For the Birds: A dragonfly bonanza

Photo by Chris Bosak A green darner flies around a backyard in New England following a mosquito hatch in September 2021.

The sun was starting to set behind the marsh, casting a golden glow on the backyard.

In this magical light, we could see dragonflies by the dozens, perhaps hundreds, zipping around the yard. Looking closer, aided by the light, we could see hundreds, if not thousands, of mosquitoes, presenting themselves as tiny specks in the air. Looking even closer, we could see the dragonflies chase down and eat the mosquitoes. The mosquitoes didn’t stand a chance against these perfectly engineered predators.

I went out to try my luck at photographing a dragonfly in midair. It’s been an elusive shot in my catalog of nature photos. Even with the sheer numbers of dragonflies and the perfect evening sun at my back, the shot proved to be a challenge. I somewhat met the challenge, however. I wouldn’t say I nailed the shot as it’s not ideally composed, focused, exposed or any other type of technical photography term you can think of. But, for my purposes, it’s not bad. I’m not shooting for National Geographic or anything.

Dragonflies are small, fast and can move in any direction. It’s not easy to get a good shot of a dragonfly when it’s perched, let alone zipping around in unpredictable patterns.

I tried to follow an individual dragonfly through the camera lens. That was a lesson in futility. Even if I could follow one (which I couldn’t) it would have been impossible for the autofocus mechanism to keep up. Manual focusing by panning the subject wouldn’t have worked either. Not even close.

So I tried a trick I used sometimes when I was a sports photographer. I focused on a spot and waited for something to enter the frame. Actually, in this case, there were so many dragonflies that they were constantly in the frame so I just held down the shutter. Just because they were in the frame doesn’t mean the shots came out OK. On the contrary, 99 percent of the photos were instantly deleted because they were out of focus, usually by a long shot.

But I kept trying and made adjustments to the camera as I went along and the sun continued to set. I have no idea how many photos I took, but it didn’t really matter. Digital cameras can hold lots of photos these days.

This would have been impossible to do with the “old” film camera. Imagine blowing through several rolls of expensive oil and paying the cost of having them developed only to see a bunch of blurry dots. That was our reality not too long ago.

Clearly, the dragonflies didn’t eat all of the mosquitoes as I donated a few pints of blood trying to get the shots. What is it about my ankles that mosquitoes like so much?

As I mentioned earlier, dragonflies are a perfect predator for their prey and a single dragonfly can catch and eat dozens or even hundreds of mosquitoes in a single day. Their four wings allow them to fly in any direction, or even hover, and their vision is outstanding. They catch prey with their legs and eat the catch immediately.

Despite their awesome flying ability, they can sometimes become the prey as well. I remember watching a green heron at a small pond years ago snapping dragonflies out of the air.

I see dragonflies on nearly every walk I take in the spring, summer and fall. But I don’t remember ever seeing such a scene with so many of them concentrated in one yard. Neither of the neighbors had this spectacle going on. It was ours to watch exclusively. It was one of those moments in nature you stumble upon from time to time.

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: An eagle on the edge

Photo by Chris Bosak A young bald eagle perches on a dead tree near Danbury Fair mall in Danbury, CT, March 2019.

It was an eagle. There was no doubt about that. I second-guessed myself only for a second because of where the sighting took place.

It was not on a remote lake in northern New England or on one of the islands in Long Island Sound. It was right along a highway.

We are all used to seeing hawks perched along the highway. In fact, when I drive to Pennsylvania a couple of times a year to visit family, I make it a point to count the number of red-tailed hawks I see perched in trees along Route 86. It’s usually between 10 and 15. Hey, it passes the time on a long drive.

I noticed from far away as I approached the scene that there was a bird perched in a tree overhanging a somewhat busy state highway. Even from a significant distance, I could tell it was not a hawk. The only question was whether it was an eagle or a vulture. It did not have the posture of a vulture, but rather the regal stance of an eagle.

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For the Birds: Loving those berries

Photo by Chris Bosak A song sparrow eats berries at Dolce Center in Norwalk, Conn.
Photo by Chris Bosak A song sparrow eats berries at Dolce Center in Norwalk, Conn.

I had just discovered a new berry tree at work and thought to myself how great it would be to see the birds raid the tree when the berries ripened.

At the time, the majority of the berries were red with a few purple ones mixed in. It wouldn’t be long now, I figured, before they were all purple and the birds would be feasting on them.

About a week later, I went back to check out the tree and it was practically picked clean. Apparently, the berries ripened quicker than I thought they would, and the birds wasted no time in having their feast.

I missed the flurry of activity that had the tree stripped clean, but I did see a lone gray catbird fly in and out to grab a few of the remaining berries. At least I wasn’t completely shut out of the show.

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For the Birds: The ‘forgotten’ birds

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

Sometimes the residual birds get unduly forgotten when a bird walk features a highlight species. In other words, the other solid bird sightings get pushed to the back of the memory bank. Then, sometime after the excitement of the highlight species fades, be it hours, days or weeks, the other birds come back to you.

This happened to me the other week when a pair of male indigo buntings highlighted an evening walk. It had been a while since I had seen buntings, and I became singularly focused on them when recounting the walk.

As I looked through the photos of that walk, I was reminded of some of the other birds I had seen. Before I took untold numbers of photos of the bright blue indigo buntings, I had snapped a few photos of a common yellowthroat pair. I had completely forgotten about those birds until I started looking through the photos.

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For the Birds: Indigo bunting brightens a summer evening

Photo by Chris Bosak An indigo bunting perches in a tree in New England, July 2021.

The song sounded familiar, but it had been months since I last heard it.

There is an indigo bunting around here somewhere I said to myself and instantly abandoned my plans for a long, strenuous walk. I knew I’d be at that spot for a while.

I couldn’t tell if the song was coming from the left or the right. It sounded like it was coming from both directions. I thought it was just because I’m getting old and my hearing was playing tricks on me.

But sure enough, there were two male indigo singing: one to the left of me and one to the right.

The bunting to the right was in the shade as the evening sun was dipping below the tree line. The bird to the left was illuminated in that magical evening light. I turned my focus to that bird.

Thankfully, the bird was fairly cooperative and even posed for a few photos in a berry tree. It didn’t eat the berries, but rather just used the tree’s branches for a vantage point.

It had been a few years since I was able to get photographs of an indigo bunting. Photographing any bird is enough to get my blood pumping, but a bird like an indigo bunting really gets the heart racing — especially when they are being cooperative.

Male indigo buntings are one of the more striking birds we see in New England, right up there with scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles and rose-breasted grosbeaks. Indigo buntings, like many songbirds, are sexually dimorphic, meaning the males and females look different. Also, like most birds that are dimorphic, the female is much duller than the male. The difference between the electric blue male and brown female is stark.

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A few more bunting shots

Photo by Chris Bosak An indigo bunting perches in a tree in New England, July 2021.

The upcoming For the Birds column will provide more detail, but until then here are a few more shots of this beauty.

Photo by Chris Bosak An indigo bunting perches in a tree in New England, July 2021.
Photo by Chris Bosak An indigo bunting perches in a tree in New England, July 2021.

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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