For the Birds: May is prime time

Where to begin? May is a firestorm of birding activity in New England.

I’ll recap a few of my recent highlights and then expand, where necessary or otherwise interesting, in subsequent columns.

A warbler by any other name: Many warblers actually have the name warbler in their name. Yellow warbler, chestnut-sided warbler, worm-eating warbler and so on. Many, however, don’t have warbler in their name. Common yellowthroat, American redstart to name a few.

A few warblers don’t have warbler in their name and look like they belong in the thrush family. The ovenbird and waterthrushes (northern and Louisiana) could easily pass for thrushes with their brown bodies and spotted chests. Heck, the waterthrushes even have thrush in their name. But they are all, indeed, warblers.

That warrants a column unto itself. I’ll dig into that in the coming weeks.

Dueling grosbeaks: I heard a rose-breasted grosbeak singing in a tree during the tail end of one of my recent walks. I paused enough to find its perch. As soon as I spotted the beautiful bird, another male rose-breasted grosbeak dive-bombed the original bird, and they started chasing each other through the woods. The action caught the eye of a third male grosbeak and that one joined in the chase as well. That was a first for me. Rose-breasted grosbeaks, with their white wing bars, are just as impressive-looking in flight as they are perched.

The warbler tree: Back to warblers for a minute. I was lured to a flowering apple tree by a northern parula, another warbler without warbler in its name. I tried, mostly in vain, to get a photo of the tiny bird as it moved from bud to bud looking for morsels. Finally, I stepped back from the tree and noticed the parula was not alone. A black-and-white warbler, blue-winged warbler and American redstart were also moving about the tree. I don’t think I had ever seen four warblers in one tree at the same time before.

New tune to me: I didn’t know what it was at first, but I knew it was something I hadn’t seen before. I heard a strange, but awesome, song coming from the thicket and wondered how long it would take me to find the singer. It wasn’t long at all as the white-eyed vireo was on an obvious perch singing its heart out. Southern New England is the northernmost range for this southern bird so I was surprised and happy to see it.

Tons of towhees: I usually see a lot of eastern towhees starting at the end of April and going through the summer. This spring, however, I seem to be seeing way more than usual. I’ve seen at least a dozen individuals on more than one walk this spring. I hope that means good things for the towhee population.

That’s about it for now. There are a few more hectic weeks of birding ahead until it slows down a bit as birds settle in to raise families. Many birds, of course, have already started that process and are perhaps already onto a second brood. Either way, the action will slow down as we approach summer, so get out and enjoy these wild weeks of spring migration. And, as always, let me know what you are seeing out there.

For the Birds: Warblers return

The warblers are back and delighting, confusing, and frustrating birdwatchers throughout New England.

Warblers are small, usually colorful, passerine (perching) birds that migrate into New England every spring. Many nest here while others continue north to nest in Canada. In the fall, they head to points south such as southern U.S., the Caribbean, Central America or South America. The odd warbler shows up on New England Christmas Bird Counts from time to time, but for the most part, they are gone before the snow starts to fly. 

To me, the quintessential warbler is the yellow warbler. It is small, brightly colored, numerous throughout the region and sings its ubiquitous song (“sweet sweet I’m so sweet”) over and over from the brush. It is all yellow with some rusty streaking on its chest and belly.

Warblers come in all colors, however. Many are mostly yellow and many others have flashes of yellow in their plumage. Some are black and white, and some are mostly brownish. A few are mostly blue. It’s no wonder that the spring migration, highlighted by warblers, is the favorite time of year for most birdwatchers.

In the Americas, we see the New World warblers. There are Old World warblers in Europe and Asia, but they are completely different birds from our warblers. There are close to 120 different types of New World warblers. We get about 40-50 species in New England. Approximately 25 warbler species nest in New Hampshire.

The fall warbler migration is notorious for frustrating birdwatchers as there are many plumage variations to be aware of. Many of the male warblers have molted out of their crisp spring plumage and sport a much more drab outfit. Females often lack the bright colors of the males and many first-year birds have not attained adult plumage. 

But the spring migration can be frustrating as well, particularly when the leaves come out. It can be vexing to hear a bird overhead and not be able to find it. 

That’s when birding-by-ear skills pay dividends. It’s much easier to find something if you know what you’re looking for. Learning the songs of the many warblers takes time, patience and practice. I’ve been birding for many years and I know a few dozen warbler songs. But that leaves a few dozen left to learn. Small steps.

In addition to the many warblers that return in April and May, several other of our favorite migrants return as well. I’ve already seen some rose-breasted grosbeaks, orioles (Baltimore and orchard) and thrushes. I’m waiting for my first scarlet tanagers and indigo buntings. 

It’s an exciting time to be a birdwatcher in New England. The time, however, is fleeting, so get out and enjoy it. As always, feel free to let me know what you see out there.

White-eyed vireo: New England first-timer for me

I saw a white-eyed vireo in Florida when I visited my brother in February. I thought it was an interesting bird and was happy to see it.

Well, yesterday morning I saw one in New England for the first time. Southern New England (Connecticut, Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts) is the northernmost range of the bird. It’s a cool-looking bird, but its song is what makes it stand out. I was instantly drawn to the thicket from where the song was coming. You can hear the song here.

Another good spring sighting!

Here’s a photo of the one I saw in Florida (plus a few others.)

A few birds from a late-April morning walk: field sparrow, eastern towhee, bald eagle

Photo by Chris Bosak – Field sparrow, April 2022.

Not as many migrants as I expected, but a good walk nonetheless at Huntington State Park in Redding, Conn. I heard only one warbler (black-and-white), but I have heard and seen dozens of eastern towhees over the last two days. It’s (arguably) the best time of year to be out there. No excuses! (I’m talking to myself too). The bald eagle flyover was a bit of a surprise, hence the lousy photo.

Photo by Chris Bosak – Eastern towhee, April 2022
Photo by Chris Bosak – Bald eagle, April 2022
Photo by Chris Bosak – field sparrow, April 2022.

For the Birds: Just a little more patience

Photo by Chris Bosak – A yellow-rumped warbler perches on a branch in New England, spring 2022.

It was a classic early spring walk.

Expectations were high to see a lot of migrants, but those expectations did not match the calendar. Mid-April can be a tough time for birdwatchers. We know the migrants are coming any day, and we have waited so long that the anticipation gets the better of our waning patience. It’s like the feeling children get on December 22 and 23. The decorations and tree have been up for weeks already, but it’s still not time to celebrate.

This is not to say it wasn’t a fruitful walk. I saw a handful of migrants including my first warblers of the season. But instead of dozens of species and 100s of individual birds, as we will get in a few weeks, it was more like a few species and about a dozen individuals.

It was a good warm-up to the upcoming peak of spring migration. Let’s put it that way.

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For the Birds: Patience is key to spring migration

Photo by Chris Bosak An Eastern Phoebe perches on a branch in Selleck's Woods in Darien, Conn., in late March 2015.
Photo by Chris Bosak A red-winged blackbird sings from the top of a tree at Happy Landings in Brookfield, Conn., spring 2017.

Late March and early April can be a tough time for birdwatchers as we are in the slow build up to spring migration.

The spring migration actually starts sometime in February when the first male red-winged blackbirds arrive. It’s a nice sight (and sound) when they return to our swamps, but it’s pretty much just a tease as we know winter will continue, and it will be several weeks until other birds start to show up.

American woodcocks and eastern phoebes return to New England around the middle of March. A few weeks later, ospreys arrive. The build up can be excruciatingly

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Palm warblers out in force

Photo by Chris Bosak A palm warbler stands on a stone wall in New England, October 2021.

Three species dominated the count total on my morning bird walk today. White-throated sparrows were plentiful and it was great to hear their song again. Yellow-rumped warblers were plentiful, as they often are this time of year. Palm warblers were numerous as well and a flock of five kept me company near a stone wall at Huntington State Park. The fall warbler migration is bittersweet. It’s great to see them, of course, but the crisp air reminds me they will be gone soon and a long winter looms. At least winter is good for birdwatching too.

Photo by Chris Bosak A palm warbler stands on a stone wall in New England, October 2021.

A few more yellowthroat photos

Photo by Chris Bosak A common yellowthroat perches on a branch in New England, July 2021.

Common yellowthroats are one of most familiar warblers we see in New England. While we are seeing many warblers pass through this time of year on their way south, yellowthroats remain one of the more common sightings. The male (pictured above) is easy to recognize with his black mask, but the female is a little more tricky, particularly in the fall when warblers are notoriously difficult to ID. Here are a few more shots to distinguish the female yellowthroat from other warblers passing through. Click here for a recent For the Birds column on yellowthroats.

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For the Birds: Welcome to May!

Photo by Chris Bosak A chestnut-sided warbler lurks in the brush in New England, May 2020. Merganser Lake.

Welcome to May, arguably the best month of the year for birdwatching.

So many exciting things happen in the bird world in May that it’s hard to know where to begin. The breeding season is in full swing and our year-round birds as well as newly arrived migrant birds are either looking for nesting sites or already raising young. Suddenly our feeders are visited by colorful newcomers such as rose-breasted grosbeaks, Baltimore orioles or indigo buntings. Waders are back in full force stalking our ponds and rivers.

When it comes to May, however, talk of the birding world has to begin with warblers, those small and often colorful Neotropical migrants that add life to our neck of the woods every spring. Some of these warblers will simply stop by for a few days before heading farther north to their breeding grounds. Many, however, will find a suitable place to raise young and will be with us until the fall.

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