For the Birds: Goldfinches delight year round

Photo by Chris Bosak An American goldfinch perches on a wire in New England, March 2020.

I’ve been getting a lot of inquiries about goldfinches lately. Everything from how to attract them to why am I suddenly seeing more of them to why do some of them seem much duller than other ones.

To answer the question about how to attract them, you have to start with Nyjer seed. Nyjer seed, also sometimes called thistle, are the tiny seeds that are a fraction the size of a sunflower seed. Birds such as goldfinches, pine siskins, and indigo buntings love Nyjer seeds. It is hard to imagine there is a whole lot of meat inside the shells, but apparently, it is enough to satisfy the smaller birds.

Goldfinches also prefer tube feeders. If you get one with several ports there will be times when all of the perches will be occupied by goldfinches. So the best way to get goldfinches is to offer Nyjer seed in tube feeders.

But that is not the only way to attract goldfinches. Goldfinches will also eat sunflower seeds and visit hopper or platform feeders. They will also eat Nyjer seed from a mesh “sock.“

Goldfinches will also visit flowers such as sunflowers, coneflowers, and black-eyed Susans. But you have to wait until fall to see them eating those seeds. Goldfinches will also readily visit birdbaths. In fact, they are one of the most frequent visitors to my birdbath.

As to why some of them look different, that is a somewhat tricky question. The obvious answer is that females are duller and males are brighter. However, a goldfinch’s plumage is constantly changing and some males may be ahead of others in obtaining their breeding plumage. 

Even males are drably colored in the winter and slowly gain their famous bright yellow feathers by the spring. This week, I have seen some goldfinches that are already fully decked out in their splendid yellow. Others are still splotchy with some bright and some dull plumage.

Well-known ornithologist David Sibley has a great article with photos, or more accurately drawings, of what a goldfinch’s plumage looks like each month throughout the year. The article can easily be found with an Internet search by entering “goldfinch monthly plumage” in the search field.

Females are duller in color year-round. Like other dimorphic birds (male and female have different appearances), females are more dully colored to offer protection from predators. The flashy males attract the attention of predators and cause a diversion away from the females on nests.

I have always had decent luck attracting and finding goldfinches. There are certain birds I just can’t seem to find, but goldfinches, thankfully, have never been one of those problematic species.

Goldfinches are also nomadic. If you have goldfinches throughout the day, it is likely that you are seeing more than one group of goldfinches. Perhaps that explains why some people are seeing more of them lately. The goldfinches have only recently discovered the feeding station.

Goldfinches are a favorite bird of many people, and with good reason. They are striking with their bright yellow plumage, they are common backyard inhabitants, and they are year-round New England residents, not fair-weathered friends. What’s not to like? 

For the Birds: Carolina wren climbs in the pecking order

Photo by Chris Bosak A Carolina wren visits to a New England backyard, January 2021.

I find myself saying “that’s one of my favorite birds“ a lot. I know that list should be relatively short so as to not water down the significance of the birds on it, but it’s a list that grows and never gets pared down.

I have always been fond of the Carolina wren, but in recent years I have become more enamored with that little brown bird. Not surprisingly, it’s on that list.

Carolina wrens are a bit more brightly colored and a bit more loquacious than the other wrens we see in New England. That is saying a lot as the house wren is quite the loud talker as well.

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For the Birds: The birder’s journey

Photo by Chris Bosak A snow bunting eats seeds on a beach in Connecticut, fall 2021.

A snowy owl at a Connecticut beach caused a big rift among birdwatchers last month.

Many people were posting its location, and others felt it was inappropriate and dangerous to the bird to post its whereabouts. On top of that, many people took exception to some photographers who were getting too close and being too aggressive with their craft.

I wasn’t there to see the bird or the behavior of the spectators, but I have certainly seen aggressive photographers before and most definitely do not condone their behavior. However, I have also seen non-photographers get annoyed at photographers for no legitimate reason. Like most situations, the truth is likely somewhere in the middle and dependent upon where you fall in the “how close is too close” spectrum.

I found myself in the vicinity of the beach last week and couldn’t resist trying to find the owl. It had been seen and photographed reliably for about two weeks before my visit. In fact, I met a birder in the parking lot that morning who had seen the owl the previous day.

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For the Birds: Beginner to expert, do what suits you

Photo by Chris Bosak A blackpoll warbler eats berries in New England, November 2021.

Birdwatching can be as easy or as difficult as you want to make it. I’ve said it before, but that is one of the things I like most about the hobby.

If you are content being able to identify a handful of birds, then that’s fine as long as you enjoy it. If you can’t sleep unless you know the species, age and sex of every bird you see, then that’s fine as well.

Most of us, including myself, fall somewhere in the middle. The middle, of course, is a pretty vast area. Knowing a robin, blue jay, cardinal and a few other species is in one area of the middle. Knowing your sparrows, shorebirds, gulls and ducks falls in another area of the middle.

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For the Birds: Loving those berries

Photo by Chris Bosak A song sparrow eats berries at Dolce Center in Norwalk, Conn.
Photo by Chris Bosak A song sparrow eats berries at Dolce Center in Norwalk, Conn.

I had just discovered a new berry tree at work and thought to myself how great it would be to see the birds raid the tree when the berries ripened.

At the time, the majority of the berries were red with a few purple ones mixed in. It wouldn’t be long now, I figured, before they were all purple and the birds would be feasting on them.

About a week later, I went back to check out the tree and it was practically picked clean. Apparently, the berries ripened quicker than I thought they would, and the birds wasted no time in having their feast.

I missed the flurry of activity that had the tree stripped clean, but I did see a lone gray catbird fly in and out to grab a few of the remaining berries. At least I wasn’t completely shut out of the show.

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For the Birds: Welcome to May!

Photo by Chris Bosak A chestnut-sided warbler lurks in the brush in New England, May 2020. Merganser Lake.

Welcome to May, arguably the best month of the year for birdwatching.

So many exciting things happen in the bird world in May that it’s hard to know where to begin. The breeding season is in full swing and our year-round birds as well as newly arrived migrant birds are either looking for nesting sites or already raising young. Suddenly our feeders are visited by colorful newcomers such as rose-breasted grosbeaks, Baltimore orioles or indigo buntings. Waders are back in full force stalking our ponds and rivers.

When it comes to May, however, talk of the birding world has to begin with warblers, those small and often colorful Neotropical migrants that add life to our neck of the woods every spring. Some of these warblers will simply stop by for a few days before heading farther north to their breeding grounds. Many, however, will find a suitable place to raise young and will be with us until the fall.

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For the Birds: Sightings from around New England

Photo by Chris Bosak A red-breasted nuthatch grabs a seed from a feeding station in New England last week. (October 2020)

I keep seeing reports of more and more pine siskins and purple finches being seen throughout New England and farther south. I guess the Winter Finch Forecast was right about these species.

The Winter Finch Forecast also predicted a strong year for movements of red-breasted nuthatches, which started as early as August. The red-breasted nuthatch, of course, is not a finch but is included in the annual forecast because of its irregular migration patterns.

While I haven’t personally seen siskins or purple finches this year, I have seen a few r Continue reading

For the Birds: Winter’s wonderful flurries

Photo by Chris Bosak A Song Sparrow seen in Selleck’s/Dunlap Woods in Darien, Conn., March 2014.

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

For the Birds: Giving for open space

A bonus For the Birds on this Thanksgiving. Happy Thanksgiving everybody.

photo by Chris Bosak
photo by Chris Bosak
Wild turkeys in New England.

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.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

For the Birds: Bald eagles and the Endangered Species Act

Photo by Chris Bosak
A bald eagle at Bashakill NWMA, summer 2019.

Here is the latest For the Birds column …

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.”