For the Birds: Good news from the Winter Finch Forecast

Photo by Chris Bosak A pine siskin perches on the top of an evergreen in Danbury, CT, March 2019.

The 2020-21 Winter Finch Forecast is out and it looks like it could be an exciting next several months in New England.

This is the first forecast by Tyler Hoar. Ron Pittaway did the forecast for several decades before passing the torch to Hoar this year. The Winter Finch Forecast is a prediction of what finch (and other) species may irrupt into New England and parts south and west. An irruption is when northern birds move to or through an area in abnormally high numbers. For example, many years we get very few or even no pine siskins. Other years we get so many we can’t fill the feeders fast enough. Irruptions occur mainly due to food availability, or lack thereof. If it is a bad crop year up north for a certain type of food, such as pine cone seeds, irruptions may occur as birds move in search of food sources.

According to Hoar, this is shaping up to be a good year for purple finches and evening grosbeaks. It is also a year when red-breasted nuthatches are moving south in high numbers. Perhaps you’ve seen more of these small, charismatic birds than usual in your yard this fall already. I hadn’t seen or heard a red-breasted nuthatch in my yard for about four years. This fall, I’ve had three already. I’ve seen only one, and heard the other two. Red-breasted nuthatches have higher-pitched songs and calls than their cousins, the white-breasted nuthatch. It’s an unmistakable difference once you learn it. Red-breasted nuthatches are the more common nuthatch throughout much of New England, particularly up north. In southern New England, irruption years of red-breasted nuthatches are a special treat as they are not resident birds.

The Winter Finch Forecast covers finches such as redpolls, crossbills and siskins, as well as a few small birds that aren’t finches. Irruptions are not limited to these small birds, of course. Who can forget the winter of 2013-14 when snowy owls were all the rage and showed up in places they’d never been seen before?

To see the full forecast, enter “2020-21 Winter Finch Forecast” into a web search and have at it. Are we likely to see common redpolls this winter? I’ll leave that research up to you. I’m always looking forward with excitement regardless of the season, but the Winter Finch Forecast offers that much more incentive to cheer on winter and the colder months. Winter is not so bad after all.

White-breasted nuthatch

Photo by Chris Bosak A white-breasted nuthatch clings to a dead branch in New England, September 2020.

Here’s a new white-breasted nuthatch photo, just because.

Did you know nuthatches can walk down a tree? Most birds can only climb up a tree, but nuthatches can walk down as well, offering them a different angle of a tree’s bark to look for food.

For the Birds: Early fall sightings

Photo by Chris Bosak Praying mantis at Highstead in Redding, CT, summer 2019.

In my opinion, September ranks up there as one of the best months for wildlife watching in New England. Top two or three, I’d say. I like each of the months, of course, and you could make an argument for pretty much any of them being in the top five. May is hard to beat as it is the height of the songbird migration in New England and comes on the heels of several months of cold weather. Also, the flowers start blooming and trees fully leaf out, adding color to a landscape that had been mostly gray for far too long.

So May, I think, has to be number one.

April, September and October duke it out for second. To me, September gets the nod. Like May, September is a transition month. The fall migration begins in earnest during September, but summer still hangs on tightly. Not only do we get to see the fall migrants pass through, but all of the things that make summer special remain. Loons and hummingbirds are around for much of September, but they are mostly gone by October.

September is a great time to take a walk in a field. The goldenrod is in bloom and if you look closely, you can often find interesting critters such as a praying mantis or yellow garden spider. It is interesting to note that praying mantises are not native to North America. Also, male yellow garden spiders are small and brownish; only the female has the intimidating size and colorful pattern.

September also marks the beginning of the southward hawk migration, which is a highlight of the year for many birdwatchers. September features the massive broad-winged Continue reading

Update on the tomato hornworm

Photo by Chris Bosak Wasp cocoons cling to what’s left of a tomato hornworm in a garden in New England, September 2020.

Here’s a quick update on the tomato hornworm I wrote about a few weeks ago. As you can see from the above photo, it didn’t get any better for the tomato hornworm, the caterpillar of the five-spotted sphinx moth. I was pulling some of the dying tomato plants out of the garden the other day when I noticed this scene on a bunch of small pear tomatoes. As you can see, some of the wasp cocoons are empty now as the wasps completed their cycle and flew off into the world.

Confused? Here’s the original story.

Here’s what the caterpillar looked like a few weeks ago:

Photo by Chris Bosak A tomato hornworm is covered in braconid wasp larvae on a tomato plant in New England, August 2020.

Odds and ends …

Photo by Chris Bosak A hummingbird moth sips nectar from a butterfly bush in New England, summer 2019.

Odds and ends from the natural world:

I led you astray in a recent column and I’m here to own up to it and make it right.

I wrote about and included a photograph of a tomato hornworm caterpillar being covered in the small white cocoons of a wasp parasite. That part was true. It was a tomato hornworm and it was covered in the cocoons of braconid wasps. These wasps start their life cycle as an egg laid inside the giant green caterpillar and eat their way out to build their cocoons.

I was mistaken, however, in saying that the caterpillar would have turned into a hummingbird moth – at least the kind we enjoy watching around our flowers in the summer and early fall. That moth is the hummingbird clearwing moth and is not Continue reading

Don’t let looks fool you

I love when I stumble upon these. Yellow garden spiders may look threatening, but they are harmless and not aggressive towards humans. They can bite humans but will only do so if threatened (handled, stepped on, sat on, etc.) Females are the large, colorful ones we see in gardens and fields. Males are smaller and nondescript. They are native to the U.S. and are beneficial to our landscape, if not intimidating-looking.

And another mantis photo

Photo by Chris Bosak A praying mantis in a field in New England, September 2020.

I had mentioned in an earlier post that praying mantises were being seen frequently this summer. Well, here’s another one I found the other day. Here’s the original post.

Here’s some interesting information about praying mantises I found on the Daily Hampshire Gazette website:

In Massachusetts there are two species of praying mantises, the Chinese mantis, Tenodera aridifolia, and the European mantis, Mantis religiosa. As you can guess from their common names, neither of these insects is native to North America. Both species were introduced over 100 years ago, likely by gardeners looking to control pests.

The article has plenty more interesting facts about these fascinating insects, including why some are green and some are brown. You’ll note the mantis shown in this post is much more brown the one in my previous mantis post. Here’s the link to the Daily Hampshire Gazette article.

For the Birds: Micro-level horror show in the garden

Photo by Chris Bosak A tomato hornworm is covered in braconid wasp larvae on a tomato plant in New England, August 2020.

(Note: This post has been updated from its original content to correct information about the hummingbird moth caterpillar.)

I was all set to follow my last column about fall migration with a closer look at some of the songbirds, including warblers, that are heading south now and will be for the next several weeks.

That column has been put on hold as I saw something in the garden last week that just can’t wait. Experienced vegetable gardeners have likely seen this before, but it was a first for me and I was amazed at the gruesome details when I researched it online.

First, a little background. It is a first-year garden plot. I dug it during April at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak in the Northeast. More than anything else, it was a diversion from the nuttiness going on in the world; something to keep my mind and body occupied during quarantine. I’ve never had a green thumb and I had little hope in the garden ever yielding impressive crops.

As it turns out, my pessimism was warranted. Once the leaves popped on the giant oaks that surround my property, the garden didn’t stand a chance. Tomato plants require how much sunlight? Continue reading