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.

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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: Evening Grosbeak kind of winter

Evening Grosbeaks visit a feeder near Jaffrey in this photo taken by For the Birds reader Pam Hoyt.

Evening Grosbeaks visit a feeder near Jaffrey in this photo taken by For the Birds reader Pam Hoyt.

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 sightings of Evening Grosbeaks keep pouring in.
I mentioned these handsome finches in my last column, but now that I keep hearing from readers who see them, their story bears elaboration.
First, let me mention a few of the sightings that came in this week. Pam, who lives near Jaffrey, had a flock of Evening Grosbeaks visiting her feeder for three days in a row.
“We almost never see them here so I was surprised,” she wrote.
Pam also attached a great photo of her visitors.
I particularly appreciated getting the photo as I could use it to accompany this column. I don’t have any photos of Evening Grosbeaks because I rarely see them as well. I take that back, I do have one photo that I took in Pittsburgh, N.H., about 20 years ago. It was a one-legged male Evening Grosbeak and it was finding seeds along one of the many logging roads in the northern tip of the state. It appeared otherwise healthy so the loss of a leg didn’t seem to be holding this bird back.
I was brand new to photography so the photos I did take Continue reading

Latest For the Birds column: The flurry will come

Photo by Chris Bosak A female Belted Kingfisher leaves its perch near a small pond along the Golden Road in Maine.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A female Belted Kingfisher leaves its perch near a small pond along the Golden Road in Maine.

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.

…..

A lot of birdwatching is standing around looking at nothing. It’s also a lot of walking around looking at nothing.

Let me rephrase that. A lot of birdwatching is standing or walking around looking at things other than birds. No matter where you are, there is always something to look at — even if it is the trees, shrubs and flowers in the habitat in which you are seeking birds. I think it is an essential part of being a birdwatcher to appreciate the “less exciting” things in nature.

To be a birdwatcher you also need very heavy doses of patience and faith.

You could walk around your favorite woods Continue reading

Northward expansion of the Red-bellied Woodpecker

Photo by Chris Bosak A Red-bellied Woodpecker visits a suet feeder during a snow storm.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Red-bellied Woodpecker visits a suet feeder during a snow storm.

Here’s my latest For the Birds column that appeared in last week’s The Hour (Norwalk, Ct) and this week’s The Keene (N.H.) Sentinel. It is about the northward movement of the territory of the Red-bellied Woodpecker, a large and handsome woodpecker that has been common in southern New England but scarce in middle New England. That seems to be changing.

Here’s the link to the story.

No seagulls, just gulls

Here’s my latest For the Birds column, which runs weekly in The Hour newspaper (Norwalk, Ct.) and The Keene Sentinel (Keene, N.H.) This one deals with the various gulls (not “seagulls”) that we see in New England.

Want to see For the Birds in your local paper? Contact the editor and make the suggestion.

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Photo by Chris Bosak A Laughing Gull stands on a piling at a boat dock along the Norwalk River, Sept. 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Laughing Gull stands on a piling at a boat dock along the Norwalk River, Sept. 2014.

Watching gulls is either one of the easiest things to do or most difficult things to do when it comes to birdwatching.

On one hand, you can go to the beach (or parking lot or dump) and see all the gulls you want. You are 100 percent guaranteed to see them any time of day and any time of year.

On the other hand, gulls can be endlessly challenging for birders, to the point that expert birdwatchers are the only ones who can be certain what they are looking at — and even then maybe not so much.

Like many aspects of birding, it’s as easy or as difficult as you want to make it. You can roll into a parking spot at the beach, pull out a stale loaf of bread and be surrounded by gulls in seconds. (Not that I’m condoning feeding birds bread.) That is certainly birdwatching, whether you care to identify the species of hungry gulls or not.

Or you can find a group of gulls and inspect them to see if any rare species are mixed in among the common species. That sounds easy, but can be extremely difficult, if not next to impossible. It’s not as if the common species are blue and the rare species are yellow. In many cases they look identical with only very subtle differences. It’s like trying to find Waldo but only every other person in the picture wears glasses, blue jeans, and has a red-and-white sweater and hat on.

So is that simply a flock of Herring Gulls and Ring-billed Gulls, or is there a first-year Iceland Gull mixed in there somewhere? Or perhaps is there a hybrid of some sort among the flock.

(Since I used the word “flock” in that previous paragraph twice, now seems to be a good time to address the obvious question. “Flock of Seagulls” is technically not correct since there are no birds that are actually called “seagulls.” They are simply gulls. With that said, good luck getting the song “I Ran” out of your head for the rest of the day. Sorry about that. Whatever you do, don’t go to YouTube and search for that song. The outfits and haircuts are too much. Some things should just stay in the 80s.)

Anyway, New England features several common gulls that may be easily found. The most common gull on a beach depends on exactly where you are in New England. Ring-billed Gulls and Herring Gulls are the predominant gulls in the Norwalk area. Herring Gulls are the large ones while Ring-billed Gulls are smaller and have a black ring around their bills. Greater Black-backed Gulls are also common around here. They are the very large gulls with dark backs. Laughing Gulls, which feature black heads, are also common throughout much of New England, but not seen as often in the Norwalk area as the others I mentioned. Laughing Gulls show up more around here in late summer and early fall.

The less common gulls that show up on occasion — and discernable only by experienced birders in many cases — include Lesser Black-backed Gull, Glaucous Gull, Iceland Gull, and Bonaparte’s Gull. Picking out these species is difficult because they look pretty much the same as the other gulls with white heads, chests and bellies, and darker backs.

Adding to the confusion is that gulls of the same species can look very much different depending on age and time of year. Young gulls are often brown and/or heavily speckled. So even if you’re looking at 100 Herring Gulls many of the birds may look very different.

Yes, digging deep into gull watching is not for the faint of heart or those short on patience. If all gets too much, keep trying and don’t run away from the challenge. After all, when it comes to breaking down a flock of gulls, do you really want to say “I Ran. (So Far Away.)”

There I go again — back to the 80s.

Photo for next For the Birds column

Photo by Chris Bosak A Least Tern flies over its nesting grounds at Milford Point in Milford, CT, in June 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Least Tern flies over its nesting grounds at Milford Point in Milford, CT, in June 2014.

Here’s a sneak peek at the photo that will accompany my next For the Birds column that will appear in The Hour (Norwalk, CT) tomorrow (Thursday, July 10) and The Keene Sentinel on Monday, July 14. Check those newspapers’ respective websites to see the column soon.

If you live in New England and your local newspaper does not carry “For the Birds,” give the editor a call and suggest that they pick it up. They can contact me via this website. Thanks!