For the Birds: One of those May walks

Sometimes you just have to be patient. I tell myself that every year but rarely, if ever, do I heed my own advice.

I am so eager for the spring migration to hit full swing that I start tromping through the woods starting in mid-April expecting to see all the explosive colors of the northward songbird migration through New England.

Walk after walk in late April and early May yields some great birds but not the full-on spring spectacle. Finally, one day in mid-May, I get that walk I have been waiting for with colorful birds all around. Patience is key, sure, but that’s easier said than done. 

That walk happened for me the other day when I got up early and hit the nearest park. The action started right away with an eastern towhee. It was one of the few towhees I saw on the walk compared to the dozens of towhees I had seen during my late April walks. Most of the towhees have either moved north or settled into their nesting season and are remaining quiet and out of sight.

Then I heard a familiar song from the tree above me. The distinctive “chick-bree” call could only be a scarlet tanager. Despite their awesome coloration, male scarlet tanagers can still be difficult to find among the leafed-out canopy. I had little trouble finding this guy, however, as he flew from one tree to the next revealing its impossibly red plumage in the golden morning light of the rising sun.  

As I continued down the trail, the colors continued: the beautiful red upside-down triangle of the rose-breasted grosbeak, the electric orange of the Baltimore oriole, the dazzling blue of the indigo bunting, the bright yellow of the blue-winged warbler and the slightly darker yellow of the yellow warbler. Bobolinks and red-winged blackbirds brought life to the meadow. 

The great sightings didn’t stop with the colorful birds as there were plenty of “dull” birds to see as well. Among the highlights were yellow-billed cuckoo, field sparrow and ovenbird. And lots of catbirds. Lots and lots of catbirds. 

The sounds of the birds add to the magic. The insect-like buzzy song of the blue-winged warbler and tropical-like odd song of the cuckoo stood out among the rest.

It was the walk I had been anticipating for nearly a year. I enjoy New England year-round and each month has its special gifts for birdwatchers, but that mid-May walk when everything comes together never gets old.

If only the magic lasted longer. It’s called the peak of migration for a reason. Just as it has to build to its high point, so too will it now taper off as birds continue to push north or settle into nesting and go quiet.

Enjoy these days while they last. The color and variety are spectacular and unmatched by any other time of year. 

For the Birds: Spring thoughts

Photo by Chris Bosak A female Red-winged Blackbird perches on a tree in New England.

I often preach about enjoying what nature hands you regardless of the season, but I have to admit that my thoughts drifted toward spring a few times this week.

It wasn’t the general mildness of this winter that got me thinking about spring. In fact, I’m still holding out hope for more snow, although that may be an unpopular thought.

But three separate incidences steered my mind toward spring recently. First I noticed buds on the trees that line my street and the crocuses are in full bloom in the garden. Then I visited the neighborhood pond and heard the wonderful chorus of red-winged blackbirds. Finally, I dug deep into my video archive and came across “Spring and Summer Songbirds of the Backyard,” a short documentary narrated by George Harrison (no, not the former Beatle).

With so much mild weather, I wasn’t caught off guard by seeing the buds on the trees or the crocuses in bloom.

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For the Birds: Red-winged blackbirds getting an early jump

Photo by Chris Bosak A red-winged blackbird sings from the top of a tree at Happy Landings in Brookfield, Conn., spring 2017.
Photo by Chris Bosak A red-winged blackbird sings from the top of a tree at Happy Landings in Brookfield, Conn., spring 2017.

Winter officially may still have about four weeks to go and, in New England, goodness knows how many weeks or months left unofficially, but it’s not too early to start discussing spring migration.

I’m not trying to jinx the mild weather we’ve had and cause a winter that lingers into May like some of our recent winters. Even if winter does roar back, there are still plenty of birdwatching opportunities to be had. It’s a hobby for all seasons.

Regardless of what happens in the weeks ahead, signs of spring from the world of birds are here already. One morning as I walked to fill the feeders I noticed the extremely pleasant and welcomed sounds of cardinals, Carolina wrens and song sparrows singing their hearts out.  

Red-winged blackbirds, one of the earliest signs of spring, have returned already to many parts of New England. Pat from Sandwich wrote to say she had six red-winged blackbirds in her backyard last week. There have been other reports of red-winged blackbirds in New Hampshire, including one report by Brian of Keene, who included the sighting on the American Birding Association’s bird news website.

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For the Birds: The magic of fall in New England

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

People love fall for a variety of reasons.

Cooler temperatures, Halloween decorations, fall foliage, football, and, of course, pumpkin spice. Everybody claims to hate pumpkin spice, but they wouldn’t make it if people weren’t buying it.

For me, I love fall for the bird migration – obviously. I particularly like finding fall warblers. It is especially rewarding when I stumble across a small flock of fall warblers.

Palm warblers and yellow-rumped warblers are the prime candidates to find in small flocks. Such was the case the other day when I found a group of about a dozen palm warblers eating seeds from the dying weeds and flowers in a meadow.

Large flocks of yellow-rumped warblers are fairly common to come across as well. Just be on the lookout as you never played know where you will find them. I have usually found them eating small berries of some sort.

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For the Birds: Sit or walk? Easy call

I pulled into the tire shop for my appointment the other day, handed over the keys and asked how long it would take. The nice gentleman said it would be at least an hour, but that I was welcome to sit in the waiting area and help myself to coffee.

It was an ideal late summer/early fall day and the fall migration was well underway, so I decided to take a walk instead.

I gave the guy my cell phone number, asked him to give me a call when the truck was ready, and set out to find the nearest place where I might find some birds.

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For the Birds: The colors you’ll see

Photo by Chris Bosak An indigo bunting perches in a tree in New England, July 2021.

I’m not going to try to emulate Dr. Seuss, but I think he would have drawn plenty of inspiration from a walk in the woods in New England in May.

His classic “Oh, the Thinks You Can Think!” comes to mind, but only altered to “Oh, the Colors You Can See.”

A recent walk made me think of this. The majority of the walk was along a wide dirt path with shrubby habitat on both sides. Beyond the thickets on one side was a large field and beyond the thickets on the other side were deep woods. It is perfect habitat for a bird walk.

The first bird I saw was a male eastern towhee. It was once called rufous-sided towhee because of the unique dark orange color of its sides that complement the otherwise white and black plumage of the bird. The bird’s red eyes are visible when it approaches among the shrubs closely enough. I did not see a female towhee on this particular day, but they are lighter brownish-orange where the male is black.

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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.

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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.

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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.)