For the Birds: Phoebe would be a better ‘harbinger of spring’

Photo by Chris Bosak An Eastern Phoebe perches on a branch in Selleck's Woods in Darien, Conn., in late March 2015.

The American robin has long been known as a harbinger of spring. In fact, of all the “signs of spring” that we see each March, the robin is perhaps the most popular.

I certainly have no problem with anyone getting excited about seeing a robin in early spring. Anything that offers hope and optimism is a good thing. 

Many robins, however, have been around all winter in New England. They just haven’t been as visible as they are in the spring and summer. In winter, many robins travel in large flocks throughout the woods looking for leftover berries, and other morsels.

To me anyway, the eastern phoebe would be the perfect harbinger of spring bird. 

Unlike robins, phoebes do not winter in New England and return only in the spring. In fact, eastern phoebes show up in New England pretty much on the dot of spring. This year, my first sighting of an eastern phoebe was March 21, one day after the official start of spring. 

So the eastern phoebe is gone all winter and returns just in time for spring. It is a bird that we haven’t seen since the fall migration. To me, that is the perfect example of a harbinger of spring. This being New England, I must put in the caveat that unofficially winter can linger well into April. 

One can also make the argument that red-winged blackbirds are a harbinger of spring as well because they migrate in the fall, and we don’t see them until the spring. My reservation about calling red-winged blackbirds a sign of spring is that they show up a bit too early. This year especially they started showing up in good numbers in February. February is too early to start getting excited about spring, especially in New England.

Perhaps eastern phoebes do not get the recognition they deserve because they are not showy or charismatic. They are small, drably colored, have a fairly soft and modest song and do not command a lot of attention. By contrast, robins are larger, more colorful,  more widely recognized, and grab one’s attention more as they hop around low-cut grassy areas in great numbers.

Either way you look at it, spring is either here or right around the corner in New England. Now, even the calendar says so. There are buds on the trees, crocuses in the lawn and spring peepers are making their commotion in the swamps. 

That all confirms that spring is here, regardless of what bird you consider the true harbinger of spring. 

For the Birds: March madness in terms of weather

March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. If only it were that simple.

This March, like many before it, seems to be toggling between lion and lamb daily. One day last week, I was at the beach photographing oystercatchers and other shorebirds. The next day, I watched out my window as several inches of snow fell. As with any snowfall, I enjoyed watching my feeder birds. This day’s visitors included bluebirds, Carolina wrens, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, juncos, woodpeckers, and other feeder birds.

Such is life in New England in March, and even early April, as outdoor enthusiasts are subjected to the whims of mother nature. Thankfully, there is birdwatching to be done regardless of the weather.

As I mentioned earlier, I spent a few hours last week at a Connecticut beach watching and photographing shorebirds along the edge of Long Island Sound. The stars of the show, of course, were the American oystercatchers. Oystercatchers have always been a favorite of mine, and seeing their carrot-like bills in March is an underrated, yet certain, sign of spring.

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For the Birds: Mixed bag of birding news

Sharing some birding news from the area and beyond:

Several readers have responded to last week’s column about bluebirds. The spectacular and adored birds are becoming a common sighting in New Hampshire throughout the winter. Jim from Keene, who also made an appearance in last week’s column, wrote in this week to say he had eight bluebirds congregating around his birdhouse. The birds stayed for about 15 minutes. It was the same birdhouse that was used by bluebirds last year, so hopefully that is a good sign of things to come this spring.

I mentioned last week that eastern bluebirds were the only bluebirds that live in the East. That being said, a mountain bluebird has been seen at Great Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Newington, as reported on the birding news page of the American Birding Association’s website. As of this writing, the last sighting was reported on February 28. Visit aba.org/birding-news/ for updates.

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For the Birds: Bluebirds brighten a New England winter

Photo by Chris Bosak An eastern bluebird braves a New England winter and visit a backyard for mealworms, winter 2020.

I did two bird talks in New Hampshire last weekend and loved meeting everyone and talking about birds for a while.

In both talks, many questions and comments were about bluebirds. Everybody loves bluebirds, and these talks only confirmed that is true. And why not? They are beautiful birds and many of them are hardy enough to stay with us all winter. 

I have found that New Englanders appreciate the birds that stick with us year-round. When I did an informal survey many years ago to determine New England’s favorite bird, the chickadee and cardinal were the top two species named. Both birds, of course, are with us spring, summer, fall and winter. 

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For the Birds: Count the birds

Photo by Chris Bosak A Carolina wren perches on a branch following a snowfall in New England, Jan. 2022.

Note: This was written for my New Hampshire audience, but the Great Backyard Bird Count applies to all.

I have received a few emails from folks who have seen evening grosbeaks this winter. There have not been many emails regarding pine siskins or purple finches, and not a single one about redpolls.

As had become typical, there have been plenty of emails about Carolina wrens and red-bellied woodpeckers.

The birds mentioned in the first paragraph as known as irruptive species in New England. Some years we see many of them, some years we see a few and some years we don’t see any. The birds in the second paragraph are species that are expanding their range northward and are now fairly common throughout the southern and middle parts of New England.

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For the Birds: Looking back on a fine 2022

It already seems as if 2022 is a mere dot in the rearview mirror. Before it fades even more, I want to present my annual “top birding moments of the year” column. It’s a tradition that goes back several years and is one of my favorite columns to write. I also encourage readers to send to me their favorite birding (or wildlife) moments of 2022.

10. Bears! On my drive home from looking at land in far north New Hampshire, I noticed three dark blobs at the far edge of a huge field. I hit the brakes, turned around and pulled over. The blobs were three bears — a mother and two cubs. Bears are becoming increasingly common throughout New England. I hope we learn to co-exist peacefully. 

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More American wigeon photos

Photo by Chris Bosak – An American wigeon in Norwalk, CT.

I posted one American wigeon photograph last month to accompany my Christmas Bird Count article. Here are a few more shots of this interesting duck.

Here is the description of the American wigeon by AllAboutBirds.com, a website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “Quiet lakes and wetlands come alive with the breezy whistle of the American Wigeon, a dabbling duck with pizzazz. Breeding males have a green eye patch and a conspicuous white crown, earning them the nickname “baldpate.” Females are brushed in warm browns with a gray-brown head and a smudge around the eye. Noisy groups congregate during fall and winter, plucking plants with their short gooselike bill from wetlands and fields or nibbling plants from the water’s surface. Despite being common their populations are declining.” Click here for further information.

Photo by Chris Bosak – An American wigeon in Norwalk, CT.
Photo by Chris Bosak – A female American wigeon in Norwalk, CT.