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.

To recap from last week’s column, most of the birds that have been affected are young grackles, starlings, blue jays and robins. Symptoms include discharge from eyes, seizures and disorientation.

If you do find a dead bird showing any of the symptoms mentioned earlier or find multiple dead birds in one area, contact the N.H. Fish and Game Department’s wildlife division at 271-2461.

Regardless of whether the disease comes to New England, I highly recommend taking the time and effort to clean your bird feeders with a 10 percent bleach solution. This should be done several times a year anyway, but it is particularly important in the summer. Hot, humid weather can really make those feeders nasty breeding grounds for all sorts of things potentially harmful to birds.

If you decide to take down your feeders for the summer, be assured that the birds will find plenty of food in the wild and will return to your yard when the feeders are out there again in fall or winter.

While we’re on the subject, be sure to change the sugar water and clean hummingbird feeders frequently as well. The solution can become rancid quickly during hot weather.

Birdbaths should be changed and cleaned frequently during the summer as well. Not only is it better for the birds, but it lessens the likelihood of the bath becoming a breeding area for mosquitoes.

In other bird news, it was nice to see the Milwaukee Bucks win their first NBA championship in 50 years. I haven’t followed professional basketball since I was a kid, but I started passively rooting for the Bucks a few years ago. What does this have to do with birds?

In 2018, the Bucks opened their new arena, called Fiserv Forum. It is the first certified bird-friendly professional sports complex. It is located in downtown Milwaukee and earned the Bird Collision Deterrence Credit from the U.S. Green Building Council. It minimizes see-through glass and bird-disorienting lighting. When you consider that upwards of a billion birds die in North America each year from building collisions, this type of construction is worthy of high praise.

Hopefully, it’s a trend that other cities will follow.

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.

During that same walk, a multitude of monarchs (I think that should be the official name for a group of monarchs) visited the ubiquitous milkweed in the fields. Several of the monarchs were mating and therefore attached while flying. We found out later that monarchs can be attached like that for up to 16 hours. I’ll be sure to check that milkweed later in the year for caterpillars.

I had mentioned bobolinks earlier. We saw dozens, and several males rose out of the tall grasses to sing their funny, strange and bubbly song.

On a solo walk through the woods, I came across a pond I hadn’t discovered previously. The trail continued through the woods, and there were no side trails leading to the pond. Unable to resist a closer look at water, I bushwhacked to the pond’s edge. A great blue heron stood on the far end of the pond and a small group of wood ducks gathered on a large rock serving as an island in the middle. I hadn’t seen wood ducks in several months and was thankful for the discovery.

Later on that walk, I came across a large swampy area with several snags. A great blue heron perched on one of the snags like the swamp sentinel. It is a rather common sighting to see great blue herons perched near swamps, but it’s always interesting to see nonetheless. One of my first birding memories, before I was obsessed with the hobby, was of a great blue heron perched on top of an evergreen in Green Mountain National Forest in southern Vermont. That moment still sticks with me.

Finally, on two separate walks with a group of friends, the strange song of the veery and the boisterous call of the great-crested flycatcher were constants in the woods, while cardinals and catbirds were most common where fields and woods met.

As I mentioned, nothing extraordinary, but well worth it nonetheless.

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.

Usually, however, young birds are not so observable as they are found in the woods or fields.

When that happens, you have to use context to determine which type of bird it is. Habitat is particularly important when making this determination. You typically would not find a young bird of the deep woods in a field or any other different type of habitat. Likewise, you wouldn’t find a juvenile bobolink in the deep woods.

Size and shape come into play as well. Birds tend to grow quickly and often are as big as an adult within a few weeks. They are also similar in shape to adults at this time.

I spotted a mystery young bird in a shrub at my neighbor’s house recently. It was fairly large, like a robin, but did not have the right shape or coloring. I snapped a few photos and studied the images when I got back home. Based on where I had seen it and its color, size and shape, it didn’t take long to determine it was a young mockingbird.

Color, however, does not always offer strong clues for making an identification and, indeed, can be misleading. Many young birds do not obtain adult plumage for a long time. Many do not look like their parents until the following spring or summer. Some birds, like the bald eagle, take several years to obtain full adult plumage. It typically takes four or five years before they have their trademark white heads and tails. In the meantime, they have a mottled brown appearance.

Speaking of bald eagles, did you hear about the eagle’s nest with a red-tailed hawk chick in it as well? The latest New Hampshire Audubon eNews edition featured a story and video showing a young bald eagle in the middle of a nest and a fluffy red-tailed hawk youngster closer to the edge of the nest. The nest is located on Bow Lake. The newsletter, quoting raptor expert Iain MacLeod, executive director at the Squam Lake Natural Sciences Center, cites a fascinating potential explanation for the oddity.

“He speculates that this baby hawk likely came into the nest as a food item in the talons of the adult male eagle, but that having survived that adventure, began food-begging which triggered the adult female eagle’s maternal drive to feed young,” the newsletter reads.

That’s one lucky red-tailed hawk chick. I hope the developing story has a happy ending for the young hawk.

It’s a great time of year for birdwatching. (I know — I say that a lot too.) The next generation of birds is taking flight. Even if some of them are difficult to identify, it’s fun to see them grow.

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.

If the snapped trees were in someone’s yard, they would be chainsawed into 100 pieces and carted away. In the woods, they just stay that way until nature brings the snapped top portion crashing to the ground. Then, the trunk stands erect to rot and what was formerly the top of the tree rests on the ground to rot as well.

Its function as a tree changes dramatically. No longer are they sucking up carbon dioxide and giving oxygen in return. No longer are they producing leaves, which provide shade and shelter for the woods’ creatures.

Even dead, however, the pieces of the once-proud tree provide many functions for the woods and their usefulness is still profound. The long top of the tree will rot and feed the soil so that the woods can grow more trees and other plants. It will provide homes for ground mammals and insects — lots of insects. Those bugs will become food for birds and other creatures.

The trunk, now reduced to a stub in the woods, will also provide food and shelter for birds, squirrels and insects. The numerous holes in the trunk provide evidence of their vital job.

As I pondered the usefulness of trees, alive and dead, I was struck by just how many there are in the woods. Uncountable numbers. It’s rare that I pay so much attention to trees. Paradoxically, they are so numerous that we hardly notice them.

I stopped to look at a swamp and dozens of dead tree trunks of varying sizes stood tall like so many gray fingers pointing to the sky. The cattails and other swamp vegetation were dwarfed by the trunks. Red-winged blackbirds, grackles and swallows flew about the swamp and perched on the tops of these fingers. The cries of recently hatched birds gave away the nest of a tree swallow. The parents dutifully and exhaustingly brought food to the youngsters.

Trees, dead and alive, define the woods. They do not move about, but rather stand guard and act as sentinels to protect their part of the mysterious world we call the woods. All the while, they provide essential resources to their own plant kingdom and unselfishly give the same to the animal kingdom.

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.

For the Birds: Birding by ear, for starters

Photo by Chris Bosak An American Redstart sings from a perch in Selleck's and Dunlap Woods in Darien, Conn., May 2015.
Photo by Chris Bosak An American Redstart sings from a perch in Selleck’s and Dunlap Woods in Darien, Conn., May 2015.

Any walk through deciduous woods when the leaves are out drives home the importance of knowing what birds sound like. It can be a lesson in futility to try to find a tiny warbler at the top of a giant oak tree covered in leaves. The exercise can lead to frustration and a condition known as “warbler neck.”

My birding-by-ear skills are average at best, and I was reminded of this during a recent walk through the woods under a thick canopy. I heard several warblers and other birds, and, while I saw only a few, I was able to recognize the songs of several others. There were many birds, however, I could not find through my binoculars nor recognize by their songs or calls. As I mentioned before, it can be frustrating, but I have reached an age where I can let go of the frustration quickly and not dwell on the bird that got away. In years past, I would often hold onto the frustration long after the walk, which, after all, is supposed to be enjoyable.

Birds don’t always look exactly like they do in a field guide, whether the images are photos or illustrations. There are different plumages depending on time of year, age, sex and other factors. There is also slight variation among individuals of a species. Not every male robin looks exactly the same.

That said, birds don’t always sound exactly like they are supposed to either. A bird’s song is only one of the sounds they make and even their songs can vary greatly. Cardinals, for instance, have distinctive high-pitched call notes. They also have a distinctive song, but there are several versions of the song. The cardinal in your forsythia may have a song that is greatly different from the cardinal across the street. All of the songs are loud, clear and beautiful, but very different. Don’t get stuck thinking that the cardinal song you hear every day is the only one cardinals have. Many other birds are the same way as well.

My advice if you are just starting to learn bird sounds is to learn the common and obvious ones really well. Study what the robin sounds like. Their typical song is often translated to “cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up.” But there is much variation in the song, and they have several calls as well, such as the “tut, tut, tut,” call.

Robins are very common in New England, so if you learn the sounds of the robin, you can save yourself much frustration on your walks by not getting hung up on a bird you will likely come across several times.

Get to know the various calls and songs of blue jays, cardinals, nuthatches, chickadees and titmice. You will hear those often throughout the year, and you can eliminate other birds in the spring when you hear those sounds during a song-filled spring morning.

Warblers and other migrants are a different story. We do not hear them year-round, but rather for only a few weeks out of the year. That is a short window to try to learn those songs in the field. Birding Internet sites and phone apps are filled with recordings of bird songs and calls. I would encourage you to learn a few warbler songs each year so as to not try to pack too much information in your head and end up not remembering anything. Learn the yellow warbler and common yellowthroat, for instance, as those are commonly heard in the spring and summer throughout New England.

Warblers are difficult to learn because there are so many of them and many of their songs are similar to each other’s. But, as I said, learn a few a year and within a couple of years you will be picking out many of the songs you hear in the woods in April and May. And if you just can’t pick it up, don’t fret or stress. Study a little more, and get it next time.

For the Birds: One of those walks

Photo by Chris Bosak A yellow warbler perches in a tree in New England, spring 2021.

It was the type of walk you anticipate for about 11 months.

It started fairly slowly with robins and red-winged blackbirds as my only visible avian companions while a lone song sparrow sang in the distance. Soon enough, I heard a mockingbird going through its repertoire from a nearby shrubby patch. They usually belt out their songs from a fairly obvious perch and this guy was no different as I found him easily at the end of a branch.

As I watched and listened to this talented songster, a female ruby-throated hummingbird entered the scene. It hovered briefly at the honeysuckle but did not stay long as the blossoms were not quite ready to provide nectar.

A familiar song then permeated the area as dueling male yellow warblers proclaimed ownership of their respective patches. I was stuck in the middle of the rivals and enjoyed the sweet music. To us, it’s entertainment. To them, it’s a turf war with much at stake.

Continue reading

For the Birds: Waxwings are always a welcomed sighting

Photo by Chris Bosak A cedar waxwing perches on a branch in New England, spring 2021.

I had hobbled almost all the way from the car to the entrance of work when I noticed a flock of cedar waxwings picking off leftover berries in a nearby tree.

Even with the persistent tendinitis in my feet acting up, I made my way back to the car to grab the camera. Usually, in situations like this the camera is sitting at home, but this time I was prepared for the unexpected. Cedar waxwings, in my experience anyway, are always unexpected. They are fairly nomadic, and it’s hard to go out looking specifically for them. But they appear now and then and it’s always a thrill to see them.

I retrieved the camera and hobbled back through the parking lot to the tree in question. Of course, the tree was empty when I got back as the waxwings had taken off for parts unknown.

Continue reading

For the Birds: Spring sightings

Photo by Chris Bosak A red-shouldered hawk perches in the wood in Brookfield, CT, March 2019.

I’ve seen a few reports of pine warblers showing up in New England already. The thick of warbler season is still weeks away, however, so let’s put warblers on the back burner for now.

Phoebe reports are bursting all over the region. Those small, rather nondescript songbirds are an early spring migrant and get a head start on the competition by their early arrival. The risk, of course, is that winter lingers into spring in New England, and phoebes have a hard time coping with the weather. It’s all about risk-reward strategy when it comes to migration for birds.

Continue reading

For the Birds: Surprise and welcomed bobcat sighting

Photo by Chris Bosak A bobcat rests in a field in New England, March 2021. (Huntington State Park)

The large field is bordered by hedgerows on three sides and woods on the fourth. Additional hedgerows divide the field perpendicularly about every 100 yards with small cutouts where the trails pass through.

I emerged from the woods and spotted something large walking along the east hedgerow about 40 yards away from the trail. It was tan, but then again so was everything else around it: the grass, the weeds, the hedgerow. I stopped in my tracks to watch it.

Before my brain fully comprehended the situation, I thought it was either a deer or a mountain lion. I quickly eliminated deer as it was clearly a large cat based on its smooth, stealthy and powerful stride. Can I finally put the mountain lion (or cougar or catamount) debate to rest with solid photos documenting the sighting?

Continue reading