For the Birds: Marching through winter

Photo by Chris Bosak An Eastern Phoebe perches on a branch in Selleck's Woods in Darien, Conn., in late March 2015.
Photo by Chris Bosak
Eastern Phoebes are one of the first songbirds to arrive in New England during the spring migration.

March can be a tough month for birders.

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.

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For the Birds: Joining the owl party

I’ve written about my barred owl sightings before, but here is the official column version …

Photo by Chris Bosak
A barred owl perches on a Welcome to New York sign on the border of Hoosick Falls, N.Y., and Bennignton, Vermont, in February 2019.

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

For the Birds: Always a nice walk in the woods

Photo by Chris Bosak
Ice on Little Merganser Lake in Danbury, Conn., winter 2019.

Any walk in the woods is a good walk.

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

The 2018 birding year in review: Part V

Photo by Chris Bosak A male indigo bunting eats seeds from a platform feeder in Danbury, Conn., in May 2018.
Photo by Chris Bosak A male indigo bunting eats seeds from a platform feeder in Danbury, Conn., in May 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. 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.

Photo by Chris Bosak An indigo bunting visits a feeder in New England, spring 2018.
Photo by Chris Bosak An indigo bunting visits a feeder in New England, spring 2018.

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.

Gray jay on snowy bough in Pittsburg, N.H., Nov. 2018.

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. 

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: 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