall prevented me from seeing the edge of the pond where I had previously seen the object. I parked, walked to the pond and found the black-crowned night heron standing in the same exact spot where I had seen it before.

I watched it for a couple of minutes as it stood deadly still, as all waders are so adept at doing. Finally it took two slow, careful steps and plunged its bill into the water. It pulled out a painted turtle and immediately returned the prey to the water.

I grabbed a few photographs — they all turned out lousy as the bird was in a heavily shaded area — and started to return to the car when something else caught my eye. It was a big white object on the far side of the pond. I knew immediately that this object was a great egret, not just a blotch.

As I walked toward the egret, I wondered how I missed it the first time I had driven by the pond. I stood behind a tree watching the impressive white bird stalk the pond’s edge as it lunged its head into the water. The egret caught a small sunfish — much easier prey for a bird to handle than a turtle — and adjusted the fish in its bill before finishing the meal.

I’ve seen plenty of black-crowned night herons and great egrets in my life, but I was happy to see the birds that day. I was glad my instincts paid off and convinced me to turn the car around.

Actually seeing real birds made up for a few of those plastic bag “bird” sightings that I’ve had over the years.

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For the Birds: Merganser mania

Photo by Chris Bosak Hooded Mergansers swim in a small unfrozen section of water at Selleck's/Dunlap in Darien, Conn., in Feb. 2014.
Photo by Chris Bosak
Hooded Mergansers swim in a small unfrozen section of water at Selleck’s/Dunlap in Darien, Conn., in Feb. 2014.

Last week, I wrote about seeing three common mergansers on a small pond by a busy shopping mall. Mergansers are typically wary and I was surprised to see the fowl there.

The next day, I drove past Candlewood Lake — a large man-made body of water in southwestern Connecticut — and saw literally thousands upon thousands of common mergansers. The lake was still about half frozen and many of the unfrozen portions were covered with mergansers. Some of the mergansers used the icy edges as a resting spot; others swam in the rippling water.

That setting seemed to me to be a more appropriate spot for common mergansers than the mall-area one. It got me to thinking about the merganser family and their water preferences.

We have three types of mergansers in New England: common, hooded and red-breasted. Generally speaking, they all have different water preferences.

Common mergansers are usually spotted on large, freshwater lakes and rivers. Hooded mergansers favor smaller bodies of water and may be found on fresh or brackish water. Red-breasted mergansers may be found on large bodies of fresh, brackish or salt water.

I have yet to see all three mergansers sharing a common body of water, but I have seen hooded and commons together, and hooded and red-breasted mergansers together. All three are generally wary in nature. From my own observations, I find the common to be the most wary and hooded the most brave.

The hooded merganser is the oddball among them in terms of appearance. They are small ducks and the males are handsomely adorned with pewter sides, black backs and black-and-white heads and chests. Their heads are usually fanned to display a large white patch, but can also be flatted to show just a sliver of white. Female hoodeds are similar in size to the male but are duller in color and design.

Male common and red-breasted mergansers are similar in general appearance with dark green heads, red bills, large white bodies and black backs. There are obvious differences between them, too. The common is much larger and smoother looking. Red-breasted merganser males have spiky “haircuts,” light red breasts and slightly darker sides.

The females are slightly more difficult to differentiate. Female commons are larger, brighter and have a dark rusty head with a funky haircut. Female red-breasted mergansers have a funky haircut, too, but are smaller, darker and have duller, brownish heads.

All three merganser varieties have serrated bills for holding onto fish and other wiggly prey. Those bills have earned the family the nickname sawbill.

Ducks are one of my favorite types of birds to watch and mergansers are my favorite family of fowl. So far the spring migration has been a merganser bonanza. I hope it continues.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A common merganser swims in a pond in Danbury, Conn., March 2019.
Photo by Chris Bosak A female common merganser swims in a pond in Danbury, Conn., March 2019.
Photo by Chris Bosak
A female Red-breasted Merganser swims in Norwalk Harbor in this March 2014 photo.
Photo by Chris Bosak
Male red-breasted merganser.

For the Birds: Mergansers are back

Photo by Chris Bosak A common merganser swims in a pond in Danbury, Conn., March 2019.

I haven’t written about ducks in a long time. I used to write about them often because waterfowl are arguably my favorite type of bird to watch.

My budding interest in birdwatching became an obsession when I discovered a huge flock of common mergansers on Powder Mill Pond. The number of birds in the flock and the birds’ size and beauty fascinated me. I can’t believe that happened back in the 1990s. Time sure flies.

I’ve been a huge fan of ducks, especially mergansers, ever since. I have canoed hundreds of miles, spent hours behind blinds in swampy areas, and stood on many shorelines with my eye pressed against a spotting scope in search of ducks.

But for whatever reason, I just haven’t written about ducks lately. I guess none of my recent waterfowl experiences have captivated me enough to do so.

That is until the other day, when I saw a few common mergansers in a very unlikely place. Common mergansers typically favor large freshwater bodies, such as lakes, large ponds or wide rivers. Every so often, however, they may be spotted on much smaller bodies of water.

Not only was my recent sighting on a very small body of water, not even big enough to be considered a pond, but it was also in the shadow of a bustling shopping mall.

Danbury Fair is a mall in western Connecticut. It has a large, inaccessible marshy area behind it and a few very small ponds, if you can call them that, on the sides and in the front. It is a highly developed area, so a variety of wildlife does not thrive there.

It is, however, a fairly reliable place to spot birds such as great blue herons, belted kingfishers, mute swans, Canada geese, American and fish crows, and, of course, mallards. During spring and fall migration times some surprises can show up, which is what keeps me coming back to the spot, even for just a quick loop.

In the few years I have been drive-by birding at the mall, I have seen the aforementioned common species, as well as northern pintail, pied-billed grebes and hooded mergansers.

I associate common mergansers with more wild areas, so I was surprised to see two males and one female swimming in one of these tiny ponds with a steady stream of cars driving by on both sides. Two male hooded mergansers and a few mallards shared the pond.

I found a safe place to pull over in my car and checked out the scene through an open passenger’s side window. I grabbed a few quick photos but the ducks slowly swam away in the opposite direction and did not seem comfortable with the stopped car by the pond.

Common mergansers, I’ve discovered over the years, are quite wary and not at all tolerant of any perceived threat. I didn’t want to further stress them during migration so I quickly pulled out and joined the flow of moving cars.

It had been several years since I had seen common mergansers so close. I find them to be the most wary of New England’s three merganser varieties.

Breaking down the merganser varieties requires its own column because they are so different in many ways, but they also share some similarities. I guess you know what next week’s column will be about.

It sure is nice to be writing about ducks again.

For the Birds: Marching through winter

Photo by Chris Bosak An Eastern Phoebe perches on a branch in Selleck's Woods in Darien, Conn., in late March 2015.
Photo by Chris Bosak
Eastern Phoebes are one of the first songbirds to arrive in New England during the spring migration.

March can be a tough month for birders.

Winter is getting long and the season seems to be extending each year. It’s already been a snowy month this year, counting Sunday, and remember last March was ridiculously cold and snowy, even pushing into April.

March is also a time of anticipation for birders as the spring migration starts to pick up by the end of the month. Early red-winged blackbirds, for instance, began arriving in February, but March is really when the migration begins in New England.

April, of course, is when it heats up significantly before peaking in May. By the end of March, however, we can expect to see birds such as tree swallows, purple martins and hermit thrushes returning to our region.

To me, the surest sign of spring is the return of eastern phoebes in late March. The robin is still considered the traditional harbinger of spring even though many of them spent their winters in New England. I rejoice when I see the first phoebe perched on a branch in my backyard bobbing its tail endlessly.

March birding is not limited to the late-month migrants. American woodcock, with their amazing evening aerial displays, are a highlight species of the month. I’ve never had great luck finding woodcock. Maybe this will be my year. (I say that every year.) Also, ducks start moving north to open water in big numbers in March.

One of the best things about March birdwatching, however, is that it’s still winter and our winter birds are still around. Chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, cardinals, blue jays, mourning doves and woodpeckers still have the feeders to themselves, for the most part. Any winter finches that have come south to New England may still be around. I’m still getting dozens of pine siskins daily.

I noticed another sign of spring in the bird world the other day as a male American goldfinch with bright yellow splotches visited the tube feeder. The brightness stood out as a shade of yellow not seen in many months.

The barred owl barrage continues throughout New England, too, as reports pile up. A friend of mine had one visit a pine tree behind her unit in a condominium complex last week. The owl remained most of the day before disappearing in late afternoon.

March may be tough in terms of waiting out the winter and anticipating what is to come, but it offers much to the patient birder.

For the Birds: Joining the owl party

I’ve written about my barred owl sightings before, but here is the official column version …

Photo by Chris Bosak
A barred owl perches on a Welcome to New York sign on the border of Hoosick Falls, N.Y., and Bennignton, Vermont, in February 2019.

Two weeks ago I wrote a column about the Winter of the Barred Owl. A photo sent in by a reader from Westmoreland showing a barred owl perched on a feeder pole in his backyard accompanied the column.

A day or two after the column was published, I received two more photos of barred owls perched on feeder poles in the Monadnock Region. Yes, these handsome, large owls have been quite prolific throughout New England this winter.

At the time of that writing, however, I hadn’t yet seen any barred owls myself this winter. That all changed with a visit to my brother, who lives in Hoosick Falls, N.Y., a small town just over the border from Bennington, Vt.

My son Andrew and I had a day of skiing planned at Mount Snow, and figured Continue reading

Barred owls abound

After my latest bird column published in The Keene Sentinel this week, I received a few additional photos of barred owls from readers in SW New Hampshire. Funny how they are showing up on feeding poles so often.

Here is the column explaining the Year of the Barred Owl.

First (below) is the original photo I received and then two additional ones.

Photo by Bob Sullivan
This barred owl perched on a bird feeding pole and took several dives at a vole under the snow in Westmoreland, N.H.
Photo by Dale Woodward This barred owl was spotted on a feeder pole in February 2019 in Walpole Village, N.H.
Photo by Rick Allen This barred owl perched on a feeder pole in Swanzey, N.H., during February 2019.

For the Birds: Birds do just fine without feeders, too

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Blue Jay eats an acorn at Selleck’s Woods in Darien, Conn., April 2016.

After a three-hour drive to visit my brother Gregg in upstate New York, it was nice to relax and watch the black-capped chickadees forage in theblue spruce trees outside his kitchen window.

A flock of dark-eyed juncos darted past the window and settled at the base of his house where a bare patch of ground offered the only hope for these ground-feeding birds. The rest of the yard was buried under snow and ice.

A glance back at the spruce trees proved what I had thought all along: The chickadees were not alone. It was a mixed flock of chickadees and tufted titmice poking at the Continue reading