For the Birds: Fox sparrows back in force

Photo by Chris Bosak
A fox sparrow perches on the snow in Danbury, Conn., Nov. 16, 2018.

Here is the latest For the Birds column: 

Last week I wrote about winter finches and how birds that aren’t even finches can easily be lumped into that broad category.

I mentioned a few examples and, of course, as soon as I hit the “send” button, an example that I failed to mention showed up in my backyard. It was a fox sparrow. Well, more specifically, two fox sparrows.

Fox sparrows aren’t finches, naturally, they are sparrows, just as their name suggests. But because they are small (relative to all birds) and show up at feeders throughout New England sporadically during certain winters, I think they can be mentioned under the very broad and nonspecific category of winter finches.

Winter finches, just to review quickly, are the northern birds that show up at New England feeders some winters, only to not be seen again for several years. Pine siskin is the prime example and this year seems to be another good year for siskins. Continue reading


For the Birds: Winter finches arrive on the scene

Photo by Chris Bosak A purple finch eats seeds at a feeder in New England, Nov. 2018.
Photo by Chris Bosak A purple finch eats seeds at a feeder in New England, Nov. 2018.

There has been a lot of talk lately about winter finches. There usually is this time of year.

I have read accounts of people seeing big flocks of pine siskins. Siskins are probably the most common winter finch that irrupts into the middle and southern parts of New England sporadically in winter.

Winter finch is not an official term with a clear-cut number of species that nicely fits the category. Rather, it is a general term used for members of the finch family that breed up north and typically spend their winters up north, but irregularly move south during the winter as food sources dictate.

The species most commonly associated with a winter finch irruption include pine siskin, common redpoll and purple finch. Larger finches, such as pine grosbeak and evening grosbeak, are also species seen at backyard feeders throughout New England during the winter.

But birds do not even have to be finches to fall into the loose category of “winter finch.” Often, the red-breasted nuthatch is lumped into the category due to its great abundance at feeders some winters and being a no-show during other winters.

So far this winter I have seen a lone female purple finch at my backyard feeding station. That has been the extent of my winter finch season so far. The nature of a winter finch irruption, however, could mean a sizable flock of pine siskins can show up and empty out my Nyjer seed feeder at any moment.

I did see a few red-breasted nuthatches on a recent trip to northern New Hampshire, but that is part of their breeding and winter grounds, and would not fall into the category of a winter-finch sighting.

Admittedly, it took a minute or two to identify the female purple finch that has been visiting my yard. It was clearly something different, so I knew I had to lock down an ID as soon as possible.

Female purple finches are streaky brown in plumage. It didn’t have the look or feel of a sparrow, so I eliminated those possibilities immediately. It looked a lot like a house finch, but was more heavily streaked and slightly larger and plumper overall. The thick bill further eliminated any sparrow possibilities and after very briefly considering the female rose-breasted grosbeak, I was able to nail down the ID as a female purple finch.

In the past when I have seen purple finches, it has usually been a pair so getting an ID was easier because I had the more colorful male to observe.

For whatever reason, regardless of how great a winter finch season it is throughout New England, my yard typically does not drive in a lot of these birds. While I’ve read about several backyards being ambushed by pine siskins already this season, I haven’t seen a pine siskin in about 10 years. That species typically irrupts every three or four years.

If nothing else shows up at my feeders all winter, I still have my regular feeder birds and my female purple finch. And I’m good with that.

For the Birds: No moose, but gray jays keep us busy

Photo by Chris Bosak A gray jay perches in a tree in Pittsburg, N.H., November 2018.

The surprises began as soon as we arrived in Pittsburg, the northern tip of the Granite State. To be more accurate, the surprises began about an hour before our arrival.

“Is that snow on the ground?” I asked as we drove through the darkness.

The headlights revealed that, indeed, a thin layer of snow blanketed the sides of the roads. We arrived at our rented cabin to find about 2 inches of snow in the Great North Woods.

Snow in early November in northern New Hampshire is not surprising, but this particular snow caught me off guard because of how warm it has been in southern New England. Wasn’t it just 70 degrees the week before?

Although it served as a reminder that winter is coming fast for all of the region, the snow was a welcome gift from the North Country. It was beautiful and, Continue reading

For the Birds: Sights and sounds of a fall canoe ride

Photo by Chris Bosak
A great blue heron perches on one leg in a tree in Brookfield, Conn., during the fall of 2018.

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


The fall drawdown on large New England lakes can make it a challenge to launch a canoe. The shoreline is often soupy and mucky, making it a dirty and dicey proposition to get in a quick paddle.

A little dirt and muck have never deterred me, however, especially when the possibility of good duck watching lies ahead. Such was the case last week when I braved the Lake Lillinonah shoreline in southwestern Connecticut to launch my canoe. Lillinonah is considered a lake because of its width, but it is really part of the Housatonic River.

Thankfully, it hadn’t rained in a few days so much of the shoreline was hardened mud. It got muckier the closer I got to the water, but I was able to leave the tail end of the canoe out far enough that my feet only sunk down about 2 or 3 inches before jumping in.

The bottom of the canoe’s interior was smeared with mud, but what the heck; it’s a canoe, a little dirt won’t hurt it. I lifted up my butt, dug in the paddle and pushed off hard. I was on my way and instantly felt the cares of the world disappear as I glided over the glassy water, surrounded by New England’s famous fall colors.

Continue reading

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.

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.