For the Birds: Winter's wonderful flurries

Photo by Chris Bosak A Song Sparrow seen in Selleck’s/Dunlap Woods in Darien, Conn., March 2014.

You always hope for a storm, but sometimes all you get is a flurry or two.

I’m not talking about a high school student who didn’t study for a test and is praying for a snow day. I’m talking about birding, of course.

The other day I visited a preserve in southern New England for the first time. I was struck immediately by the vast fields and several small wooded areas that looked to me like islands among the grassy expanse. My first thought was that this place is probably hopping with bobolinks, bluebirds and all sorts of other birds in the spring and summer.

But this wasn’t spring or summer. It was a dreary, raw winter day and the grass was short and brownish-yellow. Lifeless. The wooded islands were void of leaves and you could see the gray sky through the tangle of trunks and branches.

My plan was to walk along the edge of the wooded areas and see what was lurking in there. The anticipation of the new walk at a new place faded over time as close to an hour had passed and a few crows cawing in the distance was the only sign of birdlife I had noticed. I wanted to zero in on the crows to see if they were mobbing a hawk, owl or some other intruder. I couldn’t even find the crows in the sky, let alone zero in on them.

The anticipation may have faded, but my appreciation of the walk remained high. I spent much of 2019 battling off-again, on-again tendinitis in my right foot and hobbling around by putting pressure on the part of my foot that hurt the least. Walks on uneven terrain were out of the question. To be able to walk pain-free is something I’ll never take for granted again.

So I was enjoying the walk, birds or not. I made plans in my mind where I would walk when I returned in the spring. I exchanged pleasant hellos with the only two other people I saw. I started thinking about where I’d grab lunch. Or should I just wait until I got home to eat? It would be cheaper that way.

Suddenly, as is often the case when on a bird walk, the birds appeared in a flurry. It started with a few sparrows. They scurried from the grass and into a thicket bordering the woods. I found one hiding among a thick tangle of branches. White-throated sparrow. I spotted a few more white-throats before a curious song sparrow took a conspicuous perch on the top of a bush. The song sparrow and white-throats started calling to each other and it was like a bugle call for all birds in the area.

A northern mockingbird emerged from the center of a tall bush and settled on a branch where I could see it. It was there the whole time, but I was daydreaming and had completely missed it. A female cardinal burst onto the scene and perched a few branches higher than the mockingbird.

A group of four eastern bluebirds flew from one nearby tree to one a bit closer. A mourning dove pushed off the ground and landed on an overhanging branch. A small flock of American goldfinches took off from various points among the thicket and flew in their undulating pattern across the field and out of view. A red-bellied woodpecker and downy woodpecker made their presence known in the woods.

Heard, but not seen, were a group of blue jays and a Carolina wren. I went from seeing nothing to seeing an entire walk’s worth of birds in a matter of seconds. The feeling of anticipation and optimism returned and I continued my walk along the edge of the wooded areas. Nothing. I walked for about another hour. Nothing. I did find the four bluebirds again as I got closer to the car, but that’s about it.

Not that I’m complaining. I did get my flurry of birds and my feet held up just fine. I’ll take it.

For the Birds: New England's unpredictable winters

Photo by Chris Bosak A young Cooper's Hawk eats a squirrel in southern New England in Feb. 2015.
Photo by Chris Bosak A young Cooper’s Hawk eats a squirrel in southern New England in Feb. 2015.

Ah, a New England winter. There’s nothing like it.

Zero degrees one day and mid-50s a few days later. Arctic chill to pleasant spring-like weather in the blink of an eye.

Personally, I enjoy both extremes of a New England winter. I’ve said before that one of the great things about being a birdwatcher is that the hobby can be enjoyed regardless of the weather: hot, cold, rainy, snowy. The biggest impact weather — temperatures, anyway — has on birdwatching plans is whether or not the ponds will be frozen.

In the extreme cold, everything is frozen. Small ponds, large lakes and wide rivers are frozen solid. When that happens, I do my birdwatching at home and in the woods. (Lately, it’s been mostly at home, to be honest.) The feeders get particularly active in bitterly cold weather as birds feed with a sense of urgency to fuel up for the cold night ahead. All the birds you’d expect to see over the course of a winter sometimes show up in one day, especially in extreme weather. Cardinals, blue jays, mourning doves, juncos, white-throated sparrows, house finches and, of course, titmice, chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers can all show up on those days. Who knows? A pair of Carolina wrens may even show up.

Those types of frenetic feeder days are often accompanied by a visit from an opportunistic sharp-shinned or Cooper’s hawk, but I haven’t seen them around this winter yet.

The woods are usually fairly quiet during a deep freeze, but you can come across the occasional titmouse or chickadee.

Then a thaw will come. The feeder activity slows, but the ice recedes, too. Time to hit the ponds and see if any ducks are still around. For the first day or two when open water returns, typically nothing is found — or maybe a few mallards if you’re lucky. But persistence may pay off if you check daily. Maybe a nice group of ring-necked ducks or a handful of hooded mergansers will join the mallards.

In a way, I almost prefer a deep freeze over the thaws. We live in New England, right? What’s a New England winter without some bitterly cold temperatures? It makes us appreciate the other seasons that much more.

That said, I will admit that I’m often guilty of allowing some false hope about spring to creep into my mind. Spring is not too far away, really. As proof, this week I walked past a flower bed at work and saw snowdrops poking out of the ground.

I hope those flowers know what they’re doing. It’s not wise to underestimate a New England winter.

For the Birds: Bluebird finale

Annette Connor of New Hampshire got this shot of an eastern bluebird this winter.

The reports keep coming in so I’m going to ride the Eastern bluebird train for one more week.

In what is shaping up to be the unofficial Winter of the Bluebird, many sightings continue to come in from throughout New England, and beyond. Bluebirds, as I’ve written before, are not uncommon in New England in the winter, but the sheer number of reports this year is unique.

In case you missed the column from a few weeks ago, each winter seems to have a bird that shows up more frequently and noticeably than in typical winters. In recent years we’ve had the winter of the snowy owl, barred owl, American robin and dark-eyed junco. I’m sure you’ve figured out by now that this is highly unscientific and based on my own observations and the anecdotal observations of others.

I’ll run down the most recent sightings sent in and then close with a few fun facts about bluebirds.

Dick and Pat from Westmoreland wrote to say they had four bluebirds on their roof one recent morning, presumably drinking melted snow as it rolled down the shingles.

What’s better than having three bluebirds show up in your yard on a consistent basis in the winter? Having four show up, of course. That’s what Kathy from Swanzey is experiencing this year. She was pleasantly surprised to host three bluebirds last winter; this winter she added one to the count.

“We see them almost every day. It’s wonderful to hear their chirping on a cold winter day,” she wrote.

They also have two bluebird and two swallow families in their boxes each summer.

Margaret in Meredith was sad when their summer bluebirds disappeared. Her husband discovered them back in the yard a few weeks ago and since then the couple has seen them numerous times each day. They have had as many as six at one time and, like many other people, have had luck attracting bluebirds with dried mealworms. “Bluebirds of happiness. Yes, they are!” she exclaimed.

Anne from Sandwich also has mealworm-eating bluebirds this winter. “I have lived in Sandwich for 50 years and have had bluebirds every summer in my three boxes but never (before) in the winter,” she wrote.

Bill and Annette of Somersworth had four bluebirds at their feeders this winter. Guess what the birds were doing? If you guessed eating mealworms you are right. The couple sent photographic proof of their visitors too. They also have at least 50 juncos visiting daily eating sunflower seeds and cracked corn.

I even heard from southwestern Pennsylvania where Julie wrote to say a small flock of bluebirds is hanging out in her yard.

Now for those fun facts I promised you:

Homemade birdhouses have led to a remarkable population comeback for bluebirds.

Bluebirds often have two (or even three) broods in one year and the young birds from the first brood sometimes help raise the babies of the later broods.

Adult bluebirds typically return to the same nesting area each year.

Bluebirds are only found in North America.

The song of the bluebird, according to AllAboutBirds.org is “a fairly low-pitched, warbling song made up of several phrases, each consisting of 1-3 short notes. Harsher chattering notes may be interspersed with the whistles.”

For the Birds: Winter of the Bluebird brewing?

Photo by Chris Bosak
An eastern bluebird scans a yard in Danbury, CT, March 2019.

I thought it was going to be the winter of the junco again, but it’s looking more and more like the winter of the bluebird.

Last year was the winter of the barred owl. As you recall, barred owls were being seen in great numbers all throughout New England. Experts had conflicting theories on why so many of these beautiful owls were being seen, but there is no denying that more than usual were found. On one trip to visit my brother in upstate New York, I found two barred owls. The second owl was perched atop a Welcome to New York sign on the Vermont border.

Several years ago, Christmas Bird Count results were teeming with huge dark-eyed junco numbers. Whereas there are usually hundreds of juncos in a particular count area, there were thousands that year. I dubbed it the winter of the junco and have been on the lookout for similar anecdotal phenomena since then.

Who can forget the winter of the snowy owl a few years back? I can recall robins and pine siskins being highlighted in previous winters.

As I drive to work every day, one stretch of a particular road often has a large flock of juncos. They scatter as I drive by; their white-outlined tails giving away their i Continue reading

For the Birds: New Year’s birding resolutions

Photo by Chris Bosak
Blue-headed vireo, Pillsbury State Park, N.H., June 2019.

Last year at this time I wrote about my New Year’s resolutions to help birds. They largely focused on citizen science projects I would either undertake for the first time or continue to be involved in.

Looking back, I could say that I did fairly well with my resolutions. Some of them, however, like most resolutions, just never came to fruition.

I did participate in a number of citizen science projects. I have done the Christmas Bird Count and the Great Backyard Bird Count for many years continuously. This past year was no exception.

Also, last year was the second year of the three-year Connecticut Breeding Bird Atlas, an ambitious project to document what birds are breeding in that state. I have an adopted area and look forward to this spring to add to my breeding bird list. I also beefed up this past year my contributions to eBird, a free app in which all reported sightings are entered into a massive database.

I fell short in a few areas. I never did take the steps to join Project FeederWatch, which I had vowed to do. Maybe this year.

I will take a slightly different approach to my bird New Year’s resolutions this year. I will continue to do the citizen science projects, of course, but will also add some resolutions of a different sort.

I have been thinking about and being encouraged to write a book or two about my birding adventures. I haven’t done so after all these years because I wasn’t Continue reading

For the Birds: Christmas Bird Count is always a highlight

Photo by Chris Bosak
Common loon in winter plumage on Long Island Sound.

The birding had been slow — not dreadfully slow, but slower than usual, for sure — when we rolled up beside some evergreens in a front yard. We noted a flurry of activity (finally) and stopped for a closer inspection.

A half-dozen juncos flitted close to the ground, flashing their white-edged tails. Suddenly, a yellow bird flew from one tree to another. Any yellow bird that is not a goldfinch is cause for “ID at all costs” during a Christmas Bird Count. Not that goldfinches aren’t welcomed species, but they are rather expected to be seen in New England in December. Other yellow birds, not so much.

It landed just long enough for us to get a decent look and for Frank to get a few good-enough photographs. It was a warbler, for sure. We immediately thought orange-crowned warbler as they are the warblers most often seen during a New England Christmas Bird Count. Frank inspected the photos on his camera — something that wouldn’t have been possible 20 or 25 years ago — and determined it was a Nashville warbler instead. In the flurry, we also noted a ruby-crowned kinglet scurry from one bush to another. All the while, a Carolina wren belted out a song from a telephone wire across the street. As a birdwatcher, you love those flurries. You really love them during a Christmas Bird Count.

Frank and I cover a coastal area of Connecticut and have done so for going on 20 years. For that area, we finished the Count with 52 species and close to 2,000 birds. Not bad, not great. We’ve had better years, to be honest.

The Christmas Bird Count is an annual citizen science project that has grown from 27 participants in the inaugural Count in 1900 to now more than 75,000 participants each year. Keene was one of the original 25 Count areas. The data is used by ornithologists and other scientists to track long-term trends of bird populations.

Yes, it’s scientific and for a great cause. But, really, most people do it because it’s great fun. It’s an excuse to take a December day and watch birds from sunrise to sunset (even longer for the owlers.) It does, however, become a responsibility for participants. You don’t want to miss a day and let down the birds or your fellow birders.

Weather plays a big role in the amount of fun you have. Here in New England, a mid-December day can be 50 degrees or zero degrees. It can be sunny, cloudy, rainy, snowy, or any combination thereof. I’ve done Counts in blizzards and I’ve done Counts when it feels like early September.

This year’s Count was cloudy, cold and breezy. I’ll take it. It could have been a lot worse. The breeziness may have kept some birds hunkered down, but I don’t think the lack of birds we saw was due to the weather, except for the freshwater ponds. We visited a few ponds that had been frozen a few days prior to the Count so most ducks flew off for open water. We did see a lot of gadwall, a few ring-necked ducks and hooded mergansers, and, of course, tons of mallards.

We had other successes, too, such as the Nashville warbler and kinglet. Other highlights included several hundred brant, a gray catbird, a peregrine falcon and seven common loons on Long Island Sound.

Frank and I discussed the demise of the monk parakeet. We used to count dozens of the bright green birds along the coast and this year we had only one fly over our heads. Its squawking alerted us to it. Monk parakeets, of course, are not native to New England, but an escaped shipment from JFK Airport decades ago led to an established colony along the Connecticut coastline. They used to thrive here; now, they are all but gone. They build huge, heavy nests made of sticks on utility poles, so we concluded that the utility companies must have had something to do with their disappearance. That’s just a guess, however.

Want to get involved with a Count in your area? Most local Counts have been done already this year, but start planning now for next year. Do an Internet search for “How do I join the Christmas Bird Count” and the first result will be a link to the National Audubon Society’s CBC page. You can also check out historic local results from your area.

If you do sign up, be prepared to have fun. Just be ready to bundle up.

For the Birds: Welcome mat for the typical birds

Here is the latest For the Birds column, which runs in several New England newspapers. Thanks for checking it out …

Photo by Chris Bosak A blue jay grabs a peanut from a deck railing in New England, fall 2019.

The word typical often has a negative connotation.

It is usually used to describe something boring or mundane. “Just a typical day at the office.” Or worse, as a word of exasperation to draw attention to a recurring negative behavior: “He said what? Oh, that’s so typical of him.”

But I’m going to use typical in a positive way here. After all, Thanksgiving is a fresh memory, the holiday season is upon us, and 311 is my favorite band. The band encourages “positivity” and closes its concerts with “Stay positive. Love your life.” So I will do that here with the word typical.

The other day, all the “typical” birds showed up at my feeder. And that’s a good thing.

My typicals include black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, white-breasted nuthatches, downy woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers and blue jays. You can throw juncos in there, too, during the winter — and late fall as they have already arrived.

Other birds visit from time to time, but those are the birds that are always here. Many people have written to me lately about a lack of chickadees at their feeders. It’s definitely a trend to keep an eye on, but thankfully, I still have plenty of chickadees visiting my feeders. I still haven’t solved the mystery as to why so many people are experiencing a scarcity of chickadees, but I can tell you that I see them often.

I’m not trying to be boastful about my feeders or the fact that I see a lot of chickadees. There are some obvious bird species that I hardly ever see in my backyard.

Cardinals, for whatever reason, are rare sightings at my feeders. I see them all the time in the bushes along the sides of the road when I am driving through the neighborhood, but they avoid my yard like the plague.

Although I get more than my share of juncos in the winter, I rarely see white-throated sparrows — a usual accompaniment of juncos. At my previous houses, white-throated sparrows were a common winter occurrence and easily outnumbered all other winter birds. Here, I barely see them. I’ve seen more fox sparrows here than white-throated sparrows and that’s just plain odd.

I do see a ton of chipping sparrows in the spring and summer, but not enough to add them to my typical list. I am lucky enough to get good numbers of rose-breasted grosbeaks each spring, but their length of stay is too short to make the list. I do enjoy that short window each year, though.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds miss the cut by the barb of a feather. I see them daily from late April until the end of September, but I couldn’t bring myself to include a bird that is not a year-round New Englander. The hummingbirds are off sunning themselves and gorging on insects in Costa Rica or thereabouts, not like the chickadees, titmice and nuthatches that visit me daily regardless of the temperature.

I don’t just give out the title of “typical” to anything, you know.