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!

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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 build shelters for protection or run around the island seeking out (or avoiding) opponents. It’s cartoonish in nature and, unlike so many video games out there today, there’s no blood, gore or screaming when someone gets killed.

After watching them for weeks, my boys forced me to try it. I think they knew I was going to be terrible at it and so it would provide them with a good laugh. They were right, of course. I was — and still am — hopelessly pathetic at the game.

When I was growing up, video game controllers had a joystick and a button. Now a controller has two bumpers, two triggers, two joysticks, four letter buttons, a directional pad, a guide button and two tiny buttons I don’t even know what to call. That’s 14 buttons for those keeping track at home. Oh, and the joysticks can move directionally or be pushed in to serve different purposes.

Yes, I’m terrible at it and my kids still laugh at me. But I keep playing.

 Instead of playing “the way you are supposed to play,” as my kids say, I like to land in a remote area of the island and take my time looking around for materials. Along the way I get to check out the scenery and the various habitats, including woods, swamps, fields, hills, rivers and a lake. It’s cartoonish, but somewhat realistic.

While birds do not visually make an appearance in the game, you can hear them from time to time. I can’t match up the bird sounds with a specific species, but to me the calls sound crow-like. They come at appropriate times and locations as well — usually while running through the woods or across a field.

Butterflies do appear from time to time, especially as you approach an abandoned home. While I appreciate the visual, they usually startle me at first because I think it’s someone running around the corner to eliminate me.

It wouldn’t be too hard to add birds into the scenery. With all the “eliminations” that go on — the game starts with 100 players and only one wins — I would suggest adding in a few vultures. They can easily be added soaring in the air or perched ominously in a leafless tree by a hillside.

Or, they can just follow me around. It’s usually not too long before I’m reduced to carrion.

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

For the Birds: When they all visit at once

Photo by Chris Bosak A Red-bellied Woodpecker takes a peanut from a homemade birdfeeder in Danbury, Conn., spring 2016.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Red-bellied Woodpecker takes a peanut from a homemade birdfeeder in Danbury, Conn., spring 2016.

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

Some days none of them come, some days some of them come, and some days they all come.

I guess we wake up expecting the middle ground and — somewhere in the back of our minds — we hope for the higher ground. Isn’t it great when we hope for the best and it happens?

That can hold true for just about anything in life, but I’m talking about birds. What else? 

One day last weekend was one of those days when all of the birds in the neighborhood were in my backyard. My bedroom window affords views of only the tops of trees and, before heading downstairs to make the morning coffee, I had already seen a downy woodpecker, black-capped chickadee and white-breasted nuthatch.

The birds just kept on coming. There’s a feeder hanging outside of the kitchen window and, before the coffee was done brewing, tufted titmice, house finches and hairy woodpeckers joined the list of bird species I’d seen in my yard that day.

I glanced out the kitchen window onto the backyard and noticed white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos were hopping around the grass and mourning doves were hanging out beneath the feeder. Suddenly, I heard a blue jay and saw it perch on a branch just outside the window.

Not that I was counting, but I had seen 10 species of birds and hadn’t even stepped foot outside yet.

As I was thinking about how nice it was to have seen so many birds already, I looked out a kitchen window that faces a different direction and saw a red-tailed hawk practically right in front of my face. It sensed the movement from inside the house and flew off to a safer perch about three trees away, but still within easy watching distance from the kitchen.

I was surprised that so many of the songbirds were brazenly flitting about when a big, bad hawk was so close by. Had it been a sharp-shinned or Cooper’s hawk, it may have been a different story.

So that made 11 species, including a hawk, and the coffee was just getting poured into the mug. It could have ended there, but I had the whole weekend day ahead of me.

I never set out specifically to look for birds that weekend, but the sightings kept presenting themselves.

I went to get something out of the car and a pair of cardinals hurried into the brush. On my way to the mailbox, a house wren hopped along the stone wall. As I made lunch, minding my own business, I was serenaded to the kitchen window by a Carolina wren singing its heart out, even in winter.

Red-bellied woodpeckers climbed up tree limbs and uttered their strange calls several times throughout the day. It had been days since I’d seen a red-bellied woodpecker in the yard.

It was an odd day, indeed. Odd in a good way, of course. Nothing too out of the ordinary came to the yard, but I was more than happy to welcome the common species that did show.

Sure, it could have been even more spectacular. I didn’t see a brown creeper, goldfinch or kinglet. Come to think of it, a red-breasted nuthatch, fox sparrow or pine siskin wouldn’t have been out of the question during this time of year.

Sure it would have been nice if they would have stopped by, but trust me, I’m not complaining. I had plenty of company that day.

For the Birds: Wrapping up Vulture Week — the story behind the photos

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

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

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

Photo by Chris Bosak A black vulture sits on a hill in Danbury, Conn., fall 2017.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A black vulture sits on a hill in Danbury, Conn., fall 2017.

I hope you enjoyed and made the most of Vulture Week.

What? You didn’t know last week was designated as a celebration of vultures? That’s understandable considering I totally made it up so I could post on my birding blog some vulture photos I had sitting around. Days, weeks and months are designated for all sorts of crazy things, so why can’t www.BirdsofNewEngland.com proclaim Vulture Week?

Well, it was last week anyway, so if anyone has a problem with it, it’s too late.

Vulture Week consisted of a series of photos with fun facts about the birds, which are

Photo by Chris Bosak A turkey vulture sits on a hill in Danbury, Conn., fall 2017.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A turkey vulture sits on a hill in Danbury, Conn., fall 2017.

among the largest in New England. (The posts are still available on the site, of course.)

New England now boasts two species of vultures. The familiar turkey vulture — the one with the reddish/pink head — has been in our region all along. Now, the black vulture — with a blackish/gray head — is becoming more and more common in New England.

The northward range expansion started decades ago, but similar to the expansion of the red-bellied woodpecker and Carolina wren, black vultures are garnering more attention as they become increasingly common.

It is not uncommon for both species to be seen together, offering an easy side-by-side comparison. Aside from the color of their heads, there are other differences. The turkey vulture, for instance, is significantly larger. It is hard to judge its size when it is soaring, but when a close look is afforded, the difference is plain to see. Turkey vultures have a wing span of nearly 70 inches (about 6 feet) compared to the black vulture’s 60 inches (about 5 feet). The underside of the wings is another way to tell them apart. Black vultures have whitish wing tips while the white spreads significantly farther on the wings of turkey vultures.

Both birds have a keen sense of smell, but the turkey vulture has the stronger sniffer. That’s one of the reasons the birds are often found together, I’m sure.

Perhaps that’s how the large flock of vultures I photographed earlier in the fall found the prime spot at which I saw it. I can’t reveal exactly where I saw the vultures because I’m 99.9 percent sure I shouldn’t have pulled my car into that dirt lot. It is state-owned land (I’m not saying which state) and operated by the Department of Transportation. It is right off the highway and the rutted, rocky dirt driveway leading to a huge dirt pile is designed for dump trucks and large machinery, not passenger cars.

But, after seeing huge numbers of vultures on that dirt pile day after day, I couldn’t help myself anymore.

No one was behind me on the highway, so I made the turn into the area. There were dozens and dozens of vultures and I quickly realized why they liked that spot so much. It was the “dumping ground,” for lack of a better term, for the roadkill the DOT collected along the highways.

Several dead deer, many with magnificent racks, were spread around the base of the dirt pile. It’s an easy, endless source of food for the birds.

I kept my visit brief. I snapped a few photos, compared the black and turkey vultures, snapped a few more photos and got the heck out of there.

People get excited when they see vultures. Why wouldn’t they? They are huge and, despite their ominous appearance, can be quite endearing. They are less wary than other birds of prey (even though they scavenge instead of hunt) and smart, too.

Now try to tell me they don’t deserve their own week.

For the Birds: Brown creeper highlights the fall

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

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.

The fall migration is miraculous when you consider the thousands of miles birds fly from their breeding grounds to their winter havens. It’s also miraculous in its ability to stir excitement into the hearts and bones of otherwise completely normal adult human beings.

Well, “completely normal” may be pushing it with some birders I’ve come across, but you know what I mean.

Take the other day for instance. I was relaxing on the patio toward the end of a long day when a sight literally lifted me off my seat and drew me closer.

Bald eagle? Brown pelican? Some sort of rare bird not seen in generations?

No, it was a brown creeper. Brown creepers are just as their name suggests they are. For one, they are indeed brown. For another, they creep. They creep up trees looking for insects hidden among the bark. When they reach a point where they think they’ve exhausted a tree’s food supply, they fly quickly to the bottom of the nearest tree and start the creeping all over again.

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