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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For the Birds: Odd call, brilliant color

A male scarlet tanager perches in a maple tree during spring migration 2017, in Danbury, Conn.

A male scarlet tanager perches in a maple tree during spring migration 2017, in Danbury, Conn.

I heard the uniquely odd call from the nearby woods.

“Chick burr. Chick burr.” The “chick” is higher and louder than the “burr.”

I rushed for my stepladder, set it up on my back deck and climbed onto the roof — camera in hand. It was something I did on a few occasions last year, which is how I learned that call so well. 

It is one call of a scarlet tanager. It has a longer, more melodic song, but this particular call is a quick and unmistakable “chick burr.” It is distinctive; I know of no other bird noise like it.

As I walked along the roof, I was eye level with the tops of the smaller trees and about the middle of the giant oaks that tower over my house. Yes, those same oaks that have literally covered my deck and clogged my gutters with their catkins and pollen this spring. Yes, those same oaks that form a multi-layer ground covering with their leaves in late fall.

But also those oaks that are so good at attracting birds with the plentiful worms and other insects among their leaves and branches. The larger dead branches also serve as homes for cavity-nesting birds. So, I will take the pollen and leaves in exchange for their bird friendliness. It’s a fair trade as far as I’m concerned.

The oaks seem to be a favorite of the scarlet tanagers that pass through in the spring and early summer. It is always a thrill when I hear that strange call because I know one of New England’s most brilliantly plumaged bird is nearby.

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For the Birds: A migratory turn of events

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

Photo by Chris Bosak A chestnut-sided warbler sings from a lower perch in Ridgefield, Conn., during the spring of 2017.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A chestnut-sided warbler sings from a lower perch in Ridgefield, Conn., during the spring of 2017.

My birdwatching fortunes this spring migration made an abrupt turn for the better last week.

The cool, wet weather – in addition to working and coaching youth baseball – had limited my time looking for birds. When I did get out there, the birdwatching was relatively slow: a towhee here, a thrush there.

I love my towhees and thrushes, of course, but the day of seeing a flurry of spring migrants had escaped me. The dry spell ended during a walk in the woods last week.

The woods themselves were alive with the sounds of ovenbirds, thrushes and even barred owls, which often sing during the day.

The ubiquitous “teacher-teacher-teacher” call of the ovenbird reminded me of a spring camping trip I did with the boys about five years ago. We canoed to a site on Grout Pond in Green Mountain National Park in southern Vermont. Once settled we walked through the woods and ovenbirds seemingly surrounded us the entire way.

It was a highlight of an otherwise, let me say difficult, camping experience. The wood was wet and wouldn’t burn, and rain fell throughout most of the cool day and cooler night. A steady wind made fishing impossible. The boys – then nine and five – fought and bickered the entire time.

I’ve had plenty of great camping experiences with the boys, but this was not one of them. I did have those ovenbirds, though.

Back to my walk Continue reading

For the Birds: Towhees aplenty on walk

 

Photo by Chris Bosak An Eastern Towhee perches on a branch in Ridgefield, Conn., April 2017.

Photo by Chris Bosak
An Eastern Towhee perches on a branch in Ridgefield, Conn., April 2017.

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

….

I was on a tight schedule so I planned a quick out-and-back bird walk, instead of trying to tackle the entire several-mile loop.

The entire walk on the “out” portion was quiet with not a single bird seen or heard. I found that very peculiar considering it was the middle of April when the spring migration should be heating up. No warblers, no vireos, no regular birds. It was a drizzly day, so perhaps that had something to do with keeping the birds hunkered down.

The “back” portion of the trip started in similar fashion. No birds to be seen, no birds to be heard.

Then, deep in the woods, I heard a familiar call. It was a sharp and fairly loud two-syllable call. It was an eastern towhee. Based on where the sound was coming from, there was no way I was going to find it. I could have tromped through the brush and woods, but I didn’t want to risk being covered in ticks. It’s early spring, and I’ve already found several ticks on my clothes and a few attached to my body. In fact, that started back in February.

I’ve heard from several sources that the conditions are right for a bad tick season, so be careful out there. Check your clothes and self frequently.

It turned out it was no big deal that the towhee alluded me as several other towhees made their presence known as I made my way back. These towhees were much closer and some were even cooperative for the camera. From my experiences, that is pretty rare for a towhee — although the breeding season makes birds, and other creatures, do strange things sometimes.

By the end of the walk, I had seen about eight towhees. Only one of the birds was a female, and she stayed out of range of the camera. I did bring her in with my binoculars and got good looks at her. A male was close by, singing and calling. It was likely her mate.

Like many species, eastern towhees are sexually dimorphic, meaning males and females differ in appearance. But unlike many bird species, female towhees, in my opinion, are just as handsome as the males.

While the males are decorated with black, reddish-brown and white plumage, the females are light brown and white. Both have a similar pattern with white bellies and rufous-colored flanks. The males also have red eyes, which I always find cool.

As I mentioned before, time was short on my walk but the towhee sightings extended the walk — I’ve never been one to leave cooperative birds because of being in a rush. Two towhees in particular were cooperative and allowed me to grab some shots of them. Neither was overly cooperative, but each offered a few seconds worth of perching on an obvious, unobstructed branch. Towhees are infamous for hiding among the thick brush.

The walk ended void of any other bird sightings. No warblers, no vireos, no tanagers or grosbeaks. Just towhees. I’ll try again on a sunnier day.

Latest For the Birds column: Watching warblers, of course

Photo by Chris Bosak A Palm Warbler perches among pussy willows at Selleck's Woods in Darien, Conn., April 2016.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Palm Warbler perches among pussy willows at Selleck’s Woods in Darien, Conn., April 2016.

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

Warblers steal the show in spring migration, and rightfully so. They are colorful, cute, sing interesting songs and are plentiful in our woods in April and May.

Other songbirds are a blast to watch in the spring, too, of course. Birds such as orioles, tanagers, grosbeaks and towhees capture our attention and make us nudge anyone standing close by to make sure they see it too. Less colorful birds such as chipping sparrows, kingbirds, phoebes and vireos enhance our spring as well.

But it’s the little warblers that get most of the attention during the spring migration.

I love warblers for all the same reasons that everybody else does, but I think there’s another reason we appreciate these neotropical migrants so much. Warbler watching, like birdwatching in general, can be as easy or as difficult as you want to make it.

Someone can choose to see and appreciate the small birds flitting around the trees, but not care to identify them — easy and totally acceptable.

Others may choose to identify only a few, perhaps the ones they see often in their yard — relatively easy and also perfectly acceptable.

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Latest For the Birds column: Looking at birds’ bills

Photo by Chris Bosak A Great Blue Heron stands in a pond in Danbury, Conn., March 2017.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Great Blue Heron stands in a pond in Danbury, Conn., March 2017.

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

Although I’ve made this claim with many birds over the years, the great blue heron stands as one of my favorite birds.

My “favorite” bird may vary depending on the season and what I’ve recently photographed, but a few species have long been “one of my favorites.” Hooded and common mergansers, common loons, wood ducks and American oystercatchers stand alongside the great blue heron in that category. Of course I love all birds – well, most of them anyway — but these stand out for me, regardless of how many I’ve seen over the years.

It’s probably just a coincidence but with the exception of the wood duck, Continue reading

For the Birds column: Here’s the full story on that owl

Photo by Chris Bosak A Great Gray Owl perches in a pine tree in Newport, N.H., in March 2017.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Great Gray Owl perches in a pine tree in Newport, N.H., in March 2017.

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

I don’t typically chase rare birds around the region.

It’s not that I don’t want to see the birds, but either family or work obligations usually prohibit me from taking long drives to see a bird. I am often envious of the people who can drop everything, drive eight hours to wherever and look at a cool bird that is not typically seen in New England.

But a great gray owl in under four hours? That’s an effort I have to make. It is the largest owl in the world, by length anyway, and its flat, disc face elevates owl coolness to another level.

I still had work, however, but couldn’t risk waiting until the weekend should the bird decide to take off and not be found again. So I pulled a maneuver I used to do fairly often before I had kids: I basically pulled an all-nighter.

I slept restlessly from midnight to 2:15 a.m. Thursday morning and drove three hours to Keene to pick up my old friend Steve Hooper, of Sentinel photo department fame. Then we drove another 40 minutes to Newport, where this awesome bird had been seen in the same field each day for about a week straight. (I knew that thanks to the ABA rare bird alert.) Hoop and I followed the directions we found online and arrived at the scene at about 6:20 a.m. A rare bird alert message posted at 6:15 a.m. confirmed that the bird was indeed there. Thanks to Dylan Jackson of Sunapee for that update. I was minutes away from seeing my first great gray owl.

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