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.

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