For the Birds: Readers report sightings and lack thereof

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.

Readers take over as we settle in for a nice holiday break.

Merry Christmas, everyone, and keep those bird sightings, observations and questions coming.

Susan in Nelson (N.H.) is one of the lucky birdwatchers to have seen evening grosbeaks this year. The handsome yellow, black and white bird has been spotted throughout New England in larger numbers than normal this fall. Susan lives at high elevation and has been hosting the grosbeaks since late November.

Evening grosbeaks, like many birds, unfortunately, are somewhat of a rare sighting in New England these days. They used to be more common in our region, but now a sighting is cause for celebration. I haven’t seen any at my home yet, but I did spy one during my early November trip to Pittsburg, N.H.

Lida in Harrisville sent some great photos of much larger birds that visited her backyard feeder. The photo shows two wild turkeys on her deck — not far from the glass door — eating from a platform feeder.

Ken in Swanzey and Sandy in Keene shared a concern: Where are all the birds.

Both have had plenty of birds at their feeders in the past — even the recent past — but suddenly the birds stopped showing up.

Ken writes: “Our two feeders are normally jammed with at least eight species of small birds. It is not unusual for me to have to fill each feeder daily, such are their fall appetites. And, then, a month ago, gone! Nothing!”

Sandy shared: “About a week before Thanksgiving we stopped seeing or hearing any bird activity. Post-Thanksgiving, we have spotted just a few. This is not typical of years past.”

It’s a question I get fairly often at different times of the year. The typical responses I hear others give is that the feeders may be dirty, a cat or a hawk may be lurking nearby, the seed may be old, or maybe the birds have found another feeding station nearby.

Those reasons, or a combination thereof, may be the cause for the disappearance of birds from some backyards. I doubt they are true in many cases, however. My guess is that the feeders are clean, the seed is fresh, predators are coming and going as usual, and there are plenty of birds to occupy all the feeders in the neighborhood.

So, what is it then? My response is typically that there is no simple answer and that the birds will eventually return.

Nature has its cycles and is just as unpredictable as it is predictable. We can do all the studies and research we want, but we’ll never have all of the answers. That’s part of what makes nature so fascinating to us.

It can be frustrating for sure to look out the window and not see the number of birds you typically see. It can also be concerning. I wouldn’t worry so much about a short-term dearth of birds at your feeders, however, frustrating as that may be.

It is important to take note of these slow periods — as Ken and Sandy have done — because when short-term turns into long-term, then there’s cause for real concern.


For the Birds: A New England bobwhite at last

Here is the latest For the Birds column …

Photo by Chris Bosak A nothern bobwhite seen at Happy Landing in Brookfield, Connecticut, fall 2018.

I turned the corner on one of the many trails that cut through the expansive fields of Happy Landings in southern New England and headed straight into the mid-morning sun.

To the right was a long but narrow stretch of bushy habitat; to the left a large plot of a hay field, short-cropped after a mid-fall mowing. It was a perfect New England winter morning — sunny and cold — even if the calendar read fall.

The bird walk had been very slow up to that point, with a hairy woodpecker being the highlight of only three species spotted. Half daydreaming because of the lack of action, I noticed a large bird on the ground on the trail. It was inches from the brushy strip of land.

The sun was bright and in my eyes, too, so I was too late to identify the bird. It had stepped into the thick brush before I could raise and focus my binoculars. I assumed Continue reading

For the Birds: The siskins come at last

Photo by Chris Bosak Pine siskins visit a feeder in Danbury, Connecticut, fall 2018.

A wise man once said: “The nature of a winter finch irruption, however, could mean a sizable flock of pine siskins can show up and empty out my Nyjer seed feeder at any moment.”

Just kidding. That was me writing two weeks ago about the hot start to the winter finch season. The wise man part is up for debate.

At the time of that writing, a female purple finch had been my only out-of-the-ordinary sighting at my feeding station. A week later a few fox sparrows showed up. I know fox sparrows are not finches, but they can fit loosely into the category of winter finches because of their sporadic visits to New England backyards.

Then last week, true to the sentence at the top of this column, the pine siskins showed up. It started out with two siskins sharing the tube feeder with a group of goldfinches. The next day, I counted three siskins. The third day, about 20 siskins showed up and occupied every perch on the tube feeder and a nearby hopper feeder. The spillover Continue reading

For the Birds: Fox sparrows back in force

Photo by Chris Bosak
A fox sparrow perches on the snow in Danbury, Conn., Nov. 16, 2018.

Here is the latest For the Birds column: 

Last week I wrote about winter finches and how birds that aren’t even finches can easily be lumped into that broad category.

I mentioned a few examples and, of course, as soon as I hit the “send” button, an example that I failed to mention showed up in my backyard. It was a fox sparrow. Well, more specifically, two fox sparrows.

Fox sparrows aren’t finches, naturally, they are sparrows, just as their name suggests. But because they are small (relative to all birds) and show up at feeders throughout New England sporadically during certain winters, I think they can be mentioned under the very broad and nonspecific category of winter finches.

Winter finches, just to review quickly, are the northern birds that show up at New England feeders some winters, only to not be seen again for several years. Pine siskin is the prime example and this year seems to be another good year for siskins. Continue reading

For the Birds: Winter finches arrive on the scene

Photo by Chris Bosak A purple finch eats seeds at a feeder in New England, Nov. 2018.
Photo by Chris Bosak A purple finch eats seeds at a feeder in New England, Nov. 2018.

There has been a lot of talk lately about winter finches. There usually is this time of year.

I have read accounts of people seeing big flocks of pine siskins. Siskins are probably the most common winter finch that irrupts into the middle and southern parts of New England sporadically in winter.

Winter finch is not an official term with a clear-cut number of species that nicely fits the category. Rather, it is a general term used for members of the finch family that breed up north and typically spend their winters up north, but irregularly move south during the winter as food sources dictate.

The species most commonly associated with a winter finch irruption include pine siskin, common redpoll and purple finch. Larger finches, such as pine grosbeak and evening grosbeak, are also species seen at backyard feeders throughout New England during the winter.

But birds do not even have to be finches to fall into the loose category of “winter finch.” Often, the red-breasted nuthatch is lumped into the category due to its great abundance at feeders some winters and being a no-show during other winters.

So far this winter I have seen a lone female purple finch at my backyard feeding station. That has been the extent of my winter finch season so far. The nature of a winter finch irruption, however, could mean a sizable flock of pine siskins can show up and empty out my Nyjer seed feeder at any moment.

I did see a few red-breasted nuthatches on a recent trip to northern New Hampshire, but that is part of their breeding and winter grounds, and would not fall into the category of a winter-finch sighting.

Admittedly, it took a minute or two to identify the female purple finch that has been visiting my yard. It was clearly something different, so I knew I had to lock down an ID as soon as possible.

Female purple finches are streaky brown in plumage. It didn’t have the look or feel of a sparrow, so I eliminated those possibilities immediately. It looked a lot like a house finch, but was more heavily streaked and slightly larger and plumper overall. The thick bill further eliminated any sparrow possibilities and after very briefly considering the female rose-breasted grosbeak, I was able to nail down the ID as a female purple finch.

In the past when I have seen purple finches, it has usually been a pair so getting an ID was easier because I had the more colorful male to observe.

For whatever reason, regardless of how great a winter finch season it is throughout New England, my yard typically does not drive in a lot of these birds. While I’ve read about several backyards being ambushed by pine siskins already this season, I haven’t seen a pine siskin in about 10 years. That species typically irrupts every three or four years.

If nothing else shows up at my feeders all winter, I still have my regular feeder birds and my female purple finch. And I’m good with that.

For the Birds: No moose, but gray jays keep us busy

Photo by Chris Bosak A gray jay perches in a tree in Pittsburg, N.H., November 2018.

The surprises began as soon as we arrived in Pittsburg, the northern tip of the Granite State. To be more accurate, the surprises began about an hour before our arrival.

“Is that snow on the ground?” I asked as we drove through the darkness.

The headlights revealed that, indeed, a thin layer of snow blanketed the sides of the roads. We arrived at our rented cabin to find about 2 inches of snow in the Great North Woods.

Snow in early November in northern New Hampshire is not surprising, but this particular snow caught me off guard because of how warm it has been in southern New England. Wasn’t it just 70 degrees the week before?

Although it served as a reminder that winter is coming fast for all of the region, the snow was a welcome gift from the North Country. It was beautiful and, Continue reading

For the Birds: Sights and sounds of a fall canoe ride

Photo by Chris Bosak
A great blue heron perches on one leg in a tree in Brookfield, Conn., during the fall of 2018.

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


The fall drawdown on large New England lakes can make it a challenge to launch a canoe. The shoreline is often soupy and mucky, making it a dirty and dicey proposition to get in a quick paddle.

A little dirt and muck have never deterred me, however, especially when the possibility of good duck watching lies ahead. Such was the case last week when I braved the Lake Lillinonah shoreline in southwestern Connecticut to launch my canoe. Lillinonah is considered a lake because of its width, but it is really part of the Housatonic River.

Thankfully, it hadn’t rained in a few days so much of the shoreline was hardened mud. It got muckier the closer I got to the water, but I was able to leave the tail end of the canoe out far enough that my feet only sunk down about 2 or 3 inches before jumping in.

The bottom of the canoe’s interior was smeared with mud, but what the heck; it’s a canoe, a little dirt won’t hurt it. I lifted up my butt, dug in the paddle and pushed off hard. I was on my way and instantly felt the cares of the world disappear as I glided over the glassy water, surrounded by New England’s famous fall colors.

Continue reading