For the Birds: Busy Kinglet is in constant motion

Photo by Chris Bosak A Ruby-crowned Kinglet perches on a branch in New England.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Ruby-crowned Kinglet perches on a branch in New England.

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

I thought it was going to be the easiest bird photo I’ve ever taken.

There was the kinglet, literally right at my feet. It was hopping along the beach a few weeks ago looking for small insects among the plants popping out of the sand. It was a male ruby-crowned kinglet and he was alone at this stage of his migration.

I grabbed the camera from the front seat and got out of the car for what I thought would be a quick strike. It wasn’t. The kinglet didn’t fly away and didn’t run away. It just wouldn’t sit still — not even for a second. Now I know how department store children’s photographers feel on their bad days.

First, let’s familiarize ourselves with the kinglet. There are two types of kinglet: ruby-crowned kinglet and golden-crowned kinglet. The ruby-crowned kinglet has an eye-ring that doesn’t quite make it all the way around its eye. The golden-crowned kinglet has no eye-ring, but rather an eye stripe.

To tell the species apart I like to think of a “ruby ring.” Hey, it works for me.

The male ruby-crowned kinglet has a small patch of red on the top of his head, while the female has no patch. With the golden-crowned kinglet, the male has an orangish patch outlined in yellow and the female has a yellow patch.

Keep in mind that the colorful patches are not always visible, especially on the ruby-crowned.

Usually the species stick together, but I’ll never forget the time I looked out a window of my house and saw a ruby-crowned kinglet and a golden-crowned kinglet cross paths on a hemlock branch. If I ever wanted a side-by-side comparison, that was my chance.

The kinglets are also among the smallest birds we see here in New England. The golden-crowned measures about 4 inches, while the ruby-crowned is a whopping 4 ½ inches. By comparison, the black-capped chickadee is about 5 inches (slightly larger than both kinglets) and the ruby-throated hummingbird is almost 4 inches (only slightly smaller than the kinglets).

Their tiny size makes it a challenge to photograph them. Even with a powerful lens, it’s tough to fill the frame.

But the real challenge is their energy. They don’t sit still. By the time the camera’s auto-focus feature nails the subject, the bird is gone. It’s not far away, perhaps only an inch or two, but far enough to throw off the focus.

Now back to my beach-combing ruby-crowned kinglet.

I performed the auto-focus dance for a while before switching to manual focus, which proved to be even more frustrating. Usually focusing required only a slight turn of the lens one way or the other, but I always picked the wrong way. By the time I corrected the error — you guessed it — the bird was elsewhere.

The bird never went very far and at one point was about a foot away from my shoes. I had already determined before that moment that my presence didn’t bother him. The last thing I’d want to do is deny a hungry migrating bird of a good food source, which it obviously had found at the beach.

I wasn’t disturbing him, but he certainly wasn’t cooperating with me either. He was very busy. No time for posing.

After several minutes of trying to catch the little guy, I remembered the last time I had tried to photograph kinglets. I was at a Connecticut park and there were kinglets all over the place in the bushes. In a way that experience was even more frustrating because I didn’t know which kinglet to target and, no matter which one I picked, it was constant motion. I never did get a great photo that day, despite there being dozens of little subjects flitting around the bushes.

But on this day there was only one subject on which to channel my efforts. The results were not much better. I got a couple of decent photos and a bunch of blurry images of a male ruby-crowned kinglet’s tail. A few photos showed nothing but landscape: sand and weeds, no bird. I missed the little guy by a split second, but it may as well have been an hour.

But I can laugh about it now. My therapist says that’s a good thing. He also suggests that I just look at kinglets from now on and not try to photograph them. What does he know? Next time I’ll do better.

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For the Birds: Fall has it all

Photo by Chris Bosak A green Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly clings on to a vine wrapped around a stalk on a meadow property of the Darien Land Trust, summer 2013.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A green Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly clings on to a vine wrapped around a stalk on a meadow property of the Darien Land Trust.

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

Early fall is an exciting time, not only for birdwatchers, but for watchers of nature in general.

Male white-tailed deer and moose have their antlers fully grown and ready for the rut, or breeding season. What were little nubs of antlers in early spring are impressive racks for fighting, intimidating other males and showing off in front of the females.

Some say that spring is the best time for watching nature, but only in the fall can we appreciate the beauty and majesty of fully grown antlers. 

Seeing a bull moose in July is a memorable experience. Seeing a bull moose in the fall is an unforgettable experience.

Early fall is also a time when a birdwatcher can really pile on the numbers for a species-seen list. Herons and egrets are still around. Shorebirds are still migrating. Songbirds are moving south as well. Waterfowl start migrating through New England. Early waterfowl migrants such as blue-winged teal, pintail and ruddy ducks share the waters with the fowl that have been with us all summer.

The ducks that have been with us undergo a transformation in early fall, as well. Male mallards and wood ducks, which went through their eclipse in the summer, during which they were as bland as the females, are back in their ornamental plumage.

Some birds molt their colorful feathers for the winter season. The American goldfinch and common loon are such birds. But in the early part of fall, these birds still wear their popular plumage.

Many of the songbirds that will pass through, however, have lost their breeding plumage and look completely different than they did when they visited in the spring. Male scarlet tanagers, which were a prize sighting in the spring, are rather ho-hum looking during the fall migration.

As I mentioned last week, the big birdwatching draw in the fall is the hawk migration. Many nature centers hold raptor weekends, and spots that are known to be good for hawk watching, such as Pack Monadnock, draw big crowds in the fall.

There is still time to see wildflowers, butterflies, dragonflies, snakes, turtles and frogs in early fall as well. Just about anything you could want to see is available to you.

Finally, I can’t overlook nature’s most redeeming and popular quality in the fall: the changing of the leaves. This spectacle of nature draws thousands upon thousands of tourists to the region. I remember when I lived in Bennington, Vt., many years ago. The quiet, non-crowded town turned into a metropolis for the peak foliage week in early October. You couldn’t turn around with bumping into a Winnebago.

But that’s what nature is all about. One spectacle after another to wow the crowd. In the fall, though, the spectacles are easier to come by.

For the Birds: Hawkwatching season in New England

Photo by Chris Bosak A Red-tailed hawk at Weed Beach in Darien, Conn., January 2015.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Red-tailed hawk at Weed Beach in Darien, Conn., January 2015.

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

The seasons are changing, and there’s a lot going on in the birding world.

Warblers and other songbirds are migrating south. Shorebirds — many species of which have long migrated already — continue to move through New England. Other small winged creatures — monarch butterflies — are also seen more often now as they prepare for their generational migration.

On the ponds, the waterfowl migration hasn’t started with verve yet, but wood ducks, which spend much of the summer hiding out, are more often seen and heard in the fall. At the same time, herons and egrets are still with us in large numbers, and feeder birds continue to keep us company in our backyards. 

Yes, a lot is going on in early fall as we birdwatchers start to shift from a summer frame of mind to a winter one.

With all that’s going on, one type of bird still manages to take center stage in September and October: hawks.

Hawkwatches are the primary destination for birdwatchers this time of year as birds of prey by the thousands ride the wind south. Pick the right day with the ideal weather conditions, and a birdwatcher may see hundreds of hawks, falcons, eagles and vultures soaring overhead.

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For the Birds: Goldfinches brighten the landscape

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

Photo by Chris Bosak An American Goldfinch rests on a sunflower in New England.

Photo by Chris Bosak
An American Goldfinch rests on a sunflower in New England.

N othing cheers up a day like a goldfinch. Those little, bright bursts of yellow are always a welcome site at your feeder, bird bath or perched on a flower in your garden.

I especially appreciate goldfinches in the dead of summer. I remember taking a walk a few years ago on one of those classic hot, humid days in August. It was the middle of the afternoon and, not surprisingly, I was finding very little in terms of wildlife. Dragonflies were dancing all over the place, but even the butterflies seemed to be hiding from the heat.

Suddenly, I heard the cheerful song of a goldfinch in flight coming up from behind me. I turned just in time to see the bright yellow bird perch on the top of a thistle flower. The pink-and-purple flower rocked back and forth as it reacted to the weight of the tiny bird. When the flower settled, the goldfinch went about its business of picking at the flower.

I watched the scene briefly, and continued my walk. About five minutes later, I heard the bird again. I looked up to see it fly over my head and disappear into the distance. Despite its tiny size — about 5 inches — the goldfinch is an easy bird to identify in flight. It flies quickly in an undulating fashion — like a roller coaster with small rises and falls — usually uttering its potato-chip, potato-chip song as it bounces up and down.

I didn’t see any other birds on that walk, but the single goldfinch perched on the flower made it all worthwhile.

Goldfinches also score points with me as they are frequently seen in my garden. I’ve seen goldfinches perched atop coneflower and black-eyed Susan flowers, picking away at the seeds. I’ve also seen them on sunflowers.

Goldfinches, of course, are also reliable feeder birds, often occupying every perch of a tube feeder. I love to see all six perches of my blue tube feeder occupied by the bright yellow birds.

Goldfinches will eat sunflower seeds and will visit platform or tube feeders. A sure way to attract goldfinches is to offer Nyjer in a tube feeder specifically designed for the tiny seeds. Do not try to use thistle seeds in a regular feeder as the tiny seeds will spill through the holes.

“Sock” feeders stuffed with thistle seeds are a good alternative.

Goldfinches visit feeders at any time of the day. It’s interesting to note that goldfinches move on frequently so the birds you see at your feeder in the evening are not likely the same ones you saw in the morning.

Goldfinches are found throughout the country and many remain in New England through the winter months. They are not the flashy yellow birds we love so much in the summer, though. We still love them in the winter, of course, but they are much duller, often appearing olive or brownish.

It’s fun to see the splotchy male goldfinches in the early part of spring as they slowly regain their bright yellow plumage. Only the males are bright yellow. Females are a duller yellow.

They also have black caps and black wings with white stripes. My brother Ed and his wife, Debbie, are big Pittsburgh Steelers fans, so the goldfinch is a favorite in that household.

Of course, you don’t have to be a Steelers fan to appreciate the beauty of a goldfinch. The bright yellow speaks for itself. Throw in a purple or pink flower and you’ve got real proof that Mother Nature likes her colors.

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For the Birds: Answering the call of the woods

Photo by Chris Bosak A Hermit Thrush rests on a log at Selleck's/Dunlap Woods this fall.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Hermit Thrush rests on a log at Selleck’s/Dunlap Woods this fall.

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

With so many other temptations, sometimes it’s easy to forget about the most fundamental outdoor escape — a simple walk in the woods.

The Atlantic coast beckons with promises of egrets, shorebirds, terns and perhaps — if you’re lucky — an oystercatcher or black skimmer.

Local freshwater bodies of water woo nature watchers with wood ducks, red-winged blackbirds, herons and maybe a bittern. Fields attract butterflies by the score, as well as bobolinks, meadowlarks, and a rainbow of wildflowers. It’s hard for nature-watchers to resist sometimes.

Of course there’s always the backyard, too. There’s no need to get in the car or invest any amount of time. Look out the kitchen window or sit on the patio and enjoy cardinals, blue jays, catbirds, chickadees and other backyard favorites.

And there is the woods — waiting patiently for us to return.

I returned a few days ago and was reminded over and over why outdoors enthusiasts have a natural instinct that draws them back.

I left the parking lot and began walking. I had no route planned, no idea where I would end up. When I came to a fork in the trail, I took the one that seemed to lead deeper into the woods.

The first bird I saw once I lost myself among the trees was an ovenbird, a small, ground-dwelling warbler noted for its “teacher-teacher” song. As far as warblers go, ovenbirds are rather nondescript. Named for the shape of their nests, they look like a small thrush with orange on its crown. Ovenbirds are fairly common and easy to find during spring migration, but occasionally you’ll run into one in the summer.

Then the common birds of the woods began coming. I heard the “yank yank” of a nuthatch in the distance and soon spotted a different nuthatch near the trail. Chickadees were in abundance, keeping me company as I meandered about the woods.

I stopped to watch a robin that was puffing out its orange breast from an obvious perch, but my attention was soon diverted by a flurry of woodpecker activity.

First, I heard and soon found a red-bellied woodpecker. As I followed its flight from one tree to the next, my eyes crossed paths with a downy woodpecker. As I studied the downy, a hairy woodpecker flew in and landed on an adjacent tree. I was looking at three species of woodpeckers in one field of view. All I needed was a pileated woodpecker to join the party. That didn’t happen on this day.

I kept an eye out for the larger creatures of the woods such as deer, wild turkey and hawks, but did not have any luck.

I did hear a scratching noise toward the end of my walk that I recognized immediately. I looked down and, with very little effort, found an eastern towhee shuffling around the ground litter looking for insects.

As my haphazard route finally led me back toward the parking lot, I thought about what a great walk it had been. I had seen a lot of different types of birds and felt as if I had nearly satiated my natural instinct, once again, to enjoy the woods.

Something was missing, though. I didn’t know what it was until I heard it: The song of the wood thrush. To me, nothing says the woods quite like the wood thrush, especially its flute-like song.

It completed my outing. I had satisfied that recurring urge to lose myself in nature’s most basic habitat.

The woods will draw me back — they always do.

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Latest For the Birds column: Cedar Waxwings on the scene

Photo by Chris Bosak A cedar waxwing perches on a branch in Brookfield, Conn., spring 2017.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A cedar waxwing perches on a branch in Brookfield, Conn., spring 2017.

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

There I was, minding my own business photographing a song sparrow in the glowing morning light when out of nowhere a small flock of cedar waxwings appeared on the scene.

Cedar waxwings, in my opinion anyway, are one of the most attractive songbirds we have in New England. They have a nice blend of light browns, tans and grays to go along with their trademark red-tipped wings and yellow-tipped tails. Their thin black eye masks make them look a bit mischievous.

Cedar waxwings are not uncommon, and they can be fairly tame, but quality opportunities to photograph them over the years have been somewhat scarce for me. I see regularly the classic photos of cedar waxwings eating berries. The only time I got a good, close look at waxwings eating berries was years ago on a dark, gloomy day. The photos I took were even more dark and gloomy.

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For the Birds: Towhees aplenty on walk

 

Photo by Chris Bosak An Eastern Towhee perches on a branch in Ridgefield, Conn., April 2017.

Photo by Chris Bosak
An Eastern Towhee perches on a branch in Ridgefield, Conn., April 2017.

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

….

I was on a tight schedule so I planned a quick out-and-back bird walk, instead of trying to tackle the entire several-mile loop.

The entire walk on the “out” portion was quiet with not a single bird seen or heard. I found that very peculiar considering it was the middle of April when the spring migration should be heating up. No warblers, no vireos, no regular birds. It was a drizzly day, so perhaps that had something to do with keeping the birds hunkered down.

The “back” portion of the trip started in similar fashion. No birds to be seen, no birds to be heard.

Then, deep in the woods, I heard a familiar call. It was a sharp and fairly loud two-syllable call. It was an eastern towhee. Based on where the sound was coming from, there was no way I was going to find it. I could have tromped through the brush and woods, but I didn’t want to risk being covered in ticks. It’s early spring, and I’ve already found several ticks on my clothes and a few attached to my body. In fact, that started back in February.

I’ve heard from several sources that the conditions are right for a bad tick season, so be careful out there. Check your clothes and self frequently.

It turned out it was no big deal that the towhee alluded me as several other towhees made their presence known as I made my way back. These towhees were much closer and some were even cooperative for the camera. From my experiences, that is pretty rare for a towhee — although the breeding season makes birds, and other creatures, do strange things sometimes.

By the end of the walk, I had seen about eight towhees. Only one of the birds was a female, and she stayed out of range of the camera. I did bring her in with my binoculars and got good looks at her. A male was close by, singing and calling. It was likely her mate.

Like many species, eastern towhees are sexually dimorphic, meaning males and females differ in appearance. But unlike many bird species, female towhees, in my opinion, are just as handsome as the males.

While the males are decorated with black, reddish-brown and white plumage, the females are light brown and white. Both have a similar pattern with white bellies and rufous-colored flanks. The males also have red eyes, which I always find cool.

As I mentioned before, time was short on my walk but the towhee sightings extended the walk — I’ve never been one to leave cooperative birds because of being in a rush. Two towhees in particular were cooperative and allowed me to grab some shots of them. Neither was overly cooperative, but each offered a few seconds worth of perching on an obvious, unobstructed branch. Towhees are infamous for hiding among the thick brush.

The walk ended void of any other bird sightings. No warblers, no vireos, no tanagers or grosbeaks. Just towhees. I’ll try again on a sunnier day.

Latest For the Birds column: Looking at birds’ bills

Photo by Chris Bosak A Great Blue Heron stands in a pond in Danbury, Conn., March 2017.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Great Blue Heron stands in a pond in Danbury, Conn., March 2017.

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

Although I’ve made this claim with many birds over the years, the great blue heron stands as one of my favorite birds.

My “favorite” bird may vary depending on the season and what I’ve recently photographed, but a few species have long been “one of my favorites.” Hooded and common mergansers, common loons, wood ducks and American oystercatchers stand alongside the great blue heron in that category. Of course I love all birds – well, most of them anyway — but these stand out for me, regardless of how many I’ve seen over the years.

It’s probably just a coincidence but with the exception of the wood duck, Continue reading

For the Birds column: Here’s the full story on that owl

Photo by Chris Bosak A Great Gray Owl perches in a pine tree in Newport, N.H., in March 2017.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Great Gray Owl perches in a pine tree in Newport, N.H., in March 2017.

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

I don’t typically chase rare birds around the region.

It’s not that I don’t want to see the birds, but either family or work obligations usually prohibit me from taking long drives to see a bird. I am often envious of the people who can drop everything, drive eight hours to wherever and look at a cool bird that is not typically seen in New England.

But a great gray owl in under four hours? That’s an effort I have to make. It is the largest owl in the world, by length anyway, and its flat, disc face elevates owl coolness to another level.

I still had work, however, but couldn’t risk waiting until the weekend should the bird decide to take off and not be found again. So I pulled a maneuver I used to do fairly often before I had kids: I basically pulled an all-nighter.

I slept restlessly from midnight to 2:15 a.m. Thursday morning and drove three hours to Keene to pick up my old friend Steve Hooper, of Sentinel photo department fame. Then we drove another 40 minutes to Newport, where this awesome bird had been seen in the same field each day for about a week straight. (I knew that thanks to the ABA rare bird alert.) Hoop and I followed the directions we found online and arrived at the scene at about 6:20 a.m. A rare bird alert message posted at 6:15 a.m. confirmed that the bird was indeed there. Thanks to Dylan Jackson of Sunapee for that update. I was minutes away from seeing my first great gray owl.

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Latest For the Birds column: Surviving the cold in the bird world

Photo by Chris Bosak A Northern Cardinal perches near a feeder during a snowstorm in Danbury, Conn., Jan. 23, 2016.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Northern Cardinal perches near a feeder during a snowstorm in Danbury, Conn., Jan. 23, 2016.

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

Despite the welcomed warm weekend, it had been a pretty rough past few weeks weather-wise. Snow, sleet, cold temperatures … in other words, a New England winter.

Most people survive winter by not venturing outdoors and, if it’s necessary to go out, limiting their exposure to the elements to short walks to and from the car. Those who do venture out into the snow, for fun or work, bundle up in apparel scientifically designed to battle the cold.

Birds don’t have the luxury of going inside and turning up the heat. Yet they have survived for eons the worst elements New England can throw at them. It’s nothing short of spectacular when you think about how they do it.

First of all, the ones that are not designed to survive a New England winter hightail it out of the region in the fall. They know what’s coming and head for warmer climes.

That alone is fascinating to think about. Some birds survive by fleeing the cold, some birds survive by toughing it out. Each strategy has its risks and rewards. The birds know which one works best for them.

Unfortunately, some birds that do stick around to battle the elements like true New Englanders will perish during the winter. This is particularly true of individual birds of a species that typically heads south for the winter. Most great blue herons and black-crowned night herons move south for the winter. Some stick around New England and brave the cold. If a winter is too harsh and the bird can’t find enough food, some of those birds will perish.

The same is true of Carolina wrens. They are relatively new to New England, having slowly expanded their range northward, and a harsh winter can take a toll on the population of the handsome little birds.

But, by and large, birds survive these harsh winters just fine.

I was surprised, however, to not see a single Carolina wren last week as I watched the snow falling. Usually one or two show up at my feeders and entertain me during a storm.

Most birds survive the cold nights by seeking shelter to stay out of the elements. I remember a few winters ago seeing a small bird fly under my neighbor’s awning. My curiosity got the better of me, and I had to check under the awning to see if the bird had found a comfy spot. Sure enough, I found a black-capped chickadee tucked into an impossibly small crevice in the corner of the awning. I saw the bird the next evening take the same route under awning.

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