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.

Things like that have happened far more than I’d like to admit, so I just reported for duty and got to work. Thankfully, the window from my office has a view of that tree, and about 15 minutes later the waxwings were back in force. I slowly made my way back outside and, as is often the case with waxwings, they obliged by going about their business and not minding the click of the camera.

I got my fill of photos and then did a quick scan for any random Bohemian waxwings that may have been mixed in with the flock. Bohemian waxwings on rare occasions can be seen in New England with cedar waxwings. I have yet to see one, but I have read several reports of that happening. Bohemian waxwings are a larger cousin of the cedar waxwing.

Upon getting home that evening and checking the results of the photos, something jumped out at me regarding the waxwings I had photographed. None of them had the telltale and namesake red waxy wingtips. What kind of waxwing doesn’t have waxy wings, I asked myself, even though I suspected I knew the answer.

I was correct in assuming that these are young birds that haven’t developed this feature yet, most likely first-year birds. Upon further research, it is believed that the red waxy wingtips are a sign of maturity and social standing in waxwings. The more red the wingtips, the older and healthier the bird. None or only a few waxy wingtips means it’s a younger and more inexperienced bird. That is the current understanding of the purpose of this feature anyway.

What makes for waxy wingtips? you may ask. Also thanks to the Internet (a blog on nature.org to be specific), I discovered that: “The red wax tips are appendages on the bird’s secondary feathers. They’re colored by astaxanthin, a carotenoid pigment.” Now you know.

Cedar waxwings, of course, also have yellow-tipped tails as another distinguishing feature. These are not waxy, just yellow. A change in diet can alter that yellow to yellowish-orange or orange.

I love when I stumble across cedar waxwings. I think if I ever made a top 10 list of my favorite birds they would probably be on it. I would imagine they would fall on the top 10 list of many other birdwatchers as well.

This latest sighting was a welcome prelude to the upcoming warbler and spring migration season. Waxwings may be found in New England throughout the year and they are a welcomed sighting at any time. This sighting was particularly timely as it helped to bridge the gap between winter and the onset of spring migration.

Happy spring everyone, and let me know what you are seeing out there.

Photo by Chris Bosak A cedar waxwing looks for berries in a park in New England, January 2021.

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.

The juncos that have delighted backyard bird feeders all winter are making their way north and becoming more scarce. I saw a red-breasted nuthatch the other day at the feeder. It won’t be long until those little birds are all back up north on their breeding grounds.

I recall a hike I took in Pittsburg, N.H., last summer to the top of Deer Mountain. Aside from a dilapidated fire tower and piles of moose droppings, dozens of red-breasted nuthatches were about all there was to see as a reward for finishing the hike. Clearly, it is a prime breeding area for the birds.

Robins are hopping on lawns all over the region. They, of course, are the traditional harbinger of spring. There are robins in New England throughout the winter, but it certainly feels like spring when you see them hopping along the green grass.

The chorus of spring peepers and wood frogs echoes throughout the woods now. Spring peepers make the familiar high-pitched drone near swampy areas. They are impossible not to hear but almost impossible to find as they go quiet upon approach and are tiny creatures hidden among the leaves. Wood frogs sound like mallards are at the pond, but there are no ducks to be seen.

There are ducks to be seen, however, on plenty of water bodies as the fowl make their way north. I saw a male wood duck resplendent in its breeding plumage the other day along the side of a road in a temporarily flooded area. The “pond” couldn’t have been more than a few inches deep. It just goes to show you never know what you’ll see or where you’ll see it, so be on the lookout at all times.

Most birds of prey are already well into their breeding season, but I came across a mating and territorial pair of red-shouldered hawks the other day. They get my vote for the most boisterous hawks in New England. Osprey have returned in great numbers, particularly in coastal areas, but also some inland waters as well.

Bears have awoken from their slumber and are raising young. Be on the lookout and bring in your bird feeders at night if you live in an area where bears roam. Those areas, by the way, seem to be more numerous than in the recent past as the bear population grows.

In other words, it’s spring. There is a lot going on out there. Keep your eyes and ears open, and let me know what you see out there.

Photo by Chris Bosak A red-shouldered hawk perches on the top of an evergreen, Brookfield, Connecticut, January 2019.

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?

I entertained that idea for about two seconds before my brain said, “Hold on. That’s a bobcat.”

I dug out my binoculars and confirmed that it was indeed a bobcat. It was my first bobcat sighting in many years and by far the closest and best look I’ve ever had. What a magnificent animal. Now I see why many people mistake them for mountain lions. Bobcats are much more substantially sized than a “large house cat,” as I have heard them described in the past. I have a good-sized house cat at home, and there’s no comparing it to the bobcat. Male bobcats average around 28 pounds and females around 18. The New Hampshire record, however, is 51 pounds.

I fished my camera out of my backpack and took a few photos of the bobcat walking along the hedgerow. I continued along the trail, which soon curved and headed in the direction of the bobcat, which at this point still hadn’t acknowledged that it knew I was there. I made a loud noise to get its attention. With the trail veering closer to the bobcat, I didn’t want to surprise the animal. I figured it would run or trot off when it heard me, but it froze in its tracks and hunkered down to blend in with the surroundings. If I hadn’t been watching it all along, I never would have spotted it among the sea of tan.

I was surprised the bobcat sat still instead of running away. It reminded me of an American bittern trying to elude detection by raising its neck and swaying among the reeds.

I continued along the trail, walking backward to keep an eye on the hunkered cat. When enough distance was between us, I turned and finished my walk. I did look over my shoulder several times to make sure I wasn’t being stalked.

Bobcats are the only wild cat throughout most of New England. Lynx may be found in the northern part of the region, and the mountain lion debate is too hot a topic for me to get into right now. Bobcats may be found in each of the region’s states.

They are shy and avoid people, although many wander into backyards looking for easy meals near bird feeders or chicken coops. Habitat changes and destruction, coupled with unregulated hunting, caused bobcat numbers to drop significantly in New England throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s. Recent protections have led to a strong rebound for the bobcat. With the population rebounding, I hope it’s not quite as long between bobcat sightings for me.

For the Birds: March hints at migration

Photo by Chris Bosak A northern cardinal perches on a hemlock branch in Danbury.

March is an interesting month for birdwatching. In terms of variety and new birds to be found, it does not rank very highly, but March does welcome our first spring migrants.

Red-winged blackbirds have been around for a few weeks already, and in fact, some had never left and remained with us throughout the winter. American Woodcock have been seen and heard throughout New England already. Their aerial displays at dusk are one of the month’s birding highlights for sure.

In a few weeks, eastern phoebes will show up in New England and for me anyway, that really signals the beginning of spring migration.

In March, we also have our remaining winter birds. Juncos and white-throated sparrows are still around my feeders, and a few red-breasted nuthatches are Continue reading

For the Birds: Redpolls popping up here and there

Photo by Chris Bosak Common Redpolls, Cove Island, Stamford, Ct. Jan. 19, 2013

Here’s a For the Birds column I wrote several weeks ago and neglected to post here for whatever reason. The content is still relevant …

Now the reports of redpolls are coming in.

It has been a winter full of rare-bird alerts where the sightings are coming in from the woods as well as people’s backyards. People have been reporting red-breasted nuthatches and evening grosbeaks at their feeders for a few months already. There have also been reports of pine siskins, but not in the great numbers of the big-irruption winters for that bird.

In the woods and fields, and mountains for that matter, pine grosbeaks, white-winged crossbills and red-winged crossbills have been showing up on reports. Boreal chickadees, long a target bird for life-listers south of the Boreal forest, have been found on the mountaintops of the Monadnock Region.

The exceptional winter continues with sightings of redpolls occurring throughout New England. I have heard from a few readers who have seen these small northern birds and have reported them with rightful delight. There are two types of redpolls that occur in New England: common and hoary. Common, as its name suggests, are the ones more frequently seen in New England. Redpolls somewhat resemble sparrows in size and color but have a red-topped head, black spot under the bill and rosy wash throughout that is more obvious in some individuals than in others.

Sarah from Sandwich last week reported having more than 20 redpolls at a time at her Droll Yankee feeders. Some of the redpolls preferred to grab the seeds from the ground, she wrote. Amy from Harrisville also wrote in to say she has had a lone female redpoll at her feeders.

I had dubbed last year’s cold months as the winter of the bluebird because so many people (including myself) were reporting sightings of these cheerful birds in their yards. The year before that it was the winter of the barred owl as those awesome birds of prey were being found in unusually high numbers. I have dubbed other winters in honor of snowy owls and robins.

Perhaps this is the winter of the rarity with so many different rare birds being found throughout the region. I’m using “rare” in a general sense as these birds are not particularly rare in their normal range, but they are somewhat rare sightings throughout New England. Winter typically features an irruption of a species or two, but not always this many. I can’t remember a winter with so many sightings of siskins, redpolls, red-breasted nuthatches and grosbeaks. This winter (really late fall) also featured a flight of purple finches moving sough through the region.

This could all make for some interesting notations on Great Backyard Bird Count and N.H. Winter Bird Survey checklists. I hope you got out and participated over the weekend. I look forward to seeing the results when they are available. In the meantime, keep your eyes open on your feeders and during your walks in the woods. There is still plenty of winter left, so no one knows what might show up next.

For the Birds: Crossbills worth the chase

Photo by Chris Bosak A red-winged crossbill eats seeds from a cone at Hammonasset State Park, February 2021.

I’m usually not one to chase birds. Over the years, I have made a few exceptions when the bird is not terribly far away.

By “chasing birds” I mean getting in your car and driving to where a rare bird has been spotted. Some people love chasing birds and will drive hours to see the rarity, which is perfectly fine if that is their thing. It just has never been my thing. It makes sense that chasing birds and listing birds go hand in hand. If you are a big lister, then you are probably a chaser. If you are not a big lister, which I am not, then you are probably not a big chaser. The only list I half-heartedly keep is a yard list, and there is no need for chasing with a yard list.

I do, however, like to photograph birds and it is always exciting to add a photo of a new bird. That has been the driving force behind the few times I have chased birds. Last weekend was one of those occurrences. I had been reading about a flock of relatively tame red crossbills that had been seen daily about an hour from my house.

I was up early one weekend morning, so I decided to take a little drive. I figured it was a better use of my time than lying in bed trying in vain to fall back asleep.

I arrived at the park’s parking lot to see a large group of birders standing on a boardwalk. Many had big, fancy cameras on sturdy tripods, others had smaller cameras slung around their necks, and some had only binoculars. It was obvious that they were all there to see the crossbills. At least I didn’t have to go looking for the birds, I thought.

On the way to the boardwalk I was distracted by a flock of horned larks in an open area. I stopped and grabbed a few photos of these birds before heading over to the boardwalk. As I took a few steps toward the boardwalk, I saw a flock of small birds flying out of the spruce tree near the birders. Oh no, there go the crossbills, I thought. Thankfully, they didn’t go far and settled into another evergreen about 30 yards away. I followed the crowd of birders to a spot near, but not too near, the tree in which the birds had settled.

I watched as several male and female crossbills of various ages and plumage variations moved around the tree to find cones. Crossbills get their name because their bills are crossed at the tips, which makes it easier for them to access the seeds inside tough spruce and pine cones. I could hear them scrape the cones with their bills to get to the morsels inside.

About 20 minutes later, the flock moved over to another tree, this time closer to the parking lot. Again, the crowd of birdwatchers followed these tiny celebrities and kept a respectable distance away from the birds.

The birds flew off again about 10 minutes later. This time, I did not follow the crowd but rather got back into my truck and headed home. The photos I got were rather disappointing, but I’m happy I made the trip anyway. I have always been fascinated by crossbills and was happy to get to see them. I did manage to get a few nice photos of the larks, however.

Red crossbills are a northern bird that sometimes irrupt into New England and farther south following available food sources. In this winter of irruptions, I guess it’s not surprising that crossbills are in the move.

For the Birds: Bluebirds and winter

Photo by Chris Bosak An eastern bluebird braves a New England winter and visit a backyard for mealworms, winter 2020.

It’s been another great winter for bluebirds. I haven’t been lucky enough to attract them to my new house yet, but I have seen them several times out in the field and while driving along side roads.

I’ve heard from several readers who have seen these cheerful birds as well, and that’s always good to see.

I remember years ago when I was new to birding and I came across a small group of bluebirds at Surry Dam while snow fell all around. I was surprised and excited to see them. I thought bluebirds were long gone by the time winter came around in New England. I took a few photos (this was back in the days of film) and anxiously awaited the results from the lab. The photos were pretty terrible as I recall, but the day still sticks out in my head as a great birding day.

I, like most birdwatchers I would imagine, like to research new findings. I think curiosity about the natural world is a prerequisite for being a birder. I found out that the sighting wasn’t particularly rare and that many bluebirds, indeed, stay around for the winter. It didn’t Continue reading

For the Birds: Those snowy days

Photo by Chris Bosak A dark-eyed junco visits a backyard in New England, January 2021.

The junco sat perfectly still in the bush as snow collected on his back. The snow came down hard and the wind whipped it around.

It was the wind that kept the junco motionless in the bush. When the wind offered a rare break, the junco darted to the nearby bird feeder to grab a few sunflower seeds.

He would fly back to his spot in the bush, having shaken off the snow that had collected on him. It didn’t take long for new snow to accumulate on his dark gray feathers.

Snowy days are among the best times to watch the feeders. It is interesting to see how little the elements affect the birds. Tiny birds such as chickadees can withstand extremely cold and windy conditions. They have a variety of mechanisms to protect them from the harsh elements. I have written about those in previous columns and may revisit that topic in the future.

But for now, I’m going to focus on this past storm that hit New England and recall the many birds that visited. The junco I mentioned before was one of more than a dozen juncos that were around that day. Other sparrows included white-throated, song and house. Many people don’t think of juncos as being a sparrow because of their different coloration, but they are indeed members of the sparrow family.

Both nuthatches came and went throughout the day. It is such a thrill to see the red-breasted nuthatches daily this winter. Not that I don’t appreciate the white-breasted nuthatches, but they are much more common and year-round birds where I am. The red-breasted nuthatch shows up only in random years.

Of course, chickadees and titmice were regular visitors. A pair of Carolina wrens entertained me as well. I always like watching their antics in the yard, especially when they make their unique chatter calls outside the window.

It was a heck of a snowstorm — the worst in several years where I am anyway. Will there be more opportunities this winter to watch the birds at the feeder in the snow? That remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t be surprised in the least. In fact, I would be very surprised if we didn’t have more snowfalls. This is New England, after all, and winter is a way of life here.

For the Birds: Cedar waxwings’ timely appearance

Photo by Chris Bosak A cedar waxwing looks for berries in a park in New England, January 2021.

With the tendinitis in my foot acting up again, I wasn’t sure how long of a walk I would be able to bear. I had to give it a shot, however, as a few inches of light, fluffy snow had fallen overnight and made the landscape irresistible for anyone with a camera.

As luck would have it, I didn’t have to go very far to get some nice bird photos. I started down a path bordered by thick brush on both sides when I saw a swarm of birds land in a nearby leafless tree. My initial thought was that they were starlings as this flock rivaled in number the large groups of starlings you often see. Something didn’t look quite right, however. They weren’t acting like starlings and they weren’t the right shape.

How cool would it be if they were cedar waxwings? I asked myself. About 10 seconds later Continue reading

For the Birds: 2020’s Top 10 birding highlights

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

It may have been a disastrous year in most regards, but one bright spot is the connection with nature many people made while dealing with the pandemic and associated quarantines, isolation and soul-searching.

Bird-feeding stores reported increased sales as people stuck at home turned to the hobby as a much-needed escape. Nature preserves closed their visitor centers, but most of the trails remained open and people flocked to them to ward off cabin fever.

I worked from home for most of the year and, while I missed seeing my co-workers, I did enjoy watching my backyard bird-feeding station daily as the seasons changed. I never realized how much you miss when you go about your regular routine.

With that in mind, here are my top 10 bird/nature watching highlights of 2020. Feel free to send me an email with some of your highlights.

10. Warblers in the snow

A rare overnight snowfall in early May dropped a coating of snow that lasted until about noon. It provided a short window to see warblers and other migratory songbirds in snow. I managed a few photos of an ovenbird and blue-winged warbler.

9. Love birds

I watched several birds at my Continue reading