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.

Christmas Bird Count photos

Photo by Chris Bosak A northern shoveler swims on the Norwalk River in New England, December 2020.

It was a gray day that turned into a snowy day that turned into a misty, gray day. The weather never fails to be part of the story of a Christmas Bird Count (CBC) in New England. Yesterday (Sunday) was the annual CBC in my area and, as usual, I covered the Norwalk (Conn.) coastline and parts inland with Frank Mantlik, one of Connecticut”s top birders. We tallied 61 species, which will be combined with the other birds spotted by the Count’s other teams. Highlights included northern shoveler, northern pintail, prairie warbler, pine warbler, yellow-rumped warbler, northern harrier, merlin and horned lark. Full story coming in my For the Birds column. In the meantime, here’s what the Christmas Bird Count is all about.

Photo by Chris Bosak A red-tailed hawk perches on the top of a pine tree in New England, December 2020.
Photo by Chris Bosak A prairie warbler perches on a cement barrier at a waste water treatment center in New England, December 2020.
Photo by Chris Bosak A northern pintail drake swims in a pool of water with Canada geese in New England, December 2020.
Photo by Chris Bosak A northern shoveler swims on the Norwalk River in New England, December 2020.

Bluebird and pine warbler, a look back

Photo by Chris Bosak An eastern bluebird and pine warbler share a suet feeder in New England, April 2020. Merganser Lake.

A Day on Merganser Lake

Unfortunately, the bluebirds that had visited daily since February have moved on. I haven’t seen them in about a week. Hopefully they will return next winter. It seems an appropriate time to look back on an action-packed April, which included scenes like this: an eastern bluebird and pine warbler sharing a suet feeder.

Palm warbler searches in the moss

Photo by Chris Bosak A palm warbler searches for food in a bed of moss, April 2020. Merganser Lake.

A Day on Merganser Lake

Warbler season, sadly, is done for the year. The warblers that remain are the nesters, which is exciting in its own right. Here’s a throwback photo of a palm warbler I saw back in April. Palm warblers are one of the first warblers to arrive in New England each spring.