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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Latest For the Birds column: Be prepared for snowstorms by filling birdfeeders

Photo by Chris Bosak A Brown Creeper finds food at the base of a tree during a cold snap in February 2016, Danbury, Connecticut.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Brown Creeper finds food at the base of a tree during a cold snap in February 2016, Danbury, Connecticut.

Here is the latest For the Birds column, which runs weekly in several New England newspapers. (Note the date of the Great Backyard Bird Count has passed for this year.)

When I know a major snowstorm is coming, I want to be well prepared.

That does not include a trip to the grocery store to buy milk, bread, bottled water or any other essentials like that. That stuff I can get after everything is plowed or dug out — usually the next day.

For me, being prepared means making sure my camera batteries are charged, lenses cleaned and storage card emptied. It also means making sure the feeders are full before the storm hits. Perhaps I’ll add a few special treats for the birds in preparation for the snow.

The latest predicted snowstorm did not disappoint. It was supposed to start overnight, and it did. Thankfully I had filled the feeders before going to bed. I woke up to several inches of fresh snow and nonstop action at the feeders.

Juncos were the most prolific bird of the day. They typically hang around the ground seeking seeds, but with snow covering the ground, they perched on feeders alongside the chickadees, titmice and nuthatches.

It was a great storm, and the snow fell all day. Other than a snowshoe hike with the boys, I kept an eye on the feeders most of the day. Nothing too unusual showed up, but the falling snow made for a spectacular scene.

Several New Hampshire readers sent me photos of the birds they saw that day. A collection is available on my website, www.birdsofnewengland.com. If you took any bird photos that day and haven’t shared them with anyone yet, feel free to send them to me at bozclark@earthlink.net. I’ll add them to collection for the world to see.

Speaking of sharing bird sightings, the 20th annual Great Backyard Bird Count is coming up this weekend, taking place Friday, Feb. 17 to Monday, Feb. 20. It is your chance to contribute to a data base of winter bird sightings. The data is used to track bird populations and identify potential problems before they become irreversible.

All it takes is 15 minutes (or longer, of course) of counting birds and entering your checklist online at www.birdcount.org. You can count the birds alone or with a group, in your backyard or in the woods, for 15 minutes or all four days. It’s that easy. Checklists must be submitted online, however.

“The Great Backyard Bird Count is a great way to introduce people to participation in citizen science,” Gary Langham, the Audubon Society’s vice president and chief scientist, said in a news release. “No other program allows volunteers to take an instantaneous snapshot of global bird populations that can contribute to our understanding of how a changing climate is affecting birds.”

The project is growing quickly. In the first year, 13,500 checklists were submitted from the U.S. and Canada. Last year, nearly 164,000 checklists were submitted from more than 100 countries.

It’s a fun project, too, and a good way to introduce children to the joys of birdwatching and citizen science.

Get out there and count.

Latest For the Birds column: Keep an eye out for rarities

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

Photo by David Hoitt This Varied Thrush has been seen in Swanzey since Dec. 12.

Photo by David Hoitt
This Varied Thrush has been seen in Swanzey since Dec. 12.

Different seasons bring their own rarities.

Rarities, for the purpose of this column, are birds that are typically not seen in our region. It is not necessarily a bird that is rarely seen – it may be quite common in other parts of the country or world – but rather a bird that only every once in a while ventures into New England for one reason or another. In fact, it can also be a typical New England bird, but just seen in a season in which it is usually far away from here.

Winter is a good time for rarities because they stick out so much better. There are only so many birds that haven’t migrated for us to look at in winter, so when something different appears, it really sticks out.

Participants in the annual Christmas Bird Counts crave rarities. The point of the volunteer bird census is to count all the birds they see to contribute to a long-running data base so ornithologists can track bird population trends. There is no competition involved; no awards given. But the unwritten and unspoken truth is: CBC participants want to tally more species than the other counts held throughout the state.

So when a rarity shows up a week or two before Continue reading

Latest For the Birds column: Owls come a’hootin’

Photo by Chris Bosak A young Barred Owl clings to a branch in the woods in Danbury, Conn., spring 2016.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A young Barred Owl clings to a branch in the woods in Danbury, Conn., spring 2016.

Here’s the latest For the Birds column, which runs weekly in The Hour (Norwalk, Conn.), The Keene (NH) Sentinel and several Connecticut weekly newspapers edited by Jerrod Ferrari.

….

Throughout my birding “career,” I haven’t had great luck with owls.

I get the occasional look at a great horned owl and have only slightly better luck with finding barred owls. I’ve had modest success with snowy owls along the Long Island Sound coast in certain winters, especially during that banner year a few winters back. Short-eared owls, long-eared Owls, saw-whet owls, even screech owls? Hardly a glimpse.

But this fall has been pretty good so far in terms of owling. Not that I’ve actually seen owls — even a single one — but I have heard plenty of them. It started about two weeks ago when I heard a barred owl in the woods while I was sitting on my deck at dusk.

Then, a few nights ago, I heard a great horned owl. I knew it was fairly close, but I couldn’t pinpoint exactly where it was.

Two nights later, I had a great night of owling, and I didn’t even have to leave my yard. I heard two great horned owls calling to each other, one of which was in my side yard. I didn’t see it, as it was pitch dark, but the sound was definitely coming from close by.

The owls hooted to each other all night. I know it was all night because I was up most of it worrying about my house cat that happened to get out that night. He picked a great night to get out — the night two great horned owls are scanning the neighborhood.

At one point that night, I heard a pair of barred owls in the distance, too. I had never heard any owls from my yard before, and now I was hearing two species in one night.

Barred owls and great horned owls have very different calls. Barred owls belt out a “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you aaallll?” It’s loud and, quite frankly, creepy. It’s a great Halloween sound. Great horned owls are more subtle when they say “Who’s awake? Me too.”

Now back to my cat. Cubby makes a great escape once a week or so and gets out. Like most pets, it’s best not to chase Cubby as he just runs farther away if he feels pursued. Plus, he’s much too agile and fast to catch anyway. Typically, he’s back in a half hour or an hour. At night, his escapes are usually even shorter. But on this night, he didn’t come home right away. I took frequent walks around the yard with a headlamp on to try to find him. No luck. I gave up on that at about 3 a.m.

I couldn’t sleep with my cat roaming the neighborhood and the constant sound of great horned owls calling to each other. I was torn between this being an awesome night or a terrible night. I certainly appreciated the owl calls, but in the back of my mind I worried about Cubby.

I put my mind at ease by knowing that, yes, owls on occasion will take a cat, but it’s highly unlikely. They are looking for mice, chipmunks, rabbits or similarly small prey. A house cat, while certainly within reason for a powerful great horned owl, is not a desirable prey. Cats are larger than an owl’s normal prey, so owls don’t typically go after cats because of the risks involved.

My mind was at ease, but not totally — certainly not enough to fall into a deep sleep. I left the sunroom door open and sliding door to the kitchen open a few inches in the hopes that Cubby would come in. I had to gauge the width of the door opening carefully as raccoons have gotten onto the enclosed sunporch before to get at the bird food. Boy, they are messy.

Finally at 4:30 a.m., I was half asleep when a loud “meow” came from the kitchen. It was Cubby, and he was fine. I had no idea where he had been or if he saw or heard the owls. I was just relieved that he was back.

I closed the doors and finally fell asleep fully with Cubby curled up at the foot of the bed.

The owls kept hooting, and I kept enjoying it, even in my sleep. When I woke up a few hours later, the sun was up and the owls had quieted. I didn’t know if they had left, but I knew they weren’t calling anymore.

I have heard them on occasion since, but not every night. I’m not sure if they are looking for nesting sites or just checking out a new neighborhood for untapped food sources, but I’m glad them came along. They are welcome in my yard anytime. I just have to be more careful with Cubby’s great escapes.

Latest For the Birds column: Loving the ‘regulars’

Photo by Chris Bosak White-breasted Nuthatch at backyard feeder, Oct. 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
White-breasted Nuthatch at backyard feeder, Oct. 2014.

Here’s the latest For the Birds column, which runs weekly in The Hour (Norwalk, Conn.), The Keene (NH) Sentinel and several Connecticut weekly newspapers.

The feeders went back up a few weeks ago. Nothing extraordinary has shown up yet, but it sure is nice to see the “regular” birds back.

My constant companions are nuthatches, titmice and chickadees. There is usually a downy woodpecker or two there as well, but they are not as reliable as the aforementioned birds.

I love seeing the nuthatches. I love the titmice and chick Continue reading