For the Birds: Patience pays off again

Photo by Chris Bosak A yellow-rumped warbler eats poison ivy berries in New England, fall 2021.

Any birdwatcher knows that patience and faith are perhaps the two most important components to a successful bird walk.

I started a recent walk with high hopes, as I always do, but as the morning went on and no birds were to be found, I started to lose hope of seeing anything. To compound matters, the field at the park had recently been mowed for the first time of the year, making bird encounters even less likely.

It still would have been a pleasant walk because the autumn morning chill had given way to a beautiful and warm sunny day. But with fall migration in full swing, I was disappointed in the birding results.

I turned around to finish my walk and decided to go off trail a bit and check out a long shrubby row adjacent to a road on one side and the recently plowed field on the other. At first there was nothing to be seen other than the magical colors of a New England fall, which were pleasing on their own.

Then I saw a few birds spring up from the field and head into the shrubby area along which I was walking. Then a few more birds popped out of the grass and went into the shrubby row. Before I knew it, I was practically surrounded by yellow-rumped warblers.

A few palm warblers were in the mix as well, but it was largely yellow-rumped warblers, and there were dozens of them. It looked like a mix of young and old, male and female.

They stuck mostly to the tops of trees at first. Then they slowly worked their way down and started gobbling up white berries from a vine that had climbed up the tree.

Poison ivy is a much-maligned plant and with good reason. But it does have some good qualities. Not only is the foliage a brilliant red in the fall, but it produces many white berries that a variety of birds love. I’m not saying that is enough to keep poison ivy growing around your yard, but when you come across a patch in the woods, just know that it serves a valuable purpose for migrating birds.

The recently mowed field turned out to be a boon for the birds as well. A bounty of easily accessible seeds and insects must have been created by the cutting because the warblers, along with eastern bluebirds and a variety of sparrows, went back and forth from the field to the berries in the shrubby row frequently. Talk about a balanced diet.

I walked under a dead tree and three eastern bluebirds held their perches on the bare branches. They made their “turalee” sounds and kept an eye on me as I moved along. A few steps later, I focused on an active patch of poison ivy, and one of the bluebirds swooped down to join the feast with the warblers.

The last bit of excitement came when I saw a red squirrel struggling to get a walnut up a tree. The walnut, still with its green husk, was a tall task for the little rodent. The squirrel eventually succeeded and it reminded me to put a few walnuts in the side pocket of my cargo shorts. I’m slowly learning the ins and outs of harvesting wild nuts in New England, and I hadn’t experimented with walnuts yet.

What started as a pleasant walk on a crisp fall day turned out to be an eventful experience only New England can offer. So many walks end up that way.

Palm warblers out in force

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

Three species dominated the count total on my morning bird walk today. White-throated sparrows were plentiful and it was great to hear their song again. Yellow-rumped warblers were plentiful, as they often are this time of year. Palm warblers were numerous as well and a flock of five kept me company near a stone wall at Huntington State Park. The fall warbler migration is bittersweet. It’s great to see them, of course, but the crisp air reminds me they will be gone soon and a long winter looms. At least winter is good for birdwatching too.

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

A few more yellowthroat photos

Photo by Chris Bosak A common yellowthroat perches on a branch in New England, July 2021.

Common yellowthroats are one of most familiar warblers we see in New England. While we are seeing many warblers pass through this time of year on their way south, yellowthroats remain one of the more common sightings. The male (pictured above) is easy to recognize with his black mask, but the female is a little more tricky, particularly in the fall when warblers are notoriously difficult to ID. Here are a few more shots to distinguish the female yellowthroat from other warblers passing through. Click here for a recent For the Birds column on yellowthroats.

Photo by Chris Bosak A common yellowthroat perches on a branch in New England, July 2021.
Photo by Chris Bosak A common yellowthroat perches on a branch in New England, July 2021.
Photo by Chris Bosak A common yellowthroat perches on a branch in New England, July 2021.

For the Birds: Birding by ear, for starters

Photo by Chris Bosak An American Redstart sings from a perch in Selleck's and Dunlap Woods in Darien, Conn., May 2015.
Photo by Chris Bosak An American Redstart sings from a perch in Selleck’s and Dunlap Woods in Darien, Conn., May 2015.

Any walk through deciduous woods when the leaves are out drives home the importance of knowing what birds sound like. It can be a lesson in futility to try to find a tiny warbler at the top of a giant oak tree covered in leaves. The exercise can lead to frustration and a condition known as “warbler neck.”

My birding-by-ear skills are average at best, and I was reminded of this during a recent walk through the woods under a thick canopy. I heard several warblers and other birds, and, while I saw only a few, I was able to recognize the songs of several others. There were many birds, however, I could not find through my binoculars nor recognize by their songs or calls. As I mentioned before, it can be frustrating, but I have reached an age where I can let go of the frustration quickly and not dwell on the bird that got away. In years past, I would often hold onto the frustration long after the walk, which, after all, is supposed to be enjoyable.

Birds don’t always look exactly like they do in a field guide, whether the images are photos or illustrations. There are different plumages depending on time of year, age, sex and other factors. There is also slight variation among individuals of a species. Not every male robin looks exactly the same.

That said, birds don’t always sound exactly like they are supposed to either. A bird’s song is only one of the sounds they make and even their songs can vary greatly. Cardinals, for instance, have distinctive high-pitched call notes. They also have a distinctive song, but there are several versions of the song. The cardinal in your forsythia may have a song that is greatly different from the cardinal across the street. All of the songs are loud, clear and beautiful, but very different. Don’t get stuck thinking that the cardinal song you hear every day is the only one cardinals have. Many other birds are the same way as well.

My advice if you are just starting to learn bird sounds is to learn the common and obvious ones really well. Study what the robin sounds like. Their typical song is often translated to “cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up.” But there is much variation in the song, and they have several calls as well, such as the “tut, tut, tut,” call.

Robins are very common in New England, so if you learn the sounds of the robin, you can save yourself much frustration on your walks by not getting hung up on a bird you will likely come across several times.

Get to know the various calls and songs of blue jays, cardinals, nuthatches, chickadees and titmice. You will hear those often throughout the year, and you can eliminate other birds in the spring when you hear those sounds during a song-filled spring morning.

Warblers and other migrants are a different story. We do not hear them year-round, but rather for only a few weeks out of the year. That is a short window to try to learn those songs in the field. Birding Internet sites and phone apps are filled with recordings of bird songs and calls. I would encourage you to learn a few warbler songs each year so as to not try to pack too much information in your head and end up not remembering anything. Learn the yellow warbler and common yellowthroat, for instance, as those are commonly heard in the spring and summer throughout New England.

Warblers are difficult to learn because there are so many of them and many of their songs are similar to each other’s. But, as I said, learn a few a year and within a couple of years you will be picking out many of the songs you hear in the woods in April and May. And if you just can’t pick it up, don’t fret or stress. Study a little more, and get it next time.

Yellow warbler again

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

Yellow warblers are one of the more reliable warblers in New England. Pretty much any walk in New England in May or June is enhanced by the song and/or sight of a yellow warbler. Here are a few shots of one I saw the other day.

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Snow in May

Photo by Chris Bosak A blue-winged warbler perches on snowy branches at Bennett’s Farm State Park in Connecticut during a rare May snowfall in 2020.

It sounds like something one of your grandparents would say: I remember when it snowed during the second week of May.

But it wasn’t that long ago when it snowed in May in southern New England. It was last year, in fact. It was overnight May 8 into May 9, to be more specific. That’s exactly one year ago today (at the time of this posting, anyway.)

Granted, it wasn’t a big snow and what little covered the ground was gone by mid-morning, but still …

Here are a few photos I took the morning of May 9, 2020. I may never see a blue-winged warbler in snow again. And that would be just fine with me.

Photo by Chris Bosak A blue-winged warbler perches on snowy branches at Bennett’s Farm State Park in Connecticut during a rare May snowfall in 2020.
Photo by Chris Bosak A blue-winged warbler perches on snowy branches at Bennett’s Farm State Park in Connecticut during a rare May snowfall in 2020.

For the Birds: Welcome to May!

Photo by Chris Bosak A chestnut-sided warbler lurks in the brush in New England, May 2020. Merganser Lake.

Welcome to May, arguably the best month of the year for birdwatching.

So many exciting things happen in the bird world in May that it’s hard to know where to begin. The breeding season is in full swing and our year-round birds as well as newly arrived migrant birds are either looking for nesting sites or already raising young. Suddenly our feeders are visited by colorful newcomers such as rose-breasted grosbeaks, Baltimore orioles or indigo buntings. Waders are back in full force stalking our ponds and rivers.

When it comes to May, however, talk of the birding world has to begin with warblers, those small and often colorful Neotropical migrants that add life to our neck of the woods every spring. Some of these warblers will simply stop by for a few days before heading farther north to their breeding grounds. Many, however, will find a suitable place to raise young and will be with us until the fall.

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A few warblers

Photo by Chris Bosak A chestnut-sided warbler lurks in the brush in New England, May 2020. Merganser Lake.

Due to various reasons (excuses?), I haven’t been out this year looking for warblers yet. But here are a few “old” shots to celebrate warbler season, a highlight of the birding year. I will take my own advice soon and “get out there.”

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The first warblers

Photo by Chris Bosak A pine warbler visits a backyard in New England, April 2020, Merganser Lake.

Other than the very few warblers of various types that remained in New England all winter, the pine warbler and palm warbler will be the first arrive in the region. I have seen them show up on rare bird alerts already but they will return in larger numbers over the next two weeks. Keep you eyes on your feeders as pine warblers are one of the few warbler species that will visit feeders. I’ve seen them eat suet, suet nuggets and meal worms. Above is the pine warbler; below is the palm.

Photo by Chris Bosak A palm warbler rests on a wire fence in a backyard in New England, April 2020. Merganser Lake.