For the Birds: Persistence pays off in birdwatching

Photo by Chris Bosak A Chipping Sparrow raises its crest while standing on a log in Danbury, Conn., summer2016.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Chipping Sparrow raises its crest while standing on a log in Danbury, Conn., summer2016.

I wasn’t about to let this one slip away.

I’ve said that to myself plenty of times over the years and most of the time it does, indeed, slip away. But not this time.

Persistence is often necessary when trying to nail down a bird’s identity. The problem is this: The bird doesn’t know this and often (usually?) flies away before you can study it long enough to get that ID.

This latest bird was driving me crazy. It sang loud and clear from the depths of the woods. The song appeared to be an endless series of robin-like phrases sung over and over. Despite the constant notes, I couldn’t find the bird in the treetops.

My first thoughts were that the bird was either a Baltimore oriole, rose-breasted grosbeak or scarlet tanager. I was thinking big in terms of color apparently. I looked in the tree tops, but saw nothing.

Eventually, I eliminated those birds from consideration because the song was too constant. The aforementioned birds take at least a little break between repeating their respective songs.

My next thought was a gray catbird as the song had a bit of a squeakiness to it. It wasn’t the right habitat for catbirds, however, as the scene was heavily wooded.

I recorded the song in case the bird decided to fly away, leaving me frustrated without a positive ID. I’ve tried that before, however, and it rarely seems to work. Just like birds don’t always resemble their field guide photos or drawings, their songs don’t always perfectly match the recordings on digital field guides.

I was already suffering from ‘warbler neck’ from looking up in the treetops, so I decided to take a risky step. Instead of looking at the trees from an angle and from a short distance away, I walked right underneath the song. Usually that’s a sure fire way to get the bird to take off deeper into the woods, but this guy kept on singing.

Finally, I saw movement. It came from branches much lower than I was inspecting previously. I confirmed immediately my bird was not an oriole, grosbeak or tanager. From the quick glimpse I managed, I noticed it was small and rather drab.

The bird hopped to a nearby branch and, even though it was still mostly hidden from view by the leaves, I knew it was a vireo. But which one? Only a few vireo species made sense, so I consulted the Audubon birding app on my phone.

The description of the red-eyed vireo song started off: “A series of short, musical, robin-like phrases endlessly repeated.”

That’s it. No doubt about it. The views I did get of the bird confirmed it.

I moved along my walk satisfied with the positive identification. Mostly, though, I was happy I didn’t have to deal with the frustration of not knowing what it was. I’ve felt that plenty of times over the years.

I used to be confounded by chipping sparrows all the time. They sing frequently during late May/early June and are so small and drab it is often difficult to find them. Often, when you do eventually spot them, you feel silly because they are singing from a rather obvious perch and you wonder how you missed it.

As with many things in life, persistence often pays off in birdwatching. Also, as in life, the more difficult the task, the more satisfying it is to find success.

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For the Birds: How to find the rarities

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

Photo by Chris Bosak A common yellowthroat sings from a perch in Brookfield, Conn., during spring 2017.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Rare bird alerts are a good way to find out when spring migrants, like this yellowthroat, are arriving.

What do we do now with spring migration winding down and birds busy with the task of continuing their species?

We still look for birds, of course, but where to find them? Resident birds make themselves scarce as they hide away in holes and on nests. We don’t want to disturb the birds at this time of year anyway.

It’s a good time to check out the rare-bird alerts to see what others are finding throughout the region. I’ve never been a big “chaser,” but it’s always fun to see what birds are around. You never know, maybe one of the rarities is in your town or in a neighboring town.

The best place to look is birding.aba.org, which is run by the American Birding Association. It is a combination of birding news and rare-bird alerts. Not all of the sightings listed are rare, but may be unusual for location or time of year. Sometimes, contributors just have a bird question for the community.

The “landing page” of the website gives users the option to click on any state. It’s fun to click on random states to see what’s showing where. If you’re traveling, you can always check to see if any unusual birds are hanging around your destination.

Some of the recent sightings in New Hampshire include nighthawks, chukar, king eider, mourning warbler and snowy owl. Yes, you read that last one correct. A snowy owl is still around the New Hampshire coast.

New Hampshire Audubon also maintains a great rare-bird alert system. Visit www.nhaudubon.organd click on “Get Outside,” then “birding.” It is updated frequently and lists rare and unusual sightings from around the state. There is also eBird, which is revolutionizing birding and bird tracking, but I’ll save that one for another day as it warrants its own story.

The lists will not let you know how the common species are doing, or where they are being seen. Cardinal and chickadee sightings are not appropriate for the rare-bird alert lists, but you can always send them to me if you feel the impulse to share. I’m always interested in knowing what people are seeing — rare and common species welcomed.

The ABA site is also good fodder for bird discussions. Many birders use the site to have questions about birds answered. A birder posted last week about a bird song she had heard and wondered if anyone could figure out what it was.

While I’ve never been a lister or chaser, it’s always good to check in occasionally with the rare-bird alerts. You’d hate to find out too late that a once-in-a-lifetime bird was right under your nose.

For the Birds: Readers take over again

Photo by Chris Bosak A scarlet tanager perches in an oak tree in Danbury, Conn., spring 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A scarlet tanager perches in an oak tree in Danbury, Conn., spring 2018.

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

The colors just keep on coming this spring.

I’ve been lucky enough to see two indigo buntings, three rose-breasted grosbeaks (although two were males fighting each other), a scarlet tanager, at least three Baltimore orioles, a pair of ruby-throated hummingbirds and a handful of warblers in my yard so far this spring. It’s been a welcomed color bonanza after a long winter.

Now that Memorial Day has passed and we are unofficially in summer, let’s look at what some readers have seen.

Carol from the Monadnock Region sent a photo of an oddly colored hairy woodpecker. Instead of the traditional white and black, this one was black and yellowish brown. A reader from Connecticut sent me a similar photo a few years ago.

My guess is that it is a normal hairy woodpecker with a pigment abnormality. Pigment abnormalities show up in birds every so often, such as orange house finches or white robins. Leucism and albinoism are extreme forms of pigment abnormalities, but more subtle color variations occur.

Don watched as an eagle eyed a pair of common mergansers on Granite Lake. He wondered if the eagle would try to take one of the ducks, but a loud noise distracted the eagle and it flew off. Eagles, which often scavenge for food, can take birds as big as common mergansers.

Norma from Spofford had an indigo bunting visit her feeders this spring. She has been in Spofford for nearly 40 years and has seen buntings only a handful of times.

It’s also been a colorful spring for Lenny of Greenfield, who has seen orioles, rose-breasted grosbeaks and cardinals. A special treat was seeing the oriole and grosbeak at the feeder at the same time.

Dean in Marlborough reported visits from pileated woodpeckers, indigo buntings, cardinals and eastern bluebirds. Another colorful yard in the Monadnock Region.

Lida from Harrisville had a male and female oriole come to her table to feast on oranges. Another reader suggested using grape jelly to attract orioles.

I tried to attract orioles with both oranges and grape jelly this spring, to no avail.

Eric in Surry noticed the usual changing of the guard for ground-feeders as the juncos left and chipping sparrows arrived, with about a two-week overlap. He has also noticed a few warbler species, including a pine warbler carrying nesting material. The material was hair he leaves out for the birds after brushing his dog. He has also seen chickadees, phoebes and nuthatches grab some of the hair.

He had another interesting bird sighting this spring; shortly after filling in small holes in his yard, a Cooper’s hawk swooped in to grab a chipmunk. Eric has also seen a blue-gray gnatcatcher and heard an eastern whip-poor-will. It’s been years since I’ve heard a whip-poor-will so I’m glad someone is still hearing them.

Spring migration is winding down, but not over. Soon, it will give way to nesting season. Let me know what you are seeing out there in this exciting time of the year for birdwatching.

For the Birds: Waiting for warblers

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

Photo by Chris Bosak A Pine Warbler sits on a deck railing in New England this fall.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Pine Warbler at feeder in Danbury, Conn., fall 2015.

Finally, I thought, a warbler singing in the backyard.

It’s been a long winter and the pine warbler I usually hear by the end of the first week of April never materialized. The first week of April turned into the second week and still no warblers to be seen or heard — at least on my end.

One cool, but bright morning last week, I stepped out onto the deck to fill the feeders and heard a high-pitched, soft and somewhat melodic tune coming from a giant oak. Surely a warbler, I thought, but I wasn’t sure which one.

I grabbed the binoculars, which always hang at the ready just inside the door. Now to find the little bugger. The leaves haven’t popped yet, so this shouldn’t be too tough, I told myself. It was more difficult than I thought, of course, but I finally zeroed in on a little bird high up on the trunk.

As you can probably tell from the build-up, it wasn’t a warbler at all. It was a brown creeper — a small, brown bird seen on tree trunks throughout New England, mostly in the fall, winter and spring. Usually the birds are silent as they look for insects by starting at the bottom of a tree trunk and working their way up.

In fact, I think this may have been the first time I consciously heard the song of a brown creeper. The website AllAboutBirds.org describes the song, sung only by males, as such: “His song is a jumble of high, thin notes that lasts up to 1.5 seconds. It’s sometimes likened to singing the phrase, ‘beautiful trees.’”

You’d think after all these years of birdwatching, I would know all the songs of warblers and be able to distinguish between warblers and non-warblers. There are many types of warblers, however, and I know a lot of the songs, but not all of them. Plus, this song was very warbler-like, as I mentioned. Also — my final excuse, I promise — it’s been 11 months since we’ve heard warblers singing and my birding-by-ear is rusty. It’s only average to begin with, so this guy definitely fooled me.

Not that I’m complaining that it was a brown creeper. I find them extraordinarily interesting birds, despite their small size and rather non-descript appearance. I like how they work up the trunk of a tree and then fly down to the base of a nearby tree to start again.

I’m still waiting on that first warbler, but I’m confident they will arrive soon. As usual, the sightings will start as a trickle — pine warbler here, palm warbler there — and then become a fantastically overwhelming phenomenon of tiny, colorful birds in the trees.

Get your ears ready.

Note: Since this column was originally written, I’ve seen palm and pine warblers. Rejoice!

For the Birds: Fortnite and birds (or lack thereof)

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

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

Photo by Chris Bosak
Vultures would be a good addition to Fortnite.

Fortnite is the hottest game going.

The survival video game has swept the nation — and world — and eaten up countless hours of kids’ and adults’ time.

But, since it is such a huge phenomenon (with well over 3 million players), I have to somehow relate it to birds, of course. I did something similar in the summer of 2016, when the Pokémon Go craze was at its peak. That was a fun column to write and may be found here.

Here’s a quick description of Fortnite for those who may be unfamiliar. It is a video game that can be played on a computer, PlayStation, Xbox, and now even a mobile device. The most popular way to play is the person-to-person mode — you can play solo or as a duo or squad (four-person team) — and the point is always to be the last one standing.

Other players may be eliminated by a variety of weapons that are picked up in towns and cities on an island where the game takes place. Players can Continue reading

For the Birds column: Preening away

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

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

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

I thought my cat was bad. The incessant licking to keep himself clean. He’s got to be the cleanest cat ever.

Then I watched a northern mockingbird preening itself. It went on for as long as I could watch and who knows how much longer after I walked away.

Feather maintenance is an important part of life for birds and it takes up a great amount of their time. Feathers play a role in a bird’s ability to fly, attract a mate, hide from predators and protect itself from the weather. Birds are the only living creatures with Continue reading

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, Continue reading