You always hope for a storm, but sometimes all you get is a flurry or two.
I’m not talking about a high school student who didn’t study for a test and is praying for a snow day. I’m talking about birding, of course.
The other day I visited a preserve in southern New England for the first time. I was struck immediately by the vast fields and several small wooded areas that looked to me like islands among the grassy expanse. My first thought was that this place is probably hopping with bobolinks, bluebirds and all sorts of other birds in the spring and summer.
But this wasn’t spring or summer. It was a dreary, raw winter day and the grass was short and brownish-yellow. Lifeless. The wooded islands were void of leaves and you could see the gray sky through the tangle of trunks and branches.
My plan was to walk along the edge of the wooded areas and see what was lurking in there. The anticipation of the new walk at a new place faded over time as close to an hour had passed and a few crows cawing in the distance was the only sign of birdlife I had noticed. I wanted to zero in on the crows to see if they were mobbing a hawk, owl or some other intruder. I couldn’t even find the crows in the sky, let alone zero in on them.
The anticipation may have faded, but my appreciation of the walk remained high. I spent much of 2019 battling off-again, on-again tendinitis in my right foot and hobbling around by putting pressure on the part of my foot that hurt the least. Walks on uneven terrain were out of the question. To be able to walk pain-free is something I’ll never take for granted again.
So I was enjoying the walk, birds or not. I made plans in my mind where Continue reading →
A bonus For the Birds on this Thanksgiving. Happy Thanksgiving everybody.
It is the giving season. Not only for presents under the tree but also for charitable giving during the holiday season — not to mention before the year ends for tax purposes. Sorry, had to add in that bit of practicality.
It’s also the time of year to be thankful, what with Thanksgiving coming up in a few days and all. Like every year, I am thankful for the joy that birds and nature bring to my life on a daily basis. We are lucky to live in New England where we get to fully experience the intensity of each season. The winters are cold, the summers are hot, the autumns are crisp and breathtaking, and the springs are sometimes slow to arrive, but totally worth the wait as the flowers bloom and birdsong fills the air.
Each season also has its bird highlights and there is never a dull moment in the woods or otherwise in the field with binoculars around your neck. Even the dead of winter has its rich rewards for the birdwatcher.
My hope, and I would guess yours, too, is that it stays that way. An often-cited study released recently shows that nearly 30 percent of North America’s bird population has disappeared in only the last 50 years. Many nonprofit organizations make it their mission, or at least part of their mission, to save birds. So, since it’s the giving season, here are a few suggestions on where to direct your charitable giving, if you are so inclined to donate to conservation efforts.
There will be no birds — or at least very few — without suitable habitat. Local organizations such as land trusts make it their mission to protect land. They have other conservation and ecological reasons for wanting to protect open space in addition to helping birds, but that is certainly one of their main objectives.
Land trusts do not have a political agenda and they don’t support a million programs that you may or may not agree with. They simply want to protect land. Most land trusts have a very small budget and many are run entirely by volunteers. You know your money is going to the cause at hand, not to a CEO making triple figures.
The other nice thing about land trusts is that the land is saved in perpetuity. It will not be wildlife habitat one year and a condo or a strip mall the next. It will always be habitat.
Do an Internet search to find the land trust nearest you. Chances are there is one that serves the town you live in.
There are other state and local conservation organizations, of course, that do great work. Again, a simple Internet search will help identify some you may want to support.
On the national level, organizations such as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, American Bird Conservancy, Audubon Society and American Birding Association all have birds at the heart of their mission. Check their websites to see what comes with a membership as many offer newsletters, magazines, course discounts, and other benefits. Hunting organizations such as Ducks Unlimited, National Wild Turkey Federation, and Pheasants Forever also do outstanding work for habitat preservation.
There are other conservation groups, such as Sierra Club and Nature Conservancy, that are also worthy of a look as you consider your charitable giving this year.
There is something magical about seeing bald eagles. Thankfully, that magic is being felt more and more lately as the eagle population has rebounded dramatically over the last few decades.
Not long ago, bald eagles were rare sightings. You pretty much had to visit a place where you knew they were nesting or overwintering to see them. Now, bald eagle sightings — especially flyovers — can come from almost anywhere. Last winter, I saw a young bald eagle perched on a snag within a few hundred yards of a busy shopping mall in New England.
A few weeks ago, I took a canoe ride at the Bashakill National Wildlife Refuge in New York and saw two adult bald eagles. I spoke with a man in the parking lot after the ride and he said the pair had fledged two young eagles that year. Scenarios like that becoming more and more common, which is terrific news.
The bald eagle rebound may not be as striking as the osprey recovery, but it’s very impressive nonetheless. According to the American Eagle Foundation, the species was nearly extirpated from the lower 48 states and only a handful of pairs nested in 1963. From 1963 to the early 2000s, the bald eagle population rose gradually, but steadily. The last five years, however, have seen steep climbs in the eagle population to the point where there are now nearly 15,000 nesting pairs in the lower 48. Alaska, for the record, has more than 30,000 nesting pairs.
New Hampshire has seen a similarly dramatic increase in recent years. I remember canoeing on Lake Umbagog not that many moons ago and seeing the state’s only known nesting pair. A few years later I met up with Meade Cadot of the Harris Center and others to inspect a new eagle nest on Nubanusit Lake. It was an exciting time.
As of 2017, according to N.H. Fish and Game, there were 59 territorial pairs in the state and 38 of those were successful in fledging young that year. Since 1988, 427 bald eagle chicks have fledged from nests in the state.
In somewhat recent memory, New Hampshire has gone from one nesting pair to 59. That’s dramatic and those involved with the recovery on the federal, state and local levels deserve a lot of credit. Because of the impressive recovery, bald eagles were removed from the state’s threatened and endangered lists in 2017.
Similarly, the bald eagle has been delisted from protective acts on the national level. In 1995, the bald eagle status changed from endangered to threatened. In 2007, it was removed from the Endangered Species list.
Which brings us to the news that broke last week about the changing of the Endangered Species Act, an important piece of legislation that has been protecting animals in peril since 1973. The changes essentially put a price tag on the habitat needed to save certain species. If land needed for an endangered turtle, for example, was deemed to be extremely valuable as a drilling or logging site, then the land could potentially be used as such.
I don’t like putting a price tag on animal species and I don’t like politics being involved with decisions on whether or not to protect an endangered species. I can foresee money winning out and crooked politicians getting rich in the majority of these cases, even as the announcement made last week said decisions will be made solely on the “best scientific and commercial information regarding a species’ status.”
I do, however, understand the need for upgraded and additional infrastructure as the U.S. population grows. I can also see how Washington would want to take a look at the Endangered Species Act and make modifications to match today’s needs, but the changes announced last week reek of fraud potential. Money talks, after all.
The Endangered Species Act has helped to save many animals, some of which were on the brink of extinction. The majestic bald eagle is among them. I’m not against opening up the books to make modifications to the Act, but I hope any changes truly reflect the words of U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, who said: “The best way to uphold the Endangered Species Act is to do everything we can to ensure it remains effective in achieving its ultimate goal—recovery of our rarest species.”
Toward the end of last summer, I purchased a few coneflower plants at a greatly reduced price from a hardware store. I planted them in a large flower box on my deck and the plants flourished into late fall.
While in bloom, the plants made for a photogenic setting as birds perched on them before heading to a nearby feeder. Once the flowers died and went to seed, the plants were visited frequently by goldfinches, chickadees, titmice and other small birds. I certainly got my money’s worth from the plants. Here are some photos I took of the plants in action.
Since coneflower is a perennial, I was looking forward to many years of similar success from these $2 plants. Unfortunately, the plants did not come back this spring. I never transported them out of the flower box and the winter’s hard freeze killed the roots.
But something else popped up this year — at an even better price. You can’t beat free. Remember I had mentioned the nearby feeders? Well, a few of the sunflower seeds that got knocked or carried into the box sprouted. I noticed them in the spring and recognized the tiny stems as sunflowers. Wouldn’t it be cool if they grew to become full plants, I thought at the time. Fast forward a few months and I have three healthy, flowering sunflowers in that flower box. They are not towering plants by any means, but that’s probably a good thing considering their location.
The birds are already using them as perches. I just saw a chipping sparrow on one a few hours ago. Now I can’t wait until later this summer and fall when birds start picking seeds out of the flowers. You know I’ll be posting plenty of photos when that starts to happen. Talk about getting your money’s worth out of a bag of sunflower seeds.
Has this or something similar happened in your garden? Drop me a line and let me know. You can comment on this site, Facebook (Birds of New England), or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last week I wrote about an adventure my son Will and I had freeing an eastern kingbird from fishing line. Will was fishing with some friends when he noticed a bird struggling frantically and dangling underneath a branch.
He ran to get me and we worked together to free the bird. There was still a lot of energy in the bird’s struggle, so I am guessing it wasn’t tangled for too terribly long. Otherwise, its struggling would have been less frequent and less energetic. Or even worse, it could easily have died if it had been there long enough without being noticed.
Unfortunately, death is an all-too-frequent result for birds that either become tangled, hooked or snagged by discarded fishing line. I recall years ago coming across the pathetic scene of a belted kingfisher dangling lifelessly above a small stream. Abandoned fishing line had snared the bird and no one found it until it was too late.
I also recall a few years ago seeing a red-throated loon with fishing line around its bill and head in Long Island Sound. This bird, however, was still alive and I even saw it catch a fish, so perhaps this bird’s situation had a better outcome. I had no way of catching the loon; I could only watch — hopelessly — from the shore.
Birds have a tough row to hoe to begin with in nature without having to deal with so many man-made obstacles. Windows, wind turbines, cell towers, cats, cars, and pesticides pose significant obstacles to birds worldwide. Loss of habitat, of course, is perhaps the most serious challenge we throw at birds. Add discarded fishing line to the mix and it’s yet another hindrance we add to decrease a bird’s odds of survival.
There are measures we can take to lessen this bird mortality. Decals on windows, keeping cats indoors, using only natural pesticides, and picking up discarded fishing line can all go a long way toward helping birds survive longer and increase their populations.
So, the next time you are out walking along a lake, river, or pond, and you see fishing line dangling from a nearby branch, grab it if it is in reach and discard of it properly. Whether it is your fishing line or not, go ahead and remove it and potentially save a bird from a horrible, slow death.
I’m heading to New Hampshire for a few days of camping. It’s been a while since I’ve paddled any lake, pond, or river in the Granite State and I’m looking forward to seeing what wildlife will be around. Of course, I’ll let you know when I return. In the meantime, here’s a For the Birds column from 2004 about this very subject …
A great blue heron lifted its skinny four-foot frame out of the water and used its six-foot wing span to carry it to another spot on the lazy river. It was spotted again around the next corner. A wood duck skulked into the vegetation and disappeared without a trace. Once a wood duck vanishes into the sea of huge green leaves, you can forget about seeing it again.
A muskrat braved a crossing at a swelled portion of the river, using its tail as a rudder. Marsh wrens proudly belted out their peculiar, almost comical, song.
Meanwhile, there were many constant companions. Red-winged blackbirds boisterously claimed various plots of the river’s edge as their own, dragonflies zigged and Continue reading →
Last week, I wrote about seeing three common mergansers on a small pond by a busy shopping mall. Mergansers are typically wary and I was surprised to see the fowl there.
The next day, I drove past Candlewood Lake — a large man-made body of water in southwestern Connecticut — and saw literally thousands upon thousands of common mergansers. The lake was still about half frozen and many of the unfrozen portions were covered with mergansers. Some of the mergansers used the icy edges as a resting spot; others swam in the rippling water.
That setting seemed to me to be a more appropriate spot for common mergansers than the mall-area one. It got me to thinking about the merganser family and their water preferences.
We have three types of mergansers in New England: common, hooded and red-breasted. Generally speaking, they all have different water preferences.
Common mergansers are usually spotted on large, freshwater lakes and rivers. Hooded mergansers favor smaller bodies of water and may be found on fresh or brackish water. Red-breasted mergansers may be found on large bodies of fresh, brackish or salt water.
I have yet to see all three mergansers sharing a common body of water, but I have seen hooded and commons together, and hooded and red-breasted mergansers together. All three are generally wary in nature. From my own observations, I find the common to be the most wary and hooded the most brave.
The hooded merganser is the oddball among them in terms of appearance. They are small ducks and the males are handsomely adorned with pewter sides, black backs and black-and-white heads and chests. Their heads are usually fanned to display a large white patch, but can also be flatted to show just a sliver of white. Female hoodeds are similar in size to the male but are duller in color and design.
Male common and red-breasted mergansers are similar in general appearance with dark green heads, red bills, large white bodies and black backs. There are obvious differences between them, too. The common is much larger and smoother looking. Red-breasted merganser males have spiky “haircuts,” light red breasts and slightly darker sides.
The females are slightly more difficult to differentiate. Female commons are larger, brighter and have a dark rusty head with a funky haircut. Female red-breasted mergansers have a funky haircut, too, but are smaller, darker and have duller, brownish heads.
All three merganser varieties have serrated bills for holding onto fish and other wiggly prey. Those bills have earned the family the nickname sawbill.
Ducks are one of my favorite types of birds to watch and mergansers are my favorite family of fowl. So far the spring migration has been a merganser bonanza. I hope it continues.
Winter is getting long and the season seems to be extending each year. It’s already been a snowy month this year, counting Sunday, and remember last March was ridiculously cold and snowy, even pushing into April.
March is also a time of anticipation for birders as the spring migration starts to pick up by the end of the month. Early red-winged blackbirds, for instance, began arriving in February, but March is really when the migration begins in New England.
April, of course, is when it heats up significantly before peaking in May. By the end of March, however, we can expect to see birds such as tree swallows, purple martins and hermit thrushes returning to our region.
To me, the surest sign of spring is the return of eastern phoebes in late March. The robin is still considered the traditional harbinger of spring even though many of them spent their winters in New England. I rejoice when I see the first phoebe perched on a branch in my backyard bobbing its tail endlessly.
March birding is not limited to the late-month migrants. American woodcock, with their amazing evening aerial displays, are a highlight species of the month. I’ve never had great luck finding woodcock. Maybe this will be my year. (I say that every year.) Also, ducks start moving north to open water in big numbers in March.
One of the best things about March birdwatching, however, is that it’s still winter and our winter birds are still around. Chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, cardinals, blue jays, mourning doves and woodpeckers still have the feeders to themselves, for the most part. Any winter finches that have come south to New England may still be around. I’m still getting dozens of pine siskins daily.
I noticed another sign of spring in the bird world the other day as a male American goldfinch with bright yellow splotches visited the tube feeder. The brightness stood out as a shade of yellow not seen in many months.
The barred owl barrage continues throughout New England, too, as reports pile up. A friend of mine had one visit a pine tree behind her unit in a condominium complex last week. The owl remained most of the day before disappearing in late afternoon.
March may be tough in terms of waiting out the winter and anticipating what is to come, but it offers much to the patient birder.
Winter poses serious challenges for birds and other wildlife.
The cold is the first thing that comes to mind. How do small birds such as chickadees and goldfinches survive sustained sub-zero temperatures? How do water birds such as gulls, ducks and geese stand on ice all day with bitter winds driving through them?
Birds that remain in New England all year have adapted to the low temperatures. Cold may be a challenge, but it’s one they can handle.
Chickadees and other birds have all sorts of adaptations to survive bitter cold days and nights. They increase their weight and fat percentage, they puff out their feathers to trap warm air close to their bodies, they huddle together for warmth, they drop their body temperature at night, and they eat a lot.
Water birds have an extra layer of down feathers to keep dry and toasty. Also, their legs don’t freeze because of a magical counter-current heat exchange between their veins and arteries. It’s not magic, of course, but it’s a complex system worthy of its own column. Let’s just say their feet don’t have to be as warm as their bodies (otherwise they’d be covered in feathers) and the way their blood flows keeps the legs from freezing.
Most birdwatchers I know have a self-reliant, practical side. They don’t necessarily long to live off the grid in a small cabin in the wilderness, hunting for their food and cutting down trees to stay warm, but there is a hint of that spirit in a lot of us.
Luckily, there are many do-it-yourself projects for birdwatchers that may be done in the comfort of our heated, electrified, and well-stocked homes. The projects will save a few bucks (no pun intended) and result in that satisfaction only a good DIY activity can deliver.
The easiest project is making your own hummingbird food. It is inexpensive and requires almost no skill. In other words, perfect for someone like me.
Simply mix four parts water with one part sugar and you’ve got hummingbird food. I usually double the recipe to eight cups of water and two cups of sugar so it lasts longer. I like to bring the water to the point at which it is about to boil then turn off the heat and add the sugar. Most of the sugar will dissolve itself in the hot water, but a minute or two Continue reading →