For the Birds: Pausing for horned larks

Photo by Chris Bosak A horned lark looks for food in New England, February 2021.

The crossbills were going to have to wait. I wasn’t about to just walk past a field full of horned larks.

Last week, I wrote about my trip to see red crossbills. The target birds were clearly being seen close by as a crush of photographers and birdwatchers were standing on a boardwalk huddled together as much as possible in these days of socially distancing ourselves. I knew the crossbills were there, but to get there I had to walk along the edge of a field where about a dozen horned larks were hopping about looking for food.

One of the larks made the temptation even greater as it flew in closer to the edge of the field where I walked. It proved to be too much as I stopped my progress toward the crossbills and kneeled down to get a better angle of the lark that was now well within photographic range. The lark looked for food and in doing so, kept inching toward me. I held my ground and put the crossbills on hold.

Eventually, the larks flew off as one to the far end of the field. OK, crossbill time, I thought — just as the crossbills flew away from their convenient spot next to the boardwalk. As I wrote last week, the crossbills settled in a tree not far away and offered plenty of quality time to the photographers and birdwatchers, this time including me. Horned larks are named for the horn-like feathers that sometimes stick up from either side of the birds’ heads. The “horns” were not out on the birds I photographed, but the birds still proved to be handsome photographic subjects.

From a distance, horned larks are not much to look at. They are small birds and appear to be rather bland as you see them from across a field. Many people may see them and not give them a second look.

Closer inspection yields a bird that is mostly white underneath and brown above with decorative yellow and black markings on its face, throat and head. Females are similarly patterned but overall more dull in color.

Horned larks are year-round residents in parts of New England, but they are seen most frequently during the winter. They favor open, barren areas so look in low-cut fields and on beaches for the best chance to spot them. Even snow-covered fields are good places to look as larks seek out seeds that still cling to the grasses that poke above the snow or have been blown on the snow’s surface.

Despite favoring open spaces, they can be difficult to spot. In the winter, the grass and weeds are brown, as is the sand, making it a perfect camouflage for the bird. Usually, it’s their movement that betrays them as they are constantly moving around. They typically gather in fairly large flocks as well, making them easier to find.

Winter can sometimes be a difficult season to get through, but larks are one more reason to get out there and make the most of it.

For the Birds: Redpolls popping up here and there

Photo by Chris Bosak Common Redpolls, Cove Island, Stamford, Ct. Jan. 19, 2013

Here’s a For the Birds column I wrote several weeks ago and neglected to post here for whatever reason. The content is still relevant …

Now the reports of redpolls are coming in.

It has been a winter full of rare-bird alerts where the sightings are coming in from the woods as well as people’s backyards. People have been reporting red-breasted nuthatches and evening grosbeaks at their feeders for a few months already. There have also been reports of pine siskins, but not in the great numbers of the big-irruption winters for that bird.

In the woods and fields, and mountains for that matter, pine grosbeaks, white-winged crossbills and red-winged crossbills have been showing up on reports. Boreal chickadees, long a target bird for life-listers south of the Boreal forest, have been found on the mountaintops of the Monadnock Region.

The exceptional winter continues with sightings of redpolls occurring throughout New England. I have heard from a few readers who have seen these small northern birds and have reported them with rightful delight. There are two types of redpolls that occur in New England: common and hoary. Common, as its name suggests, are the ones more frequently seen in New England. Redpolls somewhat resemble sparrows in size and color but have a red-topped head, black spot under the bill and rosy wash throughout that is more obvious in some individuals than in others.

Sarah from Sandwich last week reported having more than 20 redpolls at a time at her Droll Yankee feeders. Some of the redpolls preferred to grab the seeds from the ground, she wrote. Amy from Harrisville also wrote in to say she has had a lone female redpoll at her feeders.

I had dubbed last year’s cold months as the winter of the bluebird because so many people (including myself) were reporting sightings of these cheerful birds in their yards. The year before that it was the winter of the barred owl as those awesome birds of prey were being found in unusually high numbers. I have dubbed other winters in honor of snowy owls and robins.

Perhaps this is the winter of the rarity with so many different rare birds being found throughout the region. I’m using “rare” in a general sense as these birds are not particularly rare in their normal range, but they are somewhat rare sightings throughout New England. Winter typically features an irruption of a species or two, but not always this many. I can’t remember a winter with so many sightings of siskins, redpolls, red-breasted nuthatches and grosbeaks. This winter (really late fall) also featured a flight of purple finches moving sough through the region.

This could all make for some interesting notations on Great Backyard Bird Count and N.H. Winter Bird Survey checklists. I hope you got out and participated over the weekend. I look forward to seeing the results when they are available. In the meantime, keep your eyes open on your feeders and during your walks in the woods. There is still plenty of winter left, so no one knows what might show up next.

For the Birds: Those snowy days

Photo by Chris Bosak A dark-eyed junco visits a backyard in New England, January 2021.

The junco sat perfectly still in the bush as snow collected on his back. The snow came down hard and the wind whipped it around.

It was the wind that kept the junco motionless in the bush. When the wind offered a rare break, the junco darted to the nearby bird feeder to grab a few sunflower seeds.

He would fly back to his spot in the bush, having shaken off the snow that had collected on him. It didn’t take long for new snow to accumulate on his dark gray feathers.

Snowy days are among the best times to watch the feeders. It is interesting to see how little the elements affect the birds. Tiny birds such as chickadees can withstand extremely cold and windy conditions. They have a variety of mechanisms to protect them from the harsh elements. I have written about those in previous columns and may revisit that topic in the future.

But for now, I’m going to focus on this past storm that hit New England and recall the many birds that visited. The junco I mentioned before was one of more than a dozen juncos that were around that day. Other sparrows included white-throated, song and house. Many people don’t think of juncos as being a sparrow because of their different coloration, but they are indeed members of the sparrow family.

Both nuthatches came and went throughout the day. It is such a thrill to see the red-breasted nuthatches daily this winter. Not that I don’t appreciate the white-breasted nuthatches, but they are much more common and year-round birds where I am. The red-breasted nuthatch shows up only in random years.

Of course, chickadees and titmice were regular visitors. A pair of Carolina wrens entertained me as well. I always like watching their antics in the yard, especially when they make their unique chatter calls outside the window.

It was a heck of a snowstorm — the worst in several years where I am anyway. Will there be more opportunities this winter to watch the birds at the feeder in the snow? That remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t be surprised in the least. In fact, I would be very surprised if we didn’t have more snowfalls. This is New England, after all, and winter is a way of life here.

For the Birds: 2020’s Top 10 birding highlights

Photo by Chris Bosak A pileated woodpecker works over a tree in New England, May 2020. Merganser Lake.

It may have been a disastrous year in most regards, but one bright spot is the connection with nature many people made while dealing with the pandemic and associated quarantines, isolation and soul-searching.

Bird-feeding stores reported increased sales as people stuck at home turned to the hobby as a much-needed escape. Nature preserves closed their visitor centers, but most of the trails remained open and people flocked to them to ward off cabin fever.

I worked from home for most of the year and, while I missed seeing my co-workers, I did enjoy watching my backyard bird-feeding station daily as the seasons changed. I never realized how much you miss when you go about your regular routine.

With that in mind, here are my top 10 bird/nature watching highlights of 2020. Feel free to send me an email with some of your highlights.

10. Warblers in the snow

A rare overnight snowfall in early May dropped a coating of snow that lasted until about noon. It provided a short window to see warblers and other migratory songbirds in snow. I managed a few photos of an ovenbird and blue-winged warbler.

9. Love birds

I watched several birds at my Continue reading

For the Birds: Snow brings the birds

Photo by Chris Bosak A white-throated sparrow visits to a New England backyard, December 2020.

The first major snowstorm of the year hit New England with a varying degree of impact. Parts of the region were socked with a foot or more, while other parts were hardly touched.

I woke up to about a foot of light snow, and I loved it. As anticipated, the activity at the bird feeder was frenetic. Juncos, dozens of them, along with a few white-throated sparrows and a lone song sparrow grazed nervously on the ground under the feeder. Chickadees, titmice and nuthatches politely took turns at the hopper feeder, and a pair of Carolina wrens occupied the platform feeder.

The wrens were quickly displaced by a boisterous blue jay who made it very clear whose turn it was at the feeder. Not that the blue jay waited patiently in the first place. The big, Continue reading

For the Birds: Did Ben Franklin really want the turkey as the national symbol?

photo by Chris Bosak
photo by Chris Bosak

With Thanksgiving upon us, I am going to revisit my turkey fun facts column. I used to do this annually, but the content got staler than week-old stuffing. To add a little spice to this year’s column, I will start out by debunking a widely held belief about America’s favorite game bird.

If you do a web search for “turkey fun facts,” invariably the “fact” that Ben Franklin wanted the wild turkey to be our national bird instead of the bald eagle will come up. In full disclosure, an old column of mine may come up in that search as I’ve used it as fact before in my own writing. But is that really a fact? Evidently, no. I’m not a historian and I certainly wasn’t around in the 1700s to verify it myself, but I’ve come across several accounts that challenge the notion that Ben Franklin wanted the turkey to be our national symbol.

According to the articles, he actually wanted a Biblical scene to be our national symbol, not a bird at all. He did reference the bald eagle and wild turkey in some of his correspondences, but the references had nothing to do with our national symbol and some of the references were believed to be Continue reading

For the Birds: It’s duck-watching season

Photo by Chris Bosak A female common merganser swims in a pond in Danbury, Conn., March 2019.

The recent stretch of beautiful weather aside, November can be a tough month for birdwatchers.

Frigid temperatures, cold rain and even some snow has many of us longing for the more pleasing fall weather of September and October. Most of the migrants, such as hawks and songbirds, are gone by November. The last of the leaves have fallen off the trees, except for a few hangers-on, erasing most of the color from the landscape. With most of the flowers long gone too, brownish-gray tree trunks and dark green foliage of evergreens dominate the landscape.

Birders, however, are eternal optimists and always find bright spots. For me, November means that the waterfowl migration has begun in earnest. It starts slowly in October and hits its stride in November. Ducks, as I have written for years, are my favorite type of bird to watch, so I never dread November.

My first duck migration sighting of the year came a few weeks ago when I spotted four male hooded mergansers swimming away from the shoreline as I approached a neighborhood pond. It was a beautiful thing to see and the first of many similar sightings that will occur for the next several months.

I received an email last week from Amy, who wrote that she had seen a flock of more than 70 common mergansers on Childs Bog in Harrisville.

Common mergansers often form huge flocks and may be seen throughout late fall and winter on our lakes and large ponds. Smaller flocks and individual mergansers are often seen as well, including on smaller ponds and rivers.

The merganser family, which also includes the red-breasted merganser, is an interesting family to study in New England. They are divers, meaning they dive underwater for their food as opposed to dabbling, and they have serrated bills to keep the food from slipping away as they surface.

Mergansers, especially common mergansers, are extremely wary, at least in my experience. Occasionally, I have come across a slightly less timid hooded merganser, but I have yet to find a common merganser that is not ultra-wary.

Of course, the merganser family just scratches the surface of all the ducks we will see passing through New England for the next several months. Bodies of fresh water will attract a different variety than salt water. There are some species that will readily go to fresh, brackish or salt water, but many species have a preference. Loons are interesting in that they breed on large freshwater bodies of water but are mostly found on salt or brackish water in the winter. Long Island Sound off the coast of Rhode Island and Connecticut is an excellent place to find common and red-throated loons in the winter. They are not the flashy birds that they are in the summer but rather a much more dull-colored version of themselves. They are still a thrill to see regardless of what plumage they are sporting.

With the duck season just picking up pace now, there will be plenty to write about in the next several months. I look forward to sharing my experiences. As always, feel free to drop me a line and let me know what you are seeing as well.

For the Birds: More from the readers

Photo by Chris Bosak A purple finch perches on a log in New England, November 2020.

The regular flow of feeder birds continued this past week, but they were joined by a few newcomers.

Two weeks ago, it was a lone red-breasted nuthatch that showed up and stayed for a day. This past week, a lone purple finch and a lone pine siskin joined the usual gang of backyard birds. The purple finch stayed for only one day — a few hours, to be more precise. The pine siskin, however, has visited daily ever since it first arrived on the scene.

Pine siskins are notorious for showing up in large numbers and cleaning out thistle feeders. I am surprised this siskin has not been joined by others of its kind, but so far it has been just the one. It mixes with a large group of American goldfinches and can be quite feisty when another bird tries to steal its perch. Pine siskins often flock with American Continue reading

For the Birds: Busy, busy feeders

Photo by Chris Bosak American Robin in Selleck's Woods in fall 2013.
Photo by Chris Bosak American Robin in Selleck’s Woods in fall 2013.

Activity at the birdfeeders has been nonstop. I have not seen any of the winter finches or really anything out of the ordinary, but the regulars are showing up in droves. I did see a palm warbler in the birdbath and a few yellow-rumped warblers in the trees.

I’m not alone in being invaded by feeder birds. Bill from Keene wrote recently and made an interesting analogy regarding the many birds at his feeders when he likened the action to an airport terminal. His visitors have included tons of juncos, jays, robins and many more. “Almost clouds, all flying madly, like insects,” Bill wrote. “Looks like an airline terminal.”

I really do like the airport analogy and thought of it the next time I watched my feeders. My frequent fliers are titmice, chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches and downy Continue reading

For the Birds: Good news from the Winter Finch Forecast

Photo by Chris Bosak A pine siskin perches on the top of an evergreen in Danbury, CT, March 2019.

The 2020-21 Winter Finch Forecast is out and it looks like it could be an exciting next several months in New England.

This is the first forecast by Tyler Hoar. Ron Pittaway did the forecast for several decades before passing the torch to Hoar this year. The Winter Finch Forecast is a prediction of what finch (and other) species may irrupt into New England and parts south and west. An irruption is when northern birds move to or through an area in abnormally high numbers. For example, many years we get very few or even no pine siskins. Other years we get so many we can’t fill the feeders fast enough. Irruptions occur mainly due to food availability, or lack thereof. If it is a bad crop year up north for a certain type of food, such as pine cone seeds, irruptions may occur as birds move in search of food sources.

According to Hoar, this is shaping up to be a good year for purple finches and evening grosbeaks. It is also a year when red-breasted nuthatches are moving south in high numbers. Perhaps you’ve seen more of these small, charismatic birds than usual in your yard this fall already. I hadn’t seen or heard a red-breasted nuthatch in my yard for about four years. This fall, I’ve had three already. I’ve seen only one, and heard the other two. Red-breasted nuthatches have higher-pitched songs and calls than their cousins, the white-breasted nuthatch. It’s an unmistakable difference once you learn it. Red-breasted nuthatches are the more common nuthatch throughout much of New England, particularly up north. In southern New England, irruption years of red-breasted nuthatches are a special treat as they are not resident birds.

The Winter Finch Forecast covers finches such as redpolls, crossbills and siskins, as well as a few small birds that aren’t finches. Irruptions are not limited to these small birds, of course. Who can forget the winter of 2013-14 when snowy owls were all the rage and showed up in places they’d never been seen before?

To see the full forecast, enter “2020-21 Winter Finch Forecast” into a web search and have at it. Are we likely to see common redpolls this winter? I’ll leave that research up to you. I’m always looking forward with excitement regardless of the season, but the Winter Finch Forecast offers that much more incentive to cheer on winter and the colder months. Winter is not so bad after all.