For the Birds: Keep those feeders clean

I’ve been keeping an eye on the news regarding the mysterious disease that has been killing birds in some Midwest and mid-Atlantic states.

It appears that the disease has not reached New England, although nearby states such as New Jersey and Pennsylvania have been impacted. Researchers still do not know what is causing the deaths, but they have ruled out several diseases that commonly afflict birds, such as West Nile, salmonella and avian conjunctivitis.

I did read a report that suggests the situation may be waning, which would be great news. I’d be more than happy if the disease never makes it to New England.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, my go-to source for information about birds, does not directly recommend taking down feeders, like so many other organizations do. Rather, it recommends following the guidelines put forth by an individual’s state fish and game commission.

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For the Birds: Any walk is worth it

Photo by Chris Bosak A great blue heron stands on a dock.

Even when nothing out of the ordinary is seen, walks in nature are still valuable and memorable.

While my recent walks haven’t been full of extraordinary sightings, many moments stick out in my mind as enduring.

Here are a few:

A friend and I were taking a walk in a large conservation area dominated by wide swaths of fields. Thank goodness for those areas because birds such as bobolinks need that habitat to nest. While bobolinks were indeed plentiful, another sighting remained with me from that walk.

We were about to round a corner of the path that cuts through the field when we noticed something on the trail ahead. It was large and dark, and I thought at first it was a mammal such as a groundhog. Then I thought it was a turkey. Finally, my eyes and mind started to work together, and I realized it was a turkey vulture.

I could tell from its movements that it was eating something. Why else would a turkey vulture be sitting on the edge of a trail in the middle of a field? I peered through the binoculars and noticed the vulture was eating a dead snake. I tried to determine what type of snake it was, but I couldn’t get a clear enough view. It’s highly unlikely that the vulture killed the snake, but rather a hawk, kestrel or some other large predator.

As a supplemental sighting to that one, a second turkey vulture was perched behind us in a snag. It had gone unnoticed until we walked past it. Our heads turned when it flew off its perch and left the dead branch bouncing up and down like that old drinking bird toy. We heard its wings as it flapped past us. A resident red-winged blackbird did not take kindly to the circumstance and chased after the vulture rather aggressively. The vulture rose quickly, which seemed to satisfy the blackbird.

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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: Young birds need close inspection to ID

Photo by Chris Bosak An immature Peregrine Falcon sits on prey at Veterans Park in Norwalk, CT, Dec. 2013.

Early and mid-summer can be a tricky time for birdwatchers. I know, I know. I say that about a lot of times of the year.

This is a tricky time in that many young birds are fledging, and they don’t always resemble an adult bird yet. When a young bird is found in the field, it is often difficult to determine what exactly it is.

Some young birds are fairly obvious. A young robin may not look exactly like an adult robin, but it is clearly a robin nonetheless. Many birds fall under that category. But there are other birds, such as young warblers and even some ducks and hawks, that do not yet resemble their parents and therefore require some study to figure out what they are.

It is always rewarding to see young birds at your feeder or birdbath. I’ve seen many cardinals over the years teaching their youngsters how to eat from feeders. Last summer, I had the pleasure of watching a bluebird family visit daily for an extended period eating mealworms I had left on the deck railing.

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Eastern black swallowtail

Photo by Chris Bosak A black swallowtail sips nectar from a milkweed plant in New England, July 2021.

Butterflies, like this eastern black swallowtail, are a good diversion when the birding is slow on hot, summer afternoons.

For the Birds: Dead or alive, trees are vital

Photo by Chris Bosak A pileated woodpecker works over a tree in New England, May 2020. Merganser Lake.

Every tree tells a story, even the dead ones. In fact, the dead ones may have the most interesting stories to tell.

A recent walk through the woods had me thinking about the trees. These particular woods were a mixture of evergreen and deciduous trees — predominantly deciduous but a few evergreens sprinkled in as well.

A large ash tree was snapped about 12 feet from the ground. The otherwise healthy-looking trunk stood tall and straight, while the rest of the tree bent down into the forest at a 45-degree angle.

I’m pretty sure I know what happened to the tree. A severe wind storm, with spotty tornado touch downs, blew through the area last summer and reduced many trees to tall trunks. It’s funny how storms impact trees differently. Some storms uproot most of the trees they damage. Other storms snap them like twigs. Still other storms, it seems, hardly damage the trees at all.

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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. 

For the Birds: Nature’s morning chorus

Photo by Chris Bosak A red-winged blackbird sings from the top of a tree at Happy Landings in Brookfield, Conn., spring 2017.
Photo by Chris Bosak A red-winged blackbird sings from the top of a tree at Happy Landings in Brookfield, Conn., spring 2017.

It was about an hour before sunrise and it was decision time: try to go back to sleep for a few hours or get up and watch the sunrise in the woods somewhere.

Nine times out of ten, going back to sleep wins out and I wake up with the sun fairly high in the sky. This time was different. A few robins were already awake and singing, and I felt as if trying to sleep would be fruitless. I got up, made a cup of coffee and drove to the nearest park.

It was a good call. Nothing too out of the ordinary happened, but being in the woods when the natural world wakes up is always something memorable. In my younger years (not that long ago, mind you), I would do this quite frequently. Lately, not so much.

The sky was already brightening by the time I hit the trail. It was light enough that I didn’t need a flashlight to see where I was going, but it was dark enough that taking a photograph would yield a blurry, indiscernible image. Not that there was much to see anyway.

But there was plenty to hear. Robins, perhaps cousins of those that had awakened me about half an hour earlier, were the dominant sound. “Cheerily, cheerily, cheer up, cheer up,” over and over from all directions in the pre-dawn woods.

Plenty of other birds (and frogs and insects) joined the chorus, but the robins dominated. Most noticeable, and delightful, were the sounds that weren’t being heard: no airplanes overhead, no trucks downshifting from the highway miles away, no leaf blowers, no lawn mowers, no chainsaws. Just nature. It was cool and calm. Later it would be hot and hectic. But not just yet.

The robins had plenty of company in the morning chorus. I heard the Space Invaders-like song of the veery as well as wood thrushes, mourning doves, titmice, red-bellied woodpeckers, song sparrows, eastern wood pewees, red-winged blackbirds and many other bird songs I could not identify. Bullfrogs added a deep and interesting texture to the chorus.

I walked down a narrow path lined with ferns on either side. The lush ferns stretched far into the woods in all directions. I walked past a pond on my right. Fog rose from the water and man-made wood duck boxes were placed strategically around the edges. Grackles, ever ubiquitous, flew among the cattails.

My face and legs broke through hundreds of spider webs and mosquitoes feasted on the back of my neck. A great blue heron uttered its croaking sound as it flew from a nearby marsh and landed in a tall snag towering over the steaming pond. A friend of mine once said the great blue heron’s “song” reminded him of a dying goat. It’s not that far off.

I noticed a snapping turtle between the trail and the water. Years ago, I would have thought it was a rock, but my older, wiser self knew immediately it was a snapper. I pulled out my phone, took a few steps closer, bent low and grabbed a few photos. It was a willing subject.

Eventually, the natural sounds waned and the unnatural ones took over. The distant humming of the highway reminded me that I, too, had responsibilities to tend to. I reluctantly retreated back to the car and returned home. It was still before 7 o’clock in the morning when I got back. I felt as if I had experienced an entire day already. I never did miss those couple hours of sleep.

Photo by Chris Bosak A snapping turtle at a pond’s edge in New England, spring 2021.

For the Birds: Birding still hot in June

Photo by Chris Bosak An eastern towhee seen in Ridgefield, CT, summer 2019.

June may not have the buildup and excitement of May, but it is still an interesting time in the birding and natural world.

By the time June comes around, the swarms of migrating birds have dissipated, having either gone farther north or settled into their breeding territories. June also follows May, which I would argue is the most exciting month for birding in New England. I wouldn’t say June is a letdown, but it lacks the anticipation that May has going for it. May, after all, follows months and months of cold, gray weather. May’s songbird migration is like a reward for enduring winter and early spring.

Early June does have the odd migrant still working its way north, which is nice to see. For the most part, however, the migration is over.

June is a time to recognize, appreciate and take pride in the birds that are breeding in the area. There’s something special in knowing that birds are raising young nearby. The other day, I took a walk and saw or heard eastern towhees (pictured above), yellow warblers, blue-winged warblers, common yellowthroats, indigo buntings, rose-breasted grosbeaks, bobolinks, catbirds, veeries and hermit thrushes. Those are nice sightings regardless of the circumstances, but it was particularly rewarding knowing they are breeding locally. I hope they all have a successful breeding season.

The birds, for the most part, were still fairly vocal. I heard all of the aforementioned birds singing. Finding them proved to be a touch more difficult than in May. In May, birds are still searching for or defending territory and are easy to spot. In June, more birds are hunkered down for fear of giving away their nesting site. The colorful males often jump out to grab attention while the more subtly plumaged females remain on the nest camouflaged from predators.

June also means more insects, which is good and bad. It was nice to see a few butterflies flitting among the early-blooming flowers in the meadow, but the deer flies attacking the back of my neck were not something I was quite ready for. Oh well, it’s all part of living in New England.

As the insects gain steam, the birding action will slow down over the next couple of weeks as they hang low raising young. Morning and evening are always the best times to look for birds, but this will become even truer in July and August as the heat and humidity will keep the birds in the shade during the day. Steamy August afternoons are my favorite times to wander through New England meadows looking for butterflies, dragonflies and whatever other creatures lurk in the tall grasses and flowers.

In the meantime, enjoy June and what it offers birdwatchers. There’s still plenty of action out there.