For the Birds: Scarlet tanagers can be elusive

Photo by Chris Bosak A Scarlet Tanager perches in a tree in Danbury, Conn., July 2016.
Photo by Chris Bosak A Scarlet Tanager perches in a tree in Danbury, Conn., July 2016.

This has been the first spring/summer since I can remember in which I have not seen a scarlet tanager. I was hot on the trail of a few in the spring, but I never did spot the birds.

Granted, my birding this year has been hampered by foot ailments, but I have still spent enough time out there that I feel I should have seen one or two of these beauties.

The scarlet tanager is one of the most sought-after species in New England in the spring. Their electric red bodies with contrasting black wings make it one of our most unique and beautiful birds. The problem with tanagers is that they mostly hang around the tops of tall trees. Even a bird as bright as a teenager can remain hidden in a full canopy of oak or maple leaves.

When I had my house in the woods a few years ago, I had scarlet tanagers nesting nearby and they would come to the yard frequently. During those years, I would see dozens of tanagers. Well, probably not dozens of different scarlet tanagers, but dozens of sightings of the same few tanagers.

Female scarlet tanagers are even more difficult to find. The species is about as sexually dimorphic as they come and the drab females can hide even better in the tops of the trees. Now that it is August, soon the males will shed their breeding plumage and trade it in for drab olive green feathers, similar to the females and youngsters. That is why you rarely, if ever, see bright red tanagers during the southward migration.

As difficult as it can be to find tanagers sometimes, it can also be tricky to hear them, or at least to identify their song. Scarlet tanagers have been described as sounding like robins with sore throats. I think it is an apt description so when you cannot see the birds, it is hard to tell whether it is a robin or a scarlet tanager up in the canopy. Throw in the somewhat similar song of the rose-breasted grosbeak and you’ve got another point of confusion when it comes to hearing a scarlet tanager’s song.

What is extremely helpful, however, is to learn the call of the scarlet tanager. It sounds like no other bird and is heard often in the woods of New England. Phonetically, it has been described as “chick bree“ and that sounds about right.

Find the call of the scarlet tanager on an app or online field guide such as www.allaboutbirds.org, and listen to the “chick bree“ call of the tanager. Next time you hear it in the woods, you will recognize it as a tanager and know where to look. Even if you don’t find the bird, you can take heart in knowing that it is up in the canopy somewhere.

Speaking of identifying birds by their songs and calls, I received an email the other day inquiring about how to learn bird calls and songs. I responded by saying there are apps and websites where you can listen to bird sounds, and there is also an app called Merlin that will identify a bird song or call in real time for you based on a recording taken with your smartphone. I could not vouch for the accuracy. In fact I expressed doubt about its accuracy because there are so many factors when it comes to identifying birds by sounds.

Curious, I downloaded the app and give it a shot. Of course, in the summer there aren’t many birds singing, so my sample size was pretty small. I was impressed with the results, although not blown away. It recognized the call of a black-capped chickadee and the song and harsh notes of a Carolina wren, but it missed a few other sounds and told me a pileated woodpecker was nearby when I am quite sure that one of these large woodpeckers did not make any sounds while I was making the recording. That would have been hard to miss. 

I am looking forward to giving it a shot and putting it to a more stern test next spring. I’m curious how it does when several soft-singing warblers are in the area. For those of you who have tried Merlin, or some other bird song identification app, drop me a line and let me know your thoughts about its effectiveness.

In the meantime, enjoy the rest of summer and keep your eyes open for young birds in the woods and at the feeders. 

For the Birds: Ice sends the ducks south

Photo by Chris Bosak
Red-breasted mergansers may be seen throughout winter on the ocean or Long Island Sound.

There are always two ways to look at something.

I don’t remember what it was advertising, but I recall an old television commercial wherein one guy says: “Camping? I hate camping. There’s nobody around.”

The next guy on camera, within the same friend group of the first guy but unaware of what he said, says: “Camping? I love camping. There’s nobody around.”

I guess it all depends on your personal preferences and motives.

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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: Birding New Year’s resolutions

Photo by Chris Bosak A black duck hides in the grasses near a pond in northern New Hampshire, July 2020.

I dreaded looking it up, but as it turns out, there was nothing to dread.

Let me explain.

There are a handful of regular birding columns that I write every year about this time. One is on Christmas gifts for the birdwatcher, one is about the Christmas Bird Count, one is on my birding highlights of the year, and one is on my New Year’s resolutions for the coming year.

It is the resolution column that I dread looking back on. There are sure to be many failures, and I just hope there are a few successes to go along with it.

I was surprised when I looked up last year’s resolution column. As it turns out, I didn’t write one last year after all. Maybe there was too much going on, maybe I figured I wouldn’t stick to the resolutions anyway, or maybe COVID’s first Christmas had me so down I just couldn’t bring myself to write a forward-thinking, optimistic column.

Well, COVID is still with us and wreaking havoc on another holiday season, but I am not going to let it win this year. So here’s my latest birding New Year’s resolution column.

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For the Birds: A dragonfly bonanza

Photo by Chris Bosak A green darner flies around a backyard in New England following a mosquito hatch in September 2021.

The sun was starting to set behind the marsh, casting a golden glow on the backyard.

In this magical light, we could see dragonflies by the dozens, perhaps hundreds, zipping around the yard. Looking closer, aided by the light, we could see hundreds, if not thousands, of mosquitoes, presenting themselves as tiny specks in the air. Looking even closer, we could see the dragonflies chase down and eat the mosquitoes. The mosquitoes didn’t stand a chance against these perfectly engineered predators.

I went out to try my luck at photographing a dragonfly in midair. It’s been an elusive shot in my catalog of nature photos. Even with the sheer numbers of dragonflies and the perfect evening sun at my back, the shot proved to be a challenge. I somewhat met the challenge, however. I wouldn’t say I nailed the shot as it’s not ideally composed, focused, exposed or any other type of technical photography term you can think of. But, for my purposes, it’s not bad. I’m not shooting for National Geographic or anything.

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For the Birds: Welcome to May!

Photo by Chris Bosak A chestnut-sided warbler lurks in the brush in New England, May 2020. Merganser Lake.

Welcome to May, arguably the best month of the year for birdwatching.

So many exciting things happen in the bird world in May that it’s hard to know where to begin. The breeding season is in full swing and our year-round birds as well as newly arrived migrant birds are either looking for nesting sites or already raising young. Suddenly our feeders are visited by colorful newcomers such as rose-breasted grosbeaks, Baltimore orioles or indigo buntings. Waders are back in full force stalking our ponds and rivers.

When it comes to May, however, talk of the birding world has to begin with warblers, those small and often colorful Neotropical migrants that add life to our neck of the woods every spring. Some of these warblers will simply stop by for a few days before heading farther north to their breeding grounds. Many, however, will find a suitable place to raise young and will be with us until the fall.

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For the Birds: Spring wood duck sightings always welcome

Photo by Chris Bosak A wood duck swims in a pond in New England, April 2021.

Only a narrow barrier of reeds separated the fairly busy road from the rain-swelled pool of water bordered by railroad tracks on the backside.

On any other day, this pool of water would be ignored and driven past without a second look. But on this day, something caught my eye and I promptly turned around at the next available safe place to do so. I drove past the water again, this time more slowly, and realized that what had caught my eye was a small group of male wood ducks.

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For the Birds: Readers share what they’ve been seeing

Rosalie Boucher captured this photo of an American Woodcock in her yard in Norwalk, Conn., in March 2014.

Woodcock are being seen and heard at dusk, phoebes are showing up slowly but steadily, mixed flocks of blackbirds are headed north, and the weather is sunny and warm one day and freezing and wet the next. It must be March in New England.

As we get ready for migration to pick up steam, here’s what readers have been reporting over the last few weeks. Bill from Keene wrote to say he’s hearing spring songs from the woods, which is always a good sign and pleasing chorus. Spring peepers, wood frogs and some birds are starting to call. I’ve heard cardinals almost daily now, which is a most welcomed, cheerful song.

Jeannie from Marlow wrote to say she has had upwards of four red-breasted nuthatches visiting her feeders at once. I thought my two-at-a-time visits were good. Jeannie also sent along a terrific photo of a barred owl having its feathers blown around by a strong wind. The photo may be found at www.birdsofnewengland.com under the “Reader Submitted Photos” category.

Jane from Marlborough wrote, questioning whether a small bird of prey she saw take a chickadee could be a merlin. Merlins are small falcons that breed mostly north of New Hampshire, but some do breed in the state and many pass through during fall and spring migrations. So it is very possible that her bird in question was a merlin.

Here’s what the N.H. Fish and Game website says about the merlin’s range: “Expanding range southward in NH. Currently breeds in the north and at scattered locations in central and western parts of the state. Occurs statewide during migration which peaks during September and early October; occasionally winters along the seacoast or in southern suburban areas.”

Thanks to the Keene Lions Club for having me as a guest speaker via Zoom last week at its meeting. I enjoyed meeting everyone virtually and appreciated the many thoughtful questions at the end. A question was posed that I didn’t have the answer for at the moment. I had referenced early in the presentation the 2019 study that shows there has been a decline of 2.9 billion birds in the U.S. and Canada over the last 50 years. The question came up as to what percentage that number represented. I thought it was a great question as numbers are sometimes presented to show a point, but proper context is missing.

I looked back at the study and found out that the 2.9 billion missing birds represent a 28 percent decline — roughly down from 10 billion adult breeding birds to 7 billion. That is a substantial number no matter how you look at it, but when you consider birds of certain habitats have declined by more than 50, the number becomes even more stark. Grassland birds, for instance, have declined by 53 percent since 1970, according to the study. That is fewer than half of the meadowlarks, bobolinks and more of our favorite grassland birds remaining.

On the bright side, which I was reminded of when I looked back on the study, numbers of waterfowl, raptors and woodpeckers have increased in the last 50 years.

The study, by the way, is entitled “Decline of the North American avifauna” and was conducted by researchers from several organizations such as Cornell Lab of Ornithology, American Bird Conservancy and National Audubon Society.

I hope everyone is ready for spring migration. Be sure to let me know what you’re seeing.

Odds and ends …

Photo by Chris Bosak A hummingbird moth sips nectar from a butterfly bush in New England, summer 2019.

Odds and ends from the natural world:

I led you astray in a recent column and I’m here to own up to it and make it right.

I wrote about and included a photograph of a tomato hornworm caterpillar being covered in the small white cocoons of a wasp parasite. That part was true. It was a tomato hornworm and it was covered in the cocoons of braconid wasps. These wasps start their life cycle as an egg laid inside the giant green caterpillar and eat their way out to build their cocoons.

I was mistaken, however, in saying that the caterpillar would have turned into a hummingbird moth – at least the kind we enjoy watching around our flowers in the summer and early fall. That moth is the hummingbird clearwing moth and is not Continue reading

For the Birds: Winter’s wonderful flurries

Photo by Chris Bosak A Song Sparrow seen in Selleck’s/Dunlap Woods in Darien, Conn., March 2014.

You always hope for a storm, but sometimes all you get is a flurry or two.

I’m not talking about a high school student who didn’t study for a test and is praying for a snow day. I’m talking about birding, of course.

The other day I visited a preserve in southern New England for the first time. I was struck immediately by the vast fields and several small wooded areas that looked to me like islands among the grassy expanse. My first thought was that this place is probably hopping with bobolinks, bluebirds and all sorts of other birds in the spring and summer.

But this wasn’t spring or summer. It was a dreary, raw winter day and the grass was short and brownish-yellow. Lifeless. The wooded islands were void of leaves and you could see the gray sky through the tangle of trunks and branches.

My plan was to walk along the edge of the wooded areas and see what was lurking in there. The anticipation of the new walk at a new place faded over time as close to an hour had passed and a few crows cawing in the distance was the only sign of birdlife I had noticed. I wanted to zero in on the crows to see if they were mobbing a hawk, owl or some other intruder. I couldn’t even find the crows in the sky, let alone zero in on them.

The anticipation may have faded, but my appreciation of the walk remained high. I spent much of 2019 battling off-again, on-again tendinitis in my right foot and hobbling around by putting pressure on the part of my foot that hurt the least. Walks on uneven terrain were out of the question. To be able to walk pain-free is something I’ll never take for granted again.

So I was enjoying the walk, birds or not. I made plans in my mind where Continue reading