Latest For the Birds column: Tale of two birdwatching days

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

Photo by Chris Bosak
Snow Bunting at Norwalk’s Calf Pasture Beach, March 26, 2013.

I had two very different birdwatching experiences on consecutive days recently. Both of them were great, of course, but very, very different.

Let’s start with a Wednesday outing. I had some rare time to myself, so I was going somewhere. I didn’t care how cold it was outside, I was getting out of the house.

I had read the previous day on the Connecticut Rare Bird Alert Web site that short-eared owls were being seen at Silver Sands State Park in Milford. I’ve never had much luck finding owls, but figured I’d give it a shot. Maybe this was the day my luck would change. Snowy owls are being seen in larger-than-normal numbers this year, too, so my chances were doubled.

Armed with a heavy winter coat, hat and oversized dorky mittens, I braved the single-digit temperatures and headed to the coastal park. I closed the car door behind me, took about three steps toward the sand and was harshly reminded that weather conditions are usually worse along the shore — especially in the winter.

The ambient temperature was nine degrees. The wind chill at the beach, factoring in the heavy gusts blowing off the partially frozen Long Island Sound, was just plain ridiculous. The sand did not blow, however. It was frozen solid like a huge, flat rock.

I eventually turned away from the beach and walked along a boardwalk that spanned a frozen marsh and ended at an open field. The marsh yielded nothing in terms of bird sightings, although I did hear starlings somewhere off in the distance.

At the field, however, I noticed two birds flying away that were obviously not your common sparrows or starlings. Seeing their landing spot, I pulled off my bulky mittens and trained my binoculars. Eastern meadowlarks. Nice sighting, I thought, and continued on my way.

I walked the field for another 10 minutes when I stopped to inspect a row of tall grasses for sparrows. Knowing the sneaky birds were in there, I went mitten-less again and lifted the binoculars.

My frustration was nearing its peak at not being able to find the little brown birds. My face was too numb to try to “pish” them out. Things looked bleak on this bitterly cold day. Maybe I’ll try to find the meadowlarks again for a quick shot of inspiration.

Then I noticed a shadow quickly moving along the ground. I lifted my head just in time to see a short-eared owl fly over the field and toward the beach. I followed the owl with my eyes for as long as I could, but it eventually blended with the dozens of gulls flying around the beach.

I never got a great look at it and the look I did get was fleeting, but I was happy to see it just the same. In my eternal optimism, I headed toward the beach to try to find it.

Once I got to the beach I remembered why I turned away from it in the first place. Cold and windy doesn’t even begin to describe it. But I was now on a mission so the elements didn’t matter.

I walked the beach for a good long way and saw nothing. Gulls, mallards, black ducks and a few flocks of diving ducks in the distance, but nothing else and certainly no short-eared owl.

The problem with walking a good long way along the beach is that you have to turn around and go a good long way back. In the summer, that’s the good thing about a long walk on the beach. In the winter, not so much. The car, or even the park, was nowhere in sight. I had a miserable several minutes ahead of me — but some good birdwatching memories already behind me.

I woke up Thursday and discovered that it hurt to make a fist. I looked at the back of my right hand — my binocular focusing hand — and noticed it was dark pink, cracked and even speckled with blood at the knuckles. My left hand fared better and was merely dark pink.

With my hands serving as a red badge of stupidity, I shifted gears for this day’s birdwatching moments. I watched the feeders from the comfort of my home.

I saw more variety and had closer looks of the birds than the previous day at the beach. I had just deposited my Christmas tree in the side yard and dozens of juncos were already taking advantage of the shelter. In all, there must have been 50 juncos in the yard.

The juncos were outnumbered only by the crows that stopped by for a visit right before sunset. The oaks on my property were covered with crows and the spill-over black birds crowded on the smaller trees in the front yard. The activity and noise was intense, but short-lived. Before darkness completely set in, the crows — there were at least 200 — took off as one massive flock.

It was a fittingly spectacular finish to a great couple days of birdwatching.

One day challenged me physically and mentally. The other day couldn’t have been more comfortable. Yes, there are as many ways to enjoy this great hobby as there are magnificent species to see. Take your pick.

 

 

Advertisements

For the Birds: When they all visit at once

Photo by Chris Bosak A Red-bellied Woodpecker takes a peanut from a homemade birdfeeder in Danbury, Conn., spring 2016.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Red-bellied Woodpecker takes a peanut from a homemade birdfeeder in Danbury, Conn., spring 2016.

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

Some days none of them come, some days some of them come, and some days they all come.

I guess we wake up expecting the middle ground and — somewhere in the back of our minds — we hope for the higher ground. Isn’t it great when we hope for the best and it happens?

That can hold true for just about anything in life, but I’m talking about birds. What else? 

One day last weekend was one of those days when all of the birds in the neighborhood were in my backyard. My bedroom window affords views of only the tops of trees and, before heading downstairs to make the morning coffee, I had already seen a downy woodpecker, black-capped chickadee and white-breasted nuthatch.

The birds just kept on coming. There’s a feeder hanging outside of the kitchen window and, before the coffee was done brewing, tufted titmice, house finches and hairy woodpeckers joined the list of bird species I’d seen in my yard that day.

I glanced out the kitchen window onto the backyard and noticed white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos were hopping around the grass and mourning doves were hanging out beneath the feeder. Suddenly, I heard a blue jay and saw it perch on a branch just outside the window.

Not that I was counting, but I had seen 10 species of birds and hadn’t even stepped foot outside yet.

As I was thinking about how nice it was to have seen so many birds already, I looked out a kitchen window that faces a different direction and saw a red-tailed hawk practically right in front of my face. It sensed the movement from inside the house and flew off to a safer perch about three trees away, but still within easy watching distance from the kitchen.

I was surprised that so many of the songbirds were brazenly flitting about when a big, bad hawk was so close by. Had it been a sharp-shinned or Cooper’s hawk, it may have been a different story.

So that made 11 species, including a hawk, and the coffee was just getting poured into the mug. It could have ended there, but I had the whole weekend day ahead of me.

I never set out specifically to look for birds that weekend, but the sightings kept presenting themselves.

I went to get something out of the car and a pair of cardinals hurried into the brush. On my way to the mailbox, a house wren hopped along the stone wall. As I made lunch, minding my own business, I was serenaded to the kitchen window by a Carolina wren singing its heart out, even in winter.

Red-bellied woodpeckers climbed up tree limbs and uttered their strange calls several times throughout the day. It had been days since I’d seen a red-bellied woodpecker in the yard.

It was an odd day, indeed. Odd in a good way, of course. Nothing too out of the ordinary came to the yard, but I was more than happy to welcome the common species that did show.

Sure, it could have been even more spectacular. I didn’t see a brown creeper, goldfinch or kinglet. Come to think of it, a red-breasted nuthatch, fox sparrow or pine siskin wouldn’t have been out of the question during this time of year.

Sure it would have been nice if they would have stopped by, but trust me, I’m not complaining. I had plenty of company that day.

For the Birds: Wrapping up Vulture Week — the story behind the photos

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

Photo by Chris Bosak Black and turkey vulture sit on a hill in Danbury, Conn., fall 2017.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Black and turkey vultures sit on a hill in Danbury, Conn., fall 2017.

Photo by Chris Bosak A black vulture sits on a hill in Danbury, Conn., fall 2017.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A black vulture sits on a hill in Danbury, Conn., fall 2017.

I hope you enjoyed and made the most of Vulture Week.

What? You didn’t know last week was designated as a celebration of vultures? That’s understandable considering I totally made it up so I could post on my birding blog some vulture photos I had sitting around. Days, weeks and months are designated for all sorts of crazy things, so why can’t www.BirdsofNewEngland.com proclaim Vulture Week?

Well, it was last week anyway, so if anyone has a problem with it, it’s too late.

Vulture Week consisted of a series of photos with fun facts about the birds, which are

Photo by Chris Bosak A turkey vulture sits on a hill in Danbury, Conn., fall 2017.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A turkey vulture sits on a hill in Danbury, Conn., fall 2017.

among the largest in New England. (The posts are still available on the site, of course.)

New England now boasts two species of vultures. The familiar turkey vulture — the one with the reddish/pink head — has been in our region all along. Now, the black vulture — with a blackish/gray head — is becoming more and more common in New England.

The northward range expansion started decades ago, but similar to the expansion of the red-bellied woodpecker and Carolina wren, black vultures are garnering more attention as they become increasingly common.

It is not uncommon for both species to be seen together, offering an easy side-by-side comparison. Aside from the color of their heads, there are other differences. The turkey vulture, for instance, is significantly larger. It is hard to judge its size when it is soaring, but when a close look is afforded, the difference is plain to see. Turkey vultures have a wing span of nearly 70 inches (about 6 feet) compared to the black vulture’s 60 inches (about 5 feet). The underside of the wings is another way to tell them apart. Black vultures have whitish wing tips while the white spreads significantly farther on the wings of turkey vultures.

Both birds have a keen sense of smell, but the turkey vulture has the stronger sniffer. That’s one of the reasons the birds are often found together, I’m sure.

Perhaps that’s how the large flock of vultures I photographed earlier in the fall found the prime spot at which I saw it. I can’t reveal exactly where I saw the vultures because I’m 99.9 percent sure I shouldn’t have pulled my car into that dirt lot. It is state-owned land (I’m not saying which state) and operated by the Department of Transportation. It is right off the highway and the rutted, rocky dirt driveway leading to a huge dirt pile is designed for dump trucks and large machinery, not passenger cars.

But, after seeing huge numbers of vultures on that dirt pile day after day, I couldn’t help myself anymore.

No one was behind me on the highway, so I made the turn into the area. There were dozens and dozens of vultures and I quickly realized why they liked that spot so much. It was the “dumping ground,” for lack of a better term, for the roadkill the DOT collected along the highways.

Several dead deer, many with magnificent racks, were spread around the base of the dirt pile. It’s an easy, endless source of food for the birds.

I kept my visit brief. I snapped a few photos, compared the black and turkey vultures, snapped a few more photos and got the heck out of there.

People get excited when they see vultures. Why wouldn’t they? They are huge and, despite their ominous appearance, can be quite endearing. They are less wary than other birds of prey (even though they scavenge instead of hunt) and smart, too.

Now try to tell me they don’t deserve their own week.

For the Birds: Brown creeper highlights the fall

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

Photo by Chris Bosak A Brown Creeper finds food at the base of a tree during a cold snap in February 2016, Danbury, Connecticut.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Brown Creeper finds food at the base of a tree during a cold snap in February 2016, Danbury, Connecticut.

The fall migration is miraculous when you consider the thousands of miles birds fly from their breeding grounds to their winter havens. It’s also miraculous in its ability to stir excitement into the hearts and bones of otherwise completely normal adult human beings.

Well, “completely normal” may be pushing it with some birders I’ve come across, but you know what I mean.

Take the other day for instance. I was relaxing on the patio toward the end of a long day when a sight literally lifted me off my seat and drew me closer.

Bald eagle? Brown pelican? Some sort of rare bird not seen in generations?

No, it was a brown creeper. Brown creepers are just as their name suggests they are. For one, they are indeed brown. For another, they creep. They creep up trees looking for insects hidden among the bark. When they reach a point where they think they’ve exhausted a tree’s food supply, they fly quickly to the bottom of the nearest tree and start the creeping all over again.

Continue reading

For the Birds: Not so colorless afterall

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

Photo by Chris Bosak A male Northern Cardinal in Stamford, Conn., March 2015.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A male Northern Cardinal in Stamford, Conn., March 2015.

Oak leaves, at least the ones in my yard, turned directly from green to brown and fell in droves during the windy days of the past week.

The trees are largely bare, most of the flowers that survived the fall have now perished in the year’s first frost and big, brown oak leaves cover many of the open spaces in the region.

There’s not a lot of color to be seen these days, except for evergreens and the occasional blue sky.

But, there are always the birds. Late fall and throughout the winter is when we need the birds the most to brighten our fading landscape. Luckily, plenty of colorful birds remain with us while the fair-weathered New England creatures — including migrant birds, butterflies and dragonflies — have taken their cheerful hues south.

Chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and downy woodpeckers may not be the most dynamic birds in terms of color but fall and winter is their time to shine. The subtle oranges on the titmice and chickadees, the gray-blue backs of the nuthatches, and the red on the heads of male downeys seem to be noticed more as the number of bird species we see at our feeders dwindles.

Even the white throat and yellow lore – the region between the eyes and nostrils — of a white-throated sparrow appears to glow brighter during these days.

Continue reading

For the Birds: Bountiful time in the birding world

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

Photo by Chris Bosak A young White-tailed Deer in Stamford, Oct. 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A young White-tailed Deer in Stamford, Oct. 2014.

There’s so much I like about this time of year.

I know, I know, I could block-save those words and start every other column with them.

Mid to late fall does have a lot to offer birdwatchers, though, despite the falling temperatures and fleeting daylight.

This time of year also has its challenges, but they are largely overshadowed by its rewards.

Right off the bat, it’s time for waterfowl migration. As far as I’m concerned, you can’t go wrong when there’s migrating waterfowl around. One glimpse of a merganser, ring-necked duck or bufflehead and it’s a successful day, regardless of what else happens.

Finding and seeing waterfowl is no problem in mid fall, especially if you have a spotting scope. Basically, all you do is find water. Getting close looks or trying to photograph or hunt the creatures is a different matter; unless it’s a nonmigratory mallard or Canada goose, waterfowl are wary.

Continue reading

For the Birds: Slow days happen in the fields and woods, too

Photo by Chris Bosak Ruddy Duck at Cove Island Park in Stamford, CT, April 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Ruddy Duck at Cove Island Park in Stamford, CT, April 2014.

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

Last week I wrote about the disappearance of birds in people’s backyards. I had received a lot of letters from people concerned that their feeders were not getting visited any longer.
Although there are several possible explanations, I had concluded that the warm and dry fall made for a bounty of natural foods on which the birds were feasting. Therefore, the birds did not need the supplemental food offered from feeders. That was my conclusion, anyway, not necessary the real reason.
I stick to that assertion, however I also visited a park the other day that was rich in natural food sources and guess what? Hardly any birds. The birds I did see were all fairly ordinary species. Not that I don’t appreciate the ordinary species too, but a song sparrow or two and a mockingbird was about the extent of my bird sightings that day.
Mid to late fall can be a tricky time for birdwatching. The feeders, as my readers pointed out, can be scarcely visited and the woods can be very quiet as well. The migration, for the most part, is finished and we are waiting for our winter birds such as juncos and white-throated sparrows to arrive en masse.
I have been lucky that my feeders, as long Continue reading