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 clothesline nearby. I’ve never seen three hummingbirds that close together at my house before. The male is very territorial and tolerates nothing around “his” feeder.

Perhaps the crowd at the feeding station had something to do with it because he is now much more chill about it all. The extra space around feeder and the built-in long perch of the clothesline apparently make him feel more comfortable.

I strongly suspect — and hope — that the extra hummingbirds showing up now are first-year birds, hatched and fledged either in my yard or nearby. I’ve also seen several first-year birds of other species, such as downy and hairy woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatches, cardinals, tufted titmice and black-capped chickadees. I even see “my” rose-breasted grosbeak pair on occasion at the feeders.

That is one of the great joys of year-round bird-feeding. Many people stop feeding birds during the summer for one reason or another — bears being a big reason. I used to stop feeding birds in the summer because house finches would be my only visitors and they were eating me out of house and home. At my (relatively) new house, I hardly ever see house finches, so the seeds go longer. Unless, the chipmunks come, but that’s a story for another day.

Speaking of summer bird feeding, here are a few tips:

Put oranges out for orioles. I’ve tried this with no success, but that doesn’t mean it won’t work for you.

Put out mealworms for bluebirds. I live in a wooded area, so I don’t see bluebirds that often. Let me know if this works for you.

Keep the seed dry. Summer is hot, humid and rainy. Don’t let your seed spoil.

Change hummingbird food often. Hot, humid weather will spoil sugar water in a day or two.

Clean the feeders more frequently. Same reasoning — hot, humid weather is ideal for bacteria and other nasty stuff.

Put suet in the shade. A hot, sunny day will wreak havoc on suet cakes.

Have fun enjoying the birds as we head into the dog days of summer. And, of course, let me know what you’re seeing.

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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.

I set up a desk and computer in a room that looks directly at the feeders for those days when I work from home. (Of course, I did. Why would I not do something like that?)

The other day I looked out at the feeder for a good amount of time and noticed these stakes were quite busy at their side job. The variety of birds using the sticks surprised me, especially since it is the middle of summer.

The most exciting sighting was a male ruby-throated hummingbird. It was one of about three regular perches he used to keep an eye on “his” feeder.

It was also fun to watch when the American goldfinches made their rounds in the yard. Three or four of these small, but colorful and lively birds would utilize the sticks at once.

The stakes are not particularly sturdy, so the larger birds tend not to use them. My guess is that they tried to use them at a time when I wasn’t watching and found them to be too flimsy. Not that I would mind the cardinals and blue jays using the perches, but they are relegated to thicker branches still attached to trees.

Sometimes being cheap, I mean resourceful, pays off. Not only are my tomatoes, beans and peppers standing upright, my birds are happier, too.

For the Birds: Early-morning wake-up call

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

Photo by Chris Bosak An American Robin perches on a gravestone at at a cemetery in Darien, Conn., April 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
An American Robin perches on a gravestone at at a cemetery in Darien, Conn., April 2014.

A raccoon knocked over something in the backyard around three in the morning. The crash woke me from a dead sleep, so I got up to investigate. A quick look in the pitch-dark with a cheap flashlight did not yield the cause of the crash. The potted plants looked to be intact and the birdfeeders seemed to be in their place.

I went back to the screened-in porch to continue my night’s sleep, but sweet dreams eluded me. I used to be the world’s best sleeper; able to sleep anytime, anywhere. As I’ve gotten older, however, it’s gotten less easy.

So, I stared into the dark woods, listened to the night sounds and hoped to doze off again. When the robins started singing I gave up. I checked the time: 4:45. Still dark. I got to thinking as I sat there waiting for the sun to rise about why birds would sing before dawn in the summer. I can understand in the spring, as the male birds want to attract females, so why not get an early jump on the competition.

But in the summer, why sing so early? Why sing at all, really?

The breeding season, for the most part, is over, so impressing females shouldn’t be at the top of their list. That is the beauty of thinking, of course. You come up with theories, right or wrong, about your questions. Robins are the most-hearty singers in the morning in the summer, at least at my place. Robins are early nesters, getting started before a lot of our songbirds. They also have several broods each year — two or three in New England.

So, it made sense to me that a robin would be singing that early because he may still be in the breeding season.

In my weary ruminations, I thought of another reason. Birds sing for two main purposes: to attract females and to protect their territory. The breeding season might be over, but the task of raising young is still at hand. A bird waking up that early to sing is calling out to other birds that they are alive and well to stay the heck away.

Now for the beauty of the Internet: You can discover what others think on the subject. There are other theories on why birds sing so early — atmospheric condition is one theory — but I will leave the scientific research to those more capable.

I did find some interesting tidbits on singing. Bird pairs recognize each other’s “voice.” It is mostly the males that sing, of course, but all birds call to each other. The songs and calls may all sound the same to us, but birds can recognize individuals by the nature of the sounds.

Some females do sing. I’ve heard female cardinals singing on plenty of occasions. I’ve read that female grosbeaks and orioles also sing.

Sleeping outside (the screened-in porch is close enough to outside) opens your eyes and ears to the dark side of nature. I mean dark in a literal sense, of course.

Also, when sleep escapes you, it gives you time to ponder.

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For the Birds: A chipping sparrow kind of year

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

Photo by Chris Bosak A Chipping Sparrow visits a homemade birdfeeder in Danbury, Conn., April 2016.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Chipping Sparrow visits a homemade birdfeeder in Danbury, Conn., April 2016.

It’s been the year of the chipping sparrow in my yard. It started in the winter and hasn’t stopped yet.

Like most other birdwatchers, I had more than my fair share of dark-eyed juncos at my feeders this past winter. The other dominant species in winter is usually the white-throated sparrow, but this winter I didn’t see a single white-throat in the yard. I did see plenty of chipping sparrows, though.

When spring arrived, the juncos headed north to their breeding grounds and I haven’t seen one since. Chipping sparrows, on the other hand, have been a daily sighting from those snowy, winter days into spring and even early summer. I don’t think a day has gone by when I haven’t seen a chipping sparrow — and that’s a good thing, of course.

I have seen plenty of these tiny birds in the past, but I don’t remember seeing them in this number or frequency before. It has been a welcome revelation.

Chipping sparrows are small, handsome birds. They rank among the smallest in New England, in fact, outsizing hummingbirds and kinglets, but being comparable to warblers and juncos.

When the leaves start to fall in a few months (not that I’m rushing it), we may discover the nests used in the spring and summer by chipping sparrows. They are tiny structures built in the classic cup shape with material such as hair, mud, and straw. This year for the first time I filled a suet cage with dog hair to see if any birds would come for nesting material. The only taker I saw was a white-breasted nuthatch, but I would bet the chipping sparrows took some hair when I wasn’t looking.

Chipping sparrows are among the more vocal birds in my backyard, too. In the spring, its trilling was a daily auditory treat. Now that the babies have fledged, Continue reading

Latest For the Birds column: Persistence pays off in birding

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

Photo by Chris Bosak A Great Egret stands on a deck railing overlooking the Norwalk River in Norwalk, Conn., April 2016.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Great Egret stands on a deck railing overlooking the Norwalk River in Norwalk, Conn., April 2016.

Photo by Chris Bosak A Snowy Egret looks for food in Norwalk Harbor.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Snowy Egret looks for food in Norwalk Harbor.

Persistence, practice and patience will often make things that seem so difficult at the beginning become relatively easy.

It can be said of just about any hobby, but it certainly applies to birdwatching.

I can remember struggling with differentiating great egrets from snowy egrets. It seems somewhat silly now. Great egrets are markedly larger, have yellow bills and black legs and feet. Snowy egrets, aside from being much smaller, have black bills, black legs and yellow feet.

The differences are clear and obvious. But, as a beginner, I saw only tall white birds, and telling them apart was a challenge.

Trying to decide if I was looking at a downy or hairy woodpecker was another early sticking point. It took me years to come up with an easy way to tell the species apart. Aside from size, downys and hairys are identical — right down to the difference Continue reading

For the Birds: Watching the babies grow

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

Photo by Chris Bosak An adult male downy woodpecker, left, feeds an immature male downy woodpecker near a birdfeeder in New England, summer 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak
An adult male downy woodpecker, left, feeds an immature male downy woodpecker near a birdfeeder in New England, summer 2018.

They grow up so fast.

I was working at my computer at home, tending to the order of the day, when a flash of brown darted across the window and caught my attention. I followed the bird as it made its way through the thick cluster of branches in the front yard. It settled on a branch near the base of one of the many dying hemlocks.

It was a female rose-breasted grosbeak. Good sighting, I thought, especially considering the suddenness of the whole thing. It got better, though.

A few seconds later another flash — this one black, white and red — burst upon the scene. The male rose-breasted grosbeak flew from branch to branch and finally settled a few inches away from the first bird. The original bird tilted back its head, opened its beak and fluttered its wings. The male, who had been collecting worms from the various branches it had previously landed on, fed the youngster and went about looking for more food.

That scene made me question my original thought of it being a female rose-breasted grosbeak. Clearly, it was a youngster and born only a few weeks prior. From the distance and angle, I couldn’t tell if it was a male or female youngster Continue reading

For the Birds: The difference, or not, between the sexes

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

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Photo by Chris Bosak A female rose-breasted grosbeak visits a feeder in Danbury, Conn., during the spring of 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A female rose-breasted grosbeak visits a feeder in Danbury, Conn., during the spring of 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak A male rose-breasted grosbeak visits a feeder in Danbury, Conn., during the spring of 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak A male rose-breasted grosbeak visits a feeder in Danbury, Conn., during the spring of 2018.

I heard its call and knew the indigo bunting was close.

Suddenly, it burst from the tall grasses and wildflowers and perched at the top of a blade of grass. The blade bent, but held the bird’s weight.

Once the bird settled, my first thought was “Oh, just the female.” The male indigo bunting is on many New England birdwatcher’s “most-wanted” list. Its brilliant blue plumage is one of the most inspiring sights in New England’s natural world. The female? Well, it’s brown and rather sparrow-like.

My attitude toward the female bunting changed quickly as I realized any indigo bunting sighting is worth celebrating, regardless of whether it’s a male or female. I snapped one photo before the female bunting left her perch and disappeared again into the tall grasses.

The indigo bunting is a prime example of sexual dimorphism. I’m usually not the type to throw out terms like that, but this one is worth knowing. Sexual dimorphism is the difference in appearance between males and females of the same species.

New England is filled with great examples, even among our common, year-round species. Cardinals are an obvious example. The males are brilliant red and females are a duller olive green or light brown.

Our most colorful songbirds, such as the scarlet tanager and rose-breasted grosbeak, are other fine examples. The females of both species are dull in color, while the males sport brilliantly colorful plumage.

I thoroughly enjoyed looking at the male and female rose-breasted grosbeaks at the feeder this spring and early summer.

Many female birds are duller, of course, so as to not attract attention, especially during nesting season. Let the males be the targets and keep predators away from the nest.

Other extreme cases may be found by looking at our water birds. The wood duck is about as colorful a bird as you can imagine. The male, that is. The female is muted browns and tans. Even the mallard, our most common and well-known duck, is an example with the shiny green head of the male and overall brown of the female.

Now, let’s look at some examples from the other side — the monomorphic birds. Male and female blue jays, for instance, have a similar appearance. The same goes for chickadees and mourning doves and many other common New England species.

Some species straddle the line and have less obvious differences. The male Baltimore oriole is a brilliant, vibrant orange, while the female is a duller orange. Male eastern towhees are black, white and rufous, while the females are similarly designed with brown instead of black plumage. The difference between sexes is even closer with the American robin, with the males having a slightly more polished coat.

Birds of prey are an interesting study in sexual dimorphism. In their case, the females are usually slightly larger. The bald eagle is an extreme case as the females can be up to 30 percent larger.

Sexual dimorphism is not exclusive to the bird world. Male deer and moose have antlers, females don’t. That’s one obvious example, but in most cases, male and female mammal species look pretty much alike.

Eventually, I found the male indigo bunting, too. He was keeping watch among the top branches of a nearby tree. While it was great to see the electric blue of its plumage, as I look back, I was just as happy to the see the muted brown of the female.

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