For the Birds: Gull, take ’em or leave ’em?

Photo by Chris Bosak Ring-billed gulls at a beach in New England.

Gulls? Who would want to write a column about gulls? Or, perhaps more importantly, who would want to read a column about gulls?

Well, I think gulls deserve a little ink considering how easy they are to find and how many of them there are. Nary a visit to any body of water goes by when you don’t see gulls, whether you want to or not. Not many parking lot visits go gull-less either.

Continue reading

For the Birds: 2022 birding highlights

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

It’s time for my favorite column of the year; a look back at my top 10 birding highlights from the previous year.

For all its faults, 2021 was a pretty good year for birdwatching. One thing that is not on this list for the first time in nearly 20 years is the Christmas Bird Count. I look forward to the all-day event for months leading up to it, but I had to bail on my birding partner Frank this year. An as-of-yet undiagnosed foot ailment that comes and goes was acting up, so I had to sit out this year’s CBC. Bummer.

But the year did include several highlights. Here are the top 10:

10. Crossbills. A sizable flock of red crossbills entertained New England birdwatchers at a Connecticut beach in March. They flew from spruce to spruce and the birder paparazzi followed their every move. Crossbills are unique in that their upper and lower bills cross rather than meet uniformly. The adaptation helps them get at seeds in spruce cones. Read story here.

9. Loons. If I see loons in any given year, it will make this list. I was camping with Katie at Woodford State Park in Vermont and I was hopeful but not optimistic that we’d see loons. Sure enough, despite the campground being fully booked, a pair of loons swam at the far end of the lake.

8. Feeder birds. My new home is not the birding paradise that my old place in the woods was, but a fair number of birds visit. I get most of the usual suspects, but the highlight was a small number of red-breasted nuthatches that came regularly last winter. Read story here.

7. Fall warblers. Birding in the fall can be tricky with the songbirds passing through in their non-breeding plumage. Warblers can be particularly tricky. But this fall, I had a few walks whereby palm warblers and yellow-rumped warblers (two that are relatively easy to recognize in the fall) were very numerous. It was like a little flashback to spring ahead of the long winter. Read story here.

6. Clapper rail. Katie and I walked along a marsh in the spring and heard the unmistakable call of a clapper rail. We looked at an opening in the marsh and the unusual bird ran across the mudflat and disappeared into the tall marsh grasses.

5. No owl, but buntings. I walked the length of a Connecticut beach where a snowy owl had been being seen reliably for quite some time. I came up empty on the owl, but did enjoy the snow buntings and larks that were there. Read story here.

4. Cooperative indigo bunting. Indigo buntings are a thrill to see regardless of the circumstances. One August afternoon, I came across a brilliant male indigo bunting singing from an obvious perch close to the trail. Bird photography should always be so simple. Read story here.

3. Road eagle. Anyone who drives to work knows the daily commute can get rather monotonous. One morning, as I passed a swollen part of a creek where wood ducks occasionally swim, I noticed a large bird perched on a snag over the water. It was an immature bald eagle either resting or looking for prey in or around the water. A break from the norm, for sure. Read story here.

2. Continuing For the Birds. I have written my For the Birds column for well over 20 years now. I enjoy writing it as much, if not more, than people enjoy reading it. I love hearing from long-time readers as well as new readers. A lot has changed in the world over the past 20-plus years, but New England’s passion for nature has only gotten stronger.

1. Bobcat! Without question, this was the nature highlight of the year. I spotted the bobcat from afar in a field and walked in its direction. It kept walking and going about its day. When it stopped and sat in the field, I stopped and grabbed a few shots with the camera. Then I slowly walked backward away from the impressive animal. Read story here.

I can’t wait to see what 2022 brings. In many ways, it’s off to a poor start, but let’s remain positive and create some great nature highlights. Drop me a line and let me know your highlights.

For the Birds: Beginner to expert, do what suits you

Photo by Chris Bosak A blackpoll warbler eats berries in New England, November 2021.

Birdwatching can be as easy or as difficult as you want to make it. I’ve said it before, but that is one of the things I like most about the hobby.

If you are content being able to identify a handful of birds, then that’s fine as long as you enjoy it. If you can’t sleep unless you know the species, age and sex of every bird you see, then that’s fine as well.

Most of us, including myself, fall somewhere in the middle. The middle, of course, is a pretty vast area. Knowing a robin, blue jay, cardinal and a few other species is in one area of the middle. Knowing your sparrows, shorebirds, gulls and ducks falls in another area of the middle.

Continue reading

For the Birds: The small, but mighty kinglet

People like large birds. Eagles, hawks, owls, even herons and waterfowl, get birders and non-birders alike excited.

Smaller birds? Sure, birders get excited about smaller birds too, but for non-birders, these birds have to bring something appealing to the table.

Everyone likes cardinals. They’re bright red. Everyone likes chickadees. They’re cute, tame and active. Non-birders are split on blue jays. Some like them because they are blue (and fairly large), and some dislike them because they heard jays are bully birds and they can’t let it go.

In fact, many smaller birds go completely unnoticed by non-birders, even when the birds make their presence rather obvious. A flock of white-throated sparrows or dark-eyed juncos can dart in every direction right in front of a non-birder and it will be as if nothing ever happened. A birder, however, will stop dead in his or her tracks, reach for the binoculars and try to find the little birds in the brush just to confirm an ID.

Continue reading

For the Birds: A tree full of birds

Photo by Chris Bosak A palm warbler perches in New England, October 2021.

A pair of ruby-crowned kinglets flitted among the brush, and a crow or two flew overhead. That was all the bird action on the early part of the walk.

Then I heard a commotion coming from a nearby tree. It was a huge, dead maple tree with no leaves on its branches, but various types of vines climbed up its trunk and spread out among the limbs. The vines still had their leaves, making the tree look like nature had splattered various shades of red, yellow, orange and green on the venerable old guard.

Something must have been lurking among the brush because the birds were on high alert. I’ve never seen a more varied collection of bird species in one tree before. I could hardly believe it as I counted out the species in my head.

Continue reading

For the Birds: Patience pays off again

Photo by Chris Bosak A yellow-rumped warbler eats poison ivy berries in New England, fall 2021.

Any birdwatcher knows that patience and faith are perhaps the two most important components to a successful bird walk.

I started a recent walk with high hopes, as I always do, but as the morning went on and no birds were to be found, I started to lose hope of seeing anything. To compound matters, the field at the park had recently been mowed for the first time of the year, making bird encounters even less likely.

It still would have been a pleasant walk because the autumn morning chill had given way to a beautiful and warm sunny day. But with fall migration in full swing, I was disappointed in the birding results.

Continue reading

For the Birds: Efts and mushrooms make for a very orange walk

Photo by Chris Bosak An eft works its way across a path in New England, fall 2021.

Orange was the color of the day during a recent morning walk in the woods.

It had rained overnight and the trails were damp in most places and puddled in others. I got a flash of excitement when I saw my first eft. Then I saw another. Then another. Efts were underfoot on every fifth or sixth step.

Efts are eastern newts in the terrestrial stage. Some are brownish but most are bright orange and, despite their small size, very visible on paths in the woods. They can be found any day from late spring into fall, but damp weather is when you are most likely to find them, even if you aren’t looking for them.

Newts have four distinct stages, or life cycles. Females lay eggs on aquatic vegetation in the spring. A month to five weeks later, the eggs hatch and the newts live in water for a few months. At this larval stage, they are less than 1 inch long and have feathery gills. In the fall, they shed their gills, crawl onto land and live as efts for about three or four years. They spend New England’s harsh winters hibernating under logs or rocks.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading