‘Volunteer’ sunflowers brighten up flower box

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.

https://birdsofnewengland.com/tag/coneflower/

https://birdsofnewengland.com/2018/11/13/goldfinch-on-coneflower/

Here’s an icy shot of the tough plants.

https://birdsofnewengland.com/tag/birdsofnewengland-christmas-card/

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 chrisbosak26@gmail.com.

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For the Birds: Giving birds a hand

Fishing line tangled around a branch.

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.

Classic For the Birds: Paddling freshwater

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 …

Photo by Chris Bosak A Great Blue Heron stands on a piling along the Norwalk River on Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014.

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

For the Birds: Merganser mania

Photo by Chris Bosak Hooded Mergansers swim in a small unfrozen section of water at Selleck's/Dunlap in Darien, Conn., in Feb. 2014.
Photo by Chris Bosak
Hooded Mergansers swim in a small unfrozen section of water at Selleck’s/Dunlap in Darien, Conn., in Feb. 2014.

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.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A common merganser swims in a pond in Danbury, Conn., March 2019.
Photo by Chris Bosak A female common merganser swims in a pond in Danbury, Conn., March 2019.
Photo by Chris Bosak
A female Red-breasted Merganser swims in Norwalk Harbor in this March 2014 photo.
Photo by Chris Bosak
Male red-breasted merganser.

For the Birds: Marching through winter

Photo by Chris Bosak An Eastern Phoebe perches on a branch in Selleck's Woods in Darien, Conn., in late March 2015.
Photo by Chris Bosak
Eastern Phoebes are one of the first songbirds to arrive in New England during the spring migration.

March can be a tough month for birders.

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.

For the Birds: Winter and birds

Here is the latest For the Birds column:

Photo by Chris Bosak A black-capped chickadee rests on an icy branch during a winter storm in Jan. 2019 in New England.

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.

So the cold, while uncomfortable on the most bitter nights, is usually Continue reading

For the Birds: DIY birding projects

Photo by Chris Bosak
A downy woodpecker eats a homemade Christmas-themed suet cake, December 2018.

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