Future monarch (and a current one)

I always look at milkweed plants for monarch caterpillars. My success rate is about .001 percent, but today I got lucky and found one on a plant right next to the trail. Monarchs lay their eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves and the caterpillar eats the leaf when it hatches. Milkweed is toxic and the caterpillar becomes toxic to would-be predators.

There were a ton of monarchs flying around too, as seen below.

A few more bunting shots

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

The upcoming For the Birds column will provide more detail, but until then here are a few more shots of this beauty.

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

For the Birds: Sights of summer

Everyone loves summer. Beaches, barbecues, beer festivals.

Birds? Not so much. At least not when compared to spring and fall migration periods, or the busy feeder activity ahead of a New England snowstorm.

Summer is a fun time to watch young birds being raised if you are lucky enough to witness that spectacle. Along with that, however, comes the fact that many birds are trying to stay hidden as much as possible until the young are ready to venture into the world.

The waterfront — with its waders and shorebirds — is usually the best place to be during the summer if you want to see birds. That was true the other day when Katie and I took a walk and heard yellowlegs in the distance and spotted a great blue heron on the top of a pine tree. The dusk sun gave the heron an orange glow.

But this summer is also hopping away from the water. Catbirds, blue jays, cardinals, mourning doves, nuthatches and Carolina wrens are constant companions in my yard. Goldfinches are coming around in force now as well.

Speaking of backyard birds, Stephen from Keene offered a tip in response to last week’s column about cleaning bird feeders. He cleans his feeders regularly using vinegar instead of bleach as he feels it’s safer for the birds. It’s a good and timely tip as feeders should be cleaned frequently in the summer.

In the woods, I’ve heard more veeries than I can ever remember hearing. The veery is a type of thrush with a strange up and down flute-like song that reminds me of the old Space Invaders video game. I’m glad they aren’t invaders from another dimension because I’ve heard so many of them this summer. Every walk seems to be accompanied by the strange song.

One day last week, I pulled into a parking lot and scanned the scene. A black-crowned night heron flew across the far side of a pond and settled into a tree. Grackles and red-winged blackbirds provided action in the foreground. A Canada goose caught my eye in another area of the water. Then I noticed a male wood duck sitting on the grass just beyond the goose. Wood ducks are notoriously wary, but this guy seemed fairly comfortable in close proximity to the parking lot.

Most wood duck sightings are from great distances or of the back end of one flying away with the duck’s “oo-week, oo-week” call tauntingly fading away. I was grateful for the close and long view of this beautiful duck, which was still (or already) in its gaudy breeding plumage.

It also seems to be a good year for eastern kingbirds. I’ve gone entire summers when I’ve seen one or two of the handsome, fierce birds. This summer, it seems, I’ve seen dozens of them in different locations. I think of kingbirds as a rural bird, but several of the sightings have been in very suburban — even bordering urban — locations. I’ll take the sightings where I can get them.

Here’s hoping summer keeps it up. If nothing else, August is a great time to wander into New England’s fields and meadows. The bobolinks are much quieter, but the butterflies, dragonflies and other insects are fun to observe and photograph.

What are you seeing out there this summer? Drop me a line and let me know

A tale of two buntings

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

Sorry for the obvious headline, but here are two male indigo buntings: one with the sun (above) and one against the sun (below). No wonder they look a little different every time you see one.

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

For the Birds: Mystery disease killing birds in U.S.

Photo by Chris Bosak An American Goldfinch with Avian Conjunctivitis visits a birdfeeder in Danbury, Conn., April 2016. A different disease is killing birds in the U.S. this summer.

Something is killing birds in unusually large numbers.

An as-of-yet undetermined disease has taken a heavy toll on birds such as robins, blue jays and grackles in about a dozen Mid-Atlantic and Midwest states. The die-off started in May and, while it hasn’t reached New England yet (as far as we know), officials at conservation organizations are encouraging people to take precautions to protect birds. Among the precautions: Stop feeding birds (or at least wash all feeders with a 10 percent bleach solution) and discontinue the use of birdbaths temporarily.

Disorientation, imbalance, lethargy and encrusted or cloudy eyes are among the symptoms of the birds afflicted with the disease. Young birds appear to have been disproportionately impacted. Researchers have confirmed that this differs from the avian conjunctivitis that has plagued house finches and goldfinches for many years. They have also ruled out many other potential causes, such as bacteria, viruses and parasites that commonly afflict birds.

It’s important to know what is not causing the die-off, of course, but finding out what is causing the event is even more significant. Determining that is still a work in progress.

One theory, which has been applauded by some and discounted by others, is that the die-off is related to the 17-year Brood X periodical cicada emergence. The geography of the die-off and emergence appears to align, and the theory suggests that the cicadas, which have been underground for 17 years, have soaked up pesticides, herbicides and whatever other nasty stuff we’ve been using to control insects and grow our grass and crops. It seems to make sense, but as I’ve mentioned, many researchers do not think the link is plausible.

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For the Birds: Studies show conflicting news about barn swallow population

Photo by CHRIS BOSAK Young Barn Swallows look for food from their mother, which is returning to the nest with food.
Photo by CHRIS BOSAK Young Barn Swallows look for food from their mother, which is returning to the nest with food.

A new study of global bird populations, based mainly on citizen science databases such as eBird, estimates there are around 50 billion wild birds in the world.

Four species, according to the study, have a population of more than one billion birds. On the other hand, about one-tenth of the bird species in the world have fewer than 5,000 individuals. 

A team of researchers at the University of New South Wales conducted the study, which was published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.” The researchers adjusted the citizen science numbers by modeling and consulting birding experts in specific regions.

So what are the four members of the billion bird club? Two of them are rather obvious: house sparrow and European starling. House sparrows, according to the study, are the world’s most populous bird with 1.6 billion individuals. The other two species were less obvious, to me anyway: ring-billed gull and barn swallow. I see a lot of ring-billed gulls pretty much everywhere I go in New England (inland and shore), but I didn’t realize they had such a global presence as well. 

Barn swallow was the one that really surprised me. Not to be a bird snob, but house sparrows, starlings and ring-billed gulls are not what I would consider to be desirable birds. In the case of house sparrow and starling, they are non-native birds that have thrived in North America at the expense of native birds. Barn swallows, in my estimation, are desirable birds and I enjoy seeing them in the field. It was good news to me that this study put the barn swallow in the billion bird club.

I have no reason to doubt these researchers, but I did want to cross reference that number with other recent similar studies. Determining the global population of 9,700 bird species is a tall task and by no means an exact science. Heck, getting a perfectly accurate count of the birds in your own backyard is pretty much impossible. 

Past studies have estimated the global bird population to be anywhere from 200 to 400 billion individual birds. That’s a wide range and not even close to the 50 billion birds estimated by this recent study.

I also found that past studies have estimated the global barn swallow population to be somewhere between 100 million and 200 million. BirdNote, the popular radio program and website, included in an episode that the “worldwide population of barn swallows is estimated to be 190 million.” The bird conservation consortium Partners in Flight estimates a breeding population of 120 million barn swallows. 

So what is it? One billion (or more), 190 million (or less), or somewhere in between? It depends on the study, obviously. Either way, it’s good to see that the barn swallow population is thriving. Or is it? 

A 2014 article published by phys.org claims that the barn swallow “has seen a 95 percent drop in numbers across North American in the last 40 years.” The article opens by defining the word “extinction,” and hints that swallows may be heading in that direction. 

One billion individuals or teetering on extinction? That’s a huge difference, but both extremes are reported by seemingly credible sources. I’m sure each research team will vehemently defend their own numbers — at least I hope they would.

A 2019 study of birds in the Western Hemisphere by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, American Bird Conservancy, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and other organizations, garnered a lot of attention and press, and was hailed as a wake-up call to protect birds before they disappear. The study found that one in four birds had disappeared over the last 50 years. This study estimated the barn swallow population in the Western Hemisphere to be around 46 million birds.

The wide-ranging numbers underscore how difficult it is to get an accurate count of global bird populations. Personally, I like to go with the lower estimates. I think there’s no doubt that birds and other wildlife are in decline to some degree. Why not take steps to change that? If we are wrong and the population is thriving, well, then we’d just have more of a good thing. 

Children’s story by local author makes for good summer read

It’s summer (unofficially anyway) and time to look for a good summer read. Here’s a recommendation for a child (or an adult to read to a youngster) from a New England author. Carol Story from Norwalk, Connecticut, used her quarantine time to write Ellie’s Day at the Shore. I wish I had used my time as wisely.

Ellie’s Day at the Shore was inspired by Story’s experience as a volunteer shorebird monitor for the Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbirds, whose primary purpose is to monitor nesting activity of piping plovers, American oystercatchers, least terns and other shorebirds along the coast of Long Island Sound. I was a volunteer myself several years ago and it’s a lot of work, but also fun, educational and purposeful.

Ellie’s Day at the Beach tells the story of Carol taking her great niece Ellie to the shore and discovering all sorts of natural goodies, such as horseshoe crabs, terrapins, butterflies and, of course, birds. The book is beautifully illustrated by Story’s friend Pippa J. Ellis.

There is a conservation theme to the story and a portion of the net proceeds will go to conservation charities. Ellie’s Day at the Shore is $12.95 and may be found on Amazon, BarnesandNoble.com and through the publisher.

Why not kick off the summer right and help support a local author and conservation organizations?

More details may be found in this article written by The Hour newspaper in Norwalk, CT.

Here’s another story from the Connecticut Audubon website.

For the Birds: One of those walks

Photo by Chris Bosak A yellow warbler perches in a tree in New England, spring 2021.

It was the type of walk you anticipate for about 11 months.

It started fairly slowly with robins and red-winged blackbirds as my only visible avian companions while a lone song sparrow sang in the distance. Soon enough, I heard a mockingbird going through its repertoire from a nearby shrubby patch. They usually belt out their songs from a fairly obvious perch and this guy was no different as I found him easily at the end of a branch.

As I watched and listened to this talented songster, a female ruby-throated hummingbird entered the scene. It hovered briefly at the honeysuckle but did not stay long as the blossoms were not quite ready to provide nectar.

A familiar song then permeated the area as dueling male yellow warblers proclaimed ownership of their respective patches. I was stuck in the middle of the rivals and enjoyed the sweet music. To us, it’s entertainment. To them, it’s a turf war with much at stake.

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