For the Birds: Wood ducks in the trees — another first

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

Photo by Chris Bosak Male wood duck.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Male wood duck.

No matter how long you’ve been at it, birdwatching always presents new firsts.

This latest first happened to take place right in my backyard. I’ve watched videos and seen photographs of wood ducks perched in trees before, but I’ve never witnessed it myself. I’ve seen plenty of wood ducks on the water and even under people’s birdfeeders, but never perched high in trees before.

I came close once. I was canoeing within the Bashakill Wildlife Management Area in New York years ago and dozens, maybe even hundreds, of wood ducks could be seen and heard in the distance. I focused my binoculars on a dead tree about 100 yards away and saw a huge gathering of these handsome ducks. Most of them were in the water, but a few of them perched on the snag’s low-hanging branches.

Photo by Chris Bosak A Wood Duck mother swims with one of her babies at Woods Ponds in Norwalk, Conn., spring 2016.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Wood Duck mother swims with one of her babies at Woods Ponds in Norwalk, Conn., spring 2016.

I don’t count this as having seen them perched in trees because the dead, leafless tree was more an extension of the water than anything.

The other day, though, I walked out of the sunroom and onto the deck to fill the feeders. As the door closed behind me I heard the unmistakable “oo-eek, oo-eek” call of a wood duck coming from a tall oak in the backyard.

Then I noticed two ducks flush from the tree and head into the woods. It was a male and female and they made a big circle weaving through the trees and came back to the large oak. A very cool first, especially since it took place in the backyard.

Despite the proliferation of wood duck boxes on the edges of ponds, many wood ducks nest in tree cavities high above the ground – some a fair distance from water. The babies hatch, fall to the ground and are led to water by the calls of mommy wood duck.

My yard is about half a mile away from the nearest pond – certainly within reason to think a wood duck would consider nesting there. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, however. I only saw them there once so far. I’ll certainly keep my eyes and ears peeled over the next several days. I’ll also be careful not to burst through the sunroom door, too.

Because the ducks seemed rather wary – typical of a wood duck – I didn’t want to fetch my camera and risk flushing them again. Hopefully they’ll return and find a suitable cavity in a tree to make a nest.

There I go again, getting ahead of myself.

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For the Birds: Waiting for warblers

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

Photo by Chris Bosak A Pine Warbler sits on a deck railing in New England this fall.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Pine Warbler at feeder in Danbury, Conn., fall 2015.

Finally, I thought, a warbler singing in the backyard.

It’s been a long winter and the pine warbler I usually hear by the end of the first week of April never materialized. The first week of April turned into the second week and still no warblers to be seen or heard — at least on my end.

One cool, but bright morning last week, I stepped out onto the deck to fill the feeders and heard a high-pitched, soft and somewhat melodic tune coming from a giant oak. Surely a warbler, I thought, but I wasn’t sure which one.

I grabbed the binoculars, which always hang at the ready just inside the door. Now to find the little bugger. The leaves haven’t popped yet, so this shouldn’t be too tough, I told myself. It was more difficult than I thought, of course, but I finally zeroed in on a little bird high up on the trunk.

As you can probably tell from the build-up, it wasn’t a warbler at all. It was a brown creeper — a small, brown bird seen on tree trunks throughout New England, mostly in the fall, winter and spring. Usually the birds are silent as they look for insects by starting at the bottom of a tree trunk and working their way up.

In fact, I think this may have been the first time I consciously heard the song of a brown creeper. The website AllAboutBirds.org describes the song, sung only by males, as such: “His song is a jumble of high, thin notes that lasts up to 1.5 seconds. It’s sometimes likened to singing the phrase, ‘beautiful trees.’”

You’d think after all these years of birdwatching, I would know all the songs of warblers and be able to distinguish between warblers and non-warblers. There are many types of warblers, however, and I know a lot of the songs, but not all of them. Plus, this song was very warbler-like, as I mentioned. Also — my final excuse, I promise — it’s been 11 months since we’ve heard warblers singing and my birding-by-ear is rusty. It’s only average to begin with, so this guy definitely fooled me.

Not that I’m complaining that it was a brown creeper. I find them extraordinarily interesting birds, despite their small size and rather non-descript appearance. I like how they work up the trunk of a tree and then fly down to the base of a nearby tree to start again.

I’m still waiting on that first warbler, but I’m confident they will arrive soon. As usual, the sightings will start as a trickle — pine warbler here, palm warbler there — and then become a fantastically overwhelming phenomenon of tiny, colorful birds in the trees.

Get your ears ready.

Note: Since this column was originally written, I’ve seen palm and pine warblers. Rejoice!

For the Birds: Fortnite and birds (or lack thereof)

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

Photo by Chris Bosak Black vultures sit on a hill in Danbury, Conn., fall 2017.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Vultures would be a good addition to Fortnite.

Fortnite is the hottest game going.

The survival video game has swept the nation — and world — and eaten up countless hours of kids’ and adults’ time.

But, since it is such a huge phenomenon (with well over 3 million players), I have to somehow relate it to birds, of course. I did something similar in the summer of 2016, when the Pokémon Go craze was at its peak. That was a fun column to write and may be found here.

Here’s a quick description of Fortnite for those who may be unfamiliar. It is a video game that can be played on a computer, PlayStation, Xbox, and now even a mobile device. The most popular way to play is the person-to-person mode — you can play solo or as a duo or squad (four-person team) — and the point is always to be the last one standing.

Other players may be eliminated by a variety of weapons that are picked up in towns and cities on an island where the game takes place. Players can build shelters for protection or run around the island seeking out (or avoiding) opponents. It’s cartoonish in nature and, unlike so many video games out there today, there’s no blood, gore or screaming when someone gets killed.

After watching them for weeks, my boys forced me to try it. I think they knew I was going to be terrible at it and so it would provide them with a good laugh. They were right, of course. I was — and still am — hopelessly pathetic at the game.

When I was growing up, video game controllers had a joystick and a button. Now a controller has two bumpers, two triggers, two joysticks, four letter buttons, a directional pad, a guide button and two tiny buttons I don’t even know what to call. That’s 14 buttons for those keeping track at home. Oh, and the joysticks can move directionally or be pushed in to serve different purposes.

Yes, I’m terrible at it and my kids still laugh at me. But I keep playing.

 Instead of playing “the way you are supposed to play,” as my kids say, I like to land in a remote area of the island and take my time looking around for materials. Along the way I get to check out the scenery and the various habitats, including woods, swamps, fields, hills, rivers and a lake. It’s cartoonish, but somewhat realistic.

While birds do not visually make an appearance in the game, you can hear them from time to time. I can’t match up the bird sounds with a specific species, but to me the calls sound crow-like. They come at appropriate times and locations as well — usually while running through the woods or across a field.

Butterflies do appear from time to time, especially as you approach an abandoned home. While I appreciate the visual, they usually startle me at first because I think it’s someone running around the corner to eliminate me.

It wouldn’t be too hard to add birds into the scenery. With all the “eliminations” that go on — the game starts with 100 players and only one wins — I would suggest adding in a few vultures. They can easily be added soaring in the air or perched ominously in a leafless tree by a hillside.

Or, they can just follow me around. It’s usually not too long before I’m reduced to carrion.

Latest For the Birds column: Chickadees, scarce or not?

Photo by Chris Bosak Ablack-capped chickadee grabs a sunflower seed from a Christmas decoration during the winter of 2016-17 in Danbury, Conn.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A black-capped chickadee grabs a sunflower seed from a Christmas decoration during the winter of 2016-17 in Danbury, Conn.

Where are the chickadees?

That question has been on the minds of many concerned birders this winter. I’ve been lucky enough to see a few at my feeding stations, but not great numbers. Consistent numbers, but not big numbers.

Titmice? Those I’ve seen in consistently high numbers. Nuthatches and the downy woodpecker — also consistent and high. 

But chickadees have been harder to come by. As I said, I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve at least seen a few. Many people have written to me to say they’ve not seen any.

“What has happened to these birds?” one reader asked.

Another reader noted a general drop in bird numbers, but: “The biggest absence seems to be chickadees. … In all previous winters I would be inundated with chickadees and nuthatches. This winter: zero nuthatches, and only one or two chickadees at the feeder. I used to have more of them than there was room to perch!”

Chickadees are a beloved bird in New England and Continue reading

Latest For the Birds column: Robins and spring

Photo by Chris Bosak An American Robin perches on a rock at Weed Beach in Darien, Conn., in Jan. 2015.

Photo by Chris Bosak
An American Robin perches on a rock at Weed Beach in Darien, Conn., in Jan. 2015.

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

Nor’easters and pending snowfalls aside, spring is knocking on the door.

The robins are back. That has to mean spring, right? Aren’t robins the traditional harbinger of spring?

Well, yes and no. Yes, they are the traditional harbinger of spring by manner of conventional wisdom, but, no, because some robins have remained in New England all winter.

A number of robins spend their winters in New England, Continue reading

For the Birds column: Preening away

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

Photo by Chris Bosak A Red-tailed hawk preens at Weed Beach in Darien, Conn., January 2015.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Red-tailed hawk preens at Weed Beach in Darien, Conn., January 2015.

I thought my cat was bad. The incessant licking to keep himself clean. He’s got to be the cleanest cat ever.

Then I watched a northern mockingbird preening itself. It went on for as long as I could watch and who knows how much longer after I walked away.

Feather maintenance is an important part of life for birds and it takes up a great amount of their time. Feathers play a role in a bird’s ability to fly, attract a mate, hide from predators and protect itself from the weather. Birds are the only living creatures with Continue reading

Latest For the Birds column: Tale of two birdwatching days

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

Photo by Chris Bosak
Snow Bunting at Norwalk’s Calf Pasture Beach, March 26, 2013.

I had two very different birdwatching experiences on consecutive days recently. Both of them were great, of course, but very, very different.

Let’s start with a Wednesday outing. I had some rare time to myself, so I was going somewhere. I didn’t care how cold it was outside, I was getting out of the house.

I had read the previous day on the Connecticut Rare Bird Alert Web site that short-eared owls were being seen at Silver Sands State Park in Milford. I’ve never had much luck finding owls, but figured I’d give it a shot. Maybe this was the day my luck would change. Snowy owls are being seen in larger-than-normal numbers this year, too, so my chances were doubled.

Armed with a heavy winter coat, hat and oversized dorky mittens, Continue reading