Monday, December 31, 2012

A Bit of Bay State Big Year Strategery

Yes, I know "strategery" is not a word, but I like the way it sounds do I decided to use it in the title of this blog post about my plan for birding across massachusetts in 2013. In this post I would like to share my general plan for my 2013 Bay State big year, and I would definitely welcome any feedback or suggestions from fellow birds and/or nature enthusiasts, both in terms of interesting places to see in the Commonwealth and potential birding spots. I have no doubt that life (and the weather) will intervene and change the course of my plans, so I guess we'll just call this a rough draft and see where I end up.


I'm still keeping an eye on weather reports for January 1 and where I go will probably depend, in part, on whether there is any open water around. My goal for the fist day of my big year is to get 20 species of birds, ideally a mix of ducks, common "feeder" birds and if I'm lucky, some of the key winter species.

In general, in the early part of the year I plan to make regular trips to some of my favorite local suburban locations in the Newton/Brookline area, including the Chestnut Hill Reservoir which is usually a pretty good bet for wintering ducks, including mergansers and Ruddy Duck, and to the Newton City Hall park where I have recorded close to 70 different species in the last few years. These locations are not far from where I live, and with limited daylight they are spots I can check with some frequency. I also plan to try and add whatever species of grosbeak, cross bill and siskin that I can, to both my life and year lists, so I will likely head to some of the more heavily forested areas I know well, such as Moose Hill and Broadmoor wildlife sanctuaries. I'd also like to get in at least one or two trips to Plum Island, again, for wintering ducks, and I'll be keeping a sharpy eye out for reports of snowy owls.


As much as I can, I plan to get outside and look for migrants in parks and cemeteries. No doubt seasonal allergies will put a damper on some of my planned birding, but I also intend to hit Stony Brook wildlife sanctuary, a place I've had good success in the past with warblers and early returning swallows and blackbird species.


Unfortunately my allergies tend to stick around into May, but I plan to still be on the lookout for late migrants, and by June I will be heading to Moose Hill Farm in Sharon to look for grassland and forest birds. This is a terrific spot to see Bobolinks and Grosbeaks in the wide open fields, orioles along the forest edge and woodpeckers and forest birds in the thickly shaded woods. I also plan to return to the north shore in June,  head out to the middle part of the state to revisit Wachusett Meadow wildlife sanctuary and hopefully go a bit further west and finally get to Arcadia wildlife sanctuary. As the days get longer and there is more daylight after work hours I plan to also start chasing rarity listings on the e-bird alert list.


As the weather heats up I will likely try to get more birding in toward the start and the end of the day, and I'll probably use my kayak more often to look for waterfowl and wading birds at places like Lake Cochituate State Park and on the Charles River. I'm also hoping to squeeze in a pelagic trip or two, something which will probably be crucial in my attempt to hit 300 species this year. I'd also like to get out to the Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and to Nantucket over the summer.


Fall migration will probably be my focus as the summer winds down and we move into Autumn. During this period I would like to get back out to western Massachusetts again, maybe to the Berkshires. Hawk migration is also something I would like to make a point of seeing - every year I notice announcements for various hawk watching programs and I have yet to actually join one.


I imagine I'll spend the last two months of the year chasing after rarities and species that have eluded me up that point. If I can make myself get up early enough I'd also like to do another pelagic trip, and I would love to get back to World's End on the south shore to look for ducks.

So that's the basic idea -subject (and very likely) to change - I would love to hear from anyone else out there who has attempted a big year in Massachusetts and has some thoughts/advice to offer.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Final 2012 Outing to Broadmoor

The woods and fields were frosted this morning, covered with a few inches of powdery snow, as I walked along the trails at Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary in Natick, Massachusetts.  Above me, the sky was a soft gray and the sun, a round, bright smudge masked by cloud, back-lit the entire landscape in muted metallic tones of silver and white.  Near the nature center I spent time standing quietly, watching the activity around the bird feeders. The usual suspects were present, along with a beautiful Red-bellied Woodpecker who made repeated visits to pick up sunflower seeds. I watched this bird for a while and it appeared to be caching the seeds in the bark of a tree, something quite common for nuthatches, but which I had never seen a Red-bellied Woodpecker do before. A little searching online revealed that this is in fact a behavior which the Red-bellied shares with other woodpeckers in the same genus, which was interesting to learn.

A Red-bellied Woodpecker inspects the bark of a tree at the Mass Audubon Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary in Natick, Massachusetts. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.
In addition to the Red-bellied Woodpecker I also spotted a male Downy Woodpecker, several American Goldfinches, Red-Breasted Nuthatch and both Song and American Tree Sparrow.

A Red-breasted nuthatch forages on a tree at Broadmoor in Nartick, Massachusetts. These comical little birds often join mixed foraging flocks in the winter and can be seen moving through the forest canopy (and at feeders) with chickadees, titmice and other small birds. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson,
As I moved away from the nature center the forest became quieter, but there was still plenty to see. Most of the wetlands along the boardwalk were frozen, although in the center I could see a little open water. There were no ducks to be found, and the resident swans were nowhere in sight. 

Later the sun came out, electrifying the snow-covered trees and bringing a little warmth to an otherwise chilly afternoon. In all, I counted 16 species of birds and was happy to get a few photographs of species I haven't captured on (digital) film before. It was a nice day to be outside.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Two Nature Websites To Check Out on a Snowy Winter Evening

With the snow piling up outside on this cold winter evening, it seemed like a good time to take a look around the web and check out some different birding blogs and websites. Below are two sites I have come to enjoy over the last year and would definitely recommend to anyone with an interest in natural history.

The Massachusetts Audubon Society website is one of my mainstays for online local nature news and information. I personally have a rather abysmal record when it comes to attending Audubon programs - out of 5 scheduled outings, one attempt to see Snowy Owls ended with my car stuck up to the doors in sand in the middle of a snow storm, another outing in search of woodcocks was failed to produce any sign of avian life, a planned evening of owling fell victim to torrential rains, and most recently I had a Saturday morning trip on the South Shore canceled because not enough people signed up. Still, I love Mass Audubon, and I would highly recommend checking out their website. In addition to information on birds and birding its also a great resource for general wildlife information. My only criticism is that I think the site would be even more useful if the sections for each individual sanctuary were updated occasionally and also had more specific information about programs going on at each location.

The website of naturalist, author and illustrator David Sibley is another site I like to check out from time to time. Sibley's filed guides have been my most valuable tool since I started birding, on both the east and west coast. The site appears to be updated only once or twice a month, but Sibley shares both his elegant, accurate illustrations and the things he learns from close observation, with readers. When I took a look this evening I saw that he had posted an interesting piece on telling the difference between male and female Juncos by watching their body posture and behavior while feeding. I really enjoy this kind close look at a bird which is fairly common in Massachusetts in the winter - it's a good reminder that even with species we think we know, there is always something more to learn.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Adding Birds #90 and #91 to My Year List

A light dusting of snow covers a field at Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary in Sharon, Massachusetts. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.
I recently made it out to Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary in Sharon, Massachusetts, for a quick birding trip. Moose Hill has always been a special place for me, I've been going there practically my entire life, and when I was in college I worked as a counselor at the nature camp one summer. While I may not often have as many species at the end of a typical outing at this location as I would perhaps at other places, it does offer diverse habitat, including pine and mixed woodlands, wetlands, streams and fields. In the spring and summer it's one of my favorite spots to watch Tree Swallows, Eastern Blue Birds and Baltimore Orioles and in the winter I can always count on lively mixed foraging flocks and occasional surprises.

On this most recent visit I spent about fifteen minutes outside the nature center watching the feeders. In addition to the usual suspects - Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Juncos and American Goldfinch, I was also delighted to come across a Carolina Wren, which was bird number 90 for me for the year. As I continued watching the feeders I heard a familiar grunting/croaking call overhead - I immediately thought "raven !"  and looked up to see a large black bird soaring overhead. Through my binoculars I could see its wedge-shaped tail, and as the bird turned and made an acrobatic dive, wings held gracefully back, I was sure I was looking at a bird I have seen many times in southern California and the Middle East, but only rarely in New England. With that sighting I hit 91 species for the year.

I spent the next 45 minutes or so wandering around, taking in the quiet, snow-dusted scenery. As I walked along I was accompanied most of the way by the cheerful song of chickadees and the semi-maniacal calls of the nuthatch. It was a nice day to be outside.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Starting to Plan for My 2013 Bay State Big Year

Part of the appeal of doing a "big year" (on a small scale) for me is the chance to work on my overall birding skills and learn more about avian life in general
As I start to think about my plans for a 2013 Bay State Big Year I've begun to do a little research into how other birders have tackled this sort of project and so far it's been a lot of fun to read about the different approaches people have tried and the adventures they have had along the way. It seems like the one unifying element across the board is a desire to see as many birds as possible in a given geographic area over the course of a calender year. For me, my goals are as follows:

1. To try and see 300 species of birds in Massachusetts.

2. To explore and experience new places in the state.

3. To improve my birding skills.

4. To gain a deeper knowledge of the varied habitats that birds (and other wildlife) call home in the Bay  State.

5. And last but not least, of course I want to have fun along the way.

Right now I am doing some research online, but I also keep a stack of birding books on my night table to look through each night before I fall asleep. At the moment, I have the two books in the photo above: Kenn Kaufman's Field Guide to Advanced Birding and The Shorebird Guide, as well as Sibley's guide to birds of western North America - my much-loved and well-worn Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America tends to never leave my car, a safeguard against forgetting it when going out birding. This last book is definitely my constant companion and go-to field guide when I'm outdoors. I find the illustrations extremely useful in making identifications when I encounter unfamiliar birds and overall it's easy to use.

I'm also starting to think about the places I want to check out in the coming year, from familiar haunts such as Broadmoor and Stony Brook wildlife sanctuaries to places I've been meaning to get back to, including Plum Island and the Halibut Point State Park, not to mention spots I've yet to visit on Cape Cod and in western Massachusetts.This weekend I'm hoping to get outside and perhaps add a few more last-minute species to my list for 2012. Maybe I'll even find some promising places to continue my search in 2013 as I embark on my adventure.

In the meantime, I'd like to share a few links to some birding blogs which touch on this rather strange yet wonderful notion of a big year. Happy reading !

1. Lynn Barber writing on the ABA blog about big year strategies

2. John Vanderpoel chronicles his 2011 big year.

3. Robert Mortensen offers some strategic thoughts on planning for a big year.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Eurasian Teal Shows Up for a Photo and a Large Red-tailed Hawk Appears

I had limited time today but I still managed to get over to the Newton City Hall Plaza, with the goal of getting some photos of both the continuing flock of American Green-winged Teal and the male Eurasian Teal which has been seen around Newton for the last few weeks. We were lucky enough to come across the American Green-winged Teal almost right away, feeding at the edge of some thin ice in a small, compact group. After trying to take half-decent photos through the branches my girlfriend Joanna pointed out an open spot in the brush and as I moved in to take a picture I realized that I was looking at the male Eurasian Teal, which was exciting.

A male Eurasian Teal swims along the edge of the ice, searching for food. This bird has been seen regularly around Newton, massachusetts, over the past few weeks. Unlike the American Green-winged Teal, the Eurasian Teal has a horizontal white strip running along its side, and no vertical stripe, as is seen on the former. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.
Capturing the Eurasian Teal with my camera was very exciting, not to mention a good reminder that whenever I go birding I have no idea I will encounter, so it's probably a good idea for me to idea to bring my camera along on every outing. As I was watching the teal I counted the group several times and noticed that there were only 9 birds in the group (plus the Eurasian Teal) while the last few times I had been there I noticed 10 (plus the Eurasian Teal, for a total of 11 teal). I suppose it's possible that a predator might have gotten one of the birds or that it was feeding in another spot I couldn't see, but its absence occurred to me almost immediately as I watched these small ducks feeding hungrily through my binoculars.

As we were walking over one of the footbridges something very big lifted off from a branch near the water, catching us by surprise. I watched the bird take off and saw right away that it was a large Red-tailed Hawk. The bird flew a short distance, landing on another limb, before taking flight again and coming to rest about 30 feet up in the branches of another tree, where it sat still long enough for me to take a few photos. The light wasn't too cooperative, and these images defintiely did not capture the impressive size or presence of this bird, but from the image below you can get some idea of what we saw.

A large Red-tailed Hawk, likely a female, perches in a tree in Newton. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.
There are a number of resident Red-tailed Hawks in and around Newton Center, and I've watched them over the past couple of years, often as they've sat perched on tree limbs or at the peaks of tall buildings. It's a real delight to see them glide along on invisible tracks of air as they hunt for small mammals, birds and other prey.

We finished off the morning with a quick stop at Lake Massapoag in Sharon, Massachusetts, where I added Hooded Merganser and Bufflehead to list for the day. There was also another a group of very intriguing ducks fairly far from shore, which I was not able to identify, mixed in with the Bufflehead and some Canada geese. They looked like they might have been Ring-necked Ducks or Scaup, but without a scope it was hard to tell. I defintiely plan to return soon for a closer look.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Field Testing the BirdLog App at Stony Brook WLS

In the winter geese, ducks and other water birds will seek open places in the ice in wetlands and ponds. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.
I suppose when it comes to technology I am what people might term a "late adapter," however ,when I find something useful I tend to embrace it eagerly. I rarely go afield without my digital camera, for instance, and I've been using my smart phone to keep birding lists using the note function for a while now.

So I was intrigued when I logged into e-bird recently to enter a list and noticed that they were featuring a new app called birdlog, which allows birders to keep track of field observations in real time and syncs with the ebird website. For $4.99 I thought it was worth a try, so this morning I downloaded the app and tried it out this afternoon during a short trip to Stony Brook Wildlife Sanctuary in Norfolk, Massachusetts.

Black-Capped Chickadees like the one pictured above are frequent visitors to backyard bird feeders throughout the winter months. They will often join mixed foraging flocks along with Tufted Titmice, Nuthatches and other birds. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.
The weather was very nice - a slight breeze and partly cloudy skies, warm enough to go without gloves, and the moment I got out of the car I could see a lot of activity near the bird feeders beside the nature center. I immediately began to scan that area, noticing a vivacious flock of Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice and American Goldfinch. As I got closer I noticed Juncos had joined the mix, flashing their distinctive black and white tails as they moved from branch to ground and back again in search of seeds. I love to watch the activity and interactions between species at feeders, and the staff at Stony Brook does a great job of keeping their feeders stocked throughout the winter, attracting the usual suspects as well as Downy Woodpecker, House Finch, American Gold Finch, and Red-breasted Nuthatch.

As I walked down the trail, heading toward the boardwalk, I noticed an impressive level of motion and birdsong evident along the path. From behind stone walls, inside brush piles, and along the bare branches of deciduous trees I saw several active White-throated Sparrows and brilliant red Northern Cardinals. 

As I was enjoying this informal chorus of avian arias I saw something very large land on the trail ahead of me, just beyond the far edge of a wooden footbridge. I raised my binoculars quickly and confirmed my suspicions, as a Great Blue Heron came into focus. The bird was soon spooked by a loud group of people coming up from behind me, but it landed on a nearby rock sticking up out of the water. While much of the surface of the ponds was covered in a thin layer of ice, the heron soon made a rather ungraceful lunge for one open spot and managed to catch a bright green and yellow sunfish in its bill. It was thrilling to watch, and of course very surprising to see a Great Blue Heron still hanging around eastern Massachusetts. I've seen sporadic reports on e-bird of sightings, but I have definitely never seen one this late in the season before.

This Great Blue Heron was an unexpected sight so late in the year at Stony Brook Wildlife Sanctuary, by this time of year most herons have headed to warmer climes for the winter. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.
The heron was still there when I left about an hour later, perched on large rock in the pond. I imagine it might hang around for a while if temperatures remain tolerable and there are some open spots where it might be able to catch fish. I would be very curious to know what the latest/earliest records are for this species in Massachusetts.

Out along the boardwalk I could see that most of the ponds were covered with ice. The resident Mute Swans were visible, along with two separate groups of Canada Geese, but aside from a small flock flying overhead I didn't see any ducks.

Mute Swans are native to Eurasia but have escaped from captivity in the United States where they have established breeding populations. Mute Swans are known for being particularly aggressive. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.
I spent a while watching the Canada Geese try to navigate the uneven terrain created by thin ice on the pond - some of were able to walk along quite easily while others kept hitting soft spots and dropping through into the water below.

Canada Geese make their way across a pond at Stony Brook Wildlife Sanctuary. Thin, uneven ice makes for tricky footing as these web-footed birds move about. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.
On the other side of the pond, just up a small hill, I was back in the action again, with Northern Cardinals, Juncos, Chickadees and others moving rapidly and calling loudly as they moved from branch to branch. As the afternoon warmed up a bit I looked up at the sky which was turning increasingly gray to try and discern what kind of weather might be headed my way, but the birds seemed undeterred by the unusual warmth or the potential promise of rain or snow. Back near the feeders there was even more activity, with one small group of Tufted Titmice moving at a frantic pace from trunk to branch to feeder, picking up seeds as they went. Beneath them, two American Tree Sparrows picked through fallen seeds, while two Downy Woodpeckers, one male, the other female, alternated between hammering away on a gray branch and checking out the feeder below.

Overall it was a great outing and I was pleased with the BirdLog app - my only concern is how much power it might draw from my phone, which could be an issue on longer outings, so I'll need to keep an eye on that. Otherwise it was a great asset in the field and as I think it will be a valuable tool as I attempt to tackle my Massachusetts big year in 2013.

In all I managed 18 species in about an hour and forty five minutes and got to enjoy the winter landscape. I don't think I could ask for much more.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Glowing Clouds, Winter Ducks

Often the key to finding birds in winter is to look for them in places that offer resources they need -food and water - without being too exposed to predators or adverse weather. Image copyright Danuiel E. Levenson 2012.
With the wind sweeping open a few spots in an otherwise cloudy sky and the sun tinting the remaining clouds a glowing array of pink, blue and gray, today was a wonderful day to be outside. Yes, it was cold, yes it was a bit windy, but otherwise very nice. Around mid-day I found myself at Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary in Natick, Massachusetts, one of my regular birding spots and a favorite place in general to wander through woods, wetlands and fields.  The diversity of habitat in the sanctuary is a boon not just for birders, but anyone who might like to catch a glimpse of a deer, beaver or other wildlife.

In winter the setting sun paints the clouds in glowing tones of pink, yellow, blue and purple. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

In my search for birds today I found myself relying more on my own experience than on obvious external signs of avian life - scanning the tree tops looking for mixed foraging flocks of Chickadees, peering into quiet corners of the pond for the tell-tale ripples sent out by dabbling ducks, pausing beside brush piles to see if any sparrows were about. Which is not to say the woods were entirely quiet - there was occasional birdsong, and the maniacal chatter of both red and white-breasted nuthatches led me to at least two groups that contained two nice surprises: a Golden-crowned Kinglet and my very first Brown Creeper in Massachusetts (and only my second life sighting). Besides the few birds who did make their presence known through song there was also the occasional rush of the wind through the tops of towering pine trees and the unnerving creaking of dead trees rubbing against one another.

Another delightful discovery was a small group of American Wigeon feeding near a much larger group of Mallards. This was a new life bird for me, bringing my lift list to 194 and my year list (including New York and Connecticut) to 89. With the end of the year a little more than a week away I'm still hoping to crack 90, but we'll see.

On my way home I decided to stop at a local park where I often see a Red-tailed Hawk or two and where a group of Green-winged Teal have been hanging out for the last few weeks. On both counts I was successful, observing a Red-tailed Hawk perched high atop a building nearby and the group of teal were still present, actively feeding in a small pond. Among them was another bird which has been here for a while now, a solitary male Eurasian Teal. I still don't know where this stands in terms of being a separate species or subtype, but however it is classified this male was clearly quite different from the other males, with an easily visible white  horizontal stripe  running along the side of his body. I was also keeping en eye out today for  Crossbills and Grosbeak of various species, which have been reported  in the e-bird rarity alerts for Massachusetts as well as in the bird sightings section of the Mass Audubon website. Perhaps I will have better luck next time.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Last Flickers of Autumn

With the last days of Autumn at our doorstep, I find myself contemplating the coming cold. Despite a few strangely warm days this past week, when I stepped outside this morning I could feel that winter wasn't very far away. So under gray skies I decided to check out a few of my regular spots in Newton, hoping to find a little color and motion in a landscape otherwise rapidly sliding toward its seasonal slumber.

In one favorite haunt of mine I was surprised as a group of 4 ducks on the wing seemed to be as they circled over head, to notice that some of the smaller ponds had frozen over, while all along the water's edge Black-capped Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatch, Juncos, House Sparrows and American Goldfinch moved rapidly from one spot to another between the brush and evergreens. Overhead, I spotted a couple of American Crow and two Blue Jays, all calling raucously in flight, while three Northern Flicker sat silently in the skeletal arms of a maple tree.

In another favorite spot I came across a boisterous flock of American Robbins who were soon joined by a group of European Starlings, transient transplants, cutting the cold gray air with their triangular wings. Like all animals, birds make changes in response to season and weather, and I have little doubt that the robins were on the lookout for late season fruit and berries.

In the winter the American Robin changes its dietary focus from insects to fruit. One way to find robins in winter is to look along the edges of fields and wetlands for fruing plants. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

As I was scanning the brush by one of the open ponds I met two other birders who were out as part of the Christmas Bird Count. We chatted briefly and they told me they had seen a Pine Siskin in a nearby park, and pointed out a Northern Mockingbird perched at the top of a tall tree. Again I was reminded of the amazing advantage of birding with other people - it seems like different people will always notice different birds. While we stood there I also spotted a female House Finch mixed in among a group of House Sparrows.

The real prize of the morning, in addition to the flickers, was a continuing group of American Green-winged Teal, which have been seen in Newton for the past few weeks.  Seeing them dabbling beside a small group of Mallards provided me with an excellent opportunity to study them beside this other very common duck.Although the Pine Siskin eluded me it was still a great morning to be outside and I hope to get back to the Newton City Hall pond soon with my camera to take some photos of the Green-winged Teal, which I'll be sure to share here on the blog.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

To Ramble Across Meadow, Forest and Marsh: Contemplating a Massachusetts Big Year

Each night when I check my email one of the first messages which pops up is the e-bird rarity alert list for Massachusetts. I always open this email right away and scan the sightings to see what kinds of strange or unusual birds might have made their way to the Commonwealth, and I have to admit that as I do this, there is part of the that wants to seek out these birds - whether they are rare vagrants like the lapwings that have been sighted on the south shore recently, following Hurricane Sandy, or late-season birds that have somehow stayed behind, such as the reports of Barn Swallows I've been seeing lately. And then of course the list can be useful for tracking the arrival of rare but regular visitors, especially this time of year, when I am keeping an eye out for Snowy owls and Pine grosbeak, two species I have yet to add to either my state or life list.

In summer, the vibrant and verdant fields and forests of Moose Hill Farm prove irresistible to breeding Bobolink, Baltimore Oriole and a wide range of other bird species. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Looking back over the past year there are definitely some sightings I have been excited about. Although my total number of the species was well below what I had hoped for, with 88 species of birds in New England and New York, I did manage to add 12 new species to my life list, including Northern Shoveler and Brown Creeper in New York's Central Park early last January. As the year progressed, I wandered many of my usual haunts, including Mass Audubon Broodmoor Wildlife Sanctuary where I added a Pied-billed Grebe in March and a gorgeous Green Heron to my list in May.  In a park in Newton, MA I added an Orchard Oriole and Brown Thrasher to my list, while trips to the Connecticut shore, Cape Cod and Plymouth Harbor added Great Shearwater, Wilson's Storm Petrel, Common Tern and perhaps most unexpectedly, Helmeted Guinea fowl, to my life list. The last new species to join both my year and life list so far was a Palm Warbler, which I spotted at the end of September at Broadmoor. Of course there is still some time left in 2012, so perhaps I will be lucky enough to add a few more names,

Massachusetts offers all kinds of great places to look for shorebirds, sea ducks and gulls. Above, a sandy stretch of beach in Barnstable, MA. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.
But with January only two weeks away, I have to admit that those emails from e-bird have me thinking about attempting a Massachusetts big year. It's a notion I've been kicking around for a little while now, and one that my girlfriend Joanna has been encouraging. I don't enjoy listing for its own sake, but I do like to be able to look back and recall the time spent outdoors in pursuit of catching a glimpse of wild, feathered life. And there is a little of the spirit of the hunt to it as well, the thrill of pursuit. It strikes me as a romantic notion, to read about the presence of a Sandhill Crane or a Brown Pelican having mysteriously arrived in the Bay State, and then to go off and pursue it, to insert a little avian adventure into the day. Based on the little research I have done, it seems possible for an active birder to chase down around 400 species in one year in massachusetts, depending, of course, on a whole range of unpredictable factors - weather, climate change, work and family, etc. I also love the idea of seeing new places in a state I have called home for most of my life, of seeking out new wetlands, forests, meadows and shorelines to see not only the bird life there, but to experience the sun, rain, snow and tides that these places have to offer. The truth is that such an endeavor is really an excuse, a reason to explore. In eastern massachusetts alone there are dozens of places I have meant to visit a hundred times and never gotten out to see - this project is one way to finally get out there.

Stony Brook Wildlife Sanctuary in Norfolk, MA offers quiet trails and beautiful views of ponds and wetlands. Visitors to this Mass Audubon sanctuary can expect to find an impressive level of avian diversity among the wooded glades, hushed pine groves and sprawling wetlands and meadows. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

It's the totality of the potential experience that appeals to me, and that is what I intend to try to capture and chronicle here on my blog. Even if I only get half the number of species I aim for, I'm excited by the idea. And whether my first bird of 2013 is House Sparrow or a Snowy Owl, I look forward to sharing these moments of discovery with anyone who would like follow this journey here on New England Nature Notes.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Late Autumn, In a Park and Along a Reservoir

Although the late Autumn landscape can look a bit bleak - caught between the golden-hued foliage and crisp, clear days of October and the bright, snowy winter mornings  yet to come - this is actually a fantastic time to get outside and explore. While it is true that fewer species of birds are around at this time of year, for birders the lack of leaves and thick vegetation provide an opportunity to get a closer look at the avian life which is around. I was reminded of this during two recent outings, the first was in Hartford, Connecticut, where I walked part of the way around a large reservoir over the Thanksgiving weekend. The weather was nice, warm even, for November, and the  placid water in front of me proved irresistible to a large number of gulls, Canada geese and, to my delight, a raft of Ruddy Ducks, which came quite close to shore as they disappeared beneath the water and popped up again, searching for food.

A reservoir in Hartford, Connecticut offers spectacular views and the opportunity to see Ruddy Ducks, Canada geese and other water-loving birds. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.
During my walk at the reservoir I was also happy to spot several Juncos hopping around near some brush. According to the various guides I have consulted these vivacious little black and white members of the Sparrow family are present in New England year-round, but I've only seen them in the winter. The humble Junco holds a special place in my heart as it was one of the first birds I learned to recognize when I started my amateur birding career.

A little closer to home, this past weekend I stopped in at a favorite spot in Newton, Massachusetts, where the limited vegetation was immensely helpful in spotting a Red-bellied Woodpecker as well as a group of Green-winged Teal which have been hanging around this area for at least a week and a half now. Mixed in with the Green-winged Teal was a solitary male Eurasian teal. I have to admit some confusion here as to whether or not these are currently classified as two distinct species - ebird would not allow me to put in this bird as a Eurasian or Common teal, but I have noticed in the daily rarity report email that other people have been able to record their sightings (of what I believe is actually the same individual bird) as a Eurasian Teal. In any case, both species/variations are quite beautiful, and I was excited to see them.

Although parks and woodlands can look bleak in late Autumn it's worth remembering that wildlife, including many species of birds, are still present in the landscape. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

In the past I haven't usually gone out of my way to chase reports of rare birds that I've read about online, but as I look at my year list, which currently numbers 88, I can't help but feel a little bit like chasing after something unusual in the closing days of the year. After all, with the trees bare and wintering ducks and owls returning, this is probably the perfect time for me to head outside and try to see something unusual.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.