For the Birds: Christmas Bird Count is always a highlight

Photo by Chris Bosak
Common loon in winter plumage on Long Island Sound.

The birding had been slow — not dreadfully slow, but slower than usual, for sure — when we rolled up beside some evergreens in a front yard. We noted a flurry of activity (finally) and stopped for a closer inspection.

A half-dozen juncos flitted close to the ground, flashing their white-edged tails. Suddenly, a yellow bird flew from one tree to another. Any yellow bird that is not a goldfinch is cause for “ID at all costs” during a Christmas Bird Count. Not that goldfinches aren’t welcomed species, but they are rather expected to be seen in New England in December. Other yellow birds, not so much.

It landed just long enough for us to get a decent look and for Frank to get a few good-enough photographs. It was a warbler, for sure. We immediately thought orange-crowned warbler as they are the warblers most often seen during a New England Christmas Bird Count. Frank inspected the photos on his camera — something that wouldn’t have been possible 20 or 25 years ago — and determined it was a Nashville warbler instead. In the flurry, we also noted a ruby-crowned kinglet scurry from one bush to another. All the while, a Carolina wren belted out a song from a telephone wire across the street. As a birdwatcher, you love those flurries. You really love them during a Christmas Bird Count.

Frank and I cover a coastal area of Connecticut and have done so for going on 20 years. For that area, we finished the Count with 52 species and close to 2,000 birds. Not bad, not great. We’ve had better years, to be honest.

The Christmas Bird Count is an annual citizen science project that has grown from 27 participants in the inaugural Count in 1900 to now more than 75,000 participants each year. Keene was one of the original 25 Count areas. The data is used by ornithologists and other scientists to track long-term trends of bird populations.

Yes, it’s scientific and for a great cause. But, really, most people do it because it’s great fun. It’s an excuse to take a December day and watch birds from sunrise to sunset (even longer for the owlers.) It does, however, become a responsibility for participants. You don’t want to miss a day and let down the birds or your fellow birders.

Weather plays a big role in the amount of fun you have. Here in New England, a mid-December day can be 50 degrees or zero degrees. It can be sunny, cloudy, rainy, snowy, or any combination thereof. I’ve done Counts in blizzards and I’ve done Counts when it feels like early September.

This year’s Count was cloudy, cold and breezy. I’ll take it. It could have been a lot worse. The breeziness may have kept some birds hunkered down, but I don’t think the lack of birds we saw was due to the weather, except for the freshwater ponds. We visited a few ponds that had been frozen a few days prior to the Count so most ducks flew off for open water. We did see a lot of gadwall, a few ring-necked ducks and hooded mergansers, and, of course, tons of mallards.

We had other successes, too, such as the Nashville warbler and kinglet. Other highlights included several hundred brant, a gray catbird, a peregrine falcon and seven common loons on Long Island Sound.

Frank and I discussed the demise of the monk parakeet. We used to count dozens of the bright green birds along the coast and this year we had only one fly over our heads. Its squawking alerted us to it. Monk parakeets, of course, are not native to New England, but an escaped shipment from JFK Airport decades ago led to an established colony along the Connecticut coastline. They used to thrive here; now, they are all but gone. They build huge, heavy nests made of sticks on utility poles, so we concluded that the utility companies must have had something to do with their disappearance. That’s just a guess, however.

Want to get involved with a Count in your area? Most local Counts have been done already this year, but start planning now for next year. Do an Internet search for “How do I join the Christmas Bird Count” and the first result will be a link to the National Audubon Society’s CBC page. You can also check out historic local results from your area.

If you do sign up, be prepared to have fun. Just be ready to bundle up.

For the Birds: Cold is no problem for birds

Here’s the latest For the Birds column, written just before the cold snap last week. Now it’s back up in the 50s, go figure.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A mourning dove and chickadee share a platform feeder during a snowfall in Danbury, Connecticut, February 2019.

Birds would fare just fine without human interventions such as bird feeders, birdhouses and birdbaths. They were, after all, here long before we were.

Even in the most extreme cold conditions, such as those we experienced last week and will certainly feel again soon, birds would do just fine without us. Without a doubt, the aforementioned human interventions make birds’ lives easier in the winter. Feeders are an easy source of energy, birdhouses offer refuge from the wind and heated birdbaths are a water source when everything else is frozen.

But, still, the majority of birds would survive even without those things. But how? They are small, delicately built (seemingly) and exposed to the elements. They are not, however, defenseless. They have plenty of strategies to survive the extremes. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

They know to seek shelter. When a driving wind accompanies cold temperatures, you won’t find birds out in the open. A hungry bird or two may brave the wind to visit a feeder briefly, but for the most part, birds hunker down.

That’s when birdhouses come in handy. Birdhouses should be cleaned after the nesting season for sanitary reasons and to make room for birds in the winter. Old woodpecker holes are utilized as well. I once saw a chickadee huddled in the corner of an eave during a snow storm. It was so small and still I almost missed it.

I have a sizable brush pile in my backyard and junco and white-throated sparrows love it. They use it to hide from predators under normal conditions and hunker deep in the crevices during cold, windy weather.

Birds will often huddle together in these shelters, too, for extra warmth.

Many birds will also puff up their feathers to trap warm air near their bodies and keep cold air away. Some tiny birds such as chickadees and white-throated sparrows look almost comical with their feathers puffed up as if they are trying to look big and tough. Not that the birds really care what I think about them, especially when it’s 10 degrees out.

Birds do not hibernate, at least not really. They do sometimes enter a state of torpor, a temporary hibernation-like state in which their body temperature lowers and their metabolism slows. Shivering is another strategy employed by birds to retain heat.

Surviving extreme temperatures and blustery snowstorms is all part of the risk our year-round birds take by forgoing migration.

Migration is fraught with danger. There are buildings to crash into, exhaustion to fight, predators to avoid, and hundreds of miles to navigate without getting lost.

Staying in New England has its challenges, too, as I mentioned above.

For me, I appreciate our year-round birds immensely. Winter is long and dark in New England and I can’t image how dreary it would be without our chickadees, blue jays and other year-round birds.

Classic For the Birds: Paddling freshwater

I’m heading to New Hampshire for a few days of camping. It’s been a while since I’ve paddled any lake, pond, or river in the Granite State and I’m looking forward to seeing what wildlife will be around. Of course, I’ll let you know when I return. In the meantime, here’s a For the Birds column from 2004 about this very subject …

Photo by Chris Bosak A Great Blue Heron stands on a piling along the Norwalk River on Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014.

A great blue heron lifted its skinny four-foot frame out of the water and used its six-foot wing span to carry it to another spot on the lazy river. It was spotted again around the next corner.
A wood duck skulked into the vegetation and disappeared without a trace. Once a wood duck vanishes into the sea of huge green leaves, you can forget about seeing it again.

A muskrat braved a crossing at a swelled portion of the river, using its tail as a rudder. Marsh wrens proudly belted out their peculiar, almost comical, song.

Meanwhile, there were many constant companions. Red-winged blackbirds boisterously claimed various plots of the river’s edge as their own, dragonflies zigged and Continue reading

For the Birds: More sightings from readers

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

The sightings emailed in from readers have been so interesting that they have warranted being the topic of columns for several weeks in a row now. It’s creating a backlog of column ideas for me, but that’s a good problem to have. Besides, spring is the most active time for birdwatchers, so I shouldn’t be surprised.

A quick rundown of my own highlights as spring migration trails off and the birds get down to the important business of nesting:

I haven’t seen my rose-breasted grosbeaks in a few weeks. I’m hoping they are hunkered down on nests. I have, however, seen my ruby-throated hummingbirds Continue reading

For the Birds: Birds do just fine without feeders, too

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Blue Jay eats an acorn at Selleck’s Woods in Darien, Conn., April 2016.

After a three-hour drive to visit my brother Gregg in upstate New York, it was nice to relax and watch the black-capped chickadees forage in theblue spruce trees outside his kitchen window.

A flock of dark-eyed juncos darted past the window and settled at the base of his house where a bare patch of ground offered the only hope for these ground-feeding birds. The rest of the yard was buried under snow and ice.

A glance back at the spruce trees proved what I had thought all along: The chickadees were not alone. It was a mixed flock of chickadees and tufted titmice poking at the Continue reading

For the Birds: Always a nice walk in the woods

Photo by Chris Bosak
Ice on Little Merganser Lake in Danbury, Conn., winter 2019.

Any walk in the woods is a good walk.

I’ve always believed that and am reminded of it every time I step foot in New England woods, a field, a marsh or along a coastline.

For the birdwatcher, not every walk is filled with birds, but there is always something interesting to discover or observe. Even if you’ve walked your patch a thousand times, the next walk almost always holds something special.

A recent walk on the nature trail behind my house drove home that point. I wasn’t expecting much in terms of birds as the temperature was in the low 20s and the pond at the end of the trail was surely frozen.

Turns out I was right. Hardly any birds to speak of on this walk, but it was enlightening nonetheless.

I got to the pond, which is about a 20-minute walk, without seeing a single bird. The frozen pond, obviously, did not offer any hooded mergansers, ring-necked ducks, or even Continue reading

The 2018 birding year in review: Part II

Photo by Chris Bosak A nothern bobwhite seen at Happy Landing in Brookfield, Connecticut, fall 2018.

My latest For the Birds column releases my personal top 10 birding moments for 2018. Recapping the previous year is my favorite column to write each late December or early January. This year, instead of blasting out the top 10 all at once I’m going to spread it out and reveal two each day, starting today (Jan. 1, 2019.) This post will include Nos. 8 and 7.

Feel free to comment or send me an email with some of your 2018 birding or nature highlights.

8. First New England northern bobwhite. I saw one of these ground birds in Delaware many many years ago, but I finally got my first New England sighting this fall. It is a species in serious decline and would be nice to see them thriving again.

Photo by Chris Bosak A Black-capped Chickadee clears out a cavity in a tree for a nesting site at Selleck's/Dunlap Woods in Darien in spring 2014.
Photo by Chris Bosak
Black-capped chickadee clearing out cavity for nest.

7. Breeding Atlas. Connecticut is undergoing an ambitious three-year survey of its breeding birds. The state is divided into more than 100 blocks that are covered by volunteers. My block features lakes, marshes, mountains, and woods.