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 last week … The birding action picked up greatly when I came to a clearing in the woods. It was more than a clearing, I guess, and more of a field surrounded by woods. Great habitat for birds.

The buzzy song of a blue-winged warbler greeted me as I stepped out of the dark woods and into the bright field. The bird’s appearance with a bright yellow plumage and black eye stripe is even more dramatic than its unique song.

A chestnut-sided warbler was next to show itself. It doesn’t have a particularly catchy song, but I’ve always liked chestnut-sided warblers. It’s a handsome warbler with overall black-and-white plumage, highlighted by a yellow cap and chestnut lines running down the sides.

Until that day, a decent photograph of a chestnut-sided warbler had eluded me. I don’t see them often enough and when I do, they are usually too high in leafed-out trees to capture on film. (Older photographers explain to younger photographers what “capture on film” means.) On this day, however, a particularly curious individual came to a low perch to check me out. It hopped around a bit and eventually settled and sang a few bars for me.

As I made my way across the field, the colorful birds kept on coming. An indigo bunting perched near the top of a medium-sized tree in the middle of the field. A small group of goldfinches took lower perches on the same tree, but didn’t stick around for long before flying off in their undulating fashion.

A scarlet tanager sang near the top of a tall oak at the field’s edge. I heard, but couldn’t spot, a Baltimore oriole in a nearby tree. For as bright and large as orioles are, they can be awfully difficult to find in trees.

A rose-breasted grosbeak sighting would have rounded out the sightings nicely, but if they were there, I missed them. I did see one the next day in a tall oak at my house, so that was nice.

Time eventually ran out on my walk, but the ovenbirds and thrushes escorted me through the woods and back to the starting point.

No wonder birders like the spring migration so much.

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Latest For the Birds column: Surviving the cold in the bird world

Photo by Chris Bosak A Northern Cardinal perches near a feeder during a snowstorm in Danbury, Conn., Jan. 23, 2016.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Northern Cardinal perches near a feeder during a snowstorm in Danbury, Conn., Jan. 23, 2016.

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

Despite the welcomed warm weekend, it had been a pretty rough past few weeks weather-wise. Snow, sleet, cold temperatures … in other words, a New England winter.

Most people survive winter by not venturing outdoors and, if it’s necessary to go out, limiting their exposure to the elements to short walks to and from the car. Those who do venture out into the snow, for fun or work, bundle up in apparel scientifically designed to battle the cold.

Birds don’t have the luxury of going inside and turning up the heat. Yet they have survived for eons the worst elements New England can throw at them. It’s nothing short of spectacular when you think about how they do it.

First of all, the ones that are not designed to survive a New England winter hightail it out of the region in the fall. They know what’s coming and head for warmer climes.

That alone is fascinating to think about. Some birds survive by fleeing the cold, some birds survive by toughing it out. Each strategy has its risks and rewards. The birds know which one works best for them.

Unfortunately, some birds that do stick around to battle the elements like true New Englanders will perish during the winter. This is particularly true of individual birds of a species that typically heads south for the winter. Most great blue herons and black-crowned night herons move south for the winter. Some stick around New England and brave the cold. If a winter is too harsh and the bird can’t find enough food, some of those birds will perish.

The same is true of Carolina wrens. They are relatively new to New England, having slowly expanded their range northward, and a harsh winter can take a toll on the population of the handsome little birds.

But, by and large, birds survive these harsh winters just fine.

I was surprised, however, to not see a single Carolina wren last week as I watched the snow falling. Usually one or two show up at my feeders and entertain me during a storm.

Most birds survive the cold nights by seeking shelter to stay out of the elements. I remember a few winters ago seeing a small bird fly under my neighbor’s awning. My curiosity got the better of me, and I had to check under the awning to see if the bird had found a comfy spot. Sure enough, I found a black-capped chickadee tucked into an impossibly small crevice in the corner of the awning. I saw the bird the next evening take the same route under awning.

Continue reading

Latest For the Birds column: Be prepared for snowstorms by filling birdfeeders

Photo by Chris Bosak A Brown Creeper finds food at the base of a tree during a cold snap in February 2016, Danbury, Connecticut.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Brown Creeper finds food at the base of a tree during a cold snap in February 2016, Danbury, Connecticut.

Here is the latest For the Birds column, which runs weekly in several New England newspapers. (Note the date of the Great Backyard Bird Count has passed for this year.)

When I know a major snowstorm is coming, I want to be well prepared.

That does not include a trip to the grocery store to buy milk, bread, bottled water or any other essentials like that. That stuff I can get after everything is plowed or dug out — usually the next day.

For me, being prepared means making sure my camera batteries are charged, lenses cleaned and storage card emptied. It also means making sure the feeders are full before the storm hits. Perhaps I’ll add a few special treats for the birds in preparation for the snow.

The latest predicted snowstorm did not disappoint. It was supposed to start overnight, and it did. Thankfully I had filled the feeders before going to bed. I woke up to several inches of fresh snow and nonstop action at the feeders.

Juncos were the most prolific bird of the day. They typically hang around the ground seeking seeds, but with snow covering the ground, they perched on feeders alongside the chickadees, titmice and nuthatches.

It was a great storm, and the snow fell all day. Other than a snowshoe hike with the boys, I kept an eye on the feeders most of the day. Nothing too unusual showed up, but the falling snow made for a spectacular scene.

Several New Hampshire readers sent me photos of the birds they saw that day. A collection is available on my website, www.birdsofnewengland.com. If you took any bird photos that day and haven’t shared them with anyone yet, feel free to send them to me at bozclark@earthlink.net. I’ll add them to collection for the world to see.

Speaking of sharing bird sightings, the 20th annual Great Backyard Bird Count is coming up this weekend, taking place Friday, Feb. 17 to Monday, Feb. 20. It is your chance to contribute to a data base of winter bird sightings. The data is used to track bird populations and identify potential problems before they become irreversible.

All it takes is 15 minutes (or longer, of course) of counting birds and entering your checklist online at www.birdcount.org. You can count the birds alone or with a group, in your backyard or in the woods, for 15 minutes or all four days. It’s that easy. Checklists must be submitted online, however.

“The Great Backyard Bird Count is a great way to introduce people to participation in citizen science,” Gary Langham, the Audubon Society’s vice president and chief scientist, said in a news release. “No other program allows volunteers to take an instantaneous snapshot of global bird populations that can contribute to our understanding of how a changing climate is affecting birds.”

The project is growing quickly. In the first year, 13,500 checklists were submitted from the U.S. and Canada. Last year, nearly 164,000 checklists were submitted from more than 100 countries.

It’s a fun project, too, and a good way to introduce children to the joys of birdwatching and citizen science.

Get out there and count.

Latest For the Birds column: Little birds make up “The Big Three”

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

A White-breasted Nuthatch perches near a birdfeeding station in Danbury, Conn., Oct. 2016.

A White-breasted Nuthatch perches near a birdfeeding station in Danbury, Conn., Oct. 2016.

I call them the Big Three.

In order to make it easier to keep track of the number of bird species I see in my backyard, I lump together black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches and tufted titmice. They count, of course, as three different species, but it’s just easier to group them.

On any given day I can count on seeing those three birds. Cardinals, downy woodpeckers, juncos, white-throated sparrows and mourning doves are nearly as reliable in the winter, but The Big Three just seem to logically belong together.

Continue reading

Latest For the Birds column: Owls of winter

Jeannie Merwin of Marlow got this shot of a Barred Owl in her yard. She said the owl returns to her yard every January.

Jeannie Merwin of Marlow got this shot of a Barred Owl in her yard. She said the owl returns to her yard every January.

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

I’ve never had great luck finding owls, but I always enjoy hearing when other people do.

Such was the case last week when New Hampshire resident Jeannie Merwin let me know that the Barred Owl that returns to her yard each year on Jan. 1 was a few days late and arrived on Jan. 4. She sent a great photo of the beautiful bird and added another photo of the owl with a Downy Woodpecker and Black-capped Chickadee also in the frame. So much for the big, bad owl.

Imagine having an owl show up at your yard like clockwork each year. I would look forward to it months ahead of time.

Barred Owls are one of New England’s most common owls, along with Great-horned Owls and Eastern Screech Owls. In my years of watching birds in this region, I’ve had decent luck finding Barred Owls, poor luck finding Great-horned Owls and almost no luck finding Eastern Screech Owls. Lucky and observant birdwatchers may also find Northern Saw-whet Owls and Barn Owls in New England.

Winter brings sightings of Snowy Owls, Long-eared Owls and Short-eared Owls and the very rare sightings of Great Gray Owls or Northern Hawk Owls. I’ve seen my share Continue reading

Latest For the Birds column: Keep an eye out for rarities

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

Photo by David Hoitt This Varied Thrush has been seen in Swanzey since Dec. 12.

Photo by David Hoitt
This Varied Thrush has been seen in Swanzey since Dec. 12.

Different seasons bring their own rarities.

Rarities, for the purpose of this column, are birds that are typically not seen in our region. It is not necessarily a bird that is rarely seen – it may be quite common in other parts of the country or world – but rather a bird that only every once in a while ventures into New England for one reason or another. In fact, it can also be a typical New England bird, but just seen in a season in which it is usually far away from here.

Winter is a good time for rarities because they stick out so much better. There are only so many birds that haven’t migrated for us to look at in winter, so when something different appears, it really sticks out.

Participants in the annual Christmas Bird Counts crave rarities. The point of the volunteer bird census is to count all the birds they see to contribute to a long-running data base so ornithologists can track bird population trends. There is no competition involved; no awards given. But the unwritten and unspoken truth is: CBC participants want to tally more species than the other counts held throughout the state.

So when a rarity shows up a week or two before Continue reading