For the Birds: Tricky fall warblers

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

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black-throated blue female

A lot of birdwatcherslook forward to the spring warbler migration. Not only do our woods fill with colorful, vocal birds, but the timing is such that it follows winter and several months of gloomy weather.

From late April through early June, the birding world is abuzz and excited with what warblers are being seen and where.

Their fall migration, conversely, creates almost no buzz. Even the warblers themselves are mostly quiet. Instead of heralding their arrival from the tree tops like they do in spring, they lay low silent.

For many species, the blazing colors they sport in May are replaced by drab browns and grays – again, drawing as little attention to the themselves as possible. Because they are quiet and drably colored, the fall warbler migration can be challenging, confusing, frustrating and even humbling for birdwatchers.

On top of that, the first-year birds, now only a few months old, are in their first migration and have not developed their adult plumage. In other words, most warblers look vastly different than they did in the spring and many species resemble each other. Nailing down positive IDs can be a chore.

I’ll stray from the warbler world for a dramatic example, but to some degree or another, the same scenario plays itself out with warbler species. The male scarlet tanager during spring migration is perhaps the crown jewel of all songbirds in New England. Its black wings and tail contrast magnificently with its brilliant, eye-popping red plumage. In the fall, however, those same males are olive green and dull yellow.

Fall warbler plumage can vary by individuals within a species, adding to the difficulty of identifying the birds you see. Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen several common yellowthroats of varying plumage. One male still popped with its familiar spring plumage. The females I saw, however, ranged from having bright yellow throats to being mostly brown with hints of yellow.

The warbler I see the most in the fall is the yellow-rumped warbler. Most are first-year or females, so the plumage is rather bland, but the yellow spot on the rump is always a giveaway – assuming you catch a glimpse from the just-right angle.

I also saw a flash of warblers I couldn’t identify with certainty. That happens a lot in the fall. In the spring, if you see a warbler only briefly, you can use your ears to help spot the tiny bird again among the leaves. In the fall, the birds don’t give away their whereabouts with songs, so the bird is often not found again.

Frustrating and humbling, like I said. But always worth the effort, regardless of whether a positive ID is made or not.

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For the Birds: A vulture eats; a hawk watches

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

Photo by Chris Bosak A turkey vulture eats a squirrel on the side of a road in Brookfield, Conn, fall 2018.
Photo by Chris Bosak
A turkey vulture eats a squirrel on the side of a road in Brookfield, Conn, fall 2018.

I turned the corner at the four-way stop and noticed a big, dark clump on the left-hand side of the road.

It’s either a bag or a turkey I thought, as I approached the object in question. Of those two choices, obviously I was hoping for a turkey.

It turned out I was wrong on both counts, but I was close with the turkey guess. It was a turkey vulture and it was standing on and picking apart a dead squirrel. Not knowing exactly what it was when I turned the corner, I drove past the vulture on the way to my destination. As I passed the bird, however, it didn’t even look up from its meal, so I figured it was comfortable enough that I could circle around and grab a photo or two.

I didn’t want to back up because, first of all, it’s dangerous; and second, from my experience, wildlife usually flee from cars backing up. I think the animal in question feels threatened about the object coming back toward it. Also, cars tend to make more noise in reverse.

The road I was on continues in a circular route that winds up back at the four-corner intersection. So I kept on going and hoped the bird would still be there when I got back. In my rearview mirror, I noticed another big, dark bird in a branch perched above the vulture. I assumed, of course, it was another vulture and told myself I would check it out when I circled back.

I got back to the intersection in a few minutes and, sure enough, the vulture was still on the side of the road picking at the squirrel. I pulled off to the right-hand side of the road, put down the driver’s-side window, and snapped a few photos of the impressive, opportunistic bird.

I started to pull away when I remembered the bird perched above the action. I pulled forward a few more feet so I could get a look at it from the back window and noticed that the bird was still there. It was not, however, a vulture, but rather a very anxious-looking red-tailed hawk.

Clearly the hawk wished it were the one perched on the squirrel enjoying the meal, but the size of the vulture prevented it from taking measures in that direction.

I didn’t see how the scene unfolded prior to my arrival. I don’t know if the hawk had caught and killed the squirrel and the vulture somehow wrestled it away, or if the squirrel had been sitting there for a while and the two birds happened upon it at approximately the same time.

My guess is that the squirrel was already dead and the hawk found it first and started eating it. Then the vulture came around and its menacing 6-foot wingspan chased the hawk off the squirrel and onto a perch safely above the mammoth bird.

Not wanting to interfere with whatever was going to happen next, I pulled ahead and continued to my original destination. I’m inclined to think that, given the size of the vulture, the hawk eventually gave up and flew off to fine food elsewhere.

Looking back, I was surprised that there was only one vulture. I typically see vultures in groups — sometimes small, sometimes big. It’s not often that I see them alone.

The other thing that surprised me is that I actually had my camera with me. I have been lax about keeping it with me lately. There have been many times over the years that I have stumbled upon interesting wildlife scenes and did not have my camera with me. You’d think I would have learned my lesson and always had the camera with me, but that is often not the case. This time, thankfully, it was a lesson learned in a positive way.

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.

Wild horses at Assateague Island National Seashore, part 3

Photo by Chris Bosak  Wild ponies at Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland, summer 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Wild ponies at Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland, summer 2018.

Here’s the third and final post of the beautiful wild horses of Assateague Island National Seashore. Next post, back to New England.

More information about the horses may be found here.

Photo by Chris Bosak  Wild ponies at Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland, summer 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Wild ponies at Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland, summer 2018.

 

Wild horses at Assateague Island National Seashore, part 2

Photo by Chris Bosak  Wild ponies at Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland, summer 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Wild ponies at Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland, summer 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak  Wild ponies at Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland, summer 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Wild ponies at Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland, summer 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak  Wild ponies at Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland, summer 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Wild ponies at Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland, summer 2018.

Finally, shots of the wild horses at Assateague Island National Seashore

Photo by Chris Bosak Wild ponies at Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland, summer 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Wild ponies at Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland, summer 2018.

Here are the beautiful wild ponies at Assateague Island National Seashore. This link can explain the better than I can. Click here.

We’ll travel back north to New England after a few posts of the horses.

Photo by Chris Bosak Wild ponies at Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland, summer 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Wild ponies at Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland, summer 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak Wild ponies at Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland, summer 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Wild ponies at Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland, summer 2018.

A few more shots of the semipalmated plover

Photo by Chris Bosak A semi-palmated plover looks for food at Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland, summer 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A semi-palmated plover looks for food at Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland, summer 2018.

The wild ponies are coming next, I promise. But first a few more shots of the semipalmated plover I spotted at Assateauge Island National Seashore.

Photo by Chris Bosak A semi-palmated plover looks for food at Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland, summer 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A semi-palmated plover looks for food at Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland, summer 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak A semi-palmated plover looks for food at Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland, summer 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A semi-palmated plover looks for food at Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland, summer 2018.