For the Birds: Top 10 birding highlights of 2019

Photo by Will Bosak Kingbird rescue, Danbury, CT, 2019.

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

It’s time for my favorite column of the year. This is the time when I look back on the past year and give my top 10 birding highlights. Every year, I struggle to narrow it down to 10, but I will do my best and perhaps put a few honorable mention moments on my website in the next few days.

10. I visited my brother in Naples, Fla., in April and, of course, birds were everywhere. Waders such as egrets, herons, limpkins, and ibis were the dominant species. We have our fair share of waders in New England, for sure, but they are more numerous and more brave in the Sunshine State. I enjoy my visits to Florida, but always long for New England when I’m away.

9. A solid bald eagle sighting has to make this list. A summer canoe trip to the Bashakill Wildlife Management Area in Wurtsboro, N.Y., yielded just that. We saw the female and male, but the young eagles that locals said were around escaped us. The comeback of the bald eagle is a great conservation story. I hope it continues.

8. One last sighting outside of New England … Last winter was the Year of the Barred Owl, or so it seemed. People were seeing barred owls all over the place, day and night. My son and I were driving to Hoosick Falls, N.Y., last February to see another one of my brothers when, about half an hour shy of our destination, sure enough we saw a barred owl perched on a wire hanging over Route 22. The next morning, we saw another barred owl perched on a Welcome to New York sign. The photo was taken from the Vermont side of the sign so, technically, it was a New England sighting.

7. The Christmas Bird Count is always on this list somewhere. My CBC birding partner Frank and I found 52 species, totaling nearly 2,000 individual birds. The birds, the camaraderie, and feeling of doing good for conservation make the Christmas Bird Count a special event each year.

6. This year, after many years of procrastination and talking myself out of it, I tried my hand at selling some of my photography as Christmas cards. I was a vendor at a few craft fairs and did pretty well. The selling part was great, but talking to people about the photography and turning them on to birds was the real highlight. I’ll try again next year and try to figure out how to sell them online.

5. This spring, small flocks of common mergansers made their home for a few days at a small pond adjacent to a nearby shopping destination. I love my common mergansers and my sightings are typically of huge flocks hundreds of yards away. To see a few up close and personal was an unexpected treat, if only for a few days.

4. Barred owls were not the only species garnering attention last winter. Pine siskins were plentiful throughout New England and farther south and I certainly played host to more than my fair share. They stuck around for a long time, too, and visited daily in rain, sleet, snow and sun.

3. I started a new job a few months ago and, of course, I figured out a way to feed the birds out the window near my desk. I found a large, curled oak leaf, rested it on the flat top of a yew bush, and threw in some shelled sunflower seeds. I fill it daily and watch the juncos, white-throated sparrows and song sparrows partake.

2. I was sitting at my computer, probably writing a bird column or something, when my youngest son, Will, came charging up the driveway and into the house. He had been fishing with some friends at the nearby lake. “Dad, there’s a bird stuck on fishing line. I feel so bad for it.” I put the canoe on the car and rushed to the lake. An eastern kingbird tangled in fishing line was dangling helplessly from a tree over the water. Long story short, Will and I paddled out to the bird, untangled it and set it free. The full story, including when Will and I swamp the canoe in mucky water and the bird poops on my head, is archived on my website. Visit and put “kingbird” into the search field. I was proud that Will felt compelled to leave his friends and come get me to help a bird in despair.

1. The top highlight of the year is a morning I spent with three loons at Pillsbury State Park, near Lake Sunapee. The three-day camping trip was marred with rain on two of the mornings, but the middle morning featured a beautiful sunrise and mirror-like water with fog lifting. I saw the loons in the distance and stopped paddling. Eventually, they worked their way over to me and gave me fantastic views. Patience certainly paid off that morning.

I hope everyone had a terrific 2019. Best wishes for an even better 2020. I look forward to sharing more bird stories in the year to come.

Photo by Chris Bosak A common loon swims at May Pond in Pillsbury State Park in New Hampshire in June 2019.

For the Birds: Christmas Bird Count is always a highlight

Photo by Chris Bosak
Common loon in winter plumage on Long Island Sound.

The birding had been slow — not dreadfully slow, but slower than usual, for sure — when we rolled up beside some evergreens in a front yard. We noted a flurry of activity (finally) and stopped for a closer inspection.

A half-dozen juncos flitted close to the ground, flashing their white-edged tails. Suddenly, a yellow bird flew from one tree to another. Any yellow bird that is not a goldfinch is cause for “ID at all costs” during a Christmas Bird Count. Not that goldfinches aren’t welcomed species, but they are rather expected to be seen in New England in December. Other yellow birds, not so much.

It landed just long enough for us to get a decent look and for Frank to get a few good-enough photographs. It was a warbler, for sure. We immediately thought orange-crowned warbler as they are the warblers most often seen during a New England Christmas Bird Count. Frank inspected the photos on his camera — something that wouldn’t have been possible 20 or 25 years ago — and determined it was a Nashville warbler instead. In the flurry, we also noted a ruby-crowned kinglet scurry from one bush to another. All the while, a Carolina wren belted out a song from a telephone wire across the street. As a birdwatcher, you love those flurries. You really love them during a Christmas Bird Count.

Frank and I cover a coastal area of Connecticut and have done so for going on 20 years. For that area, we finished the Count with 52 species and close to 2,000 birds. Not bad, not great. We’ve had better years, to be honest.

The Christmas Bird Count is an annual citizen science project that has grown from 27 participants in the inaugural Count in 1900 to now more than 75,000 participants each year. Keene was one of the original 25 Count areas. The data is used by ornithologists and other scientists to track long-term trends of bird populations.

Yes, it’s scientific and for a great cause. But, really, most people do it because it’s great fun. It’s an excuse to take a December day and watch birds from sunrise to sunset (even longer for the owlers.) It does, however, become a responsibility for participants. You don’t want to miss a day and let down the birds or your fellow birders.

Weather plays a big role in the amount of fun you have. Here in New England, a mid-December day can be 50 degrees or zero degrees. It can be sunny, cloudy, rainy, snowy, or any combination thereof. I’ve done Counts in blizzards and I’ve done Counts when it feels like early September.

This year’s Count was cloudy, cold and breezy. I’ll take it. It could have been a lot worse. The breeziness may have kept some birds hunkered down, but I don’t think the lack of birds we saw was due to the weather, except for the freshwater ponds. We visited a few ponds that had been frozen a few days prior to the Count so most ducks flew off for open water. We did see a lot of gadwall, a few ring-necked ducks and hooded mergansers, and, of course, tons of mallards.

We had other successes, too, such as the Nashville warbler and kinglet. Other highlights included several hundred brant, a gray catbird, a peregrine falcon and seven common loons on Long Island Sound.

Frank and I discussed the demise of the monk parakeet. We used to count dozens of the bright green birds along the coast and this year we had only one fly over our heads. Its squawking alerted us to it. Monk parakeets, of course, are not native to New England, but an escaped shipment from JFK Airport decades ago led to an established colony along the Connecticut coastline. They used to thrive here; now, they are all but gone. They build huge, heavy nests made of sticks on utility poles, so we concluded that the utility companies must have had something to do with their disappearance. That’s just a guess, however.

Want to get involved with a Count in your area? Most local Counts have been done already this year, but start planning now for next year. Do an Internet search for “How do I join the Christmas Bird Count” and the first result will be a link to the National Audubon Society’s CBC page. You can also check out historic local results from your area.

If you do sign up, be prepared to have fun. Just be ready to bundle up.

Frozen scenes

Photo by Chris Bosak
A birdhouse covered in snow, Danbury, CT, December 2019.

Since we’re all freezing during this New England cold snap anyway, here are a few cold-weather shots I took this winter. Best viewed with a cup of hot cocoa. I hope everyone is having a great holiday season.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Woods in Danbury, Connecticut, covered in ice, December 2019.

For the Birds: More gift ideas for your birdwatcher

Photo by Chris Bosak Ablack-capped chickadee grabs a sunflower seed from a Christmas decoration during the winter of 2016-17 in Danbury, Conn.
Photo by Chris Bosak
A black-capped chickadee grabs a sunflower seed from a Christmas decoration during the winter of 2016-17 in Danbury, Conn.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the perfect Christmas gift being a membership or donation to a local land trust or other conservation organization. Some of those memberships even come with physical goodies such as stickers, newsletters or magazines.

So now that all those gifts have been granted, it’s time to take a quick look at some more gift ideas for the birdwatcher on your list. These gifts can go under the tree and are guaranteed to put a smile on the face of your birder.

What you get a birdwatcher, as with any hobbyist, depends on their skill level and what they have already. Birdwatchers need a good pair of binoculars, but chances are they already have good optics. If you know them well enough to know what binoculars they are using and know they could use an upgrade, that gift would certainly be appreciated immensely.

Speaking of optics — and now we will jump right to the most expensive gift — consider getting your birder a spotting scope and tripod. Spotting scopes come in a huge range of prices, but you really want to avoid the super cheap ones as they do not do very well for birdwatching. Good scopes start at a couple hundred dollars and go up to several thousand dollars. Don’t forget a good tripod, too, as a scope is pretty much useless without a tripod. That’s another hundred bucks or more.

Now let’s get to the gifts that are more practical and do not have as many zeros on the price tag.

A good bird feeder is always a thoughtful gift. So are birdhouses. Birdhouses serve the dual purpose of attracting birds (hopefully anyway) and being a nice decoration for the yard. I liked the look of one birdhouse I received so much that I kept it inside for a long time on a shelf as a decoration to go along with my modest decoy collection.

When possible, get your feeders, houses, and other bird gifts from a local business. Even the franchise stores such as Wild Birds Unlimited are owned by local people who would love your business.

Birding apparel is getting more popular and many companies make clothes exclusively for birdwatchers. Wunderbird has a nice line of sweatshirts, long sleeve T-shirts, and short sleeve T-shirts that are designed for birders. The apparel features several pockets for your binoculars and other gear. Similarly, Big Pockets has vests and other apparel designed for outdoorspeople.

Bird and wildlife art also make for good gifts. There is the traditional art such as photographs or paintings for the wall, and also not-so-traditional art such as decoys and Christmas ornaments. I know my tree is covered with mostly bird ornaments and my boys razz me about it every time we break out the Christmas boxes.

Field guides or other books about birds are also welcome. There are tons of bird books out there, both old and new, that are highly informational and entertaining. A few print magazines about birds are hanging in there in this electronic age and a subscription would be a gift that gives all year.

Speaking of the electronic age, iTunes gift cards are a good idea if your high-tech birder would rather have his or her field guides and other birding information on the phone. I will admit, I’m not a techie by any means, but I do like having a field guide on my phone while I am birding in the field.

There are plenty of other ideas that I didn’t get to. A few bags of Birds and Beans coffee, anyone? It’s funny. For a hobby that requires very little in the way of equipment, there are certainly a lot of ways to spoil your birder.

Long Island Sound VII: Bonus photos

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Red-throated Loon swims in Norwalk Harbor in this March 2014 photo.

As it turns out, a week wasn’t enough to get in all the Long Island Sound shots I wanted in recognition of the Connecticut Audubon Society’s 2019 State of the Birds report. So here are some more. The press release that summarizes the findings may be found here. The full report will be available via PDF on January 1.

Here’s the link to my original posting, which explains why I’m posting so many photos of the Sound.

Photo by Chris Bosak Brant at Calf Pasture Beach in Norwalk, Connecticut, 2019.
Photo by Chris Bosak A Great Egret stands on a deck railing overlooking the Norwalk River in Norwalk, Conn., April 2016.
Photo by Chris Bosak A Great Egret stands on a deck railing overlooking the Norwalk River in Norwalk, Conn., April 2016.