The 2018 birding year in review: Part III

Photo by Chris Bosak A purple finch eats seeds at a feeder in New England, Nov. 2018.
Photo by Chris Bosak
A purple finch eats seeds at a feeder in New England, Nov. 2018.

My latest For the Birds column releases my personal top 10 birding moments for 2018. Recapping the previous year is my favorite column to write each late December or early January. This year, instead of blasting out the top 10 all at once I’m going to spread it out and reveal two each day, starting today (Jan. 1, 2019.) This post will include Nos. 6 and 5.

Feel free to comment or send me an email with some of your 2018 birding or nature highlights.

6. Winter birds at feeder. They were really late fall sightings, but happened after the leaves had dropped so it felt more like winter. It started with a female purple finch, continued with several fox sparrows, and ended with a ton of pine siskins. There is still plenty of time left in winter to add to that list. Anybody want to send me their evening grosbeaks?

Photo by Chris Bosak
Common loon on Long Island Sound during winter months.

5. Christmas Bird Count. It’s going on 20 years now that I’ve participated in the annual bird census. As usual, I did a count in southwestern New England that features varied habitat — from wooded areas to freshwater ponds to Long Island Sound. A few highlight species include: great egret; common loon; merlin; and red-breasted nuthatch.

Advertisements

The 2018 birding year in review: Part II

Photo by Chris Bosak A nothern bobwhite seen at Happy Landing in Brookfield, Connecticut, fall 2018.

My latest For the Birds column releases my personal top 10 birding moments for 2018. Recapping the previous year is my favorite column to write each late December or early January. This year, instead of blasting out the top 10 all at once I’m going to spread it out and reveal two each day, starting today (Jan. 1, 2019.) This post will include Nos. 8 and 7.

Feel free to comment or send me an email with some of your 2018 birding or nature highlights.

8. First New England northern bobwhite. I saw one of these ground birds in Delaware many many years ago, but I finally got my first New England sighting this fall. It is a species in serious decline and would be nice to see them thriving again.

Photo by Chris Bosak A Black-capped Chickadee clears out a cavity in a tree for a nesting site at Selleck's/Dunlap Woods in Darien in spring 2014.
Photo by Chris Bosak
Black-capped chickadee clearing out cavity for nest.

7. Breeding Atlas. Connecticut is undergoing an ambitious three-year survey of its breeding birds. The state is divided into more than 100 blocks that are covered by volunteers. My block features lakes, marshes, mountains, and woods.

For the Birds: The siskins come at last

Photo by Chris Bosak Pine siskins visit a feeder in Danbury, Connecticut, fall 2018.

A wise man once said: “The nature of a winter finch irruption, however, could mean a sizable flock of pine siskins can show up and empty out my Nyjer seed feeder at any moment.”

Just kidding. That was me writing two weeks ago about the hot start to the winter finch season. The wise man part is up for debate.

At the time of that writing, a female purple finch had been my only out-of-the-ordinary sighting at my feeding station. A week later a few fox sparrows showed up. I know fox sparrows are not finches, but they can fit loosely into the category of winter finches because of their sporadic visits to New England backyards.

Then last week, true to the sentence at the top of this column, the pine siskins showed up. It started out with two siskins sharing the tube feeder with a group of goldfinches. The next day, I counted three siskins. The third day, about 20 siskins showed up and occupied every perch on the tube feeder and a nearby hopper feeder. The spillover Continue reading

For the Birds: Winter finches arrive on the scene

Photo by Chris Bosak A purple finch eats seeds at a feeder in New England, Nov. 2018.
Photo by Chris Bosak A purple finch eats seeds at a feeder in New England, Nov. 2018.




There has been a lot of talk lately about winter finches. There usually is this time of year.

I have read accounts of people seeing big flocks of pine siskins. Siskins are probably the most common winter finch that irrupts into the middle and southern parts of New England sporadically in winter.

Winter finch is not an official term with a clear-cut number of species that nicely fits the category. Rather, it is a general term used for members of the finch family that breed up north and typically spend their winters up north, but irregularly move south during the winter as food sources dictate.

The species most commonly associated with a winter finch irruption include pine siskin, common redpoll and purple finch. Larger finches, such as pine grosbeak and evening grosbeak, are also species seen at backyard feeders throughout New England during the winter.

But birds do not even have to be finches to fall into the loose category of “winter finch.” Often, the red-breasted nuthatch is lumped into the category due to its great abundance at feeders some winters and being a no-show during other winters.

So far this winter I have seen a lone female purple finch at my backyard feeding station. That has been the extent of my winter finch season so far. The nature of a winter finch irruption, however, could mean a sizable flock of pine siskins can show up and empty out my Nyjer seed feeder at any moment.

I did see a few red-breasted nuthatches on a recent trip to northern New Hampshire, but that is part of their breeding and winter grounds, and would not fall into the category of a winter-finch sighting.

Admittedly, it took a minute or two to identify the female purple finch that has been visiting my yard. It was clearly something different, so I knew I had to lock down an ID as soon as possible.

Female purple finches are streaky brown in plumage. It didn’t have the look or feel of a sparrow, so I eliminated those possibilities immediately. It looked a lot like a house finch, but was more heavily streaked and slightly larger and plumper overall. The thick bill further eliminated any sparrow possibilities and after very briefly considering the female rose-breasted grosbeak, I was able to nail down the ID as a female purple finch.

In the past when I have seen purple finches, it has usually been a pair so getting an ID was easier because I had the more colorful male to observe.

For whatever reason, regardless of how great a winter finch season it is throughout New England, my yard typically does not drive in a lot of these birds. While I’ve read about several backyards being ambushed by pine siskins already this season, I haven’t seen a pine siskin in about 10 years. That species typically irrupts every three or four years.

If nothing else shows up at my feeders all winter, I still have my regular feeder birds and my female purple finch. And I’m good with that.

For the Birds: High stakes garden perches

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

Photo by Chris Bosak A ruby-throated hummingbird perches on a stick being used as a garden stake in New England, summer 2018.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A ruby-throated hummingbird perches on a stick being used as a garden stake in New England, summer 2018.

One of the nice things about living in the woods is that you are never at a loss for garden stakes.

Does that tomato plant need support? Take a little walk in the backyard, find a thin but sturdy stick on the ground, and you’ve got yourself a garden stake. Sure, it’s not apt to be perfectly straight, and it might not sport a perfectly pointed end for jabbing into the soil, but that’s nothing a whittle or two with a jackknife can’t fix.

A bonus to using these natural garden stakes, I’ve noticed, is that if they are placed near a birdfeeder, they make for good perches, too. This is especially true if the sticks have smaller branches at the top.

My property is predominantly shaded, but there is a sunny enough area on the deck and a small portion of the yard near the deck. I do a lot of container planting on the deck, so these garden stake/bird perches are high off the ground. Continue reading

For the Birds: Early-morning wake-up call

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

Photo by Chris Bosak An American Robin perches on a gravestone at at a cemetery in Darien, Conn., April 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
An American Robin perches on a gravestone at at a cemetery in Darien, Conn., April 2014.

A raccoon knocked over something in the backyard around three in the morning. The crash woke me from a dead sleep, so I got up to investigate. A quick look in the pitch-dark with a cheap flashlight did not yield the cause of the crash. The potted plants looked to be intact and the birdfeeders seemed to be in their place.

I went back to the screened-in porch to continue my night’s sleep, but sweet dreams eluded me. I used to be the world’s best sleeper; able to sleep anytime, anywhere. As I’ve gotten older, however, it’s gotten less easy.

So, I stared into the dark woods, listened to the night sounds and hoped to doze off again. When the robins started singing I gave up. I checked the time: 4:45. Still dark. I got to thinking as I sat there waiting for the sun to rise about why birds would sing before dawn in the summer. I can understand in the spring, as the male birds want to attract females, so why not get an early jump on the competition.

But in the summer, why sing so early? Why sing at all, really?

The breeding season, for the most part, is over, so impressing females shouldn’t be at the top of their list. That is the beauty of thinking, of course. You come up with theories, right or wrong, about your questions. Robins are the most-hearty singers in the morning in the summer, at least at my place. Robins are early nesters, getting started before a lot of our songbirds. They also have several broods each year — two or three in New England.

So, it made sense to me that a robin would be singing that early because he may still be in the breeding season.

In my weary ruminations, I thought of another reason. Birds sing for two main purposes: to attract females and to protect their territory. The breeding season might be over, but the task of raising young is still at hand. A bird waking up that early to sing is calling out to other birds that they are alive and well to stay the heck away.

Now for the beauty of the Internet: You can discover what others think on the subject. There are other theories on why birds sing so early — atmospheric condition is one theory — but I will leave the scientific research to those more capable.

I did find some interesting tidbits on singing. Bird pairs recognize each other’s “voice.” It is mostly the males that sing, of course, but all birds call to each other. The songs and calls may all sound the same to us, but birds can recognize individuals by the nature of the sounds.

Some females do sing. I’ve heard female cardinals singing on plenty of occasions. I’ve read that female grosbeaks and orioles also sing.

Sleeping outside (the screened-in porch is close enough to outside) opens your eyes and ears to the dark side of nature. I mean dark in a literal sense, of course.

Also, when sleep escapes you, it gives you time to ponder.

Continue reading

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 Continue reading