Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Looking back on 2013: 200 species of birds, from New England to Israel

Redheads in the Chestnut Hill Reservoir in Boston, MA on New Year's Day, 2013. These were not only a new life bird for me, but an exciting find on a frigid winter day and a great way to start off my attempt at a 2013 big year. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
As 2013 draws to a close I've been thinking a lot about the birding I've done over the past year, as I attempted to do my own version of "big year." I started out with the goal of seeing 300 species in Massachusetts, then shifted my geographic range to all of New England, since I knew I would be spending some time in Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Connecticut as well. In the end I saw a total of 200 species for year, the vast majority in New England, but a good number in Israel as well. My final stats for the year were as follows:

Total species seen in New England: 179

Total species seen in Israel : 23 

Total species seen (or heard) for the year: 200

New life birds added for North America: 57 (I also managed to begin my year with a new life bird on New Year's day with a group of Redhead ducks and end the year with another new bird, a Snowy Owl seen in Rhode Island)

One of the best things about this project was that it gave me a chance to meet some really great people in the birding community, see new places and learn more about bird life and general ecology. I spent many winter hours walking along the edges of semi-frozen ponds, sweltering days fighting mosquitoes and dehydration in forests and wetlands and had a tremendous amount of fun doing it all.

At the Jerusalem Botanical Garden in Israel I cam across this Little Egret (a fairly common Eurasian bird closely resembling Snowy Egret) which  was a nice addition to both my 2013 year list and my life list.  Image copyright Daniel E.Levenson.
There were many great experiences and moments, but I think one of the best was defintiely participating in the Mass Audubon Bird-a-Thon as part of the Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary team - with Strickland Wheelock as our expert coach we spent 24 hours scouring the outer cape where there were Whip-poor-wills to be heard calling in an old graveyard, Northern harriers hunting over dunes, a large breeding colony of Double-Crested Cormorants to be seen at the entrance of Provincetown harbor and a spectacular sunrise to watch at Pilgrim Heights. We also had very good luck when it comes to the numbers and diversity of warblers to be found. This was a fantastic birding experience and one I am looking forward to doing again this year.

During my 2013 New England big year I had a chance to visit many beautiful beaches and coastal areas, from Rhode Island to Maine. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
In 2014 I plan to slow things down and focus much more on field observation and trying to sharpen my bird ID skills. Instead of checking e-bird reports constantly (a habit I alternately embraced and rejected several times throughout the course of this past year) I plan to focus on just getting outside wherever and whenever I can, with my binoculars and a notebook.  My goal is to keep detailed lists not only of the birds I see, but to gather as much data as I can, including notes on weather, bird behavior and breeding activity. Another thing I would like to do is make notes on field marks to help sharpen my ID skills, especially when it comes to sparrows, gulls, flycatchers and warblers. Wherever I go birding in the coming year this is going to be my approach - so I'll see where I end up birding and exploring, and of course I plan to share what I find, here on this blog.

So here's to a year of slow birding in 2014, and thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Friday, December 13, 2013

December birding in Rhode Island brings my list to 200 species for the year

A group of birders scans the waves for Surf Scoters, harlequin Ducks and other visitors to the Rhode Island coast in winter. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Back in January I began a quest to complete my own version a birding big year, with a focus on Massachusetts. My original goal was to find 300 species of birds in Massachusetts, but over the course of 2013 my focus shifted a little, first to include all of New England. This was a really great project and I feel like it taught me a lot about bird ID, where to find birds, and gave me a glimpse into larger patterns of migration and the ways that birds interact with their environment. Although there are still two weeks left in the year and I may add another species or two to the list if I'm lucky, I have to say I'm pretty happy to have seen 179 species in New England, and another 21 species in Israel, for a total count of 200 species for the year.

During a recent outing to Rhode Island with Mass Audubon's Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary, I added the most recent 5 species which brought my year list to 200, all of which also happened to be life birds, which was really exciting. During this outing I added a Purple Sandpiper feeding in the surf along a rocky outcropping, a Ruddy Turnstone along the beach, a beautfiul Snowy Owl perched atop a huge beach-side rock, a White-crowned Sparrow feeding in brush along a trail and several Black Scoters just off of the beaches near Newport. In the next two weeks I'm looking forward to getting out a little more, but for now I have to say I'm pretty happy to have reached 200 species for the year.

I'm looking forward to getting outdoors as often as I can in 2014, and hopefully exploring some new areas in New England other parts of the country.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Friday, December 6, 2013

November birding in Israel

A large pond in the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens offers birders an excellent place to watch for Little Egret and at least two species of Kingfisher. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Last month I had a chance to do a little birding in Jerusalem, a place which is not only rich with thousands of years of history and culture, but  a wonderful place to go see an incredible range of species passing through on their way to and from Europe, Africa, Asia, the Mediterranean and other parts of the Middle East. Over the course of a few days I visited the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, the Wohl Rose Garden and the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens, where I saw many interesting birds.

A Eurasian Jay searches for food along the edge of a stream at the Jerusalem Bird Observatory in Israel. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
At the Jerusalem Bird Observatory I spent several hours inside the hide watching Eurasian Jays, European Robins, White-spectacled Bulbuls, Palestine Sunbirds, Laughing Doves and other birds that I got to know fairly well when I lived in Jerusalem in 2009. I also had a chance to speak with some staff and volunteers at the observatory who were doing a bird banding demonstration, and were nice enough to let me know which birds watch out for in the area this time of year.While I saw many great birds at the observatory and in the Wohl Rose Garden across the street I have to admit I was slightly disappointed that I did not see a Bluethroat, a particularly striking bird that I have wanted to add to my life list for some time now. One surprising find were two House Crows, a species not native to Israel and more commonly found in India, but which has established a presence in the country.

Hooded Crows like the ones in the photo above are a common sight throughout the city of Jerusalem and can often be seen perched in trees and foraging for food in city parks. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

I particularly enjoyed birding in the botanical gardens, with its winding paths that take visitors on a botanical tour of the world. It was here that I added 4 new species to my life list: Grey Wagtail, Little Egret, Sardinian Warbler and White-throated Kingfisher. I also had a lot of fun trying to get close to and photograph some of the lizards that were enjoying the late Autumn sunshine, basking on the rock walls that line the walking trails.
At the Jerusalem Botanical garden a  Little Egret stalks along a partially submerged cable, hunting for food. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

In total I added 23 species to my year list, and 10 to my life list, which was not bad considering I had limited time to go birding. I'm looking forward to returning soon and getting out into other parts of the country to look for dessert species in the south and hopefully to visit the Hula Valley, one of the best spots for birding on the planet.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

A Spotted Sandpiper along the Charles River is Bird #174 for the Year

Fall colors were on display along the Charles River in Newton and Waltham. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Over the past week I've managed to get out and do a little more birding by kayak on Lake Cohituate in Natick and the on the Charles River in Newton. Both times I've brought my camera along and on each outing I've been able to get quite close to a number of very striking birds, including a Black-Crowned Night Heron (found perched in the same place I saw one mentioned in my last post), several brightly-colored male Wood Ducks, an Osprey and  a Spotted Sandpiper.

A Painted Turtle sits on a half-submerged log on Lake Cochituate in Natick, enjoying the last few rays of summer sunshine. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Paddling around Lake Cochituate I saw fewer birds than my previous trip, but there was still plenty to see, including the Painted Turtle in the photo above. There was also a raucous chorus of Blue Jays in the trees and many Mallards out on the water. The absence of the sound of Gray Catbirds was also noteworthy - perhaps they've already begun their migration.

A Spotted Sandpiper hunts for food along the muddy banks of the Charles River in Waltham, Massachusetts. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
While paddling on the Charles River this past week I added a Spotted Sandpiper to my year list, bringing my total to 174 species. At this point it would be practically impossible to get my New England big year list up to 300 species, but I am hoping to hit at least 200 species for the year in New England, which should be an attainable goal if I get out this fall and early winter in search of Finches, Snowy Owls, etc. With one trip abroad planned before December 31 I's hoping to hit at least 210 for my personal year total. Either way it's been a fun project and down the road I would defintiely consider attempting another "big year," most likely within tighter parameters - i.e., only in Massachusetts or only for a month.

A Great Blue Heron sits perched on some branches along the Charles River in Newton, MA. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
I have to admit that as much as I've enjoyed being able to be out in the woods without wearing many layers of clothing that birding in the warm weather can be just as challenging as birding when it's cold outside. This is one of the wonderful things about New England - last March when I had taken just about all I could handle of blizzards, ice and freezing winds I was ready for warm nights, sunshine and a steady stream of Warblers and now that I've endured a summer full of biting insects, sunburn and dehydration I'm more than ready to throw on an extra layer or two and head out to look for wintering sea ducks, Snowy Owls and Finches. I suppose that just like the birds themselves that birders have seasonal patterns too.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Fall Birding by Kayak Brings My Year List to 173 Species

A kayak is a wonderful tool for birding and photography, allowing birders to move quietly along wetlands, ponds and rivers without disturbing wildlife. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
It's been a busy summer, and while I have managed to get outdoors a decent amount, I've had practically no time to update this blog. Suffice it to say I added no new species in July or August, but recently I managed to get out on the Charles River in a kayak for a couple of hours and was delighted to not only add a Black-Crowned Night Heron to my year list, but to see many other species of birds as well, including many Wood Ducks, at least 5 Great Blue Herons, two rather noise Belted Kingfishers chattering loudly as they swooped down to grab small fish and then return again briefly to the dead branch of a tree stick up out of the water.

I heard many racuous American Crows and Blue Jays calling so I kept alert for signs of raptors-  I did see one hawk circling high overhead, likely a Red-tailed Hawk, but too far off for me to definitively ID without binoculars. The best find of the day, however, was definitely the Black-crowned Night Heron, a normally quite secretive species that I found perched at the edge of the river on the branches of a half-submerged tree. The heron was not skittish at all and as I drifted past I was able to get a photo with my phone before it took off.

A Black-crowned Night Heron perches in a branch sticking up out of the Charles River in Newton, Massdachusetts. Image Copyright Daniel E. Levebnson 2013

 I spent the rest of my time paddling into hidden pockets and back behind the edges of lilly pad fields, in search of more ducks and wading birds. It was nice to gert back out not only on the water but to do a little more serious birding than I've had the time to attempt this past sumnmer. Hopefully this Fall will bring more birding adventure, which I will of course write about here.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Danniel E. Levenson 2013.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

An abundance of birds, despite the heat

A male Northern Cardinal pauses on a branch to survey the shrubbery around it. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

With seemingly endless heat and humidity battering New England for the last few weeks I haven't spent too much time out in the field exploring and birding. Today, however,I managed to get out to Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary in Natick, Massachusetts where with a little effort I managed to find a number of species which seemed undaunted by the intense summer weather. When the temperature rises many animals will minimize activity and seek out ways to keep themselves cool, and humans are no exception, so today I made sure to drink plenty of water, wore a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen, and focused on moving more slowly. I focused on taking the time to examine promising little pockets of habitat where I though birds might be have gone to seek shade or look for food at this time of year. Although many birders prefer to look for shorebirds (or engage in other activities altogether) during the hottest part of the year, this is actually a great time for the birds themselves. Between the cover provided by thickening vegetation and the abundant supply of bugs, berries and seeds, the middle of summer is proabbly a pretty good time to be a songbird.

By mid-July fields and meadows throughout New England are often covered in thick vegetation, providing ideal habitat for a wide range of insects and bird species. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
This afternoon I was lucky enough to stumble upon one really nice spot right at the intersection of the forest and meadow where I stopped to listed to a pair of Northern Cardinal calling and soon added ten more species my list for the day, including two Gray Catbirds which were quite loud and whiny as they attempted repeatedly to land in a tree the cardinals seemed to have claimed as their own. The tree in question was covered with berries, and as the cardinals chased off the interloping catbirds I watched as a Song Sparrow pulled a berry loose from a branch and attempted to eat it - unfortunately for this hapless bird the berry proved to be too big for its bill and the berry dropped from its grip and disappeared into the tall grass below. While standing in this same spot a Blue-Gray Gnatcather also showed up, moving frenetically from the very tip of one branch to another, searching for tiny insects, and a female Common Yellowthroat also arrived, hanging around long enough for me to get a really good look at the a species where the male is much more striking and easily recognized.

I finished up by exploring another meadow where the plants and grasses had shot up to head level, providing convenient cover as I scanned the open areas above the field, looking for additional birds. After a while the humidity and Deer Flies began to take their toll and I headed home, already thinking of fall migration and cooler days but eager not to let the hidden pleasures and surprises of summer birding slip away just yet.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Birding Pawtuckaway State Park in Nottingham, New Hampshire

A Cedar Waxwing perches on an exposed branch at the top of a steep hill in Pawtuckaway State Park in Nottingham, New Hampshire. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
During a recent birding day trip to Pawtuckaway State Park and the surrounding area with a group from Mass Audubon's Drumlin Farm wildlife sanctuary I couldn't help thinking back to those chilly days in January and February when I slogged through frozen wetlands, waded through snow drifts and scanned the freezing surf for scoters and other ducks. Where once there was windburn, ice and frozen sand we now had humidity, mosquitoes and the looming possibility of pop-up thunderstorms to consider.
Fortunately, though, we got an occasional breeze and the presence of so many exciting birds definitely helped to take my mind off the occasional dark cloud overhead.

We started out by visiting a lovely wetland area along a side road somewhere south of Pawtuckaway State Park, where we scanned the thick green vegetation and surrounding forest. On one side of the road there was a large, shallow pond, brimming with weeds. Here we saw a female Wood Duck in the distance, moving slowly and almost indisit6nguishiable amidst the tangle of Lilly pads around her, a White-tailed Deer wading against the far shore and in the trees on the opposite bank Great-crested Fly Catchers, a Scarlet Tanager and a pair of Red-bellied Woodpeckers which swooped in overhead, landing in a tall tree by the edge of the road. Although the wetlands looked like prime terrirotry for Virginia Rail we didn't see any there, although I suspect that there must have been one or two tucked away deep in the vegetation, staying safely out of sight.

In early summer wetlands like the one above in southern New Hampshire are excellent spots to look for rails and other marsh birds. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
It was also at this location where I added two more species to my year list - an Eastern Wood Peewee and the Scarlet Tanager. Throughout the day we heard and saw a number of peewee's, which was great since I have been working on improving my birding by ear skills, which are somewhere between non-existent and pretty bad at this stage. Nonetheless, the peewee and a few other thoughtful birds became my teachers for the day, and with the expert guidance of our trip leader, Strickland Wheelock, I actually managed to learn to identify at least 3 more species by ear, which was really nice. This is definitely one of the major advantages of the Mass Audubon birding trips, that you not only get to see a lot of birds but you can always learn something new as well.

Our next stop was a power line cut near the state park where I added three more species to my year list: Field Sparrow, Indigo Bunting and Prairie Warbler. I have written here before that in my opinion the Bobolink has the coolest songs in the avian world, but after listening to the Prairie Warbler I may have to rethink that assertion. If you've never heard it I highly recommend taking a listen to its call and song. We heard several of these talented singers as we hiked a little way down the power line road,where we were also treated to great views of a swirling kettle of Turkey Vultures and a lone Broad-winged Hawk.

This fire tower sits atop a hill at Pawtuckaway State Park in Nottingham, New Hampshire and is surrounded by a variety of bird feeders. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
We spent the rest of the day exploring the state park, driving along the narrow dirt roads with the windows down and stopping to look for birds as we went. Using this technique we found a number of very productive places, including a beaver pond and wetland where a Virginia Rail came within a few feet of our group, as well as several American Redstart, two Louisiana Waterthrush and a forested areas that produced both Blue-headed Vireo and Yellow-throated Vireo, two very striking birds and a lot of fun to watch as they moved quickly through the canopy overhead. We also hiked up to the top of a steep hill where we ate lunch and watched numerous Purple Finches and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds visit a multitude of feeders that surrounded a fire tower. It was in this spot that I also saw my first Common Raven of the year. By the end of the day I had added 11 more species to my New England birding big year list, bringing the total to date to 172 species seen. This was my first serious birding effort in the Granite State, and with so many beaver ponds, wetlands, forests and mountains to explore up there I'm looking forward to doing more.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

A look at some of the birds and blooms of Harpswell, Maine

A whirling wooden loon sits on a railing at a gift shop at Land's End in Harpswell, Maine. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
I recently spent a little time birding along the beaches and craggy coves of southern Maine, in and around the Harpswell area. While I didn't add any new species to my year list (or see a moose) I did enjoy looking out at the waters of Casco Bay, watching male and female Common Ediers resting in the surf and on small islands, and generally exploring the winding roads of Cumberland County.

A Song Sparrow sings with the ocean in the background. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

We started off with a windy, slightly rainy morning of casual birding at Land's End, a gorgeous spot at the very tip of Bailey Island in the town of Harpswell. Here we walked along a short section of rocky beach looking out at the gently rolling waves and rocky little islands in the distance while we listened to the serenade of Song Sparrows perched prominently atop shrubs and Yellow Warblers hidden in the brush.

Even on a cloudy day the beauty of Maine's rugged coastline comes through. In the photo above a statue dedicated to the fisherman of the state can also be seen. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

With gray skies overhead this Lupine added a little color to the day. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
In addition to the 18 species of birds we saw during our two days in the Brunswick area we were also lucky enough to see the Lupine in bloom in gardens, fields and along the roadside. Sometimes it's all too easy to focus only on one aspect of the natural world, whether its birds, bugs or weather and lose track of all of the other amazing things out there waiting to be found. Most of the time we were surrounded by a sea of green trees or the ocean, but then we would come across something like the Lupines in the photo above and it would remind me to take a closer look around. Always a valuable lesson in the outdoors.

We ended our evening with dinner at a fantastic restaurant out at the end of South Harpswell called Dolphin Marina and Restaurant. I would have given this place a major thumbs up for the view alone, but the food was also delicious and the service was great. As a birder I also appreciated being able to sit next to a giant window looking out at the bay and beach and having the chance to watch a Great Blue Heron fly back and forth, silhouetted against the sunset.

The sun sets over Casco Bay at the end of South Harpswell, Maine. Image Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Up close with the herons and a Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher brings my current big year total to 160 species

A Great Blue Heron stalks the marsh at Great Meadows national wildlife refuge in Concord, Massachusetts. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Despite the uncomfortable heat and humidity I felt compelled to get outside this morning and continue my New England birding big year effort. So this morning I brought along plenty of water and sunscreen and sweated my way through a long 2 1/2 hour walk at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord, Massachusetts. Most of the birds didn't seem to mind the weather at all, and there was a lot of activity to observe, from vociferous Yellow Warblers to an Osprey hunting high above the impoundment to Song Sparrows picking caterpillars and other bugs from leafy treetops. The sky overhead was clear and bright and sunlight reflected off the water all around me, making it hard to see some of the ore distant birds, but I did get to see a number of brightly-colored male Red-winged Blackbirds and Great Blue Herons fishing in the shallows.

A great Blue Heron balances atop a tilted bird box at Great Meadows NWR. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
As the day heated up I made my along the dyke path and then turned left, following the river toward a small pond I have visited before. It was along this path that bird number 160 showed up - a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, moving quickly from branch to branch, stopping only momentarily before taking flight again. There were also lots of great plants and wildflowers blooming all over the place.

These daisies were growing wild at Great Meadows NWR. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
When it comes to plant ID I have to admit I know very little - if any gardeners or plant enthusiasts out there can help ID the plants in the images below I would love to hear from you.

I thought this might be some kind of Milkweed, but I'm not really sure. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
I found these flowers growing in a strip of woods between the river and the main trail at Great Meadows NWR. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Friday, May 31, 2013

It's a bird, it's a bee..... nope, it's a Hummingbird Moth

This Common Clearwing moth, also known as a Hummingbird Moth, was photographed gathering nectar from flowers at Stony Brook WLS in Norfolk, MA. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Covered in sunscreen, fully hydrated and with hat and sunglasses on, I ventured out for a short while this afternoon to do a little birding south of Boston in the towns of Easton and Norfolk Massachusetts. This afternoon I definitely felt very far away from those frozen days in January and February when I was piling on layers of fleece and wool and trudging through snow and ice, chasing after wintering sea ducks and mixed flocks of kinglets and chickadees.

While I didn't add any species to my year list I did see a number of unexpected things along the way, including the moth in the photo above. This fascinating insect, often called a Hummingbird Moth for the superficial resemblance it bears to hummingbirds, is actually more accurately known as the Common Clearwing.  I came across this one at Stoney Brook Wildlife Sanctuary in Norfolk, as it was gathering nectar from flowers beside a shady path. They are definitely one of the most unusual visitors to show up in gardens and forests in New England in the summer. If you would like to learn more about them you can check out this Mass Audubon webpage.This site from the US Forest Service also offers details on the life history of these moths and tips on how to identify them.

At Old Pond in Easton I spotted a Baltimore Oriole and two high-flying Red-tailed Hawks taking advantage of the thermals way up among the clouds, as well as two Yellow Warblers and a Chimney Swift. I was only there a short while it was a beautiful place to stop and check for wildlife.I spent more time at Stony Brook WLS where I moved slowly in the afternoon humidity, taking care not to get dehydrated as I hunted for wading birds at the edges of the wetlands. While I was there I saw two female Wood Ducks, a number of Great Blue Heron and many of the other usual birds I would expect to see there this time of year. The moths, butterflies and dragonflies defintiely stole the show today though, with several very colorful dragonflies flying maddeningly just beyond the range of my camera. I did manage to get a shot of an Eastern Pond Hawk dragonfly taking a rest on the stem of a plant. These bright green insects are fierce predators, catching and eating other bugs, including butterflies.

An Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly at rest. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

If you've never spent any time looking closely at dragonflies or damselflies I highly recommend it. They display an impressive range of coloration and behaviors and are an important link in the food chain both as predators and prey, so the next time your out hiking or birding or just enjoying nature take a minute to look at the moths, butterflies and dragonflies around you - I bet you'll be glad you did.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Welcoming native plants into your yard

Pink Lady Slipper is a species of orchid found growing in semi-shaded woods throughout Massachusetts. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Although birds are often a featured subject of this blog my interests in the natural world also extend far beyond our feathered friends. As we come to the end of spring and move toward summer I also plan to write about the reptiles, amphibians, mammals and insects I come across in my outdoor adventures. As someone who tries to look at not just the constituent parts of different habitats but how they all fit together into larger ecosystems,  I am also deeply interested in the plants and plant communities which anchor these habitats, often providing the food, shelter and other resources that creatures from Bark Beatles to Beavers need to survive.

Milkweed is a commonly seen plant native to New England and is an important source of food for butterflies. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
I also love the idea of gardening and landscaping in suburban environments which not only encourages local wildlife to visit backyards, but also places an emphasis on native plants and perhaps restoring a little wilderness to the otherwise drab uniformity which has come to symbolize many of the yards and parks in our cities and towns. In today''s post I would like to share some links to online resources where you can learn more about native plant life in New England and perhaps suggest a few ideas which might make your backyard more enticing to wildlife. Please note that mention below of  any specific business or organizations should not be taken as an endorsement.

A home for butterflies and moths

Everyone loves butterflies - these brightly colored creatures are sure sign of spring and summer, lending vitality to any garden. There are also many beautiful moths that can be found frequenting open meadows and city parks. I have seen several purpose-built butterfly gardens over the years and always been impressed with the variety of native plant species growing in them. if you would like to attract butterflies to your yard in Massachusetts you might want to visit the website of the Massachusetts Butterfly Club
which also features a dedicated section on creating and maintaining a butterfly garden. 

An Eight-Spotted Forester Moth (Alypia octomaculata) takes a break at Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary in Sharon, MA. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.
If you live in northern New England you may want to check out this website from the University of Maine on how to create a welcoming environment for these colorful insects. This site also features an overview of the life history of butterflies, some very nice photos and lists the families commonly found in the state, including swallowtail and monarch. if you're looking for some inspiration, you can also check out this article written by Aislinn Sarnacki in the Bangor Daily News, where she describes a number of butterfly gardens that people have created in and around Bangor, Maine.

Putting out the welcome mat for our amphibian friends

Frogs, toads and salamanders are an integral part of a variety of different kinds of New England, they also provide a valuable service by eating many thousands of pest insects every year. They can also be great to look for, as finding them usually requires slogging around in marshes, turning over rotten logs and all kinds of other joyous muddy activities.

If you would like to attract frogs to your yard your best bet is to create a frog-friendly pond with plenty of cover, a sloped bottom and no fish. Moving adult frogs or tadpoles is often not a good idea - if you create the right environment, and have patience, experts say the frogs will eventually find the home you have built for them. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
If you would like to have more of these creatures in your yard or garden you might want to consider trying to entice a toad or two to settle nearby. This nice website from the National Wildlife Federation notes that "The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that a single adult toad can eat 10,000 insect pests over the course of an average summer." That's a lot of bugs. The site also offers great tips on how to create a home for toads and encourage them to make your yard their home. The site also offers advice on ways to make your property more attractive to frogs as well, with advice on avoiding the accidental introduction of alien invasive species, building a frog-friendly pond and the type of plants which are likely to attract these amphibians. Leaving stumps and rotting logs at the edge of your yard or in place on wooded property will also provide an important source of food and shelter for salamanders.

Bring on the birds

Of course there are many ways to make your property more attractive to birds, from providing a source of freshwater with a small pond or birdbath to putting up feeders. For long term success I think it is also very important to think about the kinds of flowers, trees and shrubs you plant on your property. This document from the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology offers some great tips on how to approach the design of a bird-friendly yard or garden from the birds' perspective. It includes concrete suggestions on different types of plants and trees to consider, different kinds of habitat you can create on your property and suggestions for further reading.

Creating space for the plants themselves

In addition to planting certain species to attract more wildlife to your yard there is of course great value in creating space for the native plants themselves to thrive.  While you should never collect native plants or flowers from the wild and transplant them to your own property, there are a number of organizations and garden clubs which run native plant sales throughout the spring, including one on Saturday, June 1st  and Sunday, June 2nd, at Mass Audubon's Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary in Sharon, Massachusetts. According to the Mass Audubon website, plants for sale will include:  "Mayapple, Turk's Cap Lily, Cardinal Flower, Canadian Ginger, Lowbush Blueberry, Spicebush, Mountain Laurel, Purple Joe-Pyeweed, Black-eyed Susan, Purple Coneflower, Swamp Milkweed" and others.

If you're looking for general information and inspiration when it comes to learning more about native plant life you can check out the website of the New England Wild Flower Society, an organization dedicated to the protection, propagation and promotion of native plans. The society also runs Garden in the Woods, a large garden and education center open to the public, located in Framingham, Massachusetts,where visitors can see more than 100 rare or endangered species of plants. To learn more about endangered and protected species of plants in Massachusetts, you can also visit this nice website from the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. In addition to a comprehensive list of the species concerned a fact sheet is also provided for many of them.

Well, I think that about covers it for now. As I continue to learn more about gardening for wildlife and the native plants of New England I will share these experiences, along with my other adventures searching for birds, kayaking, camping, hiking and exploring, here at the New England Nature Notes blog.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Checking in at Nahanton Park

An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly stops to inspect a plant in a garden plot at Nahanton Park in Newton, Massachusetts. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Although the atmosphere felt uneasy today, heavy with potential rain and ready to let loose with thunder and lighting, the air was also full of birdsong at Nahanton Park in Newton, MA this afternoon with Yellow Warblers, Baltimore Orioles, House Wrens and Gray Catbirds calling from treetops, brush and fence posts. I was only out birding for a little more than an hour, but I got to see 19 species of birds, as well as a range of avian behavior.There were also numerous moths and butterflies out and about, including the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail in the photo above.

A male American Goldfinch in breeding plumage sits atop a fence at Nahanaton Park in Newton, MA. Image copyright Daniel E.Levenson 2013.
Many of the birds I saw today were nesting or engaged in food gathering, which is typical for this time of year. The Yellow Warblers seemed to be around practically everywhere I went at Nahanton - I heard them singing as they moved from branch to branch, searching for food and I came across one of their nests in a fairly exposed spot by the trail, with the female was very much in sight but the male nowhere to be seen. This is the second Yellow Warbler nest Ive found this spring - the first one was in a wet, brushy area near the boardwalk at Mass Audubon's Broadmoor wildlife sanctuary in Natick, Massachusetts. In addition to the warblers which were nesting I saw several Tree Swallows peeking their heads out from nest boxes, no doubt sitting on eggs inside, and a beautiful pair of Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

Several of the birds I saw today looked fairly worn, including a Tufted Titmouse, an American Robin and one of the many Gray Catbirds I saw on my walk. It's possible that the weather played a factor in their appearance, but it's also possible that they are going through some stage of molting. This is a topic I would love to learn more about, if anyone out there has insight into the molting stages for these commonly seen birds.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Monday, May 20, 2013

24 hours of fun with Mass Audubon - Part 2 of my bird-a-thon experience

A view from Pilgrim Heights at Dawn, with a marsh and pond in the foreground. This is a great spot to watch raptors as they soar above the dunes. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
When the alarm on my cell phone rang at 3:30 AM on Saturday morning I jumped out of bed, got dressed and stepped outside into the darkness where I saw that two of my teammates were already awake. As my eyes were adjusting to the darkness they motioned for me to come join them, pointing out a strange noise coming from the woods somewhere behind our rooms at the Cape View Motel. It's hard to describe now precisely what it sounded like, but it sounded like a raspy snort of some kind. One person suggested it might be a White-tailed Deer, but noted they only tend to make those kinds of noises when startled, and whatever was making this sound was doing it continuously for at least 5 minutes. Someone else suggested it could be a fox. We didn't find out, but it was yet another example of the many mysteries of nature which can exist literally right outside our doors.

As we climbed haldf-asleep into the vans we drove out in the darkness, headed for Pilgrim Heights to look and listen for birds active at that strange intersection between the night and daylight. When we arrived we walked slowly down a narrow trail, listening to the far-off hooting of a Great-horned Owl still calling and the song of an Eastern Towhee no doubt about to begin its day. Our walk took us on a loop, past an important hawk watching site and down through a wetland and back to the parking lot. It was just as we were coming out of the woods that one of our group heard the distant calling of a Black-billed Cuckoo, a new life bird for me, and a species I had hoped to see the morning before at Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary. The Cuckoo kept calling as the sun began to peek over the horizon and we stood and listened to it serenade the morning for a few minutes, before heading into Provicentown to check the harbor.

A birder scans the harbor for new species to add to our bird-a-thon list in the early morning light. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
At the harbor we found many of the same species we'd been seeing near the water since the previous day - Laughing Gulls, Common Eider and Double-crested Cormorant, so we headed off again to check out the Beech Forest Trail, another part of the Cape Cod National Seashore. Here the trees were in a state of what I would call 3/4 leaf-out, there was just enough leaf cover to attract insects (and hence migrants) and often obscure them from view at first, but there was just enough space for us to see them with a little work. This proved to be one of our best stops of the trip, where I picked up a number of life birds, including Northern Parula, Magnolia Warbler and Chestnut-sided Warbler.

After a few more stops on land we headed to Provincetown Harbor where we boarded a whale watching boat that took us out to Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. We were hoping to see pelagic species such as shearwaters, but instead we were treated to a fantastic show by Humpback Whales, Minke Whales and White-sided Dolphins who were out in great numbers and very easy to see. We even got to witness a breach in which a Humpback whale lifted itself completely out of the water and came crashing back down again with a thunderous slap on the surface of the sea.

A Humpbacked Whale dives down again after surfacing. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

As much as we looked and looked, not a single pelagic bird species appeared. We saw plenty of Herring Gulls, Laughing Gulls, Double-crested Cormorant and Northern Gannet, but no petrels or shearwaters. We event spotted a lone Chimney Swift swooping over the stern of the boat and disappearing into the sky behind us. I also got to see some interesting interactions between the whales and the gulls which follow these mammoth marine mammals, hoping to grab a meal in the roiling froth created when the whales are feeding. I even saw several gulls land directly on a whale's head and go for a short ride as the animal swam through the water scooping up plankton.

Gulls and other seabirds will often gather near feeding whales, hoping to grab a meal in the chaos created by the feeding habits of these giant marine mammals. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
By the end of the boat trip the lack of sleep had begun to catch up with me, so I sat outside on the deck and enjoyed the peaceful trip back into the harbor, nodding off occasionally as the wind and the humming of the engines lulled me into a restful state. As we approached the entrance to the harbor I got an excellent look at a large group of Double-crested Cormorants which were nesting communally at the end of a long breakwater. I have been seeing these birds around the water my whole life, but I had never seen a nesting colony like this before.

A large group of Double-crested Cormorant nesting at the entrance to Provincetown Harbor. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
We ended our day with a stop at Fort Hill Trail, part of the Cape Cod National Seashore. We had some wonderful views here of large meadows, a salt marsh and the ocean in the distance. We stood above the salt marsh for a while, scanning for shorebirds and picked up a Willet, another life bird for me and an addition to our team;s bird-a-thon list. We were also treated to a great view of a juvenile male Orchard Oriole which landed in a nearby tree and gave a spirited performance. As the hour drew close to 6 o'clock we made one last attempt to add birds to the list with a walk through one of the meadows, hoping for a Bobolink or Eastern Meadowlark.  Neither of these grassland species were to be found, however, and we had to be content watching the swallows fill the skies overhead with their evening acrobatics.

In all I added the following 23 species of birds to my New England birding big year list:

Great Crested Flycatcher
Black-bellied Plover
Laughing Gull
Common Tern
Bonaparte's Gull
Least Tern
Green Heron
Virginia Rail
Lesser Yellowlegs
American Woodcock
Eastern Whip-poor-will
Black-billed Cuckoo
Red-eyed Vireo
Northern Parula
Parasitic Jaeger
Magnolia Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Snowy Egret
Blackburnian Warbler
Semipalmated Plover
Orchard Oriole

In  our 24 hours at the end of Cape Cod we saw over 100 species of birds, 7 species of mammals and some of the most beautiful scenery in New England. I can't wait to do it all again next spring.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

24 hours of fun with Mass Audubon, my birdathon experience, part 1

A group from the Drumlin Farm bird-a-thon team walks along Herring Cove Beach in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
This past Friday and Saturday I competed in my very first Mass Audubon Bird-a-thon, a 24 hour birding competition that brings together a great group of people who are very dedicated to both birding and environmental conservation.  Although this was my first experience with the competition this was the 30th year that it has been running, providing a fun opportunity for people who love birds to get outside, see some amazing animals and raise money for Mass Audubon. This year I was part of the Drumlin Farm team, with a group led by veteran birder Strickland Wheelock which covered the very end of Cape Cod in a well-planned effort to see as many species as we could between 6 PM on Friday evening and 6 PM on Saturday. We birded mainly in Provincetown and Truro, and along  the way we saw more than 100 species of birds, several species of mammal, explored numerous beaches, wetlands and forests and had a lot of laughs. I will be writing about this adventure in two parts: this first post will cover the first part of bird-a-thon on Friday night, and then I plan to pick up with a second post, covering our attempts to add many migrating warblers to our list, as well as see pelagic birds and a final stop at a truly beautiful place right along the coast.

Race Point Beach on Cape Cod was one of the first stops for our bird-a-thon team. Here we saw our first Bonaparte's Gull of the day as well as an Ocean Sunfish and Harbor Seal. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

On Friday morning I woke up early, excited to begin my bird-a-thon adventure, so I headed over to Drumlin Farm, hoping I might have a shot at seeing a reported Black-billed Cuckoo, a bird I wanted to add to both my life list and my New England birding big year list. The weather was absolutely perfect - clear blue skies, warm and with a light breeze - as I searched the sanctuary for the cuckoo. One of the education staff told me where it had been seen, and then I ran into Pam, the volunteer coordinator who had seen the bird and she told me the general area where she thought I should look. I birded for about 45 minutes with no luck, and then headed over to meet the rest of the team. I could tell right away that I was going to have a good time when I met the other birders, an enthusiastic and highly-knowledgeable group who had all done bird-a-thon before. After introductions we all piled into two minivans and headed south so that we could check into our motel, do a little scouting and grab dinner before the 6 PM start time.

After a quick stop for dinner at the Provincetown House of Pizza, our first location of the evening was Herring Cove Beach, where we hiked out a pretty good distance from the parking area to scan the waves and shoreline for whatever might be around.The beach was a quiet place to start our fevered competition and I think everyone appreciated the beauty of the spot, with gently rolling waves, White-winged Scoters winging past us, a large group of Red-breasted mergansers floating easily in the surf and the sun beginning its daily descent. Driving along the roads of the outer cape I was struck by how different the landscape looked than in other parts of Cape Cod - maybe it was the light, or the time of year - the dunes looked perfectly formed and un-trampled, many covered in pastel grasses and beach plants. And everywhere around us, even in the forests we visited, a sense of the sea, of the vastness of the ocean that surrounds this narrow peninsula was omnipresent.

After we finished at Herring Cove Beach we drove to a nearby wetland which was filled with birdsong. It was here that we were hoping to find several species which are normally quite secretive and difficult to detect.

This wetland proved to be an excellent spot to look for a wide range of wading and marsh birds, from song Sparrow and Red-winged Blackbirds to Virginia Rail and Greater Yellow Legs. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
The wetland was quite beautiful in the evening light, and we all stood in silence listening and watching the tall grass, waiting to see what would appear. It wasn't long after we got there that we spotted Greater and Lesser Yellow Legs on one side of the road, followed by a Wilson's Snipe and Virginia Rails on the other. the rails were a particularly exciting find - a new life bird for me, and one which is know for being hard to find. We got to hear and see them as they flew from one spot to another in the wetland in short bursts, seemingly appearing out of nowhere and then disappearing again back into the vegetation.

A spectacular sunset sets the dunes and marsh on fire with a red, yellow and orange glow at the end of Cape Cod. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
After about an hour we decided to move on to look for American Woodcock, but as we drove down the road we stopped as our team leader seemed to hear something out of an open window. We all got out of the vans and were amazed to see one of these odd-looking birds sitting in a small opening at the edge of the wetland, beside a short, scrubby a pine tree. The bird didn't seem bothered at all by our presence, and there was till enough light left for us to get excellent looks at him as he tentatively warmed up for his evening performance. Looking at this bird through the scope I was blown away by what a strangely beautfiul creature the woodcock is, a shorebird that's typically found farm from the ocean, with a long bill it uses to probe the earth for worms and a large wary eye set in its compact head.

Encouraged by the woodcock and other finds of the evening we went on to look for Whip-poor-wills, a nocturnal bird whose distinctive call used to cover much more of the New England landscape at night. I personally have great memories of camping in western Massachusetts and falling asleep to their unique, plaintive cry. Our destination was an old cemetery tucked away at the end of a dirt road, perhaps a mile or two from a main road. Birding in cemeteries has never been one of my favorite things, but it's a common practice and we had heard it was a good place to listen for nocturnal birds. Standing out in the evening chill we listened intensely for any sign of our quarry.  In the distance someone heard a Barred Owl, and overhead I saw a bat, but otherwise the air was quiet. We waited a while, then drove back down the road, windows down and listening. Suddenly the song was there, and we stopped the vans, got out, and listened with delight as we heard this signature singer of the night let loose its distinctive call.

With the Whip-poor-will found we called it a night, and headed back to the Cape View Motel to catch a few hours sleep before we would head out for the morning at 4:15 AM for a full day of birding. On the drive home we added one more wildlife sighting to the day's list, as a Red Fox ran across a lawn by the side of the road. Back at the motel I collapsed into bed, thinking about all of the birds we had seen that evening, and excited to see more the next day.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A visit to the grasslands of Moose Hill Farm

Moose Hill Farms in Sharon, massachusetts is owned and managed by the Trustees of Reservation, and features expansive grassland habitat as well as mixed woods to explore. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
It used to be the case that grassland birds, such as Boblink, Eastern Meadowlark and Upland Sandpiper could find abundant habitat in Massachusetts to meet their needs. With dramatic changes to the landscape over the last century, these species, which need large areas of un-mowed, wild grass, have been feeling immense pressure. Fortunately, some organizations such as Mass Audubon and the Trustees of Reservation have been working to preserve grasslands in Massachusetts, preventing vital habitat from becoming yet another housing subdivision or shopping mall. One place where this is happening is Moose Hill Farm in Sharon, Massachusetts, a property owned and managed by the Trustees of Reservation. Not only is this a beautiful place for a walk in the outdoors but it's also one of my favorite spots to see the Bobolink, a small grassland bird related to black birds which is almost entirely black, except for a few white areas and a cream colored shock of white feathers on the back of the male bird's head. They also have a very cool song which always reminds me of the sound effects that accompany laser guns in science fiction movies.

So it was in hopes of seeing Bobolinks and perhaps other grassland birds that I visited Moose Hill Farm this morning, soaking in the sunshine and feeling the cool breeze as it swept across acres of open grassland. In addition to the grassland area there is also a working farm with outbuildings which provide homes for Barn Swallows, large areas of forest that attract warblers, woodpeckers and vireos, and a section of trail that runs along a road beside power lines where the habitat is a mix of brush and shrubland. Visitors will also find remnants of earlier generations in the long stone walls and cellar holes slowly disappearing into the forest floor.

The remnants of earlier generations who farmed the land that became Moose Hill Farm can be seen in several places on the property. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
I started out my walk near the farm buildings, watching the Barn Swallows - for some reason they always seem to be moving more quickly than Tree Swallows; I'd be curious to know if they do actually tend to fly faster. Soon I entered a shady section of woods where I saw a few Chipping Sparrows and the first of three Eastern Towhees I saw throughout the day. I also kept an eye on the forest, watching for Wild Turkey and White-tailed Deer, both of which I have seen here many times. As soon as I got to the edge of the grassland section of the trail I began to hear a familiar call, and I knew right away the Bobolinks were back. The air was full of their song and then they appeared, zipping around above the grass, their futuristic sci-fi song filling my ears. A few were even considerate enough to perch long enough for me to take a photo. The Bobolinks were species # 134 for the year.

A male Bobolink rests at the edge of a grassland at Moose Hill Farm in Sharon, MA. The breeding plumage of the male is distinctive and unmistakeable. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

At the far end of the fields I heard and saw my first Baltimore Orioles of the day. I'm finding that while Baltimore Orioles are not a bird that the general public sees on a regular basis, that when I do encounter them in the woods they are not shy at all. Between the intense orange of the males and their confident song, often delivered from an exposed perch, I'm finding lately that it's hard to go birding without seeing 4 or 5 of them every time I'm out. There were also a few butterflies and dragonflies out and about, and now that the weather is getting warmer I plan to share some photos (hopefully along with accurate ID's !) of the butterflies and moths I see in the field.

A dragonfly resting beside the trail. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Two Yellow-rumped Warblers also made themselves known shortly before I saw another Eastern Towhee and heard at least one Red-bellied Woodpecker. I've been trying to make learning more about birdsong a part of my New England big year birding project - I should probably go out and buy some CD's, but for now whenever I'm out in the field and I hear a new song, I do my best to track down the singer. Today I added something new in this arena, when I realized that besides the familiar "Drink-your-tea" call which is a dead giveaway when it comes to the Eastern Towhee, that this bird has another call, a two-note vocalization, which to me, sounds like it's saying "Tow-Hee !" Maybe this is how it got its name - I'm definitely going to do a little research.

The Gray Catbirds were heard but not seen along the power lines, where I ran into an unexpected animal moving along the edge of the dirt road. At first I wasn't totally sure what it was, but then it stood up on its hind legs and looked right at me, and I looked through my binoculars to see that it was a Fisher. In al the time I've spent outdoors I've only seen two of these normally shy animals, and both instances have been in the past month, with the other sighting at Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary in Natick, MA.

The areas around power lines can often be good places to look for wildlife which make use of both the dirt roads to travel and the artificial edge habitat which is created as a result. The image above shows a section of Trustees trail which overlaps briefly with a power company road. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
I finished up the day with a short stop at Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary, just down the road from Moose Hill Farm. The skies were clouding up as I got out of the car, but I decided to look around anyway and I was very glad I did. I started off down the Billings Loop trail, scanning the canopy above for any signs of warblers and toward a fork in the path I finally caught a glimpse of movement in the trees. I stopped and waited quietly to see what would be revealed. Soon I saw more movement, and through my binoculars I saw two Tufted Titmice, an Eastern Towhee, an Eastern Bluebird and a Yellow-rumped Warbler. I think I may also have seen a Black-throated Green Warbler, but I couldn't get a good enough look to be sure.

Mass Audubon's Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary features hundreds of acres of woods, fields and wetlands to explore. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

I kept walking and attempted to wait out a passing shower under the cover of the forest, where I spotted a Hermit Thrush singing beautifully from a semi-hidden spot, low in a tree. As the rain eased up I walked through a meadow, fresh and green with spring-time rain, until I came to the boardwalk which takes visitors through a wetland that can be quite dry at certain times of the year and flooding up through the slats in the boardwalk at others. Today the water levels looked very low and I was surprised that I didn't see or hear a single frog. A few birds did make an appearance, though, including another Baltimore Oriole and a new bird for the year, number 135, a male Swamp Sparrow. As the sun attempted to reclaim the sky I walked back to my car, content to have seen a lot, learned a thing or two and come up with many more questions along the way.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.