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.

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