For the Birds: Big news week for the birds

Photo by Chris Bosak Yellow-rumped Warbler in Selleck’s Woods, Darien, Conn., April 2014.

Note: This column was originally published in newspapers on Oct. 4.

There was a lot of environmental and bird-related news to come out of Washington this past week.

In case you missed it, the big news was that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials declared the ivory-billed woodpecker extinct. The “Lord God Bird’s” removal from the endangered species list is surprising only because officials are reluctant to declare species extinct. It’s such a powerful word that carries with it such finality it’s a tough tag to put on something.

The dreaded label was also placed on 22 other species of wildlife, including eight freshwater mussels. Sadly, but not surprisingly, 11 species from Hawaii and the Pacific Islands have been declared extinct. That includes many birds.

Although many factors go into the decline of a species, officials largely blame habitat loss and climate change for these latest extinctions.

There hasn’t been a confirmed sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker since 1944, and it was believed even then that the species was all but extirpated. I’m sure many of you will recall the alleged sighting in the Arkansas swamplands in 2004. Even though hundreds of expert birdwatchers and scientists converged on the area, the sighting was not confirmed, and the bird was not found again. The video of the bird was too blurry to act as confirmation, and it is widely believed to have been a pileated woodpecker.

The alleged sighting caused great excitement in the birding world, but also divided the birding community. I was hosting a radio show on birds at the time and spoke to several experts. John Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, firmly believed an ivory-billed woodpecker was spotted and brimmed with optimism that the bird would someday be found again. I read an article last week that quoted him as still holding out hope, despite the new designation.

Noted ornithologist David Sibley, however, was skeptical from the beginning. A video of my interview with him discussing the topic is by far my most popular YouTube entry.

The stark announcement by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service came with a dire warning that many more extinctions will almost certainly follow in the next 50 years. Officials are hoping the news and predictions will serve as a wake-up call for humans to do better about protecting the earth’s biodiversity.

Also last week, the White House announced it would bring back rules holding companies responsible for the deaths of birds that could have been prevented. The oil industry and utility companies pushed back on the announcement, claiming they will be held responsible for bird deaths not related to their practices.

A few months ago I wrote about being happy that the Milwaukee Bucks won the NBA championship because their new arena was built with strict bird-friendly measures in mind. Last week, I read that the Salesforce Tower in Indianapolis will dim its lights at night until November to try to protect migrating birds. City lights can disorientate birds migrating at night and result in window strikes, which cause an estimated 300 million to one billion bird deaths each year. That’s a large estimate range, but it’s indisputably large either way.

Speaking of fall migration, if you have the time, check out www.birdcast.info. It shows real-time migration maps and data and is fascinating to explore. It also features predictive technology to estimate how many birds will fly over an area over the next three days and nights.

Happy fall, everyone. Enjoy New England’s most iconic season.

For the Birds: Fall’s magic

Fall is an exciting time for birdwatching with hawkwatches, the southern warbler migration, and, later in the fall, the waterfowl migration.

Early fall holds many non-bird surprises in nature as well. On recent walks, I have seen dozens of monarchs and other butterflies. When I walk through fields, I am constantly on the lookout for monarch caterpillars on milkweed plants. Rarely am I lucky enough to spot one, but it does happen on occasion. The other day happened to be one of those occasions.

Monarchs are struggling as a species as habitat loss, pesticides and, potentially, climate change have played a heavy toll on their numbers, particularly out West. I did read an article recently that said the numbers may be rebounding, however. That would be great news.

Dragonflies are still out in force as well and may keep birdwatchers occupied when birds are scarce.

During a walk after a rain recently, I had to watch my step as dozens of efts, or newts in the terrestrial stage, were scattered along the trail. Luckily, they are bright orange (at least most of them) and easy to spot.

Fall is also the rut for deer and moose. If you are lucky enough to come across a moose these days, the rut is an exciting, but also potentially dangerous, time to see them. Keep your distance and admire them from afar.

Be extra cautious on the roads in the fall as deer are moving about more than usual. Young bucks in particular are on the move looking for potential mates. Keep an eye out, day and night, as these deer have their focus elsewhere, and getting from point A to point B often leads them across roads.

Back to birds … In recent days, I have seen black-and-white warblers, yellow-rumped warblers, a Canada warbler, several Eastern Phoebes, and many common yellowthroats.

The fall warbler season is notoriously difficult for identification purposes as the young ones have not yet attained adult plumage and many of the adults have traded their spring breeding plumage for a duller non-breeding plumage. It can make for some very difficult identifications.

To make things easier, I suggest using a field guide that shows warblers in all of their plumages, including seasonal, age and sex differences. Many field guides show only adult breeding males and females.

I haven’t been to a hawkwatch yet this fall, but I was surprised and happy to watch a northern harrier hunting over a big field recently. Harriers are fun to watch as they glide slowly a few feet above the grass line looking for prey. Harriers are easily distinguished from other hawks in flight by the large white patches on their rumps.

This is a great time to be outdoors. The weather is not too hot and not too cold, wildlife is abundant, and the thought of winter looming makes one feel as if one should take full advantage of these remaining unfrozen days. Drop me a line and let me know what you are seeing out there this fall.

For the Birds: An eagle on the edge

Photo by Chris Bosak A young bald eagle perches on a dead tree near Danbury Fair mall in Danbury, CT, March 2019.

It was an eagle. There was no doubt about that. I second-guessed myself only for a second because of where the sighting took place.

It was not on a remote lake in northern New England or on one of the islands in Long Island Sound. It was right along a highway.

We are all used to seeing hawks perched along the highway. In fact, when I drive to Pennsylvania a couple of times a year to visit family, I make it a point to count the number of red-tailed hawks I see perched in trees along Route 86. It’s usually between 10 and 15. Hey, it passes the time on a long drive.

I noticed from far away as I approached the scene that there was a bird perched in a tree overhanging a somewhat busy state highway. Even from a significant distance, I could tell it was not a hawk. The only question was whether it was an eagle or a vulture. It did not have the posture of a vulture, but rather the regal stance of an eagle.

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For the Birds: The ‘forgotten’ birds

Photo by Chris Bosak A common yellowthroat perches on a branch in New England, July 2021.

Sometimes the residual birds get unduly forgotten when a bird walk features a highlight species. In other words, the other solid bird sightings get pushed to the back of the memory bank. Then, sometime after the excitement of the highlight species fades, be it hours, days or weeks, the other birds come back to you.

This happened to me the other week when a pair of male indigo buntings highlighted an evening walk. It had been a while since I had seen buntings, and I became singularly focused on them when recounting the walk.

As I looked through the photos of that walk, I was reminded of some of the other birds I had seen. Before I took untold numbers of photos of the bright blue indigo buntings, I had snapped a few photos of a common yellowthroat pair. I had completely forgotten about those birds until I started looking through the photos.

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For the Birds: Indigo bunting brightens a summer evening

Photo by Chris Bosak An indigo bunting perches in a tree in New England, July 2021.

The song sounded familiar, but it had been months since I last heard it.

There is an indigo bunting around here somewhere I said to myself and instantly abandoned my plans for a long, strenuous walk. I knew I’d be at that spot for a while.

I couldn’t tell if the song was coming from the left or the right. It sounded like it was coming from both directions. I thought it was just because I’m getting old and my hearing was playing tricks on me.

But sure enough, there were two male indigo singing: one to the left of me and one to the right.

The bunting to the right was in the shade as the evening sun was dipping below the tree line. The bird to the left was illuminated in that magical evening light. I turned my focus to that bird.

Thankfully, the bird was fairly cooperative and even posed for a few photos in a berry tree. It didn’t eat the berries, but rather just used the tree’s branches for a vantage point.

It had been a few years since I was able to get photographs of an indigo bunting. Photographing any bird is enough to get my blood pumping, but a bird like an indigo bunting really gets the heart racing — especially when they are being cooperative.

Male indigo buntings are one of the more striking birds we see in New England, right up there with scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles and rose-breasted grosbeaks. Indigo buntings, like many songbirds, are sexually dimorphic, meaning the males and females look different. Also, like most birds that are dimorphic, the female is much duller than the male. The difference between the electric blue male and brown female is stark.

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For the Birds: Keep those feeders clean

I’ve been keeping an eye on the news regarding the mysterious disease that has been killing birds in some Midwest and mid-Atlantic states.

It appears that the disease has not reached New England, although nearby states such as New Jersey and Pennsylvania have been impacted. Researchers still do not know what is causing the deaths, but they have ruled out several diseases that commonly afflict birds, such as West Nile, salmonella and avian conjunctivitis.

I did read a report that suggests the situation may be waning, which would be great news. I’d be more than happy if the disease never makes it to New England.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, my go-to source for information about birds, does not directly recommend taking down feeders, like so many other organizations do. Rather, it recommends following the guidelines put forth by an individual’s state fish and game commission.

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For the Birds: Any walk is worth it

Photo by Chris Bosak A great blue heron stands on a dock.

Even when nothing out of the ordinary is seen, walks in nature are still valuable and memorable.

While my recent walks haven’t been full of extraordinary sightings, many moments stick out in my mind as enduring.

Here are a few:

A friend and I were taking a walk in a large conservation area dominated by wide swaths of fields. Thank goodness for those areas because birds such as bobolinks need that habitat to nest. While bobolinks were indeed plentiful, another sighting remained with me from that walk.

We were about to round a corner of the path that cuts through the field when we noticed something on the trail ahead. It was large and dark, and I thought at first it was a mammal such as a groundhog. Then I thought it was a turkey. Finally, my eyes and mind started to work together, and I realized it was a turkey vulture.

I could tell from its movements that it was eating something. Why else would a turkey vulture be sitting on the edge of a trail in the middle of a field? I peered through the binoculars and noticed the vulture was eating a dead snake. I tried to determine what type of snake it was, but I couldn’t get a clear enough view. It’s highly unlikely that the vulture killed the snake, but rather a hawk, kestrel or some other large predator.

As a supplemental sighting to that one, a second turkey vulture was perched behind us in a snag. It had gone unnoticed until we walked past it. Our heads turned when it flew off its perch and left the dead branch bouncing up and down like that old drinking bird toy. We heard its wings as it flapped past us. A resident red-winged blackbird did not take kindly to the circumstance and chased after the vulture rather aggressively. The vulture rose quickly, which seemed to satisfy the blackbird.

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For the Birds: Young birds need close inspection to ID

Photo by Chris Bosak An immature Peregrine Falcon sits on prey at Veterans Park in Norwalk, CT, Dec. 2013.

Early and mid-summer can be a tricky time for birdwatchers. I know, I know. I say that about a lot of times of the year.

This is a tricky time in that many young birds are fledging, and they don’t always resemble an adult bird yet. When a young bird is found in the field, it is often difficult to determine what exactly it is.

Some young birds are fairly obvious. A young robin may not look exactly like an adult robin, but it is clearly a robin nonetheless. Many birds fall under that category. But there are other birds, such as young warblers and even some ducks and hawks, that do not yet resemble their parents and therefore require some study to figure out what they are.

It is always rewarding to see young birds at your feeder or birdbath. I’ve seen many cardinals over the years teaching their youngsters how to eat from feeders. Last summer, I had the pleasure of watching a bluebird family visit daily for an extended period eating mealworms I had left on the deck railing.

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For the Birds: Dead or alive, trees are vital

Photo by Chris Bosak A pileated woodpecker works over a tree in New England, May 2020. Merganser Lake.

Every tree tells a story, even the dead ones. In fact, the dead ones may have the most interesting stories to tell.

A recent walk through the woods had me thinking about the trees. These particular woods were a mixture of evergreen and deciduous trees — predominantly deciduous but a few evergreens sprinkled in as well.

A large ash tree was snapped about 12 feet from the ground. The otherwise healthy-looking trunk stood tall and straight, while the rest of the tree bent down into the forest at a 45-degree angle.

I’m pretty sure I know what happened to the tree. A severe wind storm, with spotty tornado touch downs, blew through the area last summer and reduced many trees to tall trunks. It’s funny how storms impact trees differently. Some storms uproot most of the trees they damage. Other storms snap them like twigs. Still other storms, it seems, hardly damage the trees at all.

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For the Birds: Birding still hot in June

Photo by Chris Bosak An eastern towhee seen in Ridgefield, CT, summer 2019.

June may not have the buildup and excitement of May, but it is still an interesting time in the birding and natural world.

By the time June comes around, the swarms of migrating birds have dissipated, having either gone farther north or settled into their breeding territories. June also follows May, which I would argue is the most exciting month for birding in New England. I wouldn’t say June is a letdown, but it lacks the anticipation that May has going for it. May, after all, follows months and months of cold, gray weather. May’s songbird migration is like a reward for enduring winter and early spring.

Early June does have the odd migrant still working its way north, which is nice to see. For the most part, however, the migration is over.

June is a time to recognize, appreciate and take pride in the birds that are breeding in the area. There’s something special in knowing that birds are raising young nearby. The other day, I took a walk and saw or heard eastern towhees (pictured above), yellow warblers, blue-winged warblers, common yellowthroats, indigo buntings, rose-breasted grosbeaks, bobolinks, catbirds, veeries and hermit thrushes. Those are nice sightings regardless of the circumstances, but it was particularly rewarding knowing they are breeding locally. I hope they all have a successful breeding season.

The birds, for the most part, were still fairly vocal. I heard all of the aforementioned birds singing. Finding them proved to be a touch more difficult than in May. In May, birds are still searching for or defending territory and are easy to spot. In June, more birds are hunkered down for fear of giving away their nesting site. The colorful males often jump out to grab attention while the more subtly plumaged females remain on the nest camouflaged from predators.

June also means more insects, which is good and bad. It was nice to see a few butterflies flitting among the early-blooming flowers in the meadow, but the deer flies attacking the back of my neck were not something I was quite ready for. Oh well, it’s all part of living in New England.

As the insects gain steam, the birding action will slow down over the next couple of weeks as they hang low raising young. Morning and evening are always the best times to look for birds, but this will become even truer in July and August as the heat and humidity will keep the birds in the shade during the day. Steamy August afternoons are my favorite times to wander through New England meadows looking for butterflies, dragonflies and whatever other creatures lurk in the tall grasses and flowers.

In the meantime, enjoy June and what it offers birdwatchers. There’s still plenty of action out there.