Saturday, January 26, 2013

Along the South Shore: Marshfield and Plymouth, MA

The office at Mass Audubon's North Shore Wildlife Sanctuary. Well-stocked bird feeders between the building and the parking lot attract a wide variety of birds in winter. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
The weather was cold and clear today, with only a dusting of snow in place of the much-promised storm the weather reports had been talking about all week. As it turned out, the birds thought today was a fine day to be out and active, and I managed to 8 more species to my Massachusetts year list, and one new life bird. I started out this afternoon at the  Mass Audubon North River wildlife sanctuary in Marshfield, Massachusetts. I was hoping to add a few of the more common winter birds that were not on my list yet, including Common Edier, Brant and any wintering sea ducks that might be around. The sanctuary itself was deserted - I didn't see anyone else there, although the website said it was open today - but I immediately encountered an impressive range of bird life, tallying a dozen species in a few minutes. There were a number of well-stocked bird feeders around the Audubon office, and without walking more than a few feet I saw many of the usual winter suspects, such as chickadees and titmice, but also two Red-bellied Woodpeckers, several White-throated Sparrows, a Carolina Wren and most excitingly, a Common Redpoll - a new life bird and species #56 for the year.

A Common Redpoll looks for seeds on the ground North River wildlife sanctuary,  These small finches are ussually make their home far to the north, but they have been seen in large numbers in Massachusetts this winter. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
After watching the feeders for a while I went for a walk on a short loop trail that brought me down to the North River. The woods were very quiet, aside from the occasional calls of Blue Jays and American Crows. Standing out at the end of the boardwalk was pretty uncomfortable,  temperatures in the low twenties and the wind blowing full-on, but I still took a few photos and managed to add species #57 when I saw three Bufflehead in the water, along the far bank of the river.

The North River in Marshfield, Massachusetts attracts different species of wintering ducks in the winter. image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
When it got too cold for me to take off my gloves to take pictures, I decided to continue on my way. there was a large open field which looks like it could be very promising in the spring, and as I made my way along the edge of it I checked the brush and tree line for any signs of bird life, and came across one American Robin and another Carolina Wren. One of my most exciting birds of the day, however, turned out to be a hawk that was sitting on a limb right above the birdfeeders outside the Audubon office. I could tell right away it was not a Red-tailed Hawk, but it was fairly big, so I studied it through my binoculars, and dug out my Sibley guide. Fortunately this was a pretty cooperative bird, it sat still for a while, then turned around on the limb before flying a short distance, where it perched again where I could get a good look. After watching it for a while I was certain I was looking at an adult Red-shouldered Hawk, one of only a very small number I've seen in my life, and bird #58 for my list.

Jenney Pond in Plymouth, Massachusetts is a great place to look for ducks, gulls and other birds in the winter. Image copyright Danuiel E. Levenson 2013.
My next stop was at Jenney Pond in Plymouth, Massachusetts, a fantastic place to see ducks which did not disappoint today.  Almost as soon as I got out of my car I could see a very large group of mallards on the open section of the pond, with two Mute Swans behind them and several other species mixed in. Moving closer I was happy to add 3 more species to my year list: Gadwall, Ring-necked Duck and American Black Duck. The only part of my experience there which I did not enjoy was when two people showed up to feed the ducks stale bread and yell to each other at the top of their lungs about how hungry the ducks were. I was tempted to go over and tell them that :

A. White bread is not something ducks should be eating.

B. The ducks are not starving - if the ducks were starving they would either be dead or have moved  
     somewhere else, after all they are wild animals.

C. Their yelling and screaming was both annoying and scaring the other birds.

Alas, I gritted my teeth and waited for them to leave. No matter, because in the end I saw some great birds. In addition to the ducks I mentioned above there were also five Hooded Mergansers and a male Red-breasted Merganser. The latter didn't seem bothered by my closeness to the shoreline at all, and I got a few OK photos. Later I watched as he made several dives, tucking his head down and slipping effortlessly underwater at the edge of the ice.

A male Red-breasted Merganser hunts for fish on Jenney Pong in Plymouth, MA. These diving ducks are more commonly seen on salt water. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
My final stop of the day was along the beach in Plymouth, where I saw a large number of gulls, and added birds #62 and 63 to my list - I saw Common Eiders swimming far out in the bay, and on shore right next to a parking lot there was a large group of Brant. Much of the surface close to the beach was covered in ice, with crows and gulls walking on top. I even saw a confused-looking Sanderling land on the ice, slip and slide around a for a few minutes, then take flight again.

One interesting thing I noticed while watching the gulls closer in was an American Crow harassing a female Mallard. I know crows will mob owls and other birds of prey, but I have never seen (or heard of) a crow chasing after a duck. I saw a similar interaction between a crow and a gull at Jenney Pond. If anyone out there has seen anything like this before I would definitely love to hear about it.

A group of Brant feeding on the grass near Plymouth Harbor. These small geese breed far to the north but can be seen along the New England coast in winter. Image copyright Danuiel E. Levenson 2013.
Overall it was another cold day to be outdoors, but well worth it. In the areas I visited the birds were quite active and the beaches, ocean and river were all very beautiful in the snow and ice.

Although the surface directly offshore was covered in ice there was plenty of open water a little farther out in Plymouth Harbor, where gulls and Common Eider could be seen bobbing in the waves. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

West of Boston: Lincoln, Concord and Natick

This morning I managed to get out of bed and into my car by 7:45, a herculean task if ever there was one.  For my efforts, I was rewarded with some terrific birds, as I drove back and forth across several towns in the Metro West area. My general plan for the day was to check out Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary in Lincoln, MA, with stops before and after along the way.My first stop was at Newton City Hall, where before I even got out of the car I added bird #50 to my year list - a Song Sparrow. It was still quite cold at 8 this morning, but I did a fairly thorough check of the city hall area where the small group of American Green-winged Teal can still be seen.  The last few times I've been there I've seen a total of 5, 4 males and 1 female, but today there were only 4 of these colorful little ducks present, 3 males and 1 female.

My next stop was the parking area at Norumbega which is used by renters at the Charles River Canoe and Kayak shop across the Charles. I stopped here more on a whim than any concrete ideas about adding to my list and was totally surprised (and exhilarated) to see two Canvasback ducks as soon as I pulled in. The light wasn't so great, but I jumped out of the car with my binoculars and camera and got an excellent look at these noble birds and took a few decent photos. Not only was species # 51 for the year in my Bay State Big Year count, but the first of 3 new life birds I would add to my list today.

Two Canvasback ducks swim in the Charles River near Norumbega Park in Newton, MA. The Canvasback is not a common bird in Massachusetts, but several have been seen this winter in and around Boston. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
While I was watching the Canvasbacks I also decided to take some time to look more closely at the gulls which were right in front of me and to take some photos. Gulls are not easy to identify, appearing in different plumage at different stages of their lives and in different seasons. Today I managed to pick out a number Ring-billed gulls - both adults and juveniles, as well as Herring Gulls and a single Greater Black- backed Gull.

An adult Ring-billed Gull (left) and adult Herring Gull (Right) are seen feeding near the Charles River in Weston, MA. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Finally I arrived at my destination - Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary. In the summer this place is generally quite crowded, but in the winter it's very peaceful for the most part, and a good place to look for birds which favor open fields and brushy areas. I started off watching the feeders where I saw lots of White-throated Sparrows, Juncos and Black-capped Chickadees, then moved to the other feeders behind the Audubon Store. It was here that I added another bird to my year and life list - a Pine Warbler - definitely out of season and unexpected. At first I wasn't sure, but after watching it for a while, consulting my Subley's guide and taking a couple of photos, I am convinced it was a Pine Warbler. The photo below was the best of several that I took - in it you can see the overall shape of the bird, the yellow around the head and throat and its wing bars. Through binoculars I could also clearly see light streaking on the breast.

A Pine Warbler sits atop a bird feeder at Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary in Lincoln, MA. This small bird is not usually seen during the winter in Massachusetts. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
As I moved on I added two more year birds, an Eastern Bluebird and a Hermit Thrush (also a new life bird for me. Needless to say, to have added 3 new life birds before noon was pretty exciting. I also got a nice look at a large Red-tailed Hawk and an accipter of indeterminate species sweeping across an open field.

A Hermit Thrush sits silently in a tree at Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary. This was year bird #54 and life bird #204 for me. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
After a while I decided to move on and stopped for a quick sandwich at the Whistlestop Gourmet in Lincoln center. One of the fun things about this big year project is that I end up finding all kinds of out of the way restaurants and new places to explore. Lincoln center is probably one such place I would have otherwise never come across - composed of a few stores, a post office and grocery store beside the MBTA tracks, it would be easy to miss. My next stop was at the Codman Estate, a place I came across while heading toward Walden Pond. There was only one other car in the parking lot, and the place looked fairly deserted, but I decided to take a walk around anyway, thinking there might be some birds in the open fields or gardens. At night this place could feel decidedly creepy, but during the day it was pleasant enough - I only saw two birds, and ID'ed one (a White-breasted Nuthatch) but it looked like it could have potential in the spring or summer. There were several nice open fields with brushy/woodsy edges and a small pond close to the road, so I may very well stop in again when it gets warm out.

The Codman Estate in Lincoln, MA was built in the 1790's by Chambers Russell, one of the founders of the town of Lincoln. The estate sits on on an expansive property containing gardens and open fields. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
After wandering around the Codman Estate grounds for a while I got back in the car and headed to Walden Pond. In retrospect this was an awful idea, but I figured I was close so I should at least check it out and see if there might be any birds around. I must have temporarily forgotten that generally speaking, state parks and reservations, especially those easily accessible from suburban Boston, are generally pretty terrible places to find any semblance of peace and quiet, and hence, tend to be pretty bad places to look for birds or other wildlife. Anyway, I went and had a terrible time. The pond itself is beautiful, but otherwise it's not such a fun place to go if you want to observe the natural world - hordes of screaming kids, people walking their dogs right past the sign that says "no dogs allowed,"  etc., Even in Thoreau's day of course this was a bustling place, but I would gladly take the sound of blacksmiths at the forge, farmers at the plow and other auditory fruits of honest labor over people shouting into cell phones or yelling to each other down the trail. Yes, Walden Pond is beautiful, but if I go back it will be in my kayak, where I will paddly out to the middle of the pond and float around a safe (and blissful) distance from the crowding masses.

Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts is a popular destination for swimmers in the summer and draws tourists year-round, While the pond itself is quiet picturesque,the large number of people it draws makes it a less ideal site for birding. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
After this less-than-stellar experience at Walden Pond I was in serious need of some actual nature, so I headed over to Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary in Natick. I didn't add any more birds to my list at Broadmoor, but I did take a nice hour-long walk where I got to enjoy the peace of the forest and watch the sun set. I even got a really nice look at two White-tailed Deer feeding in a meadow as the sun went down behind the trees.Overall it wasa splendid day of birding and exploration.

The sun sets behind the trees at Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary in Natick, Massachusetts. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Cabin fever internet round up

Since I've been stuck inside all week with a horrendous head cold I've been spending more time reading nature blogs and birding books. This is of course not a bad thing, but given that I have a job I love and would also like to be adding new birds to my year list, let's just say I'd rather not be sitting at home all day, where in addition to a sinus headache, nasal congestion and a cough, I've managed to contract a a rather severe case of cabin fever. That being said, I wanted to share links to some interesting things online, so, here goes ...

The American Birding Association blog ran a post today on birding "taboos," a list of topics that aren't necessarily discussed aloud among birders, but can raise the hackles, nonetheless. One of the topics mentioned which caught me by surprise was a mention of the use of laser pointers by birding guides to indicate the location of birds in the field. I have never seen anyone do this, but then again, I tend to do the majority of my birding either on my own or with a few friends, none of whom have ever suggested bringing along a device which might injure the very creatures we are out there trying to enjoy. Also, it seems kind of lazy to me. So you can see where I come out on the whole debate about whether or not people should be using these things to point out birds. Another topic raised on the list was the possibility of including Hawaii in the ABA area - here I'm a bit more ambivalent - on the one hand, adding new territory would expand the geographic range of birders and likely add new birds to the list. On the other hand, it would mean that anyone who wants to set or beat a record for a big year would now have to travel to Hawaii. In fact, the ABA did an earlier blog post on the potential merits of including Hawaii in the ABA area, which you can check out here. I would, of course, also highly recommend checking out the blog post on taboos, which you can view by clicking here.

Another post I came across that I liked a lot was by Jeff Cooper, on the Birding is Fun website. In this post he writes about the joys of "office birding" and how he was able to observe the natural world from inside his office, and get some great photos too. From his perch inside an office building he was able to see foxes, Golden Eagles, Magpies and other wildlife. You can see the photos and read the post for yourself by clicking here.

Something else which caught my eye this week was a story about the oldest known Northern Shrike, which was first caught and banded in Wisconsin in 2006. The bird apparently showed up again this year, earning it a place in the record books. I read about this story on e-bird, as well as other sites, including Laura's Birding Blog (a recent discovery). The Northern Shrike is a bird I have yet to add to my list, although I have been keeping an eye on the list serves to see where I might be able to spot one in  Massachusetts this winter. For those who don't know much about this species, it's a bird of the frozen north which preys on other songbirds, dispatching them in what sounds like a rather unpleasant manner, based on what I have read, and often caching its kills for later consumption on barbed wire fences or thorns. Yes, it's kind of brutal, but nature can be that way sometimes (often?) In any case, this is a bird I would really like to add to both my year and life lists.

Well, that's all I've got for now. Thanks for reading !

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Book Review: "Winter World" by Bernd Heinrich

Product details:  Winter World by Bernard Heinrich, Published by Harper Perennial, ISBN 978-0061129070, available online from a variety of booksellers.

Although the natural world may look dormant at this time of year, the fact of the matter is that the fields and forests around us are still rich with animal life and activity. In Winter World, author and naturalist Bernd Heinrich opens a wonderful window into the lives of a range of animals who remain quite active throughout the winter months in New England, and chronicles the amazing adaptive traits and strategies which they rely on in order to survive in this harsh environment. Heinrich is the author of a number of excellent books about the natural world, including Mind of the Raven, a fascinating study of bird behavior which should be on the bookshelf of any serious birder. I would suggest that Winter World also deserves a place on the shelf of any serious naturalist, be they professional or amateur.

What's nice about Heinrich's work is that he somehow combines a rigorous exploration of the science involved in understanding the natural history of the birds, mammals and other creatures he writes about with a natural gift for storytelling. the end result is a narrative that is enjoyable and educational, and perhaps most importantly, inspiring. Winter World is one of very few books I have read more than once, and each time I feel inspired to go outside, to listen for Golden-crowned Kinglets in a Pine forest or take a closer look at a half-frozen pond or search for tracks in the snow.

Throughout it all, Heinrich's love for the natural world is palpable as he invites us into the world these creatures call home. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who loves the outdoors and has ever wondered how the creatures who become so familiar in the warmer months are able to survive -  and in some cases even thrive -  throughout often difficult northern winters.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

*Please note all reviews reflect my own personal opinions and experience, and I assume no responsibility for how, when or where the items or services discussed are used. Outdoor activities are inherently risky and anyone using the products or services discussed on this blog must make their own decisions when it comes to personal safety and comfort.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Gear Review: Bean's Snow Sneakers

*Please note all reviews reflect my own personal opinions and experience, and I assume no responsibility for how, when or where the items or services discussed below are used. Outdoor activities are inherently risky and anyone using the products or services discussed below must make their own decisions when it comes to personal safety and comfort.
Product details:  Bean's Snow Sneakers - L.L. Bean, retail price $99.00 - available online here.

Readers of this blog know I have a tendency to head outdoors regardless of the weather or time of year, so good footwear is essential. In my 30 plus years of slogging through swamps, scrambling up peaks and wading through snow drifts I have gone through more pairs of boots, sneakers and sandals than I care to remember. This fall I was looking for a light-weight, waterproof boot that I could use for both my commute to work and for day trips around New England, where as this winter has shown, conditions can range from half-frozen mud fields to several inches of snow to soggy fields and forests. I wanted footwear that would allow me to walk comfortably through both the snow and mud, and offer a decent grip in icy conditions.

In my search for footwear that would fit this description I came across Bean's Snow Sneaker, made by L.L. Bean. So far this shoe has performed admirably under a variety of conditions, and has proven waterproof, warm and comfortable under a variety of different conditions. Most recently I wore them for a day of birding at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island and during a long afternoon of exploring wetlands and forests at Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary in Natick, MA. In both places, whether I was navigating an ice-covered boardwalk searching for ducks or watching Northern Harriers hunt over sand dunes along the Atlantic ocean, the shoes performed well. Overall they have proven a solid product and I look forward to wearing them for many more days in the field this winter and spring.

Seeing the birds (and beyond)

As crucial areas of habitat become lost or come under increasing strain it is more important than ever to maintain the health of sensitive ecosystems such as these grasslands in Sharon, Massachusetts, which have are cared for by the Trustees of Reservation. Species such as the Boblink and Eastern Meadowlark rely on these large open areas for food, shelter and reproduction. Image copyright Daniel E.Levenson 2013.
Part of my quest to see as many different species of birds in Massachusetts as possible in 2013 is to learn as much as I can about the diverse array of bird life which calls the Commonwealth home for part of their collective lives every year. In the  fall and winter we have Siskins, Shrikes, various ducks and other birds that come south for a respite from colder climes, and in the spring and summer we see Orioles, Swallows and the like heading north to build nests and raise young.

This seasonal cycle is fascinating to observe and serves as an important reminder of the ways in which all things in nature are intricately connected with one another. Global warming, changing weather patterns, freak storms, human interactions with the environment can all have a profound impact on the lives of the plants and animals we take for granted around us, and not just locally. In learning about the birds of Massachusetts I hope to also learn about the impact of human actions, weather and other factors on the natural world, and to share those lessons and insights with everyone who is generous enough to take a few minutes out of their day to read this blog. My hope is that by learning more about these birds, that I will learn more about the natural world.

In today's post I'd like to share some links to online resources I've found particularly useful when it comes to learning about New England bird life and ecology, all the while keeping in mind that what we do here impacts these animals, and by extension, the ecology, of not only New England but landscapes far to the north and south of us as well, and vice versa.

I frequently mention/recommend the e-bird website run by Cornell in my blog postings. It's been an invaluable tool for me since I started birding when it comes to keeping track of lists and observations, but it's also much more than that. It's not only great for storing my own lists, but for checking out what other people in my area and around the country are seeing, as well as where and when. At this time of year the "explore data" function of the site allows me to check on the most recent sightings of a group of Green-winged Teal in Newton I've been watching for about a month now, as well as pinpoint likely places to see Pine Siskins. One of my favorite things to do is to search for sightings of a particular species and then check out the full list of the person reporting the birds to get a fuller picture of other birds which are in the area. Often when I do this I find new places to visit and explore.

Another website I recently started to check on a regular basis is that of the American Birding Association. From a design perspective I find the homepage to be a bit too busy for my own aesthetic sensibilities, but I enjoy checking the list serve for Massachusetts and reading birding reports. I also like the ABA blog, which covers a pretty wide range of topics, from this recent post on rare vagrant birds from the West Indies showing up in Florida to this great post by Nate Swick about the importance of not losing sight of the natural beauty around us while chasing after rare birds. From reading these posts it's possible to begin to get a sense of the bigger picture of bird movement across the United States and perhaps to start embracing a broader view of which species call which states and geographical regions home.

The Massachusetts Audubon website is a popular destination for natural history buffs who want to find out about the latest trips or bird sightings, but I highly recommend spending some time to explore the site in greater depth to learn more about the different ecosystems to be found in the Bay State. One of my personal favorite ecosystems to explore are grasslands - we don't have an abundance of them in Massachusetts, but there are several important grassland areas around the state which are certainly worth visiting. Mass Audubon has a great section on their website about grassland ecology and avian life where I have learned a lot about The Grassland Conservation Program at the Center for Biological Conservation, a project initiated by Mass Audubon to help preserve and protect this crucial habitat around the state.

As I continue to explore new places in New England and beyond I will occasionally offer my thoughts (and some links to check out) when it comes to the bigger ecological picture.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Watching feeders at Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary

Today I spent some time at Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary, watching the bird feeders both outside the nature center and along one of the trails. I had seen reports of Redpolls and Siskins at the sanctuary, and I was hoping that with a little patience and no small measure of luck, I might get a glimpse of these uncommon northern birds. As I got out of my car I could already see that there was a lot of activity at and around the feeders - Chickadees, Red-breasted and White-breasted Nuthatches and Tufted Titmice were swooping in and out, grabbing seeds, occasionally quarreling with one another over a prime spot at one of the feeders.

A Black-capped Chickadee visits a bird feeder at Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary in Sharon, Massachusetts. These small, gregarious birds are a common sight in backyards and other suburban locations. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
As much as I searched for any signs of the siskins or Redpolls, I had no luck. I did, however, get to add species #48 to my list for the year - a very nice Carolina Wren. I had seen a Carolina Wren in the same location back in December, and I'm guessing this is the same continuing bird. It moved too quickly for me to get a photo, but I did get a great look at it through my binoculars. A quick check of the surrounding woods turned up several Northern Cardinals, more Chickadees and Titmice and a Brown Creeper. I suspect that the siskins and Redpolls are still around somewhere. Hopefully I'll have a chance to take another look in the area next weekend.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

A quick Chat in Burlington, wandering through foggy woods in Natick

I woke up this morning with the goal of expanding my year list as my quest for a Massachusetts big year continues. Earlier in the week I had added species #45 to my list with a White-throated Sparrow art Newton City Hall and yesterday on my lunch break I got #46 when I came across a flock of boisterous House Finches in the Boston Public Garden. Today I decided to try and make another attempt at seeing the Yellow-breasted Chat which has been hanging out in some woods beside the Kohl's store in Burlington, MA. My efforts to see it last week were not successful, although I did get a great look at a Cooper's Hawk while checking out the area.

I arrived in Burlington around mid-day and immediately began a close inspection of the brush and trees beside the parking lot. As I was looking around I noticed someone else with binoculars who was motioning toward the trees, so I went over and said hello. "You just missed him," the guy said, "he was right there." I felt a moment of disappointment, but based on what I've been reading online this particular bird has been hanging around the area for a while, so I thought there was a good chance it would pop into view again. As the other birder and I scanned the trees he suddenly motioned again and pointed out exactly where the Chat was sitting - I got an excellent look at it sitting there, a beautiful bird with striking yellow coloration, especially against a gray and foggy sky. While I was there I also spotted a Red-tailed Hawk perched in a tree and an accipeter flew over, likely a Sharp-shinned Hawk, but too high up to tell for sure.

Snow blankets a field at Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary in Natick, Massachusetts on a foggy, damp January day. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

My next stop was a decidedly less busy place than a mall parking lot - Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary in Natick, Massachusetts. I felt like I wanted to get out and stretch my legs, and in the past this has been a great place to see a range of species, from raptors to ducks, herons and songbirds. I was hoping I might be able to add Red-bellied Woodpecker and possibly American Wigeon to my year list (two species I saw there in late December) but no such luck. I did, however, enjoy a good three hour ramble through the woods and wetlands, enjoying the stillness of a world shrouded in fog. I also counted 15 species, including a Brown Creeper, several White-Throated and Tree Sparrows, multiple Red-Breasted Nuthatches, American Goldfinch and other common winter birds. There were also plenty of Mallards to be found in little open spots where the ice had melted.

Despite the chilly, damp weather the woods were very peaceful, the stillness broken by occasional birdsong to keep me company.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013

Monday, January 7, 2013

No Yellow-breasted Chat, but a Swan and a Cooper's bring my year list to 44 species

On Sunday afternoon I only had a little time to look for birds, so I decided to stop off at the Kohl's parking lot in Burlington. Massachusetts. to see if I could find the continuing Yellow-breasted Chat which people have been posting about on various birding list serves. Before we got on the highway, however, my girlfriend Joanna and I spotted two Mute Swans in an open section of water in the Charles River, across from the Charles River Canoe and Kayak rental location in Newton.  We pulled over for a few minutes and I took a good look at the swans through my binoculars. The Swans were species #43 for the year, and while  there we also counted a number of Canada Geese, Ring-billed Gulls and Mallards, along with one solitary Rock Pigeon.

Two mute swans swim on the Charles River while Mallards venture onto shore in the foreground. Image copyright Joanna Barker 2013.
Back on the road we saw three Red-tailed hawks perched along the highway, and when we got to the Kohl's parking lot there there were already a few birders there searching for the chat. We spent about 25 minutes peering into the brush and trees beside the parking lot, but the chat failed to make an appearance. I would be very curious to know if anyone else saw it tyesterday.

We did see several American Robins while searching for the chat and I was happy to add bird #44 for the year, a gorgeous Cooper's Hawk which I got an excellent look at as it flew over the marsh behind the parking lot. At first I wasn't sure if it might be a Sharp-shinned, but it had a very obviously rounded tail and seemed larger than the Sharp-Shinned hawks I have seen before.

So, sadly, no Yellow-breasted Chat for me this weekend. I plan to keep an eye on the list serves though, and if it pops again I will defintely try to see it.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

A delightful day of birding at Plum Island

Although much of the landscape was covered beneath snow and ice, Plum Island and the Parker River National Widlife Refuge were full of avian life during a recent outing. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Yesterday was one of the best days of birding I can recall, both in terms of adding new species to my year and life lists, and also just for experiencing the beauty of the natural world. I spent most of the day on Plum Island in Newburyport, Massachusetts, where I added bird #200 to my life list, and brought my year to date total to 41 species. Including bird #200, I added 6 new life birds. Also, I was quite proud of myself for getting up when my alarm went off, so I would say it was a banner day all around.

I started off the morning outside the Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Education Center, waiting for the doors to open. Since I was a little early I decided to look around and added an American Tree Sparrow to my year list. After the center I opened I went inside and signed up for the Saturday morning birding trip, a weekly program run by the staff at the center. Readers of this blog may be aware that my past attempts to join Mass Audubon outings have been repeatedly foiled by horrible weather, bad luck and my ability to sleep through any known alarm clock. This time, things turned out just fine and I had a great time exploring the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge with an excellent naturalist guide and some very knowledgeable fellow birders.

Even before we left the center, though, I managed to add two more species to my year list, an American goldfinch and a Bald Eagle. The eagle was a life bird and truly amazing - I saw it through both my binoculars and through a scope set up by the window. Through my binoculars it appeared as a very large brown bird with a white head sitting at the edge of the ice. Through the scope I could see it in much greater detail and it was an impressive sight.

With clear skies and relatively light wind, yesterday was an excellent day to explore the beaches of Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, with a variety of loons, grebes and wintering ducks visible just off shore.Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Our first stop inside the refuge was at Parking Lot 1, where we all piled out of the vans and took an ice and sand covered boardwalk up to the beach. When we got there the water spread out in all directions, brilliant blue under a clear, cold sky. The wind was tolerable, but I was glad to be wearing 5 layers of warm winter clothing. One of the fun things about birding with other people is that you have more pairs of eyes looking in different directions, so the group tends to spot more birds.

I also really liked how the people from Mass Audubon made sure everyone had a chance to see the different species we encountered and took the time to offer ID tips and some basic information. Standing on the wooden platform I scanned the water with my binoculars and those in the group who had scopes were kind enough to let everyone have a look as new species popped up. In addition to Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls we also saw a Red-throated Grebe, two Common Loons, about 20 Red-breasted Mergansers, many Sanderlings and White-winged Scoter.

Soon after we got back into the car a Northern Harrier was spotted and during out next stop at the hellcat Wildlife Observation area  I was very excited to see my very first Snow Bunting. I first saw Harriers a few years ago on the South Shore of Massachusetts when I was out birding at Mass Audubon's Daniel Webster sanctuary, these skilled areal hunters made quite an impression then as we watched them swoop low over frozen wetlands in fading winter light, and they were just as beautiful to watch today.

Not my best bird photo, but it does document an exciting new life bird that I have wanted to see for quite some time. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Driving back to the nature center we made one final stop by the side of the road to see a dark morph Rough-legged Hawk. It was sitting serenely on top of a post along a raised area beside the water. Because of the way the bird was sitting there was some speculation at first about what species it might be, but as it took flight and hovered, lingering above the same spot where it had just perched, it was identified as a Rough-legged Hawk. We also got very close to a Red-tailed Hawk perched in a tree right next to the road.

A Red-tailed Hawk sits perched in a tree inside the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, seemingly unbothered by its many human admirers. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

The Red-tailed Hawk takes flight, Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013

After the program I ended I went back to the reserve and added Horned Grebe to my list. I also took some time to walk out to a quieter part of the property where I only saw one or two other people in the distance. It was a gorgeous section of beach, reached by a long boardwalk that took me over frozen dunes and marsh. Along the way another Northern Harrier appeared, an adult female, and I watched it surf an invisible current of air just above the sand, following the contours of the frozen dunes.

I ended the day with a quick stop at Newton City Hall where I added species #42 to my year list - a Great Blue Heron. All in all a terrific day of birding and outdoor exploration, I can't wait to visit Plum Island again.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Friday, January 4, 2013

A Quick trip to the Public Garden and Newton City Hall

Since my office isn't too far from the Boston Public Garden I thought I would take a walk over after work today to see if there might be any birds around. I know that urban green spaces like this can act as a migrant trap, and when the water in the pond is open it's an attractive spot for ducks. The temperature was around 35 degrees as I walked around the pond on an ice-encrusted path. Compared to the last few days of single digit temperatures it actually felt pretty comfortable, and I was delighted to add bird #27 to my year list when I spotted two or three House Sparrows under a bush. Yesterday I picked up species #26, an American Crow, on my way to work in the morning.

The Boston Public Garden sits beneath a thin layer of snow and ice. In warmer weather a variety of bird species can be found in around the pond and gardens. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

I spent the last hour of daylight at the Newton City Hall and Bullough's Pond where there was very little activity. While I normally see five or ten species within minutes of arrival, today the air was quiet and a flcok of Rock Pigeons huddled atop the city hall was the only sign of bird life in the area. After scouring the park and checking and Bullough's pond I only came up with six species, including the continuing American Green Teal, a few Mallards and a Cardinal. Although the birds weren't too cooperative it was nice to get outside, and the sunset was beautiful..

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

25 Down, 275 To Go ... The Start of My Bay State Big Year

A Red-tailed Hawk perches on a limb near the Chestnut Hill Reservoir, watching a nearby flock of Mourning Doves. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Despite my excitement to start my Bay State big year, I still managed to hit snooze several dozen times on my alarm clock this morning.Nonetheless, once I did manage to get out of bed and out the door I had a wonderful start to the project, with some great views of typical species and a few unexpected surprises along the way.

One of the nice things about living in Newton is that within an hour's drive I can hit not only many different Mass Audubon Sanctuaries, State Parks and conservation areas, but an impressive range of habitats too, from forest to grassland to the coast. This morning I decided to start off at Newton City Hall - it's one of the places I go birding frequently and is usually a pretty productive spot. I also had a hunch that the American Green-winged Teal might still be around, and this is also a place where I routinely see Red-tailed hawks, two species I wanted to add to the list early. I found the teal with relative ease, and the Red-Tailed Hawk was also quite cooperative, posing perfectly still atop the city hall. There was also a boisterous flock of wintering American Robins and another of European Starlings. The robins were beautiful against the bright winter landscape - flashing warm orange as they moved noisily from one tree to the next.

I decided to head over to the Chestnut Hill Reservoir next. This has proven a great place in the past for large numbers of Hooded and Common Merganser, as well as relatively high counts of Ruddy Duck (20-25 birds). This was also my first attempt at chasing a rarity - for the past couple of weeks I've been seeing reports of Redhead ducks showing up on both Hammond Pond and Chestnut Hill Reservoir. The latest report put the group of 3 females and 2 males at the reservoir. Adding a Redhead to the list was something I really wanted to do, both for the year and for my life list. I could see from the car as I approached that the water was almost entirely free of ice, and there were lots of Canada Geese and ducks visible. The Common Mergansers were a little far out, but very nice to watch as they dove for fish, surrounded by larger group of Hooded Mergansers, also making frequent dives.

In addition to the mergansers, Canada Geese, Mallards, Ruddy Ducks and Ring-billed gulls, I also saw two birds which seemed a bit out of place. I studied them through my binoculars for a few minutes and it occurred to me that in terms of their overall shape and the shape of the bill, they reminded me very strongly of Pied-billed Grebes. After a few more minutes of study and consultation with my Sibley's guide confirmed that I was in fact looking at two of these birds, wearing their dull brown winter plumage. I even managed to get a photo or two - not my best work, but you can see the overall shape and coloring.

A Pied-billed Grebe rests on the surface of Chestnut Hill Reservoir in Brighton, Massachusetts. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
As I was watching the ducks and the grebe someone stopped on a bicycle stopped to tell me he often sees Red-tailed hawks in the area. Just as we were talking I looked up and saw the bird in the photo at the top of this post. It was on the smaller side - likely a male, and seemed totally unperturbed by all of the walkers, runners and other people passing by below. I watched this bird for a while until it made an enthusiastic but unsuccessful attempt at grabbing a mourning dove from a neighboring tree. The dove managed to escape and the hawk flew off with strong wingbeats, lifting up over the treeline and disappearing.

I continued to follow the path around the reservoir, scanning the water for any sign of the Redheads. As I made my way to the other side there were fewer and fewer ducks to be seen, but I continued on anyway and was very excited to come around a corner and see 5 Redheads sitting together in a little cove. The birds were very beautiful - my photos defintiely do not do them justice.

This small group of Redhead Ducks is an unusual sight in Massachusetts. These birds were seen feeding on the Chestnut Hill Reservoir. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.
Moving on, a strong and very cold wind began to kick up, blowing without mercy off of the water. I wrapped my scarf around my face and trudged along, taking shelter temporarily behind one of the old pumping stations. As I was battling the wind I looked up and saw a Ring-billed gull which seemed to be taking delight in the wind, swooping and turning playfully, seemingly unaffected by the cold.  When I was almost back at my car I stopped once more to inspect a mixed foraging group, hoping that a Golden-crowned Kinglet might turn up, and in fact, one did, along with a male Downy Woodpecker and a Brown Creeper. In total I saw 21 species at the reservoir, and 7 total at Newton City Hall in the morning, which brought me to a combined total of 24 species for the day at this point.

After grabbing a quick lunch I headed over to check out a new place, Cold Spring Park in Newton. I had heard it could be a good spot, but had never made it over before. I added one new species for the day while I was there (2 really bright red Northern Cardinals) and explored the area a bit. Aside from the fact that there is a dog park there (something not usually conducive to wildlife observation) it did look like it could be promising. There was a nice mix of wetlands, streams, small ponds, forest and brush, as well as a large open area with baseball fields, so I'm guessing that a large number of species make use of the park throughout the year and especially in the warmer months.

Two Mallards take advantage of an open stream at Cold Spring Park in Newton, Massachusetts. Image Copyright Daniel E Levenson 2013.
All in all I was very pleased with the first day of 2013 - the Redheads, Pied-billed Grebe and brown Creeper were all unexpected surprises and to be able to get so close to the Red-tailed Hawk at the reservoir and the continuing American green-winged Teal in Newton was a lot of fun. It was also interesting to have so many people stop and ask me about the birds right in front of them, or to tell me about a bird they had just seen in the area. I think this is going to be a very interesting year.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.