For the Birds: Birding still hot in June

Photo by Chris Bosak An eastern towhee seen in Ridgefield, CT, summer 2019.

June may not have the buildup and excitement of May, but it is still an interesting time in the birding and natural world.

By the time June comes around, the swarms of migrating birds have dissipated, having either gone farther north or settled into their breeding territories. June also follows May, which I would argue is the most exciting month for birding in New England. I wouldn’t say June is a letdown, but it lacks the anticipation that May has going for it. May, after all, follows months and months of cold, gray weather. May’s songbird migration is like a reward for enduring winter and early spring.

Early June does have the odd migrant still working its way north, which is nice to see. For the most part, however, the migration is over.

June is a time to recognize, appreciate and take pride in the birds that are breeding in the area. There’s something special in knowing that birds are raising young nearby. The other day, I took a walk and saw or heard eastern towhees (pictured above), yellow warblers, blue-winged warblers, common yellowthroats, indigo buntings, rose-breasted grosbeaks, bobolinks, catbirds, veeries and hermit thrushes. Those are nice sightings regardless of the circumstances, but it was particularly rewarding knowing they are breeding locally. I hope they all have a successful breeding season.

The birds, for the most part, were still fairly vocal. I heard all of the aforementioned birds singing. Finding them proved to be a touch more difficult than in May. In May, birds are still searching for or defending territory and are easy to spot. In June, more birds are hunkered down for fear of giving away their nesting site. The colorful males often jump out to grab attention while the more subtly plumaged females remain on the nest camouflaged from predators.

June also means more insects, which is good and bad. It was nice to see a few butterflies flitting among the early-blooming flowers in the meadow, but the deer flies attacking the back of my neck were not something I was quite ready for. Oh well, it’s all part of living in New England.

As the insects gain steam, the birding action will slow down over the next couple of weeks as they hang low raising young. Morning and evening are always the best times to look for birds, but this will become even truer in July and August as the heat and humidity will keep the birds in the shade during the day. Steamy August afternoons are my favorite times to wander through New England meadows looking for butterflies, dragonflies and whatever other creatures lurk in the tall grasses and flowers.

In the meantime, enjoy June and what it offers birdwatchers. There’s still plenty of action out there.

For the Birds: Vireos and flycatchers often overlooked

Photo by Chris Bosak A red-eyed vireo is stuck in a bird-banding net in New England, spring 2021.

I have said many times that one of the great things about birdwatching is that there is always something to learn at all levels.

A beginner, of course, has a lot to learn as the world of birds is vast. An intermediate-level birdwatcher has a lot of knowledge, but there is still plenty more to learn, such as hybrid species and plumage phases. Even experts have a lot to learn as it is impossible to know everything about every bird in the world, and there are species and discoveries yet to be made.

Over the last few weeks, I have been writing a lot about warblers and other spring songbird migrants such as tanagers and grosbeaks. In my opinion, those types of birds straddle the line between beginner and intermediate-level birdwatching. There are a lot of nuances in that statement, however. Identifying warblers by sound is clearly a more intermediate or even advanced intermediate skill. But identifying a rose-breasted grosbeak at a feeder is more of a beginner skill.

There are many other types of spring migrants passing through or settling now in New England that fall clearly into the intermediate, or even expert, category. Vireos and flycatchers, I believe, are two types of birds that can be tricky to learn and therefore require a higher level of skill to identify. Both types of birds tend to favor the tops of trees and are difficult to get a good look at. Often, the sun is either hiding behind clouds or in your face, which makes identifying a bird even more difficult as the colors are not showing well through the binoculars.

A few of the vireos can be relatively easy to identify if you get a good, close look. The blue-headed vireo, with its obvious white spectacles, is one example. The red-eyed vireo is another example, but it is pretty rare that you get a good enough look to determine eye color. Similarly, great-crested flycatchers, with their relatively large bodies and boisterous songs and calls, can be another fairly easy identification.

But most vireos and flycatchers are largely brown or gray with subtle markings, making identification difficult for even intermediate birdwatchers. That is when learning their song and calls becomes important. But that, of course, is a more advanced skill, particularly when one is already trying to learn the song of warblers and other more common birds, such as Baltimore oriole and rose-breasted grosbeak.

In my opinion, vireos and flycatchers are often overlooked, or even ignored, by many birdwatchers. I myself am guilty of this as I rarely write about them in my column. The other day, however, I was struck by the beauty of a red-eyed vireo. I had a rare, extremely close look at the bird. I was walking through a small conservation area where bird banding was taking place, and the vireo was tangled in one of the mesh nets. I took a quick photo with my iPhone and rushed to alert one of the banders of the catch.

That sighting got me thinking about the other vireos and other birds such as flycatchers that are flitting among the treetops with little fanfare.

Several years ago, I brought my boys to a bird-banding area, and one of the banders allowed us to participate in the release of the birds. After all the pertinent information about the bird was collected, Andrew got to release a gray catbird, and Will, who was about 5 years old at the time, released a yellow-bellied flycatcher.

The vireo sighting the other day made me recall the release of the yellow-bellied flycatcher. Rarely on a bird walk are those birds found, and rarely are they discussed when the topic of New England bird comes up. But they are out there and count just as much as the warblers and other ballyhooed birds of New England.

Birdwatching can be a fairly easy hobby. If you are content to know a few common backyard birds such as robins, mourning doves, blue jays and cardinals, that is pretty easy to pick up. If that is your end goal in birding, that’s perfectly fine. If you desire to learn more and take the hobby to another level, that can be done, too, as birdwatching can be as difficult as you want to make it. I look at birds like vireos and flycatchers as birds that definitely take a birder to another level.

For the Birds: Birding by ear, for starters

Photo by Chris Bosak An American Redstart sings from a perch in Selleck's and Dunlap Woods in Darien, Conn., May 2015.
Photo by Chris Bosak An American Redstart sings from a perch in Selleck’s and Dunlap Woods in Darien, Conn., May 2015.

Any walk through deciduous woods when the leaves are out drives home the importance of knowing what birds sound like. It can be a lesson in futility to try to find a tiny warbler at the top of a giant oak tree covered in leaves. The exercise can lead to frustration and a condition known as “warbler neck.”

My birding-by-ear skills are average at best, and I was reminded of this during a recent walk through the woods under a thick canopy. I heard several warblers and other birds, and, while I saw only a few, I was able to recognize the songs of several others. There were many birds, however, I could not find through my binoculars nor recognize by their songs or calls. As I mentioned before, it can be frustrating, but I have reached an age where I can let go of the frustration quickly and not dwell on the bird that got away. In years past, I would often hold onto the frustration long after the walk, which, after all, is supposed to be enjoyable.

Birds don’t always look exactly like they do in a field guide, whether the images are photos or illustrations. There are different plumages depending on time of year, age, sex and other factors. There is also slight variation among individuals of a species. Not every male robin looks exactly the same.

That said, birds don’t always sound exactly like they are supposed to either. A bird’s song is only one of the sounds they make and even their songs can vary greatly. Cardinals, for instance, have distinctive high-pitched call notes. They also have a distinctive song, but there are several versions of the song. The cardinal in your forsythia may have a song that is greatly different from the cardinal across the street. All of the songs are loud, clear and beautiful, but very different. Don’t get stuck thinking that the cardinal song you hear every day is the only one cardinals have. Many other birds are the same way as well.

My advice if you are just starting to learn bird sounds is to learn the common and obvious ones really well. Study what the robin sounds like. Their typical song is often translated to “cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up.” But there is much variation in the song, and they have several calls as well, such as the “tut, tut, tut,” call.

Robins are very common in New England, so if you learn the sounds of the robin, you can save yourself much frustration on your walks by not getting hung up on a bird you will likely come across several times.

Get to know the various calls and songs of blue jays, cardinals, nuthatches, chickadees and titmice. You will hear those often throughout the year, and you can eliminate other birds in the spring when you hear those sounds during a song-filled spring morning.

Warblers and other migrants are a different story. We do not hear them year-round, but rather for only a few weeks out of the year. That is a short window to try to learn those songs in the field. Birding Internet sites and phone apps are filled with recordings of bird songs and calls. I would encourage you to learn a few warbler songs each year so as to not try to pack too much information in your head and end up not remembering anything. Learn the yellow warbler and common yellowthroat, for instance, as those are commonly heard in the spring and summer throughout New England.

Warblers are difficult to learn because there are so many of them and many of their songs are similar to each other’s. But, as I said, learn a few a year and within a couple of years you will be picking out many of the songs you hear in the woods in April and May. And if you just can’t pick it up, don’t fret or stress. Study a little more, and get it next time.

For the Birds: Welcome to May!

Photo by Chris Bosak A chestnut-sided warbler lurks in the brush in New England, May 2020. Merganser Lake.

Welcome to May, arguably the best month of the year for birdwatching.

So many exciting things happen in the bird world in May that it’s hard to know where to begin. The breeding season is in full swing and our year-round birds as well as newly arrived migrant birds are either looking for nesting sites or already raising young. Suddenly our feeders are visited by colorful newcomers such as rose-breasted grosbeaks, Baltimore orioles or indigo buntings. Waders are back in full force stalking our ponds and rivers.

When it comes to May, however, talk of the birding world has to begin with warblers, those small and often colorful Neotropical migrants that add life to our neck of the woods every spring. Some of these warblers will simply stop by for a few days before heading farther north to their breeding grounds. Many, however, will find a suitable place to raise young and will be with us until the fall.

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For the Birds: Spring feeding and purple martins

Purple martins with dragonflies.

I don’t see a lot of press releases now that journalism is no longer my full-time profession, but I did receive a few last week that caught my eye.

One was from Cole’s Wild Bird Products and the other from the Purple Martin Conservation Association. The topics were very different but did have one important commonality: spring.

Cole’s, which makes a red-hot blend that I’ve used and the birds loved, sent some spring bird-feeding tips. Many people stop feeding birds in the spring for a variety of reasons, including bears and not wanting birds to become dependent upon feeders, but I’m a big fan of spring bird feeding. It’s a great way to get close, long looks at birds such as grosbeaks, orioles, buntings and even a few warbler species if you’re lucky.

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For the Birds: Spring wood duck sightings always welcome

Photo by Chris Bosak A wood duck swims in a pond in New England, April 2021.

Only a narrow barrier of reeds separated the fairly busy road from the rain-swelled pool of water bordered by railroad tracks on the backside.

On any other day, this pool of water would be ignored and driven past without a second look. But on this day, something caught my eye and I promptly turned around at the next available safe place to do so. I drove past the water again, this time more slowly, and realized that what had caught my eye was a small group of male wood ducks.

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For the Birds: Waxwings are always a welcomed sighting

Photo by Chris Bosak A cedar waxwing perches on a branch in New England, spring 2021.

I had hobbled almost all the way from the car to the entrance of work when I noticed a flock of cedar waxwings picking off leftover berries in a nearby tree.

Even with the persistent tendinitis in my feet acting up, I made my way back to the car to grab the camera. Usually, in situations like this the camera is sitting at home, but this time I was prepared for the unexpected. Cedar waxwings, in my experience anyway, are always unexpected. They are fairly nomadic, and it’s hard to go out looking specifically for them. But they appear now and then and it’s always a thrill to see them.

I retrieved the camera and hobbled back through the parking lot to the tree in question. Of course, the tree was empty when I got back as the waxwings had taken off for parts unknown.

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For the Birds: Spring sightings

Photo by Chris Bosak A red-shouldered hawk perches in the wood in Brookfield, CT, March 2019.

I’ve seen a few reports of pine warblers showing up in New England already. The thick of warbler season is still weeks away, however, so let’s put warblers on the back burner for now.

Phoebe reports are bursting all over the region. Those small, rather nondescript songbirds are an early spring migrant and get a head start on the competition by their early arrival. The risk, of course, is that winter lingers into spring in New England, and phoebes have a hard time coping with the weather. It’s all about risk-reward strategy when it comes to migration for birds.

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For the Birds: Readers share what they’ve been seeing

Rosalie Boucher captured this photo of an American Woodcock in her yard in Norwalk, Conn., in March 2014.

Woodcock are being seen and heard at dusk, phoebes are showing up slowly but steadily, mixed flocks of blackbirds are headed north, and the weather is sunny and warm one day and freezing and wet the next. It must be March in New England.

As we get ready for migration to pick up steam, here’s what readers have been reporting over the last few weeks. Bill from Keene wrote to say he’s hearing spring songs from the woods, which is always a good sign and pleasing chorus. Spring peepers, wood frogs and some birds are starting to call. I’ve heard cardinals almost daily now, which is a most welcomed, cheerful song.

Jeannie from Marlow wrote to say she has had upwards of four red-breasted nuthatches visiting her feeders at once. I thought my two-at-a-time visits were good. Jeannie also sent along a terrific photo of a barred owl having its feathers blown around by a strong wind. The photo may be found at www.birdsofnewengland.com under the “Reader Submitted Photos” category.

Jane from Marlborough wrote, questioning whether a small bird of prey she saw take a chickadee could be a merlin. Merlins are small falcons that breed mostly north of New Hampshire, but some do breed in the state and many pass through during fall and spring migrations. So it is very possible that her bird in question was a merlin.

Here’s what the N.H. Fish and Game website says about the merlin’s range: “Expanding range southward in NH. Currently breeds in the north and at scattered locations in central and western parts of the state. Occurs statewide during migration which peaks during September and early October; occasionally winters along the seacoast or in southern suburban areas.”

Thanks to the Keene Lions Club for having me as a guest speaker via Zoom last week at its meeting. I enjoyed meeting everyone virtually and appreciated the many thoughtful questions at the end. A question was posed that I didn’t have the answer for at the moment. I had referenced early in the presentation the 2019 study that shows there has been a decline of 2.9 billion birds in the U.S. and Canada over the last 50 years. The question came up as to what percentage that number represented. I thought it was a great question as numbers are sometimes presented to show a point, but proper context is missing.

I looked back at the study and found out that the 2.9 billion missing birds represent a 28 percent decline — roughly down from 10 billion adult breeding birds to 7 billion. That is a substantial number no matter how you look at it, but when you consider birds of certain habitats have declined by more than 50, the number becomes even more stark. Grassland birds, for instance, have declined by 53 percent since 1970, according to the study. That is fewer than half of the meadowlarks, bobolinks and more of our favorite grassland birds remaining.

On the bright side, which I was reminded of when I looked back on the study, numbers of waterfowl, raptors and woodpeckers have increased in the last 50 years.

The study, by the way, is entitled “Decline of the North American avifauna” and was conducted by researchers from several organizations such as Cornell Lab of Ornithology, American Bird Conservancy and National Audubon Society.

I hope everyone is ready for spring migration. Be sure to let me know what you’re seeing.

For the Birds: March hints at migration

Photo by Chris Bosak A northern cardinal perches on a hemlock branch in Danbury.

March is an interesting month for birdwatching. In terms of variety and new birds to be found, it does not rank very highly, but March does welcome our first spring migrants.

Red-winged blackbirds have been around for a few weeks already, and in fact, some had never left and remained with us throughout the winter. American Woodcock have been seen and heard throughout New England already. Their aerial displays at dusk are one of the month’s birding highlights for sure.

In a few weeks, eastern phoebes will show up in New England and for me anyway, that really signals the beginning of spring migration.

In March, we also have our remaining winter birds. Juncos and white-throated sparrows are still around my feeders, and a few red-breasted nuthatches are Continue reading