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.


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  2. Can't wait to see what you kick your 2013 list off with!

  3. Funny I found your blog today. I was just at ponkapoag bog in the Blue Hills Reservation and saw a huge flock of maybe 20-25 pine grosbeak feeding in the atlantic white cedars there. It was very cool, and my first time seeing them too.