Thursday, May 31, 2012

Thursday Thoughts # 1 : Wetlands

Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary, spring 2012. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Each Thursday on the New England Nature Notes website I plan to offer a few short thoughts on a topic in natural history and conservation, with some links to related resources online. This morning I woke up thinking about wetlands and the absolutely vital role they play in the overall health and well-being of ecosystems/ May also happens to be Wetlands Month in Massachusetts, so for the first "Thursday Thoughts" I'd like to offer some links below to other websites which offer information about the natural history and importance of freshwater marshes.

The Massachusetts Division of Ecological Restoration has a great site where you can learn about their work restoring wetlands and why this is an important endeavor, by clicking here. 

One of the major threats to freshwater ecosystems in New England (and throughout the US) is the spread of alien invasive species - plants and animals - which are introduced to the area and can cause great harm to native species. You can learn a little more about the threat posed by Purple Loosestrife by clicking here. If you'd like to learn more about the damage caused by alien invasive beetles, you can click here.

For a more holistic view of the inner workings and importance of wetlands, you can check out  this National Park Service website, which offers an overview of the natural history of wetlands in the United States. Well, that's about all the time I have for today, I hope you enjoyed this post, and I'll be looking for suggestions for topics for future "Thursday Thoughts," so if you have an idea please feel free to drop me a line at

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Urban Oasses, # 1

Image Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Because I spend much of the week in the urban setting of downtown Boston I try to look for little patches of green space wherever and whenever I can, One such place is a little section of park that I pass through almost every day on my way to and from work along the Rose Kennedy Greenway, which is maintained by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. While a few acres of grass, shrubs and flowering trees is far from an ideal habitat for wildlife these little plots of land do provide food and shelter for year-round urban birds as well as migrants and seasonal birds. Over the course of the summer I'll be making occasional entries under the title of "Urban Oases" as I notice green spaces and wildlife in unexpected city settings.

Flowers growing in the shadow of the Financial District in downtown Boston. Image Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.
Copyright Daniel E. Levenosn 2012.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Birds of the Grasslands and Forest at Moose Hill Farm, Sharon, MA

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.
With clear skies, a light breeze and temperatures in the upper 60's, this past Monday seemed like a great day to go over to Moose Hill Farms in Sharon, MA to look for both grassland and forest birds. This property, which is owned and managed by the Trustees of Reservation is a fantastic place to see different grassland birds, many of which are under tremendous pressure from habitat loss, and the surrounding forests attract Scarlet Tanagers, Baltimore Orioles, Wild Turkeys and deer. There are also a number of old farm buildings on the property which draw Barn Swallows and Chimney Swifts. This land was formerly owned by the Kendall family who had the vision and foresight to help preserve this beautiful corner of New England farmland, fields and forests. The many Bobolinks, Orioles and other migratory birds that call this place home during the summer months are a part of their legacy and one for which we should all be very grateful. 

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson
Farm buildings at Moose Hill Farm in Sharon, MA. In the center background  of the photo the faint outline of Great Blue Hill can be seen. Image Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

After getting out of my car I walked along the gravel road that runs beside the large field closest to the parking lot, where immediately noticed an Eastern Bluebird and a Barn Swallow. This was my first Barn Swallow of the year, which was exciting. After attempting to enter the big field beyond and finding that there was no path mowed in the grass I decided to double back and take a trail I knew would be accessible, since I had no interest in either disturbing any nesting grassland birds or getting covered in ticks unnecessarily. Almost as soon as I entered the shade of the forest I saw something moving out of the corner of my eye. I moved ahead very slowly, taking care with each step not step on twigs or crunch gravel underfoot , until I got close enough to take a picture of the deer below, which was feeding on ferns and other vegetation about 30 feet away from me.

A White-Tailed Deer browsing on vegetation in the forest at Moose Hill Farms. Image Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.
Exiting the cool shade of the deciduous canopy I stepped into bright sunshine, following the mowed path that runs between two vast expanses of wild meadow where I could see swallows patrolling the open skies. At the far end of the path I entered back into the woods where I spotted an Eastern Towhee, a Baltimore Oriole and a small, grayish bird which I think may have either been a Philadelphia or Red-Eyed Vireo – I couldn’t get a good enough look to make a positive ID, but it did confirm for me, yet again, that this is a great place to see a wide variety of bird species. As I walked back along the open path I spotted a large Red-Tailed Hawk soaring on a thermal high above the property and a few minutes later a Turkey Vulture came into view overhead, wings wobbling slightly, teetering in its characteristic way.  It’s not my best work, but I did manage to get a few photos of the vulture, one of which is posted below.

A Turkey Vulture in flight over Moose Hill Farm, Sharon, MA. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.
As I was watching the Turkey Vulture I began to notice a familiar sound, similar to sci-fi sound effects and I knew that there were Boblinks in the area. Soon two males appeared, flying low over the fields, singing and occasionally stopping to perch at the top of a tree near the side of the trail. I have seen these birds before, but there is something thrilling about their unique coloration and song, and it was definitely a highlight of the day.

A male Bobolink perched in a field. These birds depend on large areas of grassland for survival. Image Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

By then I needed to head back, but Moose Hill Farms had two more surprises in store – a female Rose-Breasted Grosbeak, which at first presented something of a challenge, it was a brownish bird slightly smaller than an American Robin, with a heavy, dull yellowish bill and distinct white wing bars. I watched it eat a caterpillar as I tried to get close enough to take a photo. Unfortunately it flew off before I could take its picture, but I did get a good enough look to feel confident about the ID.  The last surprise of the day was a female Wild Turkey a few feet from the end of the path near the parking lot which I nearly walked right by – fortunately I was able to get a photo. All in all, a great afternoon of forest and grassland birds, I’ll definitely be back to Moose Hill Farm soon.

A female Wild Turkey. Image Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.
 Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Two Days in the Berkshires: Part 2

 Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

On our second day in the Berkshires took us to Stockbridge, Massachusetts which seemed to be a slightly quieter, more relaxed version of Lenox. We fueled up at a small restaurant in town before  heading out to visit two locations in the town where human use and the natural world intersect - The Norman Rockwell Museum and the Berkshire Botanical Garden. Our first stop was the museum, located at the end of a long, winding driveway amidst the hills and thick green stands of Oak and Maple. In front of the museum itself there is a large lawn where I spotted a Brown-Headed Cowbird, and inside the museum I was delighted to not only get a look up close at some of Rockwell's original work, but to see that he painted several scenes in which the natural and man-made world intersect, including one depicting a fisherman at sea in one Saturday Evening Post cover. .Rockwell also wrote a children's book about a Thrush who gets separated from his family and goes on a journey of self-discovery. The illustrations are great and his rendering of a generic Thrush looks pretty accurate to me.

 Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Outside of the museum we discovered a beautiful expanse of green lawn and a rolling meadow sloping down to a wetland, with an impressive line of mountains in the background.  Although the much of Rockwel''s work focused on the daily lives of people, the location of the museum and the setting show a nearly seamless integration of something highly artificial (as in made by man) and the natural beauty of this part of New England. In the photo below you can see Rockwell’s last studio, which was moved from the town center to this idyllic spot not long before the artist’s death.

Norman Rockwell's last art studio, seen here on the grounds of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA. The building was orginially located in near the town center, but was moved to the grounds of the museum not long before the artist's death. Image Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

The gardens and buildings on the grounds also attract birds and butterflies, including Chimney Swifts and this gorgeous Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly, shown in the photograph below.

A Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly not far from Norman Rockwell's studio on the grounds of the Norman Rockwell Museum. Image Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Our next stop was the Berkshire Botanical Garden located less than a mile away from the Rockwell Museum, also located in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.  It was quite warm and the sun was strong, so we took a short walk around the grounds, looking at the different plants and the bees and butterflies they attracted. There was also a small pond with a Snapping Turtle and a bird box where an Eastern Blue Bird had made its home.

A creative kind of gardening - a variety of flowering plants grow on a curved ramp at the Berkshire Botanical garden. Image Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

An Eastern Snapping Turtle enjoying a warm sunny day. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.
Image Copyright Daniel E . Levenson 2012.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Two Days in the Berkshires: Part 1

 Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012

Western Massachusetts and the Berkshires in particular, can feel much more like Upstate New York or Vermont than a part of the Commonwealth, but this part of the state offers relatively large tracts of unbroken forest, meadow and marsh which are absolutely vital for the health and well-being of Massachusetts wildlife.  It’s been many years since I last explored the western part of the state, but this weekend my girlfriend Joanna and I decided to spend a couple of days exploring a few places in Berkshire county, looking both at places which have been set aside and designated as wildlife habitat (Mass Audubon’s Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary) as well as places where human use and habitation intersect with the natural world.

On the drive west we saw a number of birds along the highway, including a pair of Turkey Vultures, birds which were rarely seen this far north in the first half of the 20th century and which have now become relatively common in Massachusetts. Given the possibility of inclement weather on Saturday, we decided to visit Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary first. The view from the parking lot was great, and there was an extensive list of recently sighted birds on a board outside the nature center, including many warblers I have yet to see this year. I realize that we are past peak migration, but I was holding out hope that I might add a bird or two to my year list. This sanctuary is also known as a good place to see beavers and beaver activity – while there was abundant evidence of the latter, unfortunately we did not see any of the creatures themselves. 

 Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012
It was a fairly warm and muggy day, but the bugs weren’t too bad, and in addition to two pairs of Brown-Headed Cowbirds and a Baltimore Oriole, we came across several frogs and this Red Eft, a terrestrial form of the Red-Spotted Newt, shown in the photo below. When I was a kid we used to hunt for salamanders under rotting logs and brush in the backyard, but I don’t believe I have ever come across a Red Eft or a Red-Spotted Newt before – definitely an exciting discovery for me. Apparently this an intermediate phase for these amphibians, previously living completely aquatic lives before moving onto land in the “eft” stage, followed generally by a return to a life underwater as adults. I also learned after we left the woods that these animals can secrete a poison through their skin, which explains what might otherwise be a rather fatal choice of coloration, drawing the attention of potential predators, in the New England woods.

 Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012

Given that the sanctuary has a number of ponds, streams and wetlands it was not surprising to see either this Red Eft or a number of dragonflies in the surrounding meadows.

Along the muddy trail that circled one interlocking patch of marsh and stream we came across large areas covered in emerald-green ferns of varying size, including a number of plants which we might refer to as “Fiddlehead Ferns,” although in truth this term can be applied to any of several different species of fern which are harvested while in this early, curled, phase of life. In doing a little research after our walk I discovered that in fact several species of fern are quite toxic, which is one reason I tend to stay away from foraging, although I have no doubt that if done properly with an expert it might be an interesting activity and perhaps done in a sustainable way, I prefer to leave the collection of edible plants to experts and of course only in places which are not protected, which wildlife sanctuaries obviously are. In any case, we have had a rather strange spring in Massachusetts with wildly fluctuating temperatures over the last couple of months, so it was nice to be outside in late May with the sun shining above and these green, curled-up symbols of spring decorating the forest floor.

 Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012 
We finished up our walk by completing a loop that brought us back to a vibrant meadow where we were once again greeted by dragonflies and Tree Swallows.

  Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012  

Coming soon: Part 2 of our Berkshire adventures, exploring the intersection of human use and the natural environment in the Berkshires.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Beavers and Blackbirds at Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary, Natick, Massachusetts

This morning I woke up feeling a bit off kilter but I’ve always found nature to be the best cure, so I headed to Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary to spend a few relaxing hours walking around in the woods, camera and binoculars in hand. I was still hoping I might catch a glimpse of the Pielated Woodpecker pair which have been sighted at the sanctuary, but alas no luck – I did however have some other really great sightings, including several instances of interaction between different bird species, which I always find fascinating. As soon as I got out on the trail I noticed how soft the ground felt beneath my feet (from days of intermittent rain), a cool breeze and the interplay of shadow and sunlight on the marsh. Birding or observing wildlife outdoors is an activity that I enjoy intellectually, but it also has an important meditative quality for me – when I am in the forest I find myself more focused and relaxed, and I try to let go of any of the negative distractions inherent to life in the modern world. Of course like all mediation, sometimes this is easier to do than others, but today I could feel a certain softness, a kind of ease, in the atmosphere so tried to move through the landscape with that same sense of ease, keeping my senses open to whatever might be revealed.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

I could hear and see Red-winged Blackbirds from the boardwalk, but there were no ducks or other waterfowl to be seen. Usually there are at least a few Mallards and often Wood Ducks in this part of the sanctuary, but today the water was quiet. I stopped several times along the trail to the wildlife observation platform to scan the water for ducks and wading birds, but aside from Common Grackles, Tree Swallows and  Red-winged blackbirds only a few dragonflies, frogs and turtles made themselves known. When I reached a small wooden bridge I heard a commotion in the trees to my right and I looked over to see two American Robbins chasing a Blue Jay, obviously not happy to have this interloper in their territory, soon after an Eastern Phoebe landed nearby.    

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

After the Phoebe left I stopped to take some video of one of the small waterfalls that dot the property, vestiges of another time when the land was actively used by people.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

When I arrived at the wildlife observation platform there was little movement in the water or out in the field beyond. I saw quietly, watching the water for ripples or other signs of life.  Not long after I arrived I noticed something stirring in the water and the tops of several aquatic plants began to shake, as if something swimming beneath the surface were knocking into them. I traced the pattern of quaking plants with my binoculars and was delighted when a beaver stuck its nose up from the water, then emerged on land and began to eat some woody vegetation just at the edge of the water. It seemed totally unperturbed by my presence, allowing me to take several decent photos and some video. After it was done eating the beaver got back into the water and swam back and forth in front of the platform several times. It was amazing to actually finally get a good look at an animal which was once extirpated in  Massachusetts and is now making a comeback.I normally leave my cell phone off when I'm outdoors, but I was so excited I couldn't resist texting my girlfriend Joanna to tell her about what I had seen.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012

The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife has set up a page with some very interesting information relating to the natural history and management of Beaver populations in Massachusetts, which you can check out here.

After the beaver disappeared from sight I turned my attention to a Great Blue Heron hunting further out in the marsh. I watched as it moved with stealth and grace, neck bent keenly forward. A few moments later my attention was drawn to another Great Blue Heron which landed perhaps fifty feet from the first, apparently quite close to a pair of Red-winged Blackbirds which were none too pleased to see this predatory wading bird. I’m guessing they had a nest nearby because both the male and female were very riled up and drove the Heron away. Later, the first Great Blue Heron made the same mistake and was dive-bombed by the male Red-winged Blackbird and the Heron fled to a safe distance, where I was  later able to get a photo of the bird.

 Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012
This area proved to be great not only for the Beaver sighting, but also rich with bird life. In addition to the Red-winged Blackbirds, Great Blue Herons, an Eastern Phoebe, a very brightly colored male Baltimore Oriole, Tree Swallows, Chimney Swifts and Eastern Bluebirds, I also saw a female Wood Duck with 4 ducklings making their way quietly across the waters of the marsh. 

After spending some time watching the Tree Swallows and blackbirds I turned back and headed toward the nature center, taking the trail that leads through the large open field which used to be an orchard. This section of the sanctuary is a wonderful place to be as the daylight is fading – it offers a vast, expansive view of fields of native grasses with a bright green line of trees framing the scene. Dead trees stand in place throughout the fields, offering convenient perching places for Eastern Blue Birds, Song Sparrows and European Starlings.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012

As I came back out of the forest and stepped onto the boardwalk I turned my attention once again to the water, searching for signs of ducks. Ironically, I finally found a few Mallards – sitting on the boardwalk near the nature center.

 Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012
The sanctuary was quiet as I came around the bend and walked past the bird feeders. Pausing by the fields something caught my attention in the distance - at first I thought it was a dog, but through my binoculars I could see it was a  White-Tailed Deer feeding in another field, it's ears and tail twitching to keep the bugs away. Soon it was joined by another, smaller deer, and I watched as the two fed in the fading light. Definitely not a bad way to spend an afternoon, for the deer or me.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

An Amazing Moth and My First Eastern Towhee of the Year: Spring at Moosehill Wildlife Sanctuary in Sharon, MA

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary in Sharon, Massachusetts is a special place in my life. In fact, one of the earliest memories I have is of standing on the boardwalk in the wetlands with my father and a younger sibling and having one of the naturalists there break off a piece of Skunk Cabbage leaf for us to smell. Both the scent of this mildly malodorous plant and the experience of standing on this wooden platform surrounded by water and trees, have stayed with me. Moosehill is also special because it is the oldest Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuary and a place where I spent many hours as a kid and teenager exploring the fields, forests and bluffs. There are some wildlife sanctuaries which are more compact and easier to explore in a short amount of time, but with approximately 2,000 acres of habitat buttressed by another 400 or so acres of Moose Hill Farm (once owned by the Kendall family, generously donated to the Mass Trustees of Reservation) this sanctuary is the kind of place which deserves as much time as one can give it. It's the kind of place you could easily spend a day or two wandering around, hiking up to the bluffs for an impressive view of rolling wooded hills extending south and raptors taking advantage of the currents of air, or spend a few quiet hours in the sacred silence of the pines of Hobbs Hill, waiting for White-tailed deer to pass by.

During an outing this afternoon I hoped to see some interesting birds, but I also knew that with only a couple of hours to explore I should make sure to take in everything around me as well, and I was not disappointed.  Soon after I got out of my car I heard a familiar sound - the rattling staccato song of the Chipping Sparrow. I had been hearing them around Newton for the last few weeks but had yet to see one, so I was delighted when one made itself known in a fairly exposed spot at the top of a tree. This made species number 69 for the season, and made me hopeful that I might be able to add at least one more species to my year list today.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

I stopped in briefly at the nature center where I spoke with a naturalist who had some suggestions about where I might see some late warblers and then headed for the hay field closest to the road. In the past I have found this to be a good spot to see Ovenbirds (on the aptly named Ovenbird trail, actually) and in the fall and  winter the pine forest adjacent to the field is a good place to observe mixed-species flocks of Titmice, Nuthatches, Chickadees and Downy woodpeckers, not to mention the occasional wild turkey. Whenever I go birding at Moosehill I almost always come away with a shorter list than I might if I had been birding elsewhere, but I also tend to find some birds there that need the kind of thick forests, grasslands or other unbroken habitat that Moosehill has to offer. 

As I left the shade of the forest and stepped into the bright sun of the field I looked out on a sea of native grasses covering many acres of meadow, with insects buzzing and Tree Swallows swooping in graceful arcs overhead.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Sometime in the last year or so the folks at Moosehill have placed very nice wooden benches in different locations throughout the sanctuary. I found one at the edge of the field and sat down for a while, scanning the sky above for swallows, raptors and other birds I commonly see in this part of the sanctuary. As I was sitting there I was lucky enough to have  a truly gorgeous butterfly happen by and land on my leg. It sat there for a few minutes, and I was able to get some good photos and a short video. I have seen many butterflies and brightly colored moths, but I don't think I have ever seen this species before - as you can see below it has a very striking black and white wing pattern and bright orange/red legs. When I got home and did some research I discovered that this was in fact a moth, and not a butterfly -so below you can see a photo of this amazing little creature, an Eight-Spotted Forester Moth (Alypia octomaculata). Purely by coincidence I was having a conversation with some relatives this past weekend about the differences between moths and butterflies and I said that it can be hard to make distinctions in the field unless you know the species you are looking at, since many moths are in fact intricately patterned and/or beautifully colored. It looks like this Forester Moth is a prime example.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

As you can see from this video clip below there was a decent breeze, but somehow it was able to hang on.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

My next stop was the boardwalk, a great place to look for frogs, Red-winged Blackbirds and occasionally hawks. I have also had great luck seeing Eastern Towhees at the edges of the wetland. Before I got to the start of the boardwalk, however, I came across a Wild Turkey feeding in some tall grass.

 Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Along the boardwalk the Skunk Cabbage was robust and healthy-looking.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

On the other side of the boardwalk I paused to scan the field in front of me for signs of Orioles, Blue Birds and Swallows, but the meadow was mostly quiet. There were some nice wildflowers in bloom, and I could hear birdsong on the other side of the field, at the edge of the woods, so I decided to move on. Just as I left the meadow I heard a faintly familiar bird calling that I couldn’t quite place. I stood quietly listening for a while before I saw movement at the top of a tree about twenty feet in front of me. Slowly, I raised my binoculars and got an excellent look at a male Eastern Towhee who was singing quite loudly. Normally when I encounter these birds they are fairly shy and often calling from inside a brush pile or at the edge of a thicket, but this particular bird was in a pretty exposed spot singing from the top branches of a tree at the edge of the clearing. The photo below is not the greatest, but it does illustrate the coloration pattern of the male, as seen from the front and below.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

This was my first Eastern Towhee of the year and hopefully not the last. Moosehill is a great place to see these and other forest birds.

Although Moosehill is the oldest sanctuary in the Mass Audubon system much of its land was once under cultivation or used for various purposes.  I'll go into more detail in future posts, but if you visit keep an eye out for old stone walls and farm buildings that have been re-purposed, including  a barn. Another structure was built nearby to house a bat colony.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

  Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

One botanical puzzle I’ve noticed the last few times I’ve gone afield is that there seem to be a number of trees which have one or two branches of leaves that seem to think it’s autumn. Below you can see a photo of one such branch that I noticed today at Moosehill. If anyone has any insights into why this might happen with certain trees or under certain conditions, I would love to hear them.

 Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Whether you are interested in birds, bats, moths or botany, Moosehill is a great place to visit. For more information you can click here.

Also, if you'd like to find out a little more about the Eight-Spotted Forester Moth you can check out this interesting site. You can learn more about the Eastern Towhee from the people behind e-bird at this site.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Solitary Sandpipers and My First Warbling Vireo of the Year, Suburban Birds in Newton, MA

 Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012

I had about an hour to get outside this afternoon so I drove over to one of my favorite suburban birding spots near the Newton Public Library, There are actually quite a few good places to explore within a mile or two of the library, including the area around Bullough’s pond where I have seen many Hooded Mergansers, Great Blue Herons and Belted Kingfishers in the past. Today I focused on the area closest to Newton City Hall, where I was very pleased to find my first Red-winged blackbird nest of the year and to add another bird to my year list – a Warbling Vireo.  So far this year I have seen 68 specieis, mostly in Massachusetts but a few in Connecticut and New York as well.
The first birds to make their presence known were a pair of pigeons perched on the City Hall roof and a European Starling that came winging by, immediately recognizable by its triangular wings and overall dark coloration. Soon afterwards I came across several mallards feeding in the shallows of the stream and a Solitary Sandpiper. I took a few photos and some video of the mallards which you can see below, and  the sandpiper makes a cameo, flying right through the middle of the frame.
Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012

I was also very pleased to get close enough to a Gray Catbird to get a couple of decent photos - normally I have found Gray Catbirds to be somewhat weary of people, but this one didn't seem bothered by my presence. I was able to stand quite close to it and listen to its characteristic roller-coaster song as it moved from one branch to another. Gray Catbirds are generally fond of wet, brushy areas, so the trees and thick brush close to the stream make excellent habitat for them - they typically show up in Newton in early May and stick around throughout the summer.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012

In addition to this Gray Catbird I also noticed a pair of Yellow Warblers, a vociferous Song Sparrow calling from the top branches of trees, Several American Robins, a Blue Jay (good to see- according to Mass Audubon they are declining in the Commonwealth), two Mounring Doves feeding on the mud flats, a solitary Chimney Swift, an Eastern kingbird, several Red-winged Blackbirds, an American Goldfinch and a Northern Flicker (another species that is declining in Massachusetts).I also came upon this mysterious nest - not sure who this belongs to, I'm guessing a raptor of some kind, given the size. I would definitely welcome any help in identifying it.

 Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012

While I prefer to be somewhere far from cars and people when I’m exploring the outdoors I think it’s also very important that we realize the crucial role that places like this  plot of grass, trees, shrubs, mud flats and wetlands play in supporting local and migratory wildlife, especially birds and amphibians. This is one reason I wanted to highlight this park today, but also to draw attention to the importance of protecting the environment, regardless of whether it’s some remote mountain range out west or a little section of greenery right in our own backyards. I have documented more than 60 species of birds in this one small patch of Newton in the last three years, and I would argue this alone clearly shows how important these small places are to native plants and animals.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A Rainy Day at Mass Audubon's Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary

Sometimes I think that the best time to be out in the woods is when the rain is falling in the Spring or Summer, or Snow in winter. This is a time when few other humans venture out and the ones who do are more likely to be the kind who are more apt to move with the rain and snow, than against it. When the average person looks out their window and thinks it would be best to stay inside, this is of course the best time to go afield. And so despite the rain today I drove to Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary in Natick, MA, to see what soggy secrets Mother Nature might divulge amidst the intermittent deluge.  I have wandered the woods and fields here many times before and in all seasons and below you can see a photo from last summer when the sun was out. Broadmoor is one of my favorite places close to Boston since I can get there in about 30 minutes, and the forests, fields, wetlands and the Charles River which  make up the patchwork of the landscape are home to a plethora of plant and animal life. 

 Photo Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012

One of the reasons I chose Broadmoor today was that I had seen a report from e-bird that  there had been both Green Heron and Pileated Woodpecker sightings at Broadmoor, and never being one to let a little rain stand in the way of a decent walk in the woods I put on my (slightly leaky) rain gear and headed out. My first stop was the nature center where the woman behind the counter told me that they had in fact been seeing a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers and a pair of Green Herons, both of which had apparently decided to build nests at Broadmoor this season. I was excited at the prospect of perhaps not only seeing both species (which would be the first of the year for me in the case of the Pileated Woodpeckers, and life bird as well in the case of the Green Heron) but maybe even catching a glimpse of a nest. I was also warned to steer clear of the Mute Swans and their newly hatched Cygnets, since these normally foul-tempered birds become even more unpleasant when they perceive any threat to their young. So, with binoculars in hand, I stepped back out in the rain and began to explore the lush green landscape, I watched leaf and branch bob with the weight of falling drops and listened to a chorus of avian voices, obviously undeterred by the wet weather. In all I counted some 20 species of birds and encountered a few frogs along the way ( a complete list of birds is provided below).

The Red-winged blackbirds were the first to make their presence known along the boardwalk, the high spinning call of the males caught my attention right away, as did the appearance of several females with insects held firmly in their bills, disappearing into clumps of cattails, presumably to feed young. The Mute Swan family was also present, two adults and two small gray fluffy cygnets – they are impressive-looking birds, but as an alien-invasive  species (and an aggressive one, at that) there  is no question that they are having an impact on the native plants and animals in New England’s wetlands. From this same spot at the starts of the boardwalk a variety of other birds appeared, including the ever-present House sparrow, a male Baltimore oriole, a solitary Tree swallow and a male Downy woodpecker. As I continued on I spotted several Canada geese resting on an island of vegetation further out, a single male Mallard and a female Hooded merganser. I was somewhat surprised to the see the merganser – it came in for a splash landing, then dove and disappeared from sight.

As I moved along the wet path, listening to the sound of rain falling on the leaves, filtering down through the pine needles and landing on the brim of my hat I paused to inspect a tall tree that showed recent signs of beaver. I have still yet to positively ID a beaver at Broadmoor, I think I have seen one before, but I am never quite sure whether I am looking at a beaver or a muskrat since in those instance I have not gotten a good look at the animal’s tail. In any event, I have seen beaver lodges at the sanctuary and the results of their distinctive feeding habits can be seen on dozens of trees close to the water.

I decided to head for the wildlife viewing platform since it affords excellent views of a small pond where I often see various ducks, Eastern phoebe, beaver/muskrat, deer and other wildlife. Also, it has the virtue of having a roof, and as much as I love to be out in any weather, my binoculars were not as pleased. In the meadow just before the platform I noticed another tree swallow patrolling the skies, joined by two Chimney swifts making similar areal loops. An Eastern Bluebird also landed on a nearby branch, a bright green worm of some kind in its bill. As I got to the platform two ducks took flight from the water, shooting off at an angle and disappearing over the field, as I scanned the water for signs of wading birds and waterfowl. This is one of the best places in the sanctuary to observe a variety of wildlife because it offers multiple examples of ecotones- places where different kinds of environments overlap or meet, in this case we can see wetlands and meadows connecting, as well as forest and wetlands, and forest and meadow. 

I was hoping to catch a glimpse of the pileated woodpeckers, but didn’t have any luck. The woman at the nature center had indicated they had been seen in this section of the sanctuary and I listened closely for the tell-tale thumping of their bills on tree trunks. After a while I left the relative shelter of the viewing platform and made my way along the trail back toward the nature center. The rain continued to fall and increased in intensity, but I was rewarded with two final sightings of the day – a pair of beautiful Wood ducks and just at the end of the boardwalk a Green heron took flight, adding another bird to not only my seasonal count of species but my life list as well. Not a bad way to end a peaceful, damp walk in the Spring landscape of Broadmoor wildlife sanctuary.

Complete list of birds seen:
House sparrow
American Robin
Red-winged blackbird
Mute Swan
Baltimore Oriole
Downy woodpecker
Tree swallow
Mourning dove
Canada goose
American crow
Common grackle
Hooded merganser
Eastern bluebird
Eastern phoebe
Wood duck
Gray Catbird
Green Heron
Chimney swift

          Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.