Spring migration under way; don’t forget about shorebirds

Photo by Chris Bosak
A dunlin walks through the shallow water of Long Island Sound in Westport, Connecticut, during Nov. 2017.

The spring migration is under way and many birds have made appearances in New England already. Birds such as red-winged blackbirds started showing up in February but the spring migration here is still in the beginning stages. By the end of April and into May, we’ll be hitting full stride.

Today I heard my first eastern phoebe. That, to me, is a true sign of spring. I’ve also seen a few American woodcock, thousands of mergansers, a handful of hawks, and several great blue herons flying with large sticks in their bills.

Eventually, all the talk will be about warblers and other songbirds. But we have a few weeks before that happens. To me, the large flocks of shorebirds that move through New England is an underrated aspect of spring migration. Shorebird migration is underrated in general, probably because it is so spread out. The northward movements start in late March and April and continue all the way into June. The southward movements start in July and continue into November. Of course, many shorebirds remain in New England throughout the winter.

So while we are excited to see the ducks, songbirds, hawks and other birds return to New England, don’t forget about the shorebirds dotting our saltwater and freshwater shorelines.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Dunlins stand in the shallow water of Long Island Sound in Westport, Connecticut, during Nov. 2017.

For the Birds: Ready for the fall birding rush

Photo by Chris Bosak A red-shouldered hawk perches on a wire in Brookfield, Connecticut, Jan. 2018.
Photo by Chris Bosak A red-shouldered hawk perches on a wire in Brookfield, Connecticut, Jan. 2018.

September is an exciting time in the bird world.

The fall migration is well under way and that means south-bound ducks will be passing through any week now. The duck migration is the highlight of my birding year, and September is when anticipation builds before they start arriving on our ponds and lakes sometime in October. Resident wood ducks, however, are back in their gaudy breeding plumage and quite visible this month.

Songbirds and shorebirds are now pouring through New England on their way south even as we wait for the ducks to arrive. It is exciting to think that many of the birds visiting our yards are first-year birds. They didn’t even exist during the spring migration. Let’s hope they make it back next spring.

Of course, the most popular September birding activity is going to a hawk watch, which take place at various points throughout New England and the country. Mid- to late-September is the time to see great numbers of hawks flying south. The hawk watches continue all the way into November, but don’t miss out on the September rush. Visit any hawk watch site, such as the one at Pack Monadnock in Peterborough, and experts will be there to let you know what is flying overhead. In fact, the experts will pick out and identify the bird when it is a mere speck in the distant sky.

For those who prefer their birdwatching closer to home and, indeed right at home, September is also a fun time to watch the feeders. The regular birds will be there, but some surprise visitors may show up as well.

It was autumn a few years ago when a small flock of pine warblers visited my feeders daily for about a week. Warblers are not typically seen at feeders, so it was a memorable week for me.

Then there are the hummingbirds. I have written about them for the past two weeks, but they deserve at least a sentence or two in this column as well.

I have heard from many readers that their hummingbirds are still around, but I wonder if that will be the case by the time this column goes to print. I had hummingbirds on Sept. 18, but none on Sept. 19, even though I watched off and on throughout the day. I am hoping a late migrant or two will show up in the next few days.

Fall and even into winter is when some “rare” hummingbirds show up in New England. The rufous hummingbird is the most common western hummer to veer into New England.

Two weeks ago I wrote about how it is OK to keep feeding hummingbirds into the fall as their natural instinct will guide them south when it is time to do so. That seems to be the case with “my” hummingbirds and I’m sure all the other hummingbirds passing through New England.

While you are looking at your feeders, take a look at the nearby trees from top to bottom. The aforementioned warblers just may be looking for food in your oaks, maples or other trees. Also, keep an eye out for other small birds, such as brown creepers. They start to show up about this time of year as well.

If you live near a lake or anywhere there are bright lights, such as a stadium or high school field, now is the time to look for nighthawks. You will recognize them because their silhouette and flying pattern is different from most birds we see. They also have white bars under their wings, which are visible when they are flying.

With so much going on in September you never know what you are going to see. Drop me a line and let me know what’s going on in your birding world.

For the Birds: Readers take over again

Photo by Chris Bosak A scarlet tanager perches in an oak tree in Danbury, Conn., spring 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A scarlet tanager perches in an oak tree in Danbury, Conn., spring 2018.

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

The colors just keep on coming this spring.

I’ve been lucky enough to see two indigo buntings, three rose-breasted grosbeaks (although two were males fighting each other), a scarlet tanager, at least three Baltimore orioles, a pair of ruby-throated hummingbirds and a handful of warblers in my yard so far this spring. It’s been a welcomed color bonanza after a long winter.

Now that Memorial Day has passed and we are unofficially in summer, let’s look at what some readers have seen.

Carol from the Monadnock Region sent a photo of an oddly colored hairy woodpecker. Instead of the traditional white and black, this one was black and yellowish brown. A reader from Connecticut sent me a similar photo a few years ago.

My guess is that it is a normal hairy woodpecker with a pigment abnormality. Pigment abnormalities show up in birds every so often, such as orange house finches or white robins. Leucism and albinoism are extreme forms of pigment abnormalities, but more subtle color variations occur.

Don watched as an eagle eyed a pair of common mergansers on Granite Lake. He wondered if the eagle would try to take one of the ducks, but a loud noise distracted the eagle and it flew off. Eagles, which often scavenge for food, can take birds as big as common mergansers.

Norma from Spofford had an indigo bunting visit her feeders this spring. She has been in Spofford for nearly 40 years and has seen buntings only a handful of times.

It’s also been a colorful spring for Lenny of Greenfield, who has seen orioles, rose-breasted grosbeaks and cardinals. A special treat was seeing the oriole and grosbeak at the feeder at the same time.

Dean in Marlborough reported visits from pileated woodpeckers, indigo buntings, cardinals and eastern bluebirds. Another colorful yard in the Monadnock Region.

Lida from Harrisville had a male and female oriole come to her table to feast on oranges. Another reader suggested using grape jelly to attract orioles.

I tried to attract orioles with both oranges and grape jelly this spring, to no avail.

Eric in Surry noticed the usual changing of the guard for ground-feeders as the juncos left and chipping sparrows arrived, with about a two-week overlap. He has also noticed a few warbler species, including a pine warbler carrying nesting material. The material was hair he leaves out for the birds after brushing his dog. He has also seen chickadees, phoebes and nuthatches grab some of the hair.

He had another interesting bird sighting this spring; shortly after filling in small holes in his yard, a Cooper’s hawk swooped in to grab a chipmunk. Eric has also seen a blue-gray gnatcatcher and heard an eastern whip-poor-will. It’s been years since I’ve heard a whip-poor-will so I’m glad someone is still hearing them.

Spring migration is winding down, but not over. Soon, it will give way to nesting season. Let me know what you are seeing out there in this exciting time of the year for birdwatching.

Scarlet tanager joins the group

Photo by Chris Bosak  A scarlet tanager perches in an oak tree in Danbury, Conn., spring 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A scarlet tanager perches in an oak tree in Danbury, Conn., spring 2018.

First the rose-breasted grosbeak and the indigo bunting, now this … a brilliant male scarlet tanager visits the yard this spring. Sure, it didn’t visit the feeder, but it was in the oak trees above the house. Good enough for me. Happy birding everyone.

Good backyard visitors so far this spring

Photo by Chris Bosak A male rose-breasted grosbeak visits a feeder in Danbury, Conn., during the spring of 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak A male rose-breasted grosbeak visits a feeder in Danbury, Conn., during the spring of 2018.

We still have a few weeks left of peak spring migration, so this list is not inclusive (I hope not anyway), but the feeder has been active recently with the following birds: rose-breasted grosbeak (male and female); chipping sparrow; goldfinch; gray catbird; blue jay; cardinal (male and female); indigo bunting (first spring male); red-bellied woodpecker; white-breasted nuthatch; tufted titmouse; black-capped chickadee; downy woodpecker; hairy woodpecker; mourning dove; house finch; ruby-throated hummingbird (male and female); wild turkey; and probably one or two more that aren’t coming to mind at the moment. I bought a new oriole feeder, but no luck yet with that one. What’s been visiting your feeders? Feel free to comment with your list.

Photo by Chris Bosak  A female rose-breasted grosbeak visits a feeder in Danbury, Conn., during the spring of 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A female rose-breasted grosbeak visits a feeder in Danbury, Conn., during the spring of 2018.

Stunned eastern wood-pewee survives


I found this guy on my porch as I was walking into the house this afternoon. He must have bumped into the bedroom window, and became stunned. I was happy to see that its neck looked OK. A broken neck from a window strike is fatal to birds.

Often, they are only stunned and need to collect their wits before they fly off and return to their day. I picked up the bird to keep it warm and calm. I was going to put it in a box and place it away from lurking predators. However, after a few seconds, I felt the bird try to flap its wings in my hand. I loosen my grip and the bird flew to a nearby branch. It immediately let out its trademark song, a high-pitched “pee-wee.”

It was an eastern wood-pewee and we will hear that song in the woods all summer.

Good spring for rose-breasted grosbeaks

Photo by Chris Bosak A female rose-breasted grosbeak eat seeds at a platform feeder at Merganser Lake in Danbury, Conn., in spring 2017.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A female rose-breasted grosbeak eat seeds at a platform feeder at Merganser Lake in Danbury, Conn., in spring 2017.

I didn’t see my first one until May 17, but since then I’ve seen a good number of rose-breasted grosbeaks — always a welcomed sighting in the spring. The male is the flashy bird with black-and-white plumage and signature upside-down bright red triangle on his chest. The female is more muted in color, but still a handsome bird to see at the feeder. They both have large bills (they aren’t called grosbeaks for nothing) and easily crack the sunflower seeds offered at feeders.

I’ve also seen them at suet feeders, so those of us who feed birds into the summer (or year-round) can attract them with a variety of foods. Many people stop feeding birds in the spring. I don’t blame those who have bears to worry about, but those who stop feeding birds once the winter ends miss out on birds such as rose-breasted grosbeaks.

Above is a shot of the female at the feeder. Check out the sizable bill on her. Below is the male and female. Not a great shot, I know, but interesting to see them together. Another female was at the feeder seconds before this shot, but the female shown chased her away.

Photo by Chris Bosak A male and female rose-breasted grosbeak eat seeds at a platform feeder at Merganser Lake in Danbury, Conn., in spring 2017.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A male and female rose-breasted grosbeak eat seeds at a platform feeder at Merganser Lake in Danbury, Conn., in spring 2017.