Saturday, June 30, 2012

Weekend Birds in Sharon, Newton and Natick, MA

A Killdeer lands on the grass outside of City Hall in Newton, MA. This member of the Plover family is often found far from the coast.
Since I had plans to go kayaking with my cousin yesterday afternoon I decided to do a little birding beforehand at the Newton City Hall. I was glad to see many of the same species which were present yesterday, including the Eastern Kingbirds and a Killdeer which was even more cooperative today when I tried to take its photo.There were many Mallards, Pigeons and Robbins present as well, and the highlight (aside from the Killdeer) was a Red-tailed Hawk that caught my eye soaring on a thermal over the park.

Lake Cochituate , located in Cochituate State Park in Natick, MA is a popular destination for kayakers, sailors and fisherman.

After birding I headed over to Lake Cochituate in Cochituate State Park, Natick, MA, to meet my cousin to do some paddling. We rented kayaks from Charles River Canoe and kayak, which allowed us to explore a variety of ecological corners on the water, from marshy spots filled with turtles and ducks to narrow places where Herons, Kingfishers and Eastern Kingbirds watched for prey from hidden perches. I left my binoculars in the car, but brought along my camera and managed to see some really great birds, including a first of the season Belted Kingfisher.  I was also positively delighted to get within about 3 feet of a Great Blue Heron hunting at the water's edge.

A Great Blue heron surveys the waters of lake Cochituate from its perch on a  tree branch. This species if normally quite skittish, but I was able to get a photo of this heron by allowing my kayak to drift quietly past the bird.

We also came across myriad other wildlife, ranging from Dragonflies and Damselflies to Painted Turtles and Muskrats. Unfortunately, we also came across a variety of floating trash, including several Styrofoam trays, a beach shoe and a beach ball, all of which I loaded into my kayak and brought back to shore to throw away. I suppose that with a swimming beach and picnic area at the park it's inevitable that some errant trash may end up in the water, but it was upsetting to see nonetheless.

Unfortunately it's not uncommon for trash and other debris to make its way into the water when people are careless. In this photo you can see we found a beach ball, Styrofoam trays and a water shoe.
 I finished the day at Mass Audubon's Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary, hoping to see some interesting butterflies as well as birds. As soon as I got out of my car I noticed an abundance of birdsong and as I made my way over to check out the feeders beside the nature center, some movement caught my eye and I paused to look through my binoculars - on the other side of a fence were two adult Wild Turkeys and 7 juveniles. This could very well be the same group I saw in the area a few weeks ago, so I was excited to see them again. I watched them forage for a while, and then two other adults appeared. I then moved on to check out the feeders but soon heard very loud calls coming from the same area - I returned to see two adult male turkeys facing off against each other. This is something I hadn't seen before and it was pretty interesting. They were both clearly quite agitated and were gobbling very loudly as they flew up into the air a couple of feet off the ground and collided head on. After a few minutes the dispute seemed to resolve itself and the birds quieted down. Later, I saw a female turkey and some of her young feeding on the ground beside the nature center.

A Wild Turkey forages beside the nature center at the Mass Audubon Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary in Sharon, MA.
I also made sure to check out the fields closest to the nature center and along the Billings Loop. The big field was actually surprising quiet, aside from Chipping Sparrows and one or two Swallows, there was very little bird activity evident.

The fields At Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary offer great opportunities to see Tree Swallows, Chickadees, Eastern Towhees, Hawks and other birds.

 I finished off the day by taking some photos of wild flowers.

Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary is not only a great place to observe wildlife, but to see a wide variety of wild flowers, trees, ferns and shrubs.
Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Friday, June 29, 2012

An Unusual Shorebird and A Brown Thrasher in Newton, MA

An impressive array of shrubs, trees and flowering plants at the Newton City Hall plaza park attract a range of birds, mammals and insects.
Despite the very warm weather I decided to venture out this evening for a short walk near City Hall Plaza in Newton, MA.  I was especially interested in looking for the Killdeer which commonly nest in the wetland/pond area in the park, and can often be seen hunting for food quite close to the road. It's always a little odd to see these shorebirds so far from the ocean, but in the past I've also seen Solitary and Spotted Sandpipers use this wetland as a stopping point during migration, although as far as I know the Killdeer are the only shorebirds which seem to stay for the whole summer. As soon as I pulled up to the park I noticed a large number of American Robbins hunting for worms on the lawn, so I scanned the grass to count the Robbins and see what other birds might be looking for food in the same area. It wasn't long before I spotted the male Red-winged Blackbird in the photo below - it didn't seem very bothered by my presence and I was able to take a few photos of it.

An adult male Red-Winged Blackbird searches for food on the open lawn in front of the Newton City Hall Plaza. Red-winged blackbirds commonly nest in this area during the spring and summer.
This spot is also attractive to mammals, including Gray Squirrels, Muskrats and Rabbits.This evening there were two rabbits feeding on the grass.

Rabbits can be seen regularly in this area feeding on vegetation during the warmer months.
While I was scanning the open lawn and checking the line of vegetation closest to the water, something moving right at the edge caught my attention. At first I thought it might be a large American Robbin, but there was something noticeably different about this bird as I compared it with the naked eye to the Robbins feeding on the grass. I raised my binoculars and was delighted to see a bird larger than a Robin with brownish orange coloration, a long tail and a promninent black bill - I knew right away that I was looking at some kind of Thrasher, although I had never seen one in the wild before. This is where studying field guides when one is not in the field really does come in handy - I suppose it's like studying any other subject, but I can vouch for the effectiveness of "studying" guides at home, because it helps prepare the mind for things that may be seen in the field. I tried to get closer to get a photo, but it dissapeared into the greenery - fortunately I got a good look through the binoculars and was able to double check my ID with my Sibley guide. This was a new life bird for me, which was pretty exciting. The Brown Thrasher was the 7th life bird I've added to my list this year, and brought my total number of species for the year so far to 77.

Just as I was about to leave I looked over toward a small group of Robbins on the grass and saw right away that there was another bird on the lawn which was strikingly different. Peering through my binoculars I was very happy to see my first Killdeer of the season. I have little doubt that this species has been around this area for a while now, but I have not been birding here as much in June as I have been in previous months. I suspect there was another one around somewhere, since there seems to be at least two (probably a pair) which take up residence in this wetland each summer.

The Killdeer is a shorebird which is often found far from the ocean.
The Killdeer is a fascinating bird to me, since it is a member of the Plover family but is not found in habitat one would usually associate with shorebirds. Their name is derived from their distinctive call which sounds like they are calling out "kill-deer !" The folks at e-bird have put together a great short description of this bird and its life history, which you can view by clicking here.

Once again I was reminded this evening of the power of quiet observation, not to mention the fact nature has a lot to offer right in our own backyards (and parks). Seeing the Thrasher and the Killdeer was a great way to end my week and it put me 2 birds closer to my personal goal of seeing 150 species this year. I wonder what will pop up next ....

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

An Interview with Russell Hopping, Ecology Program Manager for The Trustees of Reservation

Russel Hopping is the Ecology Program Manager for The Trustees of Reservation, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping protect and preserve an impressive range of wildlife habitat in Massachusetts. In this interview, Mr. Hopping discusses the mission of the organization, his work in environmental conservation and  some of the beautiful places he is helping to protect.

World's End in Hingham, MA offers sweeping views of the Hignham Harbor, salt marsh and fields. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.
NENN: For people who may not be familiar with the Trustees of Reservation can you give a brief overview of why the organization was founded and what its mission is today?

RH: Founded by Charles Eliot in 1891, The Trustees of Reservations are the nation’s oldest regional land trust and non-profit conservation organization.  Our mission is to preserve, for public use and enjoyment, properties of exceptional scenic, historic, and ecological value in Massachusetts. For 116 years, we have been devoted to conserving the cultural and historic character that makes Massachusetts’ landscape and communities unique.  A nonprofit organization funded entirely by our visitors, supporters and more than 40,500 members, we aim to inspire the next generation of conservationists to appreciate and preserve their cultural heritage, for everyone, forever.

NENN:  What are some of the different kinds of habitats that the Trustees help to protect in Massachusetts?

RH: Just about all the habitats found in Massachusetts can be found on The Trustees’ 107 properties.  We protected beaches including Cranes Beach on the North Shore and Coskata-Coatue on Nantucket, floodplain forests, beaver ponds, rivers, forests of many types and mountain tops including Monument and Peaked Mountains in the west. 

Some of the more special habitats include barrens important for a host of rare and declining species.  High quality barrens are some the rarest habitats in Massachusetts.  The Trustees actively manage more than 700 acres of barrens with mowing, selective thinning of trees and prescribed fire.  We also maintain more than 1,000 acres of grasslands.  Some of the better examples can be found at Appleton Farms in Ipswich, FieldFarm in Williamstown and Charles River Peninsula in Needham.

NENN: Why is it important to preserve grasslands such as those found at Moose Hill Farm in Sharon, MA?

RH: Grasslands, typically called fields, pastures or meadows in Massachusetts provide habitat for a multitude of species.  More important, some species such as grassland birds and some species of butterflies depend upon grasslands entirely.  If we didn’t maintain grasslands or in some cases restore them these species would disappear.  Some of our rarest birds including upland sandpipers and short-eared owls require large grasslands for breeding and foraging. The fields at Moose Hill Farm support a population of bobolinks.  These birds fly all the way from Argentina to breed in these fields, what an incredible migration and reason to admire these birds and maintain a summer home for them.  For me grasslands and the species dependent upon them make the outdoor experience more interesting and fun.  I can’t imagine not hearing bobolinks and eastern meadowlarks in the summer or seeing Baltimore checkerspot butterflies flying through the tall grass. 

The Trustees of Reservation help to protect a wide variety of habitats, including grasslands at Moose Hill Farm in Sharon, MA. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

NENN: Who are some of the different community partners you work with when it comes to environmental preservation? Do they tend to approach you or do you actively seek them out?

RH: It depends - we work with private landowners, other land trusts, non-profits, municipalities and state and federal agencies to protect land.  Many of these same partners help with ongoing stewardship needs.  For example, the Massachusetts Division of Fish and Wildlife, Division of Conservation and Recreation (DCR Fire Bureau), The Nature Conservancy and municipal fire departments are critical to implementing prescribed fire where we have fire-dependent habitats.  In other cases volunteers play an important role.  Our bird nesting boxes are almost entirely maintained and monitored by volunteers.  This is a huge help.  Without these volunteers we would be fledging far fewer bluebirds and tree swallows but more house sparrows (an invasive bird). 

NENN:  What are your personal favorite Trustees properties when it comes to ecological diversity?

There are many, but a couple are special.  Weir Hill in North Andover never fails to surprise me.  Habitat diversity is very high with more than x communities.  The Trustees have been actively restoring 80 acres of barrens at Weir Hill for rare species including the frosted elfin, a butterfly that flies in the spring and lays its eggs only on the native wild indigo (Baptisia tinctoria).  Weir Hill also includes fields and meadows with a very different set of species from the barrens. One indicator of this property’s biological diversity is butterflies.  More than x species have been documented and the property is less then 200 acres in size.

Crane Beach is also a favorite.  This was the first property I worked at but the dunes, beach, pitch pine forest, swales and salt marsh are some of the best remaining examples of their kind.  In addition to being one of the most important sites for the endangered piping plover, Crane Beach provides habitat for some unusual species at their northern limit such as the Eastern spadefoot toad and prickly pear cactus.  Since I am partial to shorebirds I also enjoy the diversity and flocks of shorebirds during migration.  More than 21 species of shorebirds have been documented at Crane Beach. 

NENN: Can you tell us a little about your own background and how you came to work for The Trustees?

As a kid I was very interested in nature and spent a lot of time outside.  So when I grew up a career in conservation was natural.  I was particularly interested in shorebirds (plovers and sandpipers), so for my undergraduate thesis I studied migrating shorebirds at Crane Beach.  I liked it so much I stayed on helping with the shorebird program managing piping plovers and least terns that nest on the beach.  This started my career with The Trustees.  

NENN:  Is there anything else you would like to add?

I encourage everyone to get outside and visit the incredible protected areas around the Commonwealth.  We are very fortunate to have so many protected areas and a rich natural history. However, these lands face so many threats from invasive species, overabundant deer, overuse, and now climate change to name a few.  Most land managers will gladly welcome volunteer help.   

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Urban Oasis #6: A Mystery Bird and a Mix of Habitat in Boston's Public Garden

The Boston Public Garden, which features a wide variety of flowers and trees, as well as a large pond, was established in 1837. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.
This afternoon I had the opportunity to wander a little through the Boston Public Garden, a venerable city institution and a wonderful example of green space in an urban environment. With bright beds of flowers, vibrant green shrubs and many different kinds of trees, this park attracts a range of birds. During my short walk there today I came across a large number of Mallards making use of the pond, hordes of House Sparrows and European Starlings foraging on the grass, an American Robin bathing in the spray from a fountain and a male Red-winged Blackbird, which took flight soon after I noticed it.

A statue of George Washington on horseback stands guard along the Boylston Street entrance to the Boston Public Garden. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.
While nearly all of the birds I spotted while walking through the garden were easily identifiable, I did come across one which was a bit perplexing - I'm guessing it might be a juvenile Common Grackle, but to be honest, I'm not entirely sure what it was - if anyone has an idea I would love to hear from you.

This dark bird, about the size of a grackle, was seen hunting for insects on the grass in the Boston Public Garden. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.
The Public Garden certainly warrants further exploration - during the short time I was there I also saw a butterfly and a dragonfly, signs that this relatively contained patch of urban habitat is at least attractive to a range of wildlife. if you'd like to learn a little more about the history of the Boston Public Garden, you can check out this site, run by the non-profit group Friends of the Public Garden. The Boston Nature Center, run by Mass Audubon also offers resources for people interested in learning more about urban plants and animals. Finally, I should add that in doing some research online about birding in the public garden, I came across this interesting blog post, written by Bob Greco, the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game Chief of Staff. It's exciting to read that a number of wood warbler species have been seen in the park and I definitely plan to keep an eye out for these colorful migratory song birds in the Fall and Spring when walking through the garden. In the meantime, if you have a favorite urban birding spot drop me a line and perhaps I'll check it out (and write about) here on the New England Nature Notes blog.

A pond in the center of the Boston Public Garden attracts waterfowl and tourists. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A Freshwater Cod in the Connecticut River ?

Burbot (fish)

This past weekend I was in Hartford, Connecticut, where I had the chance to visit the beautiful Rose garden at Elizabeth Park and to survey the broad, silvery waters of the Connecticut River as it moved along its forested banks. Whenever I am near large bodies of water, especially those which seem particularly broad or deep, I can;t help but imagine what might be happening below the surface, where depth and silt prevent us from seeing easily the activtities of the fish, reptiles and amphibains which rely on rivers and their watersheds for the resrouces they need to survive and thirve.

While I saw several different species of birds at the river,my visit also reminded me of shad fishing when I was younger and evoked this deeper sense of mystery and curiosity which dark waters always seem to conjure for me. As I thought about the river this evening I decided to do a little research to find out more about the Connecticut River watershed and some of the fish that call the river home for all or part of their lives. It was while doing some research online about the Connecticut River fishery that I came across a description of a very interesting fish that I had not previously heard of, called the "burbot," on a webpage maintained by Alan Richmond of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. On this website, Dr. Richmond notes of this fish in the Massachusetts section of the river that:

"This is the only freshwater member of the Cod fish family. This is a northern, cold water species that is circumpolar in distribution. This fish was probably never very common in Massachusetts. Little is known about the status of this species in Massachusetts other than it is listed and a species of special concern. "

Since I didn't have my own photo of a Burbot, and I believe strongly in protecting intellectually property and copyrights, I searched online for a free image and found the line drawing above available for free.

Of course this river is home to many other species as well, including the aforementioned Shad, which was once an important food source for people living along the river.The US Fish and Wildlife Service Connecticut River Coordinators Office has put together a great site with interesting information which is certainly worth visiting. Here visitors can learn about status and life history of this fish.
There is much more to say about this great river and the creatures that call it home - please keep an eye out and check back soon for another upcoming post, in which I will delve a little more deeply into the waters of the Connecticut River.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Backyard Birds, A Revitalized Waterfront and the Rose Garden at Elizabeth Park: Two Days in Connecticut

The Connecticut River in Hartford on a sunny June afternoon. The non-profit organization Riverfront Recapture has been instrumental in helping to restore the health of the river and improving accessibility for residents and visitors. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

This weekend I was in West Hartford and Hartford, Connecticut, where I had the opportunity to visit some beautiful places where human habitation and the natural world intersect. Over the course of Saturday and Sunday I saw a number of different species of birds, including a Great Blue Heron flying over the the trees along the Connecticut River, a Northern Flicker perched at the top of a tall tree by the riverbank, American Robbins and Common Grackles hunting for food on suburban lawns and a Blue Jay vising a backyard bird feeder.

On Sunday I spent the afternoon at the Riverfront Boathouse, a location which has benefited from the work of the organization Riverfront Recapture, which has played a significant role in revitalizing the Connecticut River and parks along its banks in the Hartford area. Looking out at the landscape the river itself was silvery-gray ribbon of water in the bright summer sun, as it wove its way past the docks and boat ramps. Seeing this river brought back memories of shad fishing on the Connecticut as a teenager and made me want to get out on the water.

Docks along the river bank offer boaters and recreational fisherman access to the waters of the Connecticut River.

Our visit happened to coincide with Rose Weekend, a celebration of an elaborate rose garden which is one of the coolest features of Elizabeth Park. This park also seems like a potentially promising birding spot, since it offers a mix of open fields, cultivated flower gardens and a small pond.We managed to get to the park late in the day on Saturday as the sun was setting - fortunately there was still enough light to wander around among the rose bushes and take a few photos.

Just a few of the hundreds of varieties of roses visitors can see at the Rose Garden in Elizabeth Park in Hartford, Connecticut.
The sun sets and the moon rises over Elizabeth Park and the Rose Garden in Hartford, Connecticut.
Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Urban Oasis # 5: A Blue Jay and A Gray Catbird in Downtown Boston

A plethora of flowering plants along the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston offer a nice visual respite from the harshness of the angular steel, glass and concrete which characterize the urban landscape, and attract birds.Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Each day I usually pass through a small section of the Rose Kennedy Greenway, either on my way to, or home from, work. In addition to checking out whatever plant life may be blooming or changing in some way, I also try to keep an eye out for any unusual birds. There are some birds which are quite common and familiar in almost all cities in the US - Rock Pigeons, House Sparrows, European Starlings, etc., but I often wonder when I see these species, all of which are essentially alien invasive species, which native birds would fill in these small but important ecological niches if these alien invaders were not present.

While I have seen a number of American Robbins in and around these small green spots in the city, this morning as I was walking along the sidewalk in the heat and bright sunshine, a particular piece of birdsong caught my ear. I stopped to listen and after a minute or so I was pretty well convinced I was hearing a gray catbird - the call had both the rambling series of notes which is characteristic of the species and then I heard the distinctive cat-like squawk which is the Gray Catbirds signature note (in my mind, anyway). I took out my smart phone and moved closer to the tree where I heard the call coming from, and noticed something on one of the branches, I looked closer and saw that it was  a bird about the size of a catbird, but I did not see its bill move as I heard the vocalizations. Upon closer inspection I was surprised to see it was a Blue Jay, a bird which I wold not be overly surprised to see perhaps in the Boston Public Garden or the Arnold Arboretum, but one which seemed a little out of place in downtown Boston.

While I was looking at the Blue Jay and trying to get a photo (unsuccessfully, unfortunately) I could hear the catbird calling from a higher branch on the other side of the tree. I put down my work bag and moved slowly to the other side, where I did indeed see the Gray Catbird, sitting on a branch, partly obscured by foliage. I managed to get a photo of this bird, which is admittedly not that great, but you can at least see the shape of it. In silhouette it actually looks a bit like a Common Grackle to me, but I did get quite a close look at it and it was indeed a Gray Catbird.

This Gray Catbird was observed singing loudly from a high branch in a tree along the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston, MA. Image copyright Daniel E . Levenson 2012.
The Gray Catbird has a special place in my heart - they're not the most colorful birds and they certainly don't sing the most enchanting songs in the avian choir, but their seasonal arrival with the warm weather and their love of wet, brushy habitat reminds of me hot summer days spent fishing, exploring and having fun on and near the water. The Blue Jay was also good to see- as I've noted before on this blog, this species seems to be in decline in Massachusetts, so I always take special note when I see one.

There are some great online resources available if you'd like to learn more about the Gray Catbird or the Blue Jay (just one of several Jay species that call North America home). For the Gray Catbird I would recommend starting with this great description offered by the folks at Cornell University's e-bird project. You can also check out this piece, posted by the Migratory Bird Center at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park.

If Blue Jays are more your cup of tea, you can learn more about these raucous roarers of the treetops by checking out this page, run by National Geographic. The Canadian Museum of Nature also has some great photos and natural history information on this page.

After seeing these two birds today I know that I plan to keep a closer eye on the shrubs and treetops I pass in the city every day - now that I know there are Blue Jays and Gray Catbirds out and about, who knows what else I might find ?

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Urban Oasis # 4: A Burst of Color in Boston

Visitors to Boston's Seaport District will find some beautiful flowering plants, in addition to great views of the harbor.
The more I pay attention to the trees, shrubs and flowers around the city of Boston the more I am struck by the diversity of urban plant life around me. All along the Rose Kennedy Greenway and throughout the Boston Public Garden there are amazingly colorful flowers that catch the eye and delight the senses. These plants are of course not only beautiful to look at, but they also provide a source of food and shelter for birds, butterflies and insects that have found a home in these small green patches set amidst expanses of pavement and concrete. On my walk to work this morning I came across two separate areas which has particularly vibrant red flowers so I stopped to take a closer look - if anyone  out there can identify the flowering plants in these photos I would love to hear from you.

All along the Rose Kennedy Greenway visitors will find a wide variety of trees, shrubs and flowering plants.
Sometime this summer I plan to expand my urban ecology explorations and try to photograph some of the great plants and birds that call the Boston Public Garden home.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

An Interview With Author and Naturalist John Himmelman

John Himmelman is a successful author, illustrator and naturalist living in Connecticut. He is the creative mind behind a number of ecologically-minded works for both children and adults, including  the children's books "Cricket Radio" and "Cows to the Rescue," and field guides including "Discovering Moths, Nighttime Jewels in Your Own Backyard" and "Discovering Amphibians, Frogs and Salamanders of the Northeast." Mr. Himmelman recently took some time to answer a few questions for New England Nature Notes about the butterflies and moths of Connecticut, his books, and what inspired him to become an author, educator and naturalist.

NENN: What are some of the major threats to butterflies and moths in New
England today ?

JH: Habitat destruction can tip the scales in the wrong direction for some borderline species – and that destruction doesn’t always come from people (at least directly). Deer have been known to wipe out food plants of some species of butterflies. Introduced predators such as parasitizing wasps have also brought down numbers of certain species of moths. A species brought in to deal with gypsy moths a while back, didn’t stop at the gypsy moths, but went after our larger silk moths (Luna, Promethea, Cecropia). I would imagine that light pollution cannot be good in the overall picture for night flying Lepidoptera. 
Habitat protection is crucial for the health and well-being of New England's butterflies and moths, which rely on open grasslands and meadows for to provide the resources they need.
NENN:  Where are some of the best places in southern New England to look for moths and
butterflies ?

JH: One of my favorite spots is at Bent-of-the-River in Southbury, CT. Lots and lots of fields at different stages of growth! There is also a great butterfly habitat area at Lighthouse Point Park in New Haven, CT. It was created by the CT Butterfly Association. It’s not only a good place to find butterflies, but you can see what plants seem to be working best for them. Technically not southern New England, but close enough, is Ward Pound Ridge in New York - another place with some great fields. Finally, the Wellfleet Audubon Sanctuary in Wellfleet, MA, has a great butterfly garden by the gift shop.

NENN: What kind of plants should people place in their gardens or backyards to
attract moths and butterflies ?

JH: I tend to prefer native plants. I figure it’s native bugs I’m hoping to attract, so I should provide the food they evolved to eat. There is a wide selection of nectar and larval host plants out there. I suggest a person visit to download the list of butterflies that can be found in our region along with the plants they feed and nectar upon. 

Also, have a look at what is already in your yard. What are they feeding upon? Could expanding what you already have improve the numbers and diversity of what you attract? A walk out at night will show you what plants are serving as nectar sources for certain moths, too.

Plants such as Milkweed provide food for a variety of different kinds of butterflies.
NENN: Your expertise extends beyond moths and butterflies and covers a wide range of natural history, what first inspired you to become a natural history author and educator ?

JH: I’m a wildly curious person and the pursuit of one creature inevitably leads to the pursuit of another. The connections in the natural world are forever leading me up new paths. Of course, the aesthetic qualities of much of my quarry helps to hold that interest – both visually and aurally. For me, it’s like a big, never-ending treasure hunt. I started when I was about 5, chasing bugs with a little net, and haven’t let up. When I see something new, I want to know more about it. When I learn something fascinating about that creature, I want to share it. That’s human nature – we like to share that which interests us. That very act adds to the experience.

NENN:  You are the author or illustrator of a number of different natural history books for children, can you tell us a little about some of your recent projects and perhaps give us a glimpse of something you might be working on right now ? Where can people go online to learn more about your work ?

JH: I mix my more whimsical children’s books with books on natural history – some for kids, some for adults. I always choose something about which I’d like to learn more. That’s the best way to learn, at least for me – researching and immersing yourself in a subject. I recently finished the illustrations for a book I wrote for Dawn Publications – “Noisy Bug Sing-a-long”, about the sounds insects make. It encourages the readers to learn how to listen for the songs that surround them outdoors.

I’m also at work on a field guide for kids called Basic Illustrated Frogs, Snakes, Bugs, and Slugs” for Globe Pequot/Falcon Guides. It’s a guide to the things in nature that are somewhat… unloved…

NENN:  Is there anything else you would like to add ?

JH: You can visit some of my websites for information on my programs and books. My main site’s at In addition, I have a blog called “Moths in a Connecticut Yard” – lots of pictures and stories of moths in my yard in Killingworth, CT –  Lastly, there’s Connecticut Amphibians, which has photos of every species of amphibian in CT, as well as recordings of most of the frogs –

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Red Admiral Butterfly: A Common Summer Visitor to New England

On Sunday I was visiting with family in northern Massachusetts and I spotted this very cool butterfly in the garden behind the house. It seemed completely unperturbed by my presence, allowing me to take several photos of it with my smart phone. When it comes to butterfly ID and natural history my present knowledge base is fairly shallow, but I've been making an effort to become better acquainted with these colorful and surprisingly hardy animals. So far this spring I have learned to identify the Eight-spotted Forester Moth, the Spicebush Swallowtail and with this most recent observation, the Red Admiral.

The Red Admiral is a common visitor to gardens in the northeastern US during the spring and summer.
The Massachusetts Audubon Society has some great online resources available if you'd like to learn more about the butterflies and moths which can be found in the Commonwealth. This website offers some great information on the natural history of the species and notes the fact that there have been recorded instances of iruptions of these butterflies, with massive numbers showing up in Massachusetts on occasion. As my observations usually do, seeing this Red Admiral inspired me to try and learn a little more about this butterfly, and I was surprised to learn that for the adult form, flowers are really a secondary food source - in fact, according to the Butterflies and Moths of North America website,  they prefer to get their nutrients from tree sap, bird droppings and fruit.

According to the Massachusetts Audubon Society Butterfly Atlas, volunteer researchers have noted adult  Red Admiral feeding on a range of flowering plants, including Goldenrod, Milkweeds and Meadowsweet.
If you're interested in learning more about butterflies, the following sites offer accessible information and some great photos:

1. Mass Audubon Butterfly Atlas

2. NABA Massachusetts Butterfly List

3. The Massachusetts Butterfly Club website

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

American Mink and Tree Swallows, A Glimpse Of Nature in Motion at Stony Brook Wildlife Sanctuary

A series of interconnected wetlands and ponds at Stony Brook wildlife sanctuary provides crucial  habitat for a wide variety of birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians.

Throughout the course of the year, as the seasons and the landscape change, Stony Brook Wikdlife Sanctuary in Norton Massachusetts has an incredible bounty of wildlife to see, whether it's green-winged teal and Hooded Mergansers in the winter or migratory warblers and swallows in the spring, bird watchers will not be disappointed with a f.ew hours spent exploring the fields, wetlands and forests of Stony Brook. In addition to bird life the sanctuary also supports a wide variety of reptiles, amphibians and mammals. It's lso a notable place to visit since it features a "sensory trail"  which offers an easy walking trail equipped with brale and large print signs informing visitors about the environment around them.

At mass Audubon's Stony Brook Wildlife Sanctuary visually impaired visitors will find several signs with large print and brail describing the landscape.
The birds were abundant this afternoon and I counted 18 species, including two Yellow Warblers, a Great Blue Heron, an Eastern Kingbird, several Wood ducks, two Northern Flickers, and many Red-winged Blackbirds. I was very happy to see the Flickers as well as a Blue Jay, since both species are reported to be declining in Massachusetts. I also had a chance to watch some really interesting bird behavior - at first I wasn;t sure what I was seeing, since it looked like some of the swallows were interacting in mid-air. After some careful observation I managed to get close enough to see that these were adult Tree Swallows feeding juvenile Tree Swallows. The juveniles even perched for a while on a tree beside the boardwalk waiting for the adults to bring them winged insects. I event  managed to get a few photos of the juvenile birds, which you can see in the photo below.

A young Tree Swallow waits on a branch near the board walk for an adult to return with food.

In the big field by the parking lot I was surprised to see relatively few Tree Swallows. In fact, the most numerous birds present in the field were House Sparrows which had taken over the Purple Martin house in the center of the field. As I made my around the edge of the field I came across two brightly colored Yellow Warblers which were singing loudly and moving quickly back and forth in the air across the path, darting in and out of some high brush on both sides. Soon I came to the first bridge where I noticed a family of Mute Swans right away - two adults and 4 cygnets, feeding in the wetlands. A little farther on I came to the boardwalk whee I encountered the Tree Swallows feeding the juveniles, Wood Ducks, and this Spotted Turtle in the photo below, which was resting on a clump of mud close the boardwalk.

A Spotted Turtle rests in the sun on a small patch of mud near the Stony Brook boardwalk.

I spent some time on the boardwalk scanning the marsh with binoculars and saw a number of female Red-winged Blackbirds which appeared to be gathering food and returning to their nests hidden in vegetation at the edges of little islands in the water. Leaving the boardwalk I followed the trail until I came to a tall hill covered in fragrant, shady pine trees. Birdsong filled the air as I stood still, watching American Robbins and Gray Catbirds squawk and move from branch to branch.

Mute Swans have been present at the sanctuary for at least the last few years - this season it appears they hatched 4 cygnets.

By the dam I came across a female Mallard with 4 ducklings at the bottom of the waterfall, and on the top of the dam sat a very worn-looking male Mallard, its head tucked into its body, resting in the sun. As I walked over the top of the dam I suddenly saw something running out of the woods - I didn't have time to get my camera out, but I did get a pretty good look at it. I noticed that it was some kind of mustelid carrying a small rodent in its mouth. I was very excited, as I've never seen a weasel or fisher up close. I stopped in the nature center on my way out and described the animal I saw to the woman at the desk, who told me it was an American Mink. I was pretty excited to see this normally secretive mammal out in the open. Next time I hope to get a photo.

A female mallard takes shelter in vegetation in a stream, in the background of the photo several ducklings can be seen feeding along the muddy bank.

With hundreds of acres of forest, field and wetland to enjoy at Stony Brook and adjacent conservation land, there is  an impressive array of plant life to enjoy year-round.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Friday, June 15, 2012

A Late Afternoon Walk by Bullough's Pond, Newton, MA

Bullough's pond in Newton, Massachusetts attracts a wide variety of avian life throughout the year, including Red-winged blackbirds, Great Blue Herons and Kingfishers in the summer.
One of the great things about living in Newton is that there are so many little places around the city where you can feel like you're out in the country. One such spot is Bullough's Pond, a muddy body of water fed by a stream at one end and spilling out into another at the other end. The pond is great place to see a wide variety of bird life in all seasons, and in the winter it is one of my go-to places when I want to see Hooded and Common Mergansers. Ruddy Ducks have also been seen here in the colder months. This evening I decided to take a walk around the pond and to check out the wetlands in front of city hall plaza.

I was very happy to see a variety of birds, including a Yellow Warbler, Gray Catbirds, Red-winged Blackbirds and Mallards. On the grass I saw several rabbits feeding and on one of the mud flats there was a young muskrat chewing on short stalks of bright green grass.  I misplaced my regular camera this morning so I had to rely on my camera phone, which unfortunately was not good enough to get a shot, but it was definitely one of the coolest things I have seen in this location.

This is also the time of year when turtles leave the waters edge to lay their eggs. It can be a fairly precarious time for these slow-moving reptiles, so it was great to see this sign in the picture below along the road by the pond. Kudos to whomever took the initiative to help protect these vulnerable animals.

A sign  pointing out a turtle nest by Bullough''s Pond and asking pedestrians to walk carefully.

 Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Urban Oasis # 4: Birds and Boston's Fort Point Channel

A new dock in Boston's Fort Point Channel offers kayakers easy access to the water and great views of the city skyline. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.
Although I walk past the Fort Point Channel almost every day of the week, I have to admit that I don't actually know very much about this waterway or its role in Boston's history. I have noticed on more than one occasion, though, that a variety of waterfowl and diving birds are attracted to this relatively narrow corridor of dark water which sits in the shadow of the Boston skyline. This past winter I noted Mallards, Canada Geese, a Mute Swan, several Red-breasted Mergansers and a loon, not to mention numerous species of gulls, making use of the channel and various structures around the water. This spring brought Double-crested Cormorants to the channel, and Common Grackles, House Sparrows, Canada Geese and gulls remain present on the grassy patches and sidewalks close to the edge of the water.

Boston's Fort Point Channel offers visitors is a prime example of a city structure that has endured the test of time and connected generations of Bostonian to the harbor beyond. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.
At one time the channel was a very busy place, helping to supply Boston with the goods and materials that citizens needed for daily life. The Boston Public Library has put together a great website with a shirt history of the channel, which notes in part that

"In the early years of the Channel its wharves were used mainly for the storage of molasses and wool, but as Boston grew in prominence as a center for industry, brick and granite factories gradually replaced wood-framed storage sheds"

To read more of this interesting history, you can check out this page here. 

Seeing so many birds in the channel also got me interested in learning a little more about the wildlife in and around the harbor (which was, as I noted in my last post, at one time extremely polluted) especially with the presence of cormorants and Red-breasted Mergansers, given their role in the food chain as predators of fish.  I wonder if anyone has done a comprehensive study of the bird life which makes use of the channel throughout the year ? If so, I would love to hear about it (and share the results with New England Nature Notes readers) and to find out if the presence of marine life in and around the channel has noticeably increased since the clean-up of Boston Harbor. In any case, I plan to reach out to the people at Save the Harbor and the New England Aquarium to see if someone there might be interested in doing an interview for this site about the harbor, so please stay tuned for that. In the meantime, if anyone out there has interesting photos or a story relating to the ecology of Boston Harbor, I would love to hear from you.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Urban Oases # 3: Boston Harbor

A view of Boston Harbor on a rainy spring evening in June. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Living or working in the city of Boston it can be pretty easy to take Boston Harbor for granted. We may notice it from time to time while walking to lunch or from the seat of an airplane when landing at Logan Airport, but Boston Harbor is an important place where the natural and man-made worlds intersect. Any student of American history will instantly identify Boston Harbor as the setting for a series of events which were crucial to the success of the American Revolution, but students of environmental history also have much to learn from the different ways that humans have impacted the ecology and even the geography of the harbor.

A few summers ago I had a chance to get out in the harbor on a sailboat on a day trip to one of the Boston Harbor Islands, specifically Grape Island. My trip started out on a clear morning with blue skies and a light breeze. Leaving from the Community Boating docks we passed under a bridge and then out through a series of locks and into the harbor. Aside from some choppy water for part of the trip our voyage to Grape Island was calm and enjoyable, and during a picnic on the island I was lucky enough to spot a fox. On the trip back, however, the wind and the traffic on the water picked up considerably and I spent 6 bone-chilling hours hanging off the back of the sailboat taking wave after wave of freezing salt water in the face as I watched out for lobster pots navigational buoys and other boats ranging from small sailboats to tankers. Suffice it to say, everyone made it back safely and it was a memorable experience.

As this photo shows, Boston Harbor is a place where various elements, both modern and old, man-made and natural, all intersect. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.
Boston Harbor is in fairly good shape these days, ecologically speaking, but this was definitely not always the case. In fact at one time the water was quite polluted. As the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority notes in an online history of water quality in the harbor:

"For over one hundred years, the disposal of the daily waste of Boston and its surrounding communities got only limited treatment before being dumped right into the harbor."

Pretty unsettling stuff if you ask me, but fortunately things have changed significantly since people began to pay attention to the incredibly negative impact that the improper treatment of sewage was having on the Boston Harbor ecosystem.Today the harbor is much cleaner and a popular departure point for sight-seeing cruises and whale watches. The New England Aquarium has also played a vital role in advocating for the clean-up of the marine environment in and around the harbor, and continues to offer educational resources to help the general public learn more about the importance of protecting and preserving the marine environment.

I plan to return to some of the harbor Islands this summer, and when I do you can be sure you'll read about it here on New England Nature Notes.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Monday, June 11, 2012

A Native Bird Returns: The Comeback of the Eastern Wild Turkey

A wild Turkey foraging at Mass Auduibon's Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary in Sharon, MA in June of 2012. Image Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

30 or so years ago, when I was growing up in eastern Massachusetts with occasional trips to western Massachusetts and New Hampshire, the sighting of an Eastern Wild Turkey was a pretty rare event. Now these large birds seem fairly ubiquitous, showing up in a range of suburban and even urban environments as their range and numbers grow in New England.

For the past few years I've been seeing Wild Turkeys on a fairly regular basis, both along the sides of regular suburban roads and in the woods. I've also had a few minor run-ins with groups of rather surly male turkeys  in the spring, including one last year when they were blocking my way to my car - fortunately I have a back door so I was able to distract them, then run inside and sprint out the back door to my car. Another time I had a group attack my moving car, pecking at the tires. Despite the occasional problems these birds can present they are actually quite beautiful and their return to the woods and fields of New England speaks well of conservation efforts over the past two decades.

In doing a little research online I cam across an interesting website run by the North American Wild Turkey Federation has created a Management Plan, which .they describe on their website as: 

  "...a compilation of regional and state/provincial plans that will outline goals to help wildlife management agencies and the NWTF's dedicated volunteers target the most important factors in wild turkey conservation and protecting our hunting heritage." 

According to their website the group has been working with variety of stakeholders, including private land owners and the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife to enhance and restore Wild Turkey habitat in the Commonwealth.

In fact, the return of the Wild Turkey is touted as one of the most important conservation success stories in the US, and Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife has posted a great paper online where you can learn more about this remarkable effort to restore an important avian presence in the native landscape. In an earlier post I wrote about the return of the beaver to Massachusetts, another important ecological actor which had been extirpated from Massachusetts. Whenever I see one of these animals which were once so rare here making a comeback it gives me hope for the future of conservation and not just the preservation, but the improvement of the natural places that make New England so special..

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Birding by Kayak: Lake Cochituate in Natick, MA

The view from a kayak on Lake Cochituate in Natick, MA.
Today I decided to take advantage of the brilliant blue skies and comfortable temperatures to explore Lake Cochituate in Natick, Massachusetts. The lake is actually a series of interconnected ponds which are popular with swimmers as well as recreational boaters and fisherman. This has been a good place to observe wildlife in the past as well, so I  rented a kayak from Charles River Canoe and Kayak, and brought along my camera and a small pair of binoculars to see what I could find.

Lake Cochituate is a popular destination for recreational boaters in the spring and summer.

I have been kayaking for about a dozen years now, and it’s one of my absolute favorite outdoor activities. Whether I’m fishing, bird watching, taking photos or just floating somewhere quietly, kayaking gives me a profound sense of peace and relaxation.  Being out on the water also brings back great memories of adventures I’ve had sailing in Boston Harbor, kayaking on the Pemigawasset River in New Hampshire or navigating my way through serpentine labyrinths of grass and mud on a thin black ribbon of water in a Cape Cod salt marsh. I first got into kayaking more than a decade ago when I became friendly with the owners of Onset Kayak which used to be located on the beach in the village of Onset, in Wareham, Massachusetts, just north and west of the Cape Cod canal. I had many paddling adventures with friends I made there, and having grown up spending a lot of time in small motor boats and row boats I loved the way that kayaking offered me a chance to be out on the water under my own power, in a vessel that was light enough to transport on top of my car. I also took quickly to kayaking because kayaks have a shallow enough draft  to allow for easy access to out of the way places and wetlands to explore and look for wildlife and are fairly stable platforms for fly fishing and photography.

A painted turtle relaxing on semi-submerged tree branch at Lake Cochituate, Natick MA.

During my time on the water I was lucky enough to see some great birds and other wildlife that relies on the lake for survival. In addition to several turtles, multiple species of dragonflies and damsel flies, bluegill and catfish, I also spotted Baltimore Orioles, an Eastern Kingbird, Common Grackles and this beautiful Green Heron shown in the photo below.

A Green Heron looks for prey at Lake Cochituate in Natick, MA. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Seeing this Green Heron and getting a photo of it is definitely one of the highlights of my spring so far. This is a bird I added to my life list earlier this year when I spotted one at the Mass Audubon Broadmoor wildlife sanctuary, also located in Natick, MA. That time, I only saw the bird as it took flight, but this time I was able to get a very clear look at it and see what a beautiful bird it really is. I was also impressed with the way in which its plumage, both in terms of color and pattern, functions so well as camouflage – in fact, if I hadn’t paddled closer to this semi-submerged tree to get a closer look at the Painted turtles, I probably would not have noticed the heron at all.

The Green Heron may not be a rare bird, but it can be quite secretive and difficult to find, so I feel lucky for having had the chance to see two of them so far this year. The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife has put together a great fact sheet on this fascinating bird, which you can check out by clicking here.
I'm excited to see more wading birds by kayak as the warmer months progress, and will of course be writing about whatever I discover, here on the New England Notes website. 

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.