For the Birds: Goldfinches brighten the landscape

Here is the latest For the Birds column, which runs in several New England newspapers.

Photo by Chris Bosak An American Goldfinch rests on a sunflower in New England.

Photo by Chris Bosak
An American Goldfinch rests on a sunflower in New England.

N othing cheers up a day like a goldfinch. Those little, bright bursts of yellow are always a welcome site at your feeder, bird bath or perched on a flower in your garden.

I especially appreciate goldfinches in the dead of summer. I remember taking a walk a few years ago on one of those classic hot, humid days in August. It was the middle of the afternoon and, not surprisingly, I was finding very little in terms of wildlife. Dragonflies were dancing all over the place, but even the butterflies seemed to be hiding from the heat.

Suddenly, I heard the cheerful song of a goldfinch in flight coming up from behind me. I turned just in time to see the bright yellow bird perch on the top of a thistle flower. The pink-and-purple flower rocked back and forth as it reacted to the weight of the tiny bird. When the flower settled, the goldfinch went about its business of picking at the flower.

I watched the scene briefly, and continued my walk. About five minutes later, I heard the bird again. I looked up to see it fly over my head and disappear into the distance. Despite its tiny size — about 5 inches — the goldfinch is an easy bird to identify in flight. It flies quickly in an undulating fashion — like a roller coaster with small rises and falls — usually uttering its potato-chip, potato-chip song as it bounces up and down.

I didn’t see any other birds on that walk, but the single goldfinch perched on the flower made it all worthwhile.

Goldfinches also score points with me as they are frequently seen in my garden. I’ve seen goldfinches perched atop coneflower and black-eyed Susan flowers, picking away at the seeds. I’ve also seen them on sunflowers.

Goldfinches, of course, are also reliable feeder birds, often occupying every perch of a tube feeder. I love to see all six perches of my blue tube feeder occupied by the bright yellow birds.

Goldfinches will eat sunflower seeds and will visit platform or tube feeders. A sure way to attract goldfinches is to offer Nyjer in a tube feeder specifically designed for the tiny seeds. Do not try to use thistle seeds in a regular feeder as the tiny seeds will spill through the holes.

“Sock” feeders stuffed with thistle seeds are a good alternative.

Goldfinches visit feeders at any time of the day. It’s interesting to note that goldfinches move on frequently so the birds you see at your feeder in the evening are not likely the same ones you saw in the morning.

Goldfinches are found throughout the country and many remain in New England through the winter months. They are not the flashy yellow birds we love so much in the summer, though. We still love them in the winter, of course, but they are much duller, often appearing olive or brownish.

It’s fun to see the splotchy male goldfinches in the early part of spring as they slowly regain their bright yellow plumage. Only the males are bright yellow. Females are a duller yellow.

They also have black caps and black wings with white stripes. My brother Ed and his wife, Debbie, are big Pittsburgh Steelers fans, so the goldfinch is a favorite in that household.

Of course, you don’t have to be a Steelers fan to appreciate the beauty of a goldfinch. The bright yellow speaks for itself. Throw in a purple or pink flower and you’ve got real proof that Mother Nature likes her colors.

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Latest For the Birds column: Red-breasted Nuthatch right on cue

A Red-breasted Nuthatch perches near a birdfeeding station in Danbury, Conn., Oct. 2016.

A Red-breasted Nuthatch perches near a bird feeding station in Danbury, Conn., Oct. 2016.

Here’s the latest For the Birds column, which runs weekly in The Hour (Norwalk, Conn.), The Keene (NH) Sentinel and several Connecticut weekly newspapers.

I wrote three weeks ago about my affinity for the nuthatches we see in New England.

In the middle and southern parts of the region we see white-breasted nuthatches much more frequently than its smaller cousin, the red-breasted nuthatch. The latter variety, however, is seen more often in the northern reaches of New England.

The red-breasted nuthatch does show up at feeders in the middle and southern parts, especially in fall and winter, but not too often and in varying degrees depending on the year. In fact, the little birds will venture all the way to Florida during winter migration.

With that said, I was happy to receive an email from Dean a few days after that column appeared.

“You mentioned red-breasted nuthatches, which reminded me that I have not seen one in years,” Dean wrote from his Marlborough, Conn., home. “They are such cute little birds. Then two days after your article what shows up but an RBN at the feeder.”

A few days after Dean wrote me that email, I was sitting on my deck watching my feeders. It was an unending flurry of black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, white-breasted nuthatches and downy woodpeckers. I got so tuned into seeing those species that it didn’t immediately register in my brain that a new arrival had appeared.

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Latest For the Birds column: Gearing up for National Bird Feeding Month

Photo by Chris Bosak A Tufted Timouse perches near a feeding station in New England, fall 2015.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Tufted Timouse perches near a feeding station in New England, fall 2015.

February may be a few weeks away, but there’s no harm in being prepared for what’s in store.

February is a big month in the birdwatching world. It’s a cold month in the middle of winter, but a little birding and bird feeding will help make the cold more tolerable.

First of all, February is National Bird Feeding Month. I don’t normally get too excited about national this month or that, but I’ll celebrate anything that gives me an excuse to do more birdwatching. National Bird Feeding Month was first proclaimed in 1994.

Also, February is always the month of the Great Backyard Bird Count. I’ll write more about this citizen science project in a later column, but just so you can mark your calendars, this year it will be held the weekend of Feb. 12-15.

For now, in honor of National Bird Feeding Month, here are a few tips on how to attract birds to your yard in the typically cold month of February.

Suet is a must. Whether you use pre-packaged suet cakes or make your own out of beef fat (the store-bought cakes are much, much easier), suet should be an offering in the winter. I can count on one hand the number of minutes a bird is not at my suet feeder. Usually it’s a Downy Woodpecker, but also seen are Hairy Woodpeckers, Red-breasted Woodpeckers, White-breasted Nuthatches, and Carolina Wrens. Occasionally, chickadees and titmice visit the suet as well.

Who knows? You may even get lucky and have a Pileated Woodpecker come visit. I had one at my suet feeder about 10 years

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For the Birds Column: Difference between Snowy and Great Egrets

Photo by Chris Bosak A Snowy Egret looks for food in Norwalk Harbor.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Snowy Egret looks for food in Norwalk Harbor.

Here’s my latest For the Birds column, which describes the differences between Snowy Egrets and Great Egrets. For the Birds runs each week in the daily newspapers of Norwalk, Conn., and Keene, N.H. If you are out of those areas, tell your local newspaper about For the Birds and perhaps the column can get up and running there, too.

Here’s the column:

There are not many birds out there that have feet a different color than their legs.

From the top of their legs to the bottom of their “toes,” most birds are uniform in color. With many birds, such as songbirds and small shorebirds, the topic is fairly insignificant because their legs and feet are so small and rarely seen Continue reading