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.
I have said many times that one of the great things about birdwatching is that there is always something to learn at all levels.
A beginner, of course, has a lot to learn as the world of birds is vast. An intermediate-level birdwatcher has a lot of knowledge, but there is still plenty more to learn, such as hybrid species and plumage phases. Even experts have a lot to learn as it is impossible to know everything about every bird in the world, and there are species and discoveries yet to be made.
Over the last few weeks, I have been writing a lot about warblers and other spring songbird migrants such as tanagers and grosbeaks. In my opinion, those types of birds straddle the line between beginner and intermediate-level birdwatching. There are a lot of nuances in that statement, however. Identifying warblers by sound is clearly a more intermediate or even advanced intermediate skill. But identifying a rose-breasted grosbeak at a feeder is more of a beginner skill.
There are many other types of spring migrants passing through or settling now in New England that fall clearly into the intermediate, or even expert, category. Vireos and flycatchers, I believe, are two types of birds that can be tricky to learn and therefore require a higher level of skill to identify. Both types of birds tend to favor the tops of trees and are difficult to get a good look at. Often, the sun is either hiding behind clouds or in your face, which makes identifying a bird even more difficult as the colors are not showing well through the binoculars.
A few of the vireos can be relatively easy to identify if you get a good, close look. The blue-headed vireo, with its obvious white spectacles, is one example. The red-eyed vireo is another example, but it is pretty rare that you get a good enough look to determine eye color. Similarly, great-crested flycatchers, with their relatively large bodies and boisterous songs and calls, can be another fairly easy identification.
But most vireos and flycatchers are largely brown or gray with subtle markings, making identification difficult for even intermediate birdwatchers. That is when learning their song and calls becomes important. But that, of course, is a more advanced skill, particularly when one is already trying to learn the song of warblers and other more common birds, such as Baltimore oriole and rose-breasted grosbeak.
In my opinion, vireos and flycatchers are often overlooked, or even ignored, by many birdwatchers. I myself am guilty of this as I rarely write about them in my column. The other day, however, I was struck by the beauty of a red-eyed vireo. I had a rare, extremely close look at the bird. I was walking through a small conservation area where bird banding was taking place, and the vireo was tangled in one of the mesh nets. I took a quick photo with my iPhone and rushed to alert one of the banders of the catch.
That sighting got me thinking about the other vireos and other birds such as flycatchers that are flitting among the treetops with little fanfare.
Several years ago, I brought my boys to a bird-banding area, and one of the banders allowed us to participate in the release of the birds. After all the pertinent information about the bird was collected, Andrew got to release a gray catbird, and Will, who was about 5 years old at the time, released a yellow-bellied flycatcher.
The vireo sighting the other day made me recall the release of the yellow-bellied flycatcher. Rarely on a bird walk are those birds found, and rarely are they discussed when the topic of New England bird comes up. But they are out there and count just as much as the warblers and other ballyhooed birds of New England.
Birdwatching can be a fairly easy hobby. If you are content to know a few common backyard birds such as robins, mourning doves, blue jays and cardinals, that is pretty easy to pick up. If that is your end goal in birding, that’s perfectly fine. If you desire to learn more and take the hobby to another level, that can be done, too, as birdwatching can be as difficult as you want to make it. I look at birds like vireos and flycatchers as birds that definitely take a birder to another level.
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 →
The 2020-21 Winter Finch Forecast is out and it looks like it could be an exciting next several months in New England.
This is the first forecast by Tyler Hoar. Ron Pittaway did the forecast for several decades before passing the torch to Hoar this year. The Winter Finch Forecast is a prediction of what finch (and other) species may irrupt into New England and parts south and west. An irruption is when northern birds move to or through an area in abnormally high numbers. For example, many years we get very few or even no pine siskins. Other years we get so many we can’t fill the feeders fast enough. Irruptions occur mainly due to food availability, or lack thereof. If it is a bad crop year up north for a certain type of food, such as pine cone seeds, irruptions may occur as birds move in search of food sources.
According to Hoar, this is shaping up to be a good year for purple finches and evening grosbeaks. It is also a year when red-breasted nuthatches are moving south in high numbers. Perhaps you’ve seen more of these small, charismatic birds than usual in your yard this fall already. I hadn’t seen or heard a red-breasted nuthatch in my yard for about four years. This fall, I’ve had three already. I’ve seen only one, and heard the other two. Red-breasted nuthatches have higher-pitched songs and calls than their cousins, the white-breasted nuthatch. It’s an unmistakable difference once you learn it. Red-breasted nuthatches are the more common nuthatch throughout much of New England, particularly up north. In southern New England, irruption years of red-breasted nuthatches are a special treat as they are not resident birds.
The Winter Finch Forecast covers finches such as redpolls, crossbills and siskins, as well as a few small birds that aren’t finches. Irruptions are not limited to these small birds, of course. Who can forget the winter of 2013-14 when snowy owls were all the rage and showed up in places they’d never been seen before?
To see the full forecast, enter “2020-21 Winter Finch Forecast” into a web search and have at it. Are we likely to see common redpolls this winter? I’ll leave that research up to you. I’m always looking forward with excitement regardless of the season, but the Winter Finch Forecast offers that much more incentive to cheer on winter and the colder months. Winter is not so bad after all.
It’s been a busy spring around here for sure. The bluebirds have youngsters, the grosbeaks are regular visitors and the female ruby-throated hummingbird is back to her old tricks of dominating the backyard.
There have been plenty of other highlights, but I want to share what others throughout the region have been seeing.
I received an interesting email from Roxanne of Swanzey. She noticed a blue jay hanging upside down bat-like. She assumed it was sick, injured or dead, but 15 minutes later the bird perched upright and soon after flew away. As it turns out, blue jays sometimes roost upside down. Who knew?
Allen from Fitzwilliam sent in photos of a female purple finch gathering fleece placed into a small cage. The wool comes from a neighbor’s sheep. Birds often gather animal fur to use as nest material.
Allen also sent in photos of a Baltimore oriole eating grape jelly from a feeder. I’ve never had luck attracting orioles to my feeders, but this year I did have a male oriole visit my suet cake feeder several times. I had orange halves, grape jelly and sugar water available as well, but the oriole ignored it all in favor of suet. Even individual birds of the same species have their particular tastes.
Lenny from Greenfield sent in several photos including rose-breasted grosbeaks, purple finches and brown thrashers. It’s been a few years since I’ve seen a thrasher. That’s not a good sign.
Mimi from Troy sent in a nice list of yard birds, including nesting bluebirds. She also had yellow-rumped warblers visit for the first time. In all, she has seen more than 30 species in her yard this spring. She also included a message that I’m sure many would agree with: “Thank goodness the birds are able to bring me joy and solace during these trying times and fill me with joy.”
Celia from Keene was disappointed with the recent snow day in May but was rewarded by seeing an indigo bunting and rose-breasted grosbeak at her feeder at the same time. “Those colorful birds made my day,” she wrote.
I’ll conclude with a poem sent to me by Jackie Cleary of Westmoreland. I’ve seen and heard a lot of thrushes this spring (wood thrush, hermit thrush and veery) so the poem was timely indeed. Thanks to Jackie for the beautiful poem, titled “Thrush Time.”
We keep the thrushes’ hours in summer;
Gently pulled from sleep
By their double rhythmic trills,
Like a pleasant saw
Which severs the night from the day;
And when the break is made
They retire to their hidden woodland business ‘Til they must sing the day to sleep, And us along with it.
Last week I wrote about an adventure my son Will and I had freeing an eastern kingbird from fishing line. Will was fishing with some friends when he noticed a bird struggling frantically and dangling underneath a branch.
He ran to get me and we worked together to free the bird. There was still a lot of energy in the bird’s struggle, so I am guessing it wasn’t tangled for too terribly long. Otherwise, its struggling would have been less frequent and less energetic. Or even worse, it could easily have died if it had been there long enough without being noticed.
Unfortunately, death is an all-too-frequent result for birds that either become tangled, hooked or snagged by discarded fishing line. I recall years ago coming across the pathetic scene of a belted kingfisher dangling lifelessly above a small stream. Abandoned fishing line had snared the bird and no one found it until it was too late.
I also recall a few years ago seeing a red-throated loon with fishing line around its bill and head in Long Island Sound. This bird, however, was still alive and I even saw it catch a fish, so perhaps this bird’s situation had a better outcome. I had no way of catching the loon; I could only watch — hopelessly — from the shore.
Birds have a tough row to hoe to begin with in nature without having to deal with so many man-made obstacles. Windows, wind turbines, cell towers, cats, cars, and pesticides pose significant obstacles to birds worldwide. Loss of habitat, of course, is perhaps the most serious challenge we throw at birds. Add discarded fishing line to the mix and it’s yet another hindrance we add to decrease a bird’s odds of survival.
There are measures we can take to lessen this bird mortality. Decals on windows, keeping cats indoors, using only natural pesticides, and picking up discarded fishing line can all go a long way toward helping birds survive longer and increase their populations.
So, the next time you are out walking along a lake, river, or pond, and you see fishing line dangling from a nearby branch, grab it if it is in reach and discard of it properly. Whether it is your fishing line or not, go ahead and remove it and potentially save a bird from a horrible, slow death.
Winter is getting long and the season seems to be extending each year. It’s already been a snowy month this year, counting Sunday, and remember last March was ridiculously cold and snowy, even pushing into April.
March is also a time of anticipation for birders as the spring migration starts to pick up by the end of the month. Early red-winged blackbirds, for instance, began arriving in February, but March is really when the migration begins in New England.
April, of course, is when it heats up significantly before peaking in May. By the end of March, however, we can expect to see birds such as tree swallows, purple martins and hermit thrushes returning to our region.
To me, the surest sign of spring is the return of eastern phoebes in late March. The robin is still considered the traditional harbinger of spring even though many of them spent their winters in New England. I rejoice when I see the first phoebe perched on a branch in my backyard bobbing its tail endlessly.
March birding is not limited to the late-month migrants. American woodcock, with their amazing evening aerial displays, are a highlight species of the month. I’ve never had great luck finding woodcock. Maybe this will be my year. (I say that every year.) Also, ducks start moving north to open water in big numbers in March.
One of the best things about March birdwatching, however, is that it’s still winter and our winter birds are still around. Chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, cardinals, blue jays, mourning doves and woodpeckers still have the feeders to themselves, for the most part. Any winter finches that have come south to New England may still be around. I’m still getting dozens of pine siskins daily.
I noticed another sign of spring in the bird world the other day as a male American goldfinch with bright yellow splotches visited the tube feeder. The brightness stood out as a shade of yellow not seen in many months.
The barred owl barrage continues throughout New England, too, as reports pile up. A friend of mine had one visit a pine tree behind her unit in a condominium complex last week. The owl remained most of the day before disappearing in late afternoon.
March may be tough in terms of waiting out the winter and anticipating what is to come, but it offers much to the patient birder.
I’ve written about my barred owl sightings before, but here is the official column version …
Two weeks ago I wrote a column about the Winter of the Barred Owl. A photo sent in by a reader from Westmoreland showing a barred owl perched on a feeder pole in his backyard accompanied the column.
A day or two after the column was published, I received two more photos of barred owls perched on feeder poles in the Monadnock Region. Yes, these handsome, large owls have been quite prolific throughout New England this winter.
At the time of that writing, however, I hadn’t yet seen any barred owls myself this winter. That all changed with a visit to my brother, who lives in Hoosick Falls, N.Y., a small town just over the border from Bennington, Vt.
My son Andrew and I had a day of skiing planned at Mount Snow, and figured Continue reading →
I’ve always believed that and am reminded of it every time I step foot in New England woods, a field, a marsh or along a coastline.
For the birdwatcher, not every walk is filled with birds, but there is always something interesting to discover or observe. Even if you’ve walked your patch a thousand times, the next walk almost always holds something special.
A recent walk on the nature trail behind my house drove home that point. I wasn’t expecting much in terms of birds as the temperature was in the low 20s and the pond at the end of the trail was surely frozen.
Turns out I was right. Hardly any birds to speak of on this walk, but it was enlightening nonetheless.
I got to the pond, which is about a 20-minute walk, without seeing a single bird. The frozen pond, obviously, did not offer any hooded mergansers, ring-necked ducks, or even Continue reading →
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. 2 and 1. This is the finale!
Feel free to comment or send me an email with some of your 2018 birding or nature highlights.
2. Indigo bunting at feeder. I had two visit, actually. One was a male in a blotchy transition plumage and one was an adult male in its splendid bright blue coat. I knew these sought-after birds visited feeders, but this was a first for me.
1. Gray jays. An early November trip to Pittsburg, N.H., yielded some interesting bird sightings, such as bald eagles, ruffed grouse, and an evening grosbeak. The highlight for sure, however, were several small groups of gray jays that ate seeds right from our hands.
Of course, the big highlight of the year was continuing to be able to share my outdoor adventures through this column and my website. Thanks for your support in 2018 and I can’t wait to see what 2019 has in store. Also, feel free to share your nature highlights of 2018.