For the Birds: Ready for the fall birding rush

Photo by Chris Bosak A red-shouldered hawk perches on a wire in Brookfield, Connecticut, Jan. 2018.
Photo by Chris Bosak A red-shouldered hawk perches on a wire in Brookfield, Connecticut, Jan. 2018.

September is an exciting time in the bird world.

The fall migration is well under way and that means south-bound ducks will be passing through any week now. The duck migration is the highlight of my birding year, and September is when anticipation builds before they start arriving on our ponds and lakes sometime in October. Resident wood ducks, however, are back in their gaudy breeding plumage and quite visible this month.

Songbirds and shorebirds are now pouring through New England on their way south even as we wait for the ducks to arrive. It is exciting to think that many of the birds visiting our yards are first-year birds. They didn’t even exist during the spring migration. Let’s hope they make it back next spring.

Of course, the most popular September birding activity is going to a hawk watch, which take place at various points throughout New England and the country. Mid- to late-September is the time to see great numbers of hawks flying south. The hawk watches continue all the way into November, but don’t miss out on the September rush. Visit any hawk watch site, such as the one at Pack Monadnock in Peterborough, and experts will be there to let you know what is flying overhead. In fact, the experts will pick out and identify the bird when it is a mere speck in the distant sky.

For those who prefer their birdwatching closer to home and, indeed right at home, September is also a fun time to watch the feeders. The regular birds will be there, but some surprise visitors may show up as well.

It was autumn a few years ago when a small flock of pine warblers visited my feeders daily for about a week. Warblers are not typically seen at feeders, so it was a memorable week for me.

Then there are the hummingbirds. I have written about them for the past two weeks, but they deserve at least a sentence or two in this column as well.

I have heard from many readers that their hummingbirds are still around, but I wonder if that will be the case by the time this column goes to print. I had hummingbirds on Sept. 18, but none on Sept. 19, even though I watched off and on throughout the day. I am hoping a late migrant or two will show up in the next few days.

Fall and even into winter is when some “rare” hummingbirds show up in New England. The rufous hummingbird is the most common western hummer to veer into New England.

Two weeks ago I wrote about how it is OK to keep feeding hummingbirds into the fall as their natural instinct will guide them south when it is time to do so. That seems to be the case with “my” hummingbirds and I’m sure all the other hummingbirds passing through New England.

While you are looking at your feeders, take a look at the nearby trees from top to bottom. The aforementioned warblers just may be looking for food in your oaks, maples or other trees. Also, keep an eye out for other small birds, such as brown creepers. They start to show up about this time of year as well.

If you live near a lake or anywhere there are bright lights, such as a stadium or high school field, now is the time to look for nighthawks. You will recognize them because their silhouette and flying pattern is different from most birds we see. They also have white bars under their wings, which are visible when they are flying.

With so much going on in September you never know what you are going to see. Drop me a line and let me know what’s going on in your birding world.

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For the Birds: Hummingbird feeders are for hummingbirds

Here is the latest For the Birds column, which runs in several New England newspapers. Yes, back-to-back hummingbird columns.

Photo by Chris Bosak A ruby-throated hummingbirds hovers near a feeder at Merganser Lake in Danbury, Conn., in April 2017.
Photo by Chris Bosak A ruby-throated hummingbirds hovers near a feeder at Merganser Lake in Danbury, Conn., in April 2017.

The hummingbird questions kept coming, so why not devote one more column in 2018 to these little charmers?

This time the question came from Pamela, whose hummingbird feeders in East Alstead are “covered with yellow jackets,” and preventing the intended targets from visiting.

“The poor hummers can’t get near it! The yellow jackets drank the whole thing in one day,” she wrote.

I think we can all relate to this quandary. Whether it’s ants, yellow jackets, or as was my case earlier this summer, raccoons, keeping hummingbird feeders open and available for hummingbirds can be a challenge.

When the raccoons ravaged my hummingbird feeders nightly this summer, I got fed up and simply moved the feeder a few feet way to the clothesline. No more raccoon problem. The hummingbirds found it just fine and actually appreciate the extra-long perch.

So how does that relate to yellow jackets, which certainly aren’t going to be daunted by flying a few feet to the left or right? Well, according to some experts in the field, that just might be enough to discourage yellow jackets.

The educational and fun website Journey North states that insects are “only likely to visit convenient sources and probably won’t search for relocated feeders.”

So, if you’re hummingbird feeder is inundated by yellow jackets, ants or some other insects, try moving it somewhere close so the birds can find it, but still in a place where you can see and enjoy it.

If that doesn’t work and the insects still take over, Journey North offers more tips on discouraging yellow jackets from visiting hummingbird feeders.

First, the site cautions against using cooking oil, petroleum jelly or any other oily substance that can get onto the birds’ feathers.

Clean the feeders regularly. If the sugar water spills or leaks, clean it up and rinse with water. It doesn’t take a genius to know sugar water is going to attract bugs (my words, not Journey North’s).

Use feeders designed to keep insects away.

“Feeders with saucers position the nectar away from the feeding port where long-tongued hummers can reach nectar, but insects cannot,” the site reads. Or, you can try installing insect traps that are sold in bird and hardware stores.

Insect guards placed in the holes of feeders can also be useful, but don’t use yellow ones as bees are attracted to yellow. Yellow guards already attached to the feeder may be painted red with non-toxic paint.

Speaking of red, remember the “nectar” in the feeder does not need to be red, and, in fact, dyes should be avoided. One part sugar to four parts water is all that’s needed.

Because I borrowed so much from Journey North, I’ll add a bit more information about the site and encourage you to check it out. Journey North for more than 25 years has been a citizen science project in North America for children and the public at large. Sightings of creatures, such as hummingbirds and butterflies, are recorded and mapped in real-time to track migration patterns.

One more tip about feeding hummingbirds this time of year. Last week we established that it is OK to keep feeding hummingbirds into the fall and it will not impact their instinct to head south. So, if you are going to keep feeding hummers for as long as possible, make sure the feeder is filled.

At this time of year, with migration on their minds, they are filling up as much as possible. One day, or even a few hours, with an empty feeder could cause the birds to seek food elsewhere and they may not come back until next year.

Good luck and let me know what you’re seeing out there.

For the Birds: When to stop feeding hummingbirds, or not

Photo by Chris Bosak A Ruby-throated Hummingbird perches on a feeder at the Errol (N.H.) Motel in the summer of 2015.
Photo by Chris Bosak A Ruby-throated Hummingbird perches on a feeder at the Errol (N.H.) Motel in the summer of 2015.

A question from Lida in Harrisville came in the other day that I found interesting for two reasons. The question was: “What is the current thinking on when to stop feeding hummingbirds?”

She recalled a time when it was suggested that people stop feeding hummingbirds in August so that the birds would be encouraged to fly south. She added that her feeders remained active with lots of hummingbirds.

The question at face value is interesting because I’m sure it is on a lot of people’s minds now that summer unwinds and fall looms. The question is also interesting because it got me thinking about how opinions change over time depending on knowledge available. This is true for birdwatching and any aspect of life, really.

In the birdwatching world, for instance, the names of bird species change fairly regularly. Long-tailed ducks were oldsquaws not too long ago. Rufous-sided towhees are now eastern towhees. Dark-eyed juncos are either one species with different forms or several individual species, depending on the current thoughts of ornithologists.

It was once taught to never touch a baby bird because the parent will smell human scent and reject the youngster. While it’s true that it is usually best to not touch a baby bird because the parent is likely nearby, a mother bird will not reject a bird because it has human scent on it.

It was once thought that birds are unintelligent, hence the term “bird brain.” Well, we all know that’s not true now.

Now back to the question at hand: When should we stop feeding hummingbirds? Coincidentally, a recent issue of Birds and Blooms magazine addressed this very topic in a myth-buster type of article featuring its bird and garden experts.

The magazine’s bird experts, Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman, wrote that hummingbirds will fly south when they are ready, regardless of whether there are feeders available or not. The Kaufmans wrote that the powerful instinct to migrate is much stronger than a backyard hummingbird feeder. They wrote to “feel free” to keep feeders up as long as there are hummingbirds around.

Given that a hummingbird’s natural instinct is to fly south when the time is right, I would offer a reason to keep filling your hummingbird feeder for as long as possible. Hummingbirds need a lot of energy to make their long journey to Central America. A quick fill-up at New England backyard feeder or garden can give the birds a nice head start on their arduous adventure — just like most people fill up their cars before heading out on a vacation.

Also, let’s say a hummingbird is injured or otherwise unable to fly south when their instincts tell them to do so. A reliable food source while the bird waits out the delay could be important to the bird’s survival.

As of this weekend, I still have my share of ruby-throated hummingbirds that visit the feeder, canna, salvia and fading geraniums. It’s good to hear from the experts that feeding them is not disrupting their natural behaviors.

For the Birds: Goldfinches take center stage in late summer

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

Photo by Chris Bosak
An American Goldfinch perches on a sunflower and picks out seeds in a New England garden.

A large field grows next to the driveway of my son’s friend’s house. When I drop my son off, I always look there to see if anything is happening.

Usually I don’t see much, except maybe a butterfly or a dragonfly or two from a good distance. But lately the field has been alive with activity, mostly from a familiar bird with a familiar song. Goldfinches are there — by the dozens. Three or four pop up from the tall grasses and sing their “potato chip” song as they fly in their undulating pattern to another spot in the field. This happens about every 15 seconds.

So why all the goldfinches lately? Most of the other birds that nest in New England are relatively quiet when August rolls around. Other birds are largely done with nesting and tend to lay low as they raise their first-year broods.

Goldfinches are different. They are late-nesters, especially by New England standards. While many birds time their nesting to coincide with insect hatches, goldfinches time their nesting to that of another food source: seeds.

When the babies arrive, growing goldfinches have their pick of thistle, milkweed and other flowers going to seed. Nesting typically begins in late June or even into July — when most young birds of other species have already fledged or are getting ready to fledge. By the time young goldfinches fledge, their food sources are Continue reading

For the Birds: The amazing oystercatcher

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

An American Oystercatcher seen at Milford Point during the summer.

An American Oystercatcher seen at Milford Point during the summer.

Most birds make a statement with their plumage, be it with bright and flashy colors or muted, subtle tones.

Some birds stand out from the crowd with other features, such as the heron’s long legs, the Atlantic puffin’s oversized bill, an owl’s huge eyes, or the northern mockingbird’s incredible repertoire of songs.

One New England bird seems to make a statement with everything it does. The American oystercatcher is large, has handsome brown, black and white plumage, has strikingly colorful features, and is loud and conspicuous.

Despite all this, the oystercatcher still seems to fly under the radar of the birding world’s consciousness. It is strictly a coastal bird and is somewhat wary, Continue reading

For the Birds: Sometimes change is good

Photo by Chris Bosak A downy woodpecker eats suet nuggets from a tube feeder in New England, summer 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A downy woodpecker eats suet nuggets from a tube feeder in New England, summer 2018.

Sometimes you have to adjust, even in the world of bird-feeding.

Three mornings in a row I went into the backyard to fill the feeders for the day and noticed the hummingbird feeder on the ground. Two of those days the cap to the feeder had been jarred loose.

Clearly, it was time to make an adjustment, so I moved the feeder a few feet away to the clothesline — out of reach of whatever was knocking it down. It was, as I suspected, a raccoon, as revealed by game-camera footage.

The slight change of location has made a tremendous difference. It used to hang from one of the arms of the pole system, sharing space with two other feeders and a potted snap dragon flower. Hummingbirds came to the feeder, but it was dominated by a male and the larger birds that visited the other feeders often scared away the tiny hummingbirds.

The other morning, I headed toward the backyard and noticed three hummingbirds near the feeder. One was on the feeder and two were perched on the c Continue reading

For the Birds: High stakes garden perches

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

Photo by Chris Bosak A ruby-throated hummingbird perches on a stick being used as a garden stake in New England, summer 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A ruby-throated hummingbird perches on a stick being used as a garden stake in New England, summer 2018.

One of the nice things about living in the woods is that you are never at a loss for garden stakes.

Does that tomato plant need support? Take a little walk in the backyard, find a thin but sturdy stick on the ground, and you’ve got yourself a garden stake. Sure, it’s not apt to be perfectly straight, and it might not sport a perfectly pointed end for jabbing into the soil, but that’s nothing a whittle or two with a jackknife can’t fix.

A bonus to using these natural garden stakes, I’ve noticed, is that if they are placed near a birdfeeder, they make for good perches, too. This is especially true if the sticks have smaller branches at the top.

My property is predominantly shaded, but there is a sunny enough area on the deck and a small portion of the yard near the deck. I do a lot of container planting on the deck, so these garden stake/bird perches are high off the ground. Continue reading