Thursday, March 28, 2013

Please help me to support the important work of Mass Audubon

Birding at Mass Auduibon's Moosehill Wildlife Sanctuary in Sharon, MA. Image copyright Joanna Barker 2013.
One of the fun things about birding is that you meet interesting people and see lots of cool places and things which you might otherwise never encounter. During my 2013 New England birding big year I've been fortunate enough to be able to join a number of Mass Audubon birding trips which have not only been a lot of fun, but helped to improve my birding and wildlife observation skills. This May I have the opportunity to join the Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary team for the 30th annual Massachusetts Audubon Society Bird-a-Thon, a 24 hour birding contest to see which team can see the greatest number of bird species and raise the most money to help support the work of the organization.

I'm excited (and honored) to have a chance to give something back to an organization I have long admired and benefited from. In fact, one of my earliest childhood memories is of walking along the boardwalk at Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary in Sharon, Massachusetts and exploring the sights and sounds of the natural world. Later I worked as a counselor at the Moose Hill summer camp and got to know several of the other sanctuaries quite well, including Broadmoor in Natick, Stonybrook in Norfolk and of course Drumlin Farm in Lincon. Over the years I have been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to explore deserts, rainforests, mountain peaks and shorelines in the US and abroad. These experiences have taught me a great deal about the natural world and myself, and I am very excited to have this chance do my small part in helping to support the work of Mass Audubon, an organization dedicated to helping make Massachusetts (and the world) a better place.

To find out more about the Bird-a-Thon and how you can help support this important conservation effort through a donation, please click here. Any amount helps and is greatly appreciated.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

At last, a sunny day

Blue skies and acres of open water made for some great birding at Great Meadows National wildlife Refuge in Concord, Massachusetts. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
After so many cold, frozen days spent outdoors over the last 3 months, I took real delight today in being able to shed my fleece jacket and spend some time outdoors enjoying the sunshine. As I walked around the Concord section of the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge I kept thinking to myself that soon enough I'll be able to trade in my mittens and a wool hat for sunblock and bug spray. When I arrived at the impoundment this morning there was a clear blue sky overhead and birdsong filled the air - as soon as I stepped out of my car I could hear Red-winged Blackbirds, White-breasted Nuthatches, Red-bellied Woodpecker5 and Song Sparrows calling all around me. The Song Sparrows were particularly vocal and I love to see such a robust sound coming from such a small bird, so I made sure to track down one of the singers and take its photo.

A Song Sparrow sings from its perch on a bare branch at the water's edge at Great Meadows NWR in Concord, Massachusetts. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
There were also a good number of ducks out on the water today, including a group of about a dozen Ring-necked Ducks and at least two pair of Common Goldeneye, one of which was feeding quite close to the shore, so I got an excellent look at both the male and female. I scanned the sky for any sign of the Opsrey I saw there over the weekend, but aside from two Turkey Vultures which drifted past overhead there was only blue sky as far as the eye could see. In addition to the birds I also saw several Muskrat, a Painted Turtle sunning itself on a half-submerge log near the river and I think I may have even heard a frog or two making some noise deep within the dead cattails from last year.

A Muskrat comes out into the sunshine to search for food at Great Meadows NWR in Concord, MA. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
I didn't manage to add any new birds to my New England birding big year list, but I did enjoy being outside in the warm(er) weather, and I ran into a friendly fellow birder who was kind enough to give me a few tips about about where to look for certain species at the refuge at different times of year, which I really appreciated. I'm looking forward to going back soon and checking out the places he recommended and continuing to explore the refuge, which is truly one of the most beautiful spots I've found for birding and wildlife observation in the greater Boston area. Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

A Cranberry Bog and Moose Hill

A sign points the way to a half-mile loop trail behind the Bass Pro Shops store in Foxboro, MA. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Sometime earlier this month I found myself in Foxboro, Massachusetts at one of the stores on Route 1 near the stadium. As I was looking around I noticed that there was a nature trail and pond behind the shopping center and thought it looked like it might be a good place to check for ducks the next time I was in the area, so today I finally made it back to the spot and took half an hour to explore.

A large pond sits just off of Route 1 in Foxboro, Massachusetts, where it is surrounded by a mixed forest of mostly Pine. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
 I followed the path around the pond, scanning the water and woods for any signs of bird life. I think this spot has potential on a weekday when there is less foot traffic, but even with lots of people around today, many walking dogs, I was still able to see two pairs of Mallards, a Blue Jay and a male Red-winged Blackbird which was hidden deep inside a brush pile by the water's edge. The path itself was easy to follow, though a little steep and slippery with half-melted snow in some places. All in all, not the best place to go birding, but a pretty spot nonetheless.

My next stop was at Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary in Sharon, Massachusetts. Here I had much better luck, where my first stop was the nature center where I spoke briefly with a very helpful staff member who was kind enough to tell my about a flock of Pine Siskin still hanging around and also suggested a spot to look for a Pileated Woodpcker. A few minutes later I was outside checking the feeders by the nature center when I spotted a female Pine Siskin - bird #101 for the year, and a new life bird for me. I was excited. The rest of my wanderings failed to produce a Pileated Woodpecker or any other new birds, but the weather was gorgeous and I got great looks at some Northern Cardinals and other more common birds. I was also very happy to see the first Skunk Cabbage of the year shooting up from the mud along the boardwalk.

Skunk Cabbage emerges from the mud in wetland along the boardwalk at Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary in Sharon, Massachusetts. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
A tree budding was yet another sign of spring at Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary today. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

My New England birding big year continues, as a trio of spring arrivals brings the list to 100 species

Clear blue skies and open water made for some excellent birding at the Great Meadows national wildlife refuge unit in Concord, Massachusetts. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Today I set out for Carlisle, massachusetts, where I hoped to catch a glimpse of a widely reported Fieldfare, a bird usually found in northern Europe or Asia and only rarely reported in the United States. At this point in my big year I have to admit I'm a little conflicted about chasing rare birds. On the one hand I know I will probably need to do this sometimes if I want to reach 300 species for the year, on the other hand I don't really enjoy showing up  in the middle of a mob scene in some random place to look for just one particular bird. In any case, I got directions to the location where the Fieldfare had been seen most recently and arrived to find a quiet neighborhood dotted with farm equipment, barns and a few horses, not to mention about 50 or so birders. Some were wandering up and down the narrow road while a group of about 35 people were set up in someone's backyard, hoping for an appearance.

While I normally dislike these episodes of mass convergence there is a certain degree of camaraderie among birders when the word goes out that a super rare species has been seen. also, there is something oddly satisfying (and perhaps a bit disturbing) about seeing so many other people in one spot who are willing to stand outside for hours to do the same insane thing you've decided to spend your day doing. while I was there I spoke with one man who had come up from Pennsylvania just to truly and catch a glimpse of it, but I think he had a pretty healthy attitude. I asked him if he had really come all this way to see one bird, "I'm retired," he said, "bird or no bird, its still great to get out and see new places." I couldn't have said it better myself. After an hour of scouring the trees, listening to the delightful whistling buzz of Red-winged Blackbirds and scanning some nearby fields I decided that my time would be better spent elsewhere and drove over to Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord, which is rapidly becoming one of my top birding spots close to Boston.

Further evidence that warmer days really are ahead - the first green shoots of aquatic plants break through the surface.Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
At great Meadows I had one of the best afternoons of birding I've had so far this year, the kind of day I've been dreaming about for the last couple of months as I've been slogging through the snow and ice. Soon after I arrived the sky cleared, save for a few fluffy white clouds, and the wind abated. The water on the impoundment was completely free of ice except for a few little corners, and the Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles were abundant in large numbers, croaking, whistling and singing as they moved in large flocks from the brown and broken remains of last year's cattails to the treetops and then back again. Out on the open water there were a lot of ducks, including Common Goldeneye, Ring-neck Ducks, Buddflehead and Wood Ducks. The Wood Ducks were my first for the year and brought me to 98 species total. Once I saw these colorful harbingers of Spring I felt elated, and began to search for other species which might bring me to 100 for the year. Not long after that I spotted a few small boomerang-winged birds with metallic blue backs swooping, diving and turning over the water and knew right away that I was seeing my very first Tree Swallows of 2013, which put me at 99 species for the year.

My first Osprey of 2013 flies above Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord, scanning the open water below for fish. Once endangered these birds have made an impressive comeback over the last 15-20 years. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

As I made my way closer to the river I watched the Tree Swallows perform their acrobatic dance and soon saw that there were many more of these graceful birds than I had initially counted, and so I watched a group of about 15 as they hunted insects on the wing. More Wood Ducks also appeared, sticking close to the edge of the vegetation. Mixed in among the blackbirds and grackles were Downy Woodpeckers and Black-capped Chickadees, the latter singing their spring songs as they inspected the bar (but budding) branches of trees and bushes. It was on the far side of one of the ponds that I came across an unexpected surprise - a male Northern Shoveler. I have seen these birds several times before but I'm always a little surprised to encounter them in Massachusetts, where they are definitely not common. It was while looking at the Northern Shoveler that I added species #100 for the year. As I looked out over the marsh I saw a large raptor in the distance and focused my binoculars on it, thinking it might be a Northern Harrier, but no, it turned out to be an Osprey, surely among the vanguard and an early arrival. The bird was very cooperative, flying close by several times, hovering in the air and even catching a fish which I was very excited to witness.

Heading back to the car I stopped as another large bird flew directly toward me, passing overhead and landing in some bare branches a the intersection of two trails. Slowly, carefully I walked toward it and saw that it was a first-year Red-tailed Hawk. It seemed completely unfazed by my presence, and I got incredibly good views of it through my binoculars. In fact, a couple of times as I was watching it, the bird turned its attention  and stared directly at me, its sharp predatorial eye catching the rays of sun.

As the days get longer and warmer I'm looking forward to expanding my list and continuing to share this journey with anyone kind and interested enough to read my blog. Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Friday, March 8, 2013

A nice reminder about the importance of preserving habitat, brought to you by the Gunnison Sage Grouse

The Gunnison Sage Grouse

Perhaps it goes without saying that anyone who cares about birds and other wildlife should care about the protection and preservation of the natural environment. Maintaining a healthy ecosystem helps not only birds, fish, deer and other animals, but protects people as well. In today's post I'd like to focus on the theme of habitat protection and offer a few thoughts on some important ecological issues.

Earlier this week the New York Times published an editorial by John W. Fitzpatrick of the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology on the plight of the Gunnison Sage Grouse, a bird which according to Mr. Fitzpatrick's description is both fascinating to observe in the wild and seriously threatened by potential habitat loss. In his piece he makes the case well that the bird deserves to be placed on the endangered species list and afforded special protections to ensure that that the Gunnison Sage Grouse does not go the way of the Heath Hen, Passenger Pigeon and Ivory-billed Woodpecker, other North American birds which were once an integral part of the continental landscape and are now gone.

I would highly recommend that anyone with even a passing interest in birds, conservation natural history take the time to read this important plea for assistance in protecting what sounds like a truly special species and an integral part of the west.  You can read the piece by Mr. Fitzpatrick by clicking here.

His descriptions of seeing this bird in Utah made me think of my own visit to the state a dozen years ago where the high desert landscape made a powerful impression on me. This piece also got me thinking about the importance of habitat protection here in New England, so I thought I would offer a few thoughts (and links) below to different groups and projects working to help ensure that future generations will be able to enjoy the woods and waters of the region for many years to come.

New Hampshire Audubon Society

Just to the north of Massachusetts lies the great state of New Hampshire, where I have spent many happy hours hiking, fly fishing and camping. Every time I think of the granite State it conjures up great memories of exploring Franconia Notch, trekking up  to the top of Mount Washington and casting for trout in the still waters of Profile Lake. Part of what makes this state so different from my native Massachusetts is that it's relatively easy to get away from any semblance of civilization and find yourself standing in a place that feels decidedly wild. A number of different government agencies and environmental organizations are to thank for helping to preserve the wild character of New Hampshire, among them the New Hampshire Audubon Society, a group dedicated to environmental education and preservation. I have been checking out their website for the past couple of months, and plan to make a trip up to one of the wildlife sanctuaries in the spring or early summer this year. With 38 sanctuaries and close to 8,000 acres of habitat protected, I'm looking forward to exploring the landscape and seeing up close some of the work that the New Hampshire Audubon Society does.

Beginning With Habitat, Maine

I don't have any first-hand knowledge of this group, but I came across their website as I was wandering around the web, and thought the description of who they are and what they do was pretty interesting. According to their website the project is a collaborative effort between government agencies and non-profit organizations, and has at its core the idea that in order to protect wildlife a holistic approach is needed, one which takes into account the interconnected nature of the elements within larger ecosystems. This is a very forward-thinking and encouraging approach - anyone who spends time outdoors knows that not only are there not clearly demarcated borders between, say, wetlands and forests, but that it is often precisely these points of connection and overlap which provide some of the most valuable (and vulnerable) habitat for wildlife and native vegetation. on their website they offer a fairly comprehensive but accessible description of the project and its goals, which you can view by clicking here.

Massachusetts Audubon Society

The protection of wildlife habitat is a topic I care deeply about, and in the Bay State, the Massachusetts Audubon Society has played a key role for more than 100 years in the preservation of a wide range of important New England habitats, from salt marsh and beaches to forests and meadows. According to their website the organization is currently trying to raise funds to protect habitat in at least two locations, including for the expansion of the North River Wildlife Sanctuary in Marshfield, through the acquisition of  31 additional acres of land which would add additional streams, trails and woods to the existing sanctuary property. Having spent a delightful afternoon exploring this sanctuary earlier this year, I can only imagine that its expansion will only help to enhance the experience that future generations will have as they soak in the natural beauty of this place in the years ahead. You can find out about this project by clicking here.

Well, I think that about does it for now - if you know of a group or organization which is doing important work in habitat protection or restoration I would love to hear about. I'm always looking for new groups to write about and learn from.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The upper Cape: My New England birding big year continues

A male Common Eider swims near Bourne, Massachusetts. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
This morning I joined a group trip from Drumlin Farm to go birding on Cape Cod. During the course of the day we saw a lot of great birds, and I manged to add 7 more species to my New England birding big year list, as well as 4 new life birds. One of the major highlights, though, was getting a chance to look closely at a range of wintering ducks, including Common Eiders, Common Mergansers and Greater Scaup. In the case of the eiders it was especially instructive to have a chance to see full adult male and female birds, as well as males who were born this past year, and have different plumage than adult male birds of this species. The Greater Scaup were out in massive numbers at several stops we made, blanketing the surface of the water and providing many opportunities to observe their behavior. It was a small group from Drumlin Farm today, so I was lucky enough to have a spotting scope to use for the day. It was amazing how much this enhanced my birding experience when it came to viewing ducks and loons. While I do have decent binoculars, through the scope I could see in crystal clear detail the facial markings of male Surf Scoters bobbing in the waves and the distinct yellow-tipped bill of a female Common Goldeneye at the far edge of a pond.

A group of birders exploring an old fish hatchery. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
We made many quick stops throughout the day, but there were a few instances where we got out and spent some time covering the terrain more thoroughly. I actually managed to add a new life bird very shortly into the trip when we stopped at a fast food place for people to use the bathroom, and Strickland Wheelock, our guide for the day, pointed out several Fish Crows in the parking lot. I have to admit that until a few years ago I had no idea we had more than one kind of crow in North America, but listening to the call of the Fish Crow today, and shortly after to that of an American Crow, I could tell right away that they were very different in terms of vocalization.

One of our longer stops was at Scusset Beach State Reservation in Sandwich, where I added my first Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds to my year list. In this location we also spotted a number of Song Sparrows and Black-capped Chickadees.Another interesting stop was at an old fish hatchery. In the photo above the abandoned hatchery pools can be seen on either side of the people walking along a muddy path. This place was a patchwork of forest, brush and wetlands, with streams and what appeared to be a natural spring bubbling up from the ground. A little farther in we came to a pond where someone in the group spotted a Greater Yellow Legs, another first of the year species for me.

We also spent some time exploring an old game preserve which featured open, rolling fields and a stream. As we walked down the path we met some people who told us that Great horned Owls were nesting in a pine forest not too far away, so we continued on until we came to a gently sloping hill covered in White Pine. Although the owls themselves were nowhere to be seen, we did discover several likely nest sites, which were cool to see. It was at Mill Pond in Falmouth that the scope really proved invaluable, when I was able to get a magnificent look at a male Eurasian Wigeon far out on the water where it was mixed in with a group of American Wigeon and other ducks.We ended our day under cloudy skies, but the variety and beauty of the birds we saw was a real bright spot.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.