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 feeding station feeding seeds to their mates. Cardinals, blue jays and rose-breasted grosbeaks were among the species I saw.

8. Goldfinches on coneflowers

It’s always fun to watch birds at your feeder, but it’s even more exciting when they grab seeds from flowers in your garden. In early fall, I watched a flock of American goldfinches devour seeds from dead coneflower heads.

7. Pileated works over hemlock

My yard has a lot of dead or dying hemlocks. The downfall of the eastern hemlock is a sad one, for sure. The carnage has been somewhat of a boon for woodpeckers and other cavity-nesting birds, however. One morning, I watched as a pileated woodpecker tore apart the base of a dead hemlock and picked out morsels to eat.

6. Planting a garden

The April quarantine had me searching for a new hobby so I dug up a patch of earth and planted a garden. It didn’t produce very well but it made for some interesting nature sightings as warblers and other birds perched on the fence and garden spiders built their webs among the pepper plants. Seeing a tomato hornworm (a large green caterpillar) covered in braconid wasp larvae was perhaps the most interesting sighting of them all.

5. Christmas Bird Count surprises

The CBC provides some surprise sightings each year. This year it was a prairie warbler, pine warbler, northern pintail and northern shoveler.

4. Florida wildlife

I visited my brother in southern Florida this fall and took a few walks in nearby parks. White ibis were extremely abundant and other wading birds were frequent sightings as well. Of course, alligators were the highlight and we saw several.

3. Busy fox

I watched a fox parent busily hunt for its family every day for a few weeks in the spring. It would trot through my backyard to start the hunt and run back through about an hour later with a mouth full of chipmunks, mice and voles. Amazing.

2. Return to Pittsburg

I visited northern New Hampshire for the first time in a few years and was rewarded with a sighting of a cow moose with twins feeding on the shore of a pond. Moose are my favorite animal and it breaks my heart to see their population depleted because of winter ticks and brain worm. Moose sightings used to be a given up there. Now they are few and far between.

1. Feeder watching

This makes my Top 10 list every year, but this year it tops the list because of the extra time I had to observe the backyard birds. I had regular visits from bluebirds throughout late winter and spring, as well as sporadic visits from yellow-rumped warblers, pine warblers, Baltimore orioles and rose-breasted grosbeaks. Of course, the regular backyard feeders filled in the slow moments and entertained me all year.

Happy New Year, everyone, here’s to normalcy in the year ahead!

Thoughts from readers — what they are seeing out there

I often ask readers of my bird column, For the Birds, what they’ve been seeing out there in terms of interesting bird sightings. Every once in a while I compile the sightings and use them for my weekly birdwatching column. Here’s the latest, which ran last week in The Hour (Norwalk, CT) and this week in The Keene (NH) Sentinel.

Photo by Chris Bosak A Red-tailed Hawk eats a Gray Squirrel in a cemetery in Darien, Conn., Oct. 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Red-tailed Hawk eats a Gray Squirrel in a cemetery in Darien, Conn., Oct. 2014.

I often ask readers: “What are you seeing out there?” Well, the answers I get are just as compelling and pertinent as what I see and write about each week, so here are some tidbits that readers have shared over the last few weeks. Why not start with Bald Eagles? Angela of Norwalk and Judy of Westport have written recently about Bald Eagle sightings. Angela saw her eagle in South Norwalk. The large bird of prey flew by her window and landed in an oak tree across the street where she often sees Osprey perch. “I hope it takes up residence here for the winter. I would be thrilled to see it again,” she wrote. Judy has seen her eagle perched high in a pine tree along the Saugatuck River. At one point, she witnessed the bird dive to the river and pull up a fish. Bald Eagles do visit more frequently in the winter, so perhaps this will be a good winter to see our national bird around here. A slightly smaller bird of prey has also been spotted several times by readers. I received a letter from Danny from Hampshire College who said an unidentified predator has been picking off chickens at the college’s farm. Based on the photo he sent, it looks a like a Red-tailed Hawk is the culprit. Gary from New Hampshire wrote to say he has seen Red-tailed Hawks on a few occasions catch pigeons near his home. Andy also shared a sighting of a Red-tailed Hawk in his backyard. He sent a photo, too, with the hawk peering down with a menacing look. He also sent a photo of an albino or leucistic Dark-eyed Junco. The photos, and other photos submitted by readers, may be found on my website http://www.birdsofnewengland.com on the “Reader Submitted Photos” page. I received an interesting phone call from Leona, another New Hampshire reader, who shared a story about crows in her backyard. “Bird brain” is often used as an insult, but we all know birds can be pretty smart, especially crows. Leona’s crows found a way to save trips while gathering and carrying away food. Leona put out crackers for the birds and instead of grabbing them and taking them away one at a time, the crows would stack the crackers and fly away with a bill full. Smart birds indeed. Finally, Joan shared a story about a lucky and determined chickadee. She saw the little bird hit her glass storm door. Expecting the worst, she approached the door to discover that the chickadee had actually gotten its foot stuck in a hinge of the door. Not wanting to let the bird fend for itself in that grave situation she grabbed a plastic flower pot and put it over the tiny bird. She then used a stick to free the bird’s leg. Joan set the flower pot on its side and took a few steps away to watch the bird. “He didn’t seem to be moving but was still breathing,” she wrote. “I then took a small container of water and dripped just a drop or two on his beak, which he quickly took in.” Here’s what happened next: “I was trying to decide what I would do with him overnight when all of a sudden, he moved his head, looked around at me and flew up onto a branch of a nearby tree about 15 feet up. He sat there for a minute, tipped his head to one side, gave a little “chhpp” and flew back toward the woods.” Joan concluded that “it’s nice to know there are still small wonders.” I totally agree. So, what have you been seeing out there in the natural world? Drop me a line and let me know. For the Birds runs Thursdays in The Hour. Chris Bosak can be reached at bozclark@earthlink.net. Visit his website at birdsofnewengland.com.

Northern Cardinal looking right at you

Photo by Chris Bosak Northern Cardinal at backyard feeder, Oct. 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Northern Cardinal at backyard feeder, Oct. 2014.

Getting back to my common backyard bird series … the Northern Cardinal is common, but certainly not plain. The cardinal is a favorite bird of many people — and it’s hard to argue.

My favorite thing about the Northern Cardinal is that it is a year-round bird for us here in New England. It doesn’t fly south when the days shorten or temperatures drop, like most colorful birds we see here. It breeds here and remains here, giving us a flashy bird to look for all 12 months.

A few more Green Heron shots

Photo by Chris Bosak Green Heron in Darien, Conn., Nov. 2013.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Green Heron in Darien, Conn., Nov. 2013.

Here’s a few Green Herons photos I got last November. That is late for a Green Heron. I’m posting now because my latest For the Birds column was about Green Herons and we are heading into fall. The universe seemed to be telling me to put a few more Green Heron photos out there.

Photo by Chris Bosak Green Heron in Darien, Conn., Nov. 2013.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Green Heron in Darien, Conn., Nov. 2013.

Yes, a ‘green’ heron

Photo by Chris Bosak The back plumage of a green heron.

Photo by Chris Bosak
The back plumage of a green heron.

Green Heron’s often do not look green because the green is not a bright, neon green, but rather a dark muted green. Also, from a distance, which is where the bird is usually viewed, the bird looks more brownish or greenish-brown. I was lucky enough to photograph from a fairly close range one of these birds last week. Zooming in on the feathers on its back, here’s why it’s called a Green Heron. Of course, much of it depends on how the light is hitting the plumage.)

Here’s a full view of the bird.

Photo by Chris Bosak A Green Heron stalks a pond in Darien in this fall, 2014 photo.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Green Heron stalks a pond in Darien in this fall, 2014 photo.

Female Common Yellowthroat

Here’s a female Common Yellowthroat, one of the many confusing fall warblers to watch out for as you hit your favorite birdwatching spots this fall.

Photo by Chris Bosak Common Yellowthroat, first year, southern New England, Sept. 2013

Photo by Chris Bosak
Common Yellowthroat, first year, southern New England, Sept. 2013

Tricky fall migration

Photo by Chris Bosak A female Common Yellowthroat perches in a tree in West Norwalk late this summer.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A female Common Yellowthroat perches in a tree in West Norwalk late this summer.

Here’s the latest For the Birds column, which runs weekly in The Hour (Norwalk, CT) and The Keene Sentinel (Keene, N.H.)

I’ve mentioned before that the fall migration, for the most part, is less ballyhooed by the birding community.

There are many reasons for this. The spring migration is so eagerly anticipated because it follows winter (usually a harsh one in New England) and birders are itching to see signs of rejuvenation in the natural world. The early flowers do a good job of heightening our spirits, but there’s nothing like the birds’ returning to really get us out of the winter doldrums.

The spring migration is also marked with a wide variety of colorful birds, most notably the warblers and other songbirds that pass through in April and May. The males are in their bright breeding plumage and singing their hearts out. The females are not as brightly colored and not as vocal, but are still a sight for sore eyes in the spring. The birds have a real sense of urgency in the spring migration, too. They need to get to their breeding grounds to get a good nesting spot and get down to th Continue reading

Mourning Dove sitting on nest

Photo by Chris Bosak A Mourning Dove sits on a nest at Oyster Shell Park in Norwalk, CT., April 1014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Mourning Dove sits on a nest at Oyster Shell Park in Norwalk, CT., April 1014.

I came across the Mourning Dove during a quick walk through Oystershell Park in Norwalk, Conn., this morning. Yes, despite the late start to spring weather, the birds are right on time with their nesting.

Photo by Chris Bosak A Mourning Dove sits on a nest at Oyster Shell Park in Norwalk, CT., April 1014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Mourning Dove sits on a nest at Oyster Shell Park in Norwalk, CT., April 1014.

Check out the camouflage nature of this nest. The tangled, twisted sticks and vines are colored similarly to the dove itself. Amazing that birds can do these things. I did not approach too closely and allowed the bird to remain comfortable on its nest.

Have a bird nesting on your property? Grab a photo and send it along. I’ll use it on my “reader submitted photo” page. Remember to give the birds space and not to be intrusive — they have an important job to do. Send photos to bozclark@earthlink.net

Photo by Chris Bosak A Mourning Dove sits on a nest at Oyster Shell Park in Norwalk, CT., April 1014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Mourning Dove sits on a nest at Oyster Shell Park in Norwalk, CT., April 1014.

Mockingbirds are liking the suet

Photo by Chris Bosak A Northern Mockingbird visits a suet feeder as snow falls in March 2014 in Stamford, CT.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Northern Mockingbird visits a suet feeder as snow falls in March 2014 in Stamford, CT.

It’s not often that I see Northern Mockingbirds at my feeders. I see them often enough, just not at the feeders. But for the past week or so, a pair of mockers have been regular visitors to the suet cake feeder. They split time with a pair of Downy Woodpeckers that has been visiting all winter.

Mockingbirds will begin their incredible singing performances soon. They will perch somewhere (often a very conspicuous spot) and sing their hearts out, going over their repertoire over and over. As its name suggests, the song is a long string of other birds’ calls. Personally, I always hear mockers include the Carolina Wren’s “tea kettle” song in their mix.

Have a mockingbird story? Feel free to comment. Thanks for visiting http://www.birdsofnewengland.com