Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Under blue skies, a hunt for warblers at Great Meadows and Nahanton Park

A Great Blue Heron stalks the marsh at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord, MA. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
The last few days we've had incredible weather in Massachusetts, especially by the standards of what often passes for "spring" in New England. Since last Friday the skies overhead have been clear, bright and blue, the air dry and temperatures in the mid-60's. This oddly pleasant weather feels a lot more like California than Massachusetts, but I'll take it. This past Sunday and today I was able to get outside for a little while and enjoy the sunshine while searching for warblers. While I only managed to add one more species to my year list - a Yellow Warbler, #119 for my New England birding big year - at Nahanton Park in Newton, Massachusetts, I did have the opportunity to take a closer look at spring as it evolves around me and take a few photos along the way, including the one above of a Great Blue Heron which seemed completely unconcerned by the presence of 4 or 5 people taking its photo only about 10 feet away.

This male Red-winged Blackbird is one of many I saw while birding at Great Meadows NWR in Concord, MA. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
One of the most interesting things I saw while at Great Meadows were the many Common Carp, a large alien invasive fish species which, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, made their way into the pools at Great Meadows when the Concord River has flooded in the past. All afternoon as I was scanning the treetops for warblers and checking little hidden corners of the marsh for ducks the peaceful atmosphere was continually shattered as these massive fish rocketed into the air, landing back down with a loud smack or seemed to chase one another into the shoreline vegetation, sometimes only their bellies still underwater. According to the USFWS website many of the carp will die when oxygen levels in the pools drop, but I can't help but wonder why more can't be done to remove these invasive fish which have no business in Massachusetts rivers, wetlands and ponds. I would be very interested to know if electro-shocking or netting has been tried in the past. Since I have seen Osprey there in the past I'm guessing there are also possibly other fish - perhaps Bluegills, Yellow Perch, Chain Pickerel and Large Mouth Bass that get into the pools during flooding as well.

A Tree Swallow rests in the bright April sunshine on a nesting box at Nahanton Park in Newton, MA. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
This afternoon at Nahanton Park the sun was shining bright and the air was full of the distinctive liquid chirps of Tree Swallows in flight. In general this is a fairly promising birding spot, with a mix of woods, brush, open field and gardens it attracts a range of species, and with the Charles River close by there is also always the possibility of spotting wading birds and waterfowl. The only negative thing about Nahanton Park is that dogs are allowed there, and while I love dogs, their presence is not really conducive to close observation of wildlife, especially when their owners ignore the sign reminding visitors to keep their canines on a leash at all times. The same issue lowers my rating of Cold Spring Park, also in Newton, when it comes to birding. Both places have lots of great habitat, but if there are dogs running loose everywhere scaring away the wildlife, it doesn't really make for a great birding experience.

Nahanton Park in Newton, Massachusetts is a popular place for nature lovers and gardeners to enjoy the outdoors. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Today I was lucky that only one irresponsible dog owner was present letting her dog run free, and they soon drove away, leaving me to explore the hillside and gardens in the late afternoon quiet. I suspect there were more species around than I was able to find, but I did get great looks at the aforementioned Yellow Warbler, as well as at two Yellow-rumped Warblers clinging to the outer branches of a tree about to burst forth with leaves. In addition to the warblers and Tree Swallows I also got a nice look at a Barn Swallow, a Northern Mockingbird, a Mourning Dove and a Chipping Sparrow. My hunt for warblers continues, but I was delighted to add one more to my list this afternoon.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Giving back : A morning among the birds and volunteers at Drumlin Farm

Volunteers work to help clear alien invasive plant species beside a vernal pool at Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary as part Mass Audubon's 7th annual state wide volunteer day. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
The skies were clear and the air was warm this morning at Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary in Lincoln, Massachusetts, as dozens of volunteers turned up to take part in Mass Audubon's 7th annual Statewide Volunteer Day. With work gloves, shovels and a desire to help improve the landscape for native plants and animals, volunteers of all ages pitched in to help remove alien invasive plant species such as Garlic Mustard from sensitive wildlife habitat, to be replaced with native plants. When I arrived there today I found Drumlin Farm sanctuary director Christy Foote-Smith hard at work along with a group of volunteers from Biogen Idec, which had also supplied some of the native plants that were being planted today. She was kind enough to take a quick break from pulling invasives to show me and my girlfriend around the area where they were working, which includes a vernal pool.

Christ Foote-Smith, Director of Mass Audubon's Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary leads a group of volunteers from Biogen-Idec as they remove aline invasive plant species in an effort to make more room for native plants.
One of the interesting things about Drumlin Farm is that it is a working farm with sheep, goats,chickens and other assorted barnyard animals, while at the same time it offers woods, fields and wetlands to explore. It is fundamentally an interactive place to visit with a variety of programs designed to educate visitors about both wildlife conservation and agriculture, not to mention that the combination of farm buildings and fields, along with more wild habitat, makes for some pretty good birding. Having known this from many previous visits to Drumlin Farm I kept my binoculars close by as I walked along today taking photos of the landscape and managed to add two more birds to my year list - #117 was a Barn Swallow that had joined half a dozen Tree Swallows which were hunting in acrobatic aerial arcs over the farm fields. Pretty much anytime I'm outside my thoughts are never too far from my New England birding big year goal of seeing 300 species in 2013.

Bird #118 showed up a little later - we had actually just walked through the area where they have a collection of injured birds which can't be released into the wild, and I had spent some time studying the Broad-winged Hawk. About 20 minutes later I was standing outside the big red barn and looked up to see a hawk flying overhead and instantly I thought of the Broad-winged Hawk I had just seen. I got a pretty good look at it through my binoculars and was excited to confirm that it was a Broad-winged Hawk, species #118 for the year.

As I looked at the Tree Swallows in the field, the Broad-winged Hawk overhead, and a small group of Brown-headed Cowbirds foraging in the cow pasture I was reminded both of the agricultural heritage of New England as well as the legacy of conservation which is embodied in places like Drumlin Farm. Seeing the volunteers today also made me think of the importance of getting people outdoors to see, smell, feel and taste the outdoors, of making conservation a hands-on, concrete experience. This is how people will really come to appreciate the importance of not only preserving the natural world around us, but experiencing it, I firmly believe it is only through these kinds of experiences, of volunteering to help restore the native landscape, of taking the time to get reacquainted with the trees, flowers, birds and insects around us that will not only spark interest in the outdoors, but create stakeholders and advocates for environmental education and protection.

Kids playing in the spring sunshine at Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary in Natick, Massachusetts. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
As we walked around Drumlin Farm today, there were likely hundreds more volunteers working at other locations around Massachusetts, from one of the state to the other, from Felix Neck on Martha's Vineyard to Canoe Meadows in Pittsfield. While today was perhaps one of the more active for volunteers at Mass Audubon there are in fact many volunteers working for the organization year-round, helping visitors to discover the beauty of Massachusetts. If you'd like to learn more about volunteering for Mass Audubon, you can click here

The Massachusetts Audubon Society protects close to 35,000 acres of important wildlife habitat across the commonwealth. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

I would be remiss of course if I did not also mention in this post that yesterday, April 26,is the birthday of John James Audubon, who, if he were somehow miraculously alive today, would be some 228 years old. Much has changed in the world of natural history and the study of birds since his day - there are at least three or four fewer species birders to pursue in north America, for one thing, and now the majority of birders go afield with binoculars in place of a gun, for another. Nonetheless, the same commitment to, and passion for, wildlife is still very much alive today in the professionals and volunteers who spent their Saturday morning across the Commonwealth engaged in a range of projects which will surely make the woods, waters and fields I love that much better. I would say that's a pretty good present for Audubon's birthday, and a credit to this organization which bears his name.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Here to stay or just passing through ? My New England birding big year continues

A Ruby-crowned Kinglet perches on a branch at Broadmoor Wildife Sanctuary in Natick, Massachusetts. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
It would surprise few people, I doubt, to know that the majority of species of North American birds are phenomenal travelers. Not only do many of them cover remarkable distances every year, but they do so (mostly) under their own power, they also fly without luggage and always seem to find a place to rest or spend the season. To be honest, I'm a little jealous.
This is all to say that migration has begun to pick up, with wetlands across southern New England filled with the distinctive buzzy call and song of male Red-winged Blackbirds looking for a mate and the plaintive, nervous squeak of Wood Ducks as they settle down to build nests and raise their young, it is hard to deny that spring has sprung. Yesterday at Mass Audubon's Broadmoor wildlife sanctuary, these efforts and many more were clearly underway on a day that started off damp and cloudy but soon gave way to sunshine. The fields, forests and marshes were alive with avian activity and I knew the day would be promising as a Northern Flicker took flight as I drove into the parking lot, and as soon as I got out of my car I could hear the rattling call of Chipping Sparrows, newly arrived from warmer climes. Before I was out of sight of the nature center I had 23 species of birds on my list, including the Chipping Sparrows, which brought my New England year list to 114 species.
In the bird feeding area beside the nature center a small, quick little bird caught my eye as it flitted from branch to branch only a few feet away. I stood very still and watched as it inspected the still-bare branches of a tree about to bloom and saw right away a bright flash of crimson atop its small gray head – a Ruby-crowned Kinglet ! Not a new bird for my New England big year, but a first of the year for me in Massachusetts and by far one of the best looks I’ve gotten at these small songbirds. I stayed and watched it for a while, seemingly unconcerned by my presence, then moved on, watching as a Blue Jay, normally among the most raucous of birds, pass silently overhead, nesting material in its bill.

Along the Indian Brook trail I met another birder who was thoughtful enough to motion for me to come over and join her in watching a mixed group of about 20 Pine, Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers as they tumbled along through the budding branches, singing out joyfully as they went. The Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers were two new species for the year, bringing me to 116. As the other birder headed back down the trail I stayed and watched the small birds revel in their spring arrival, while out in the marsh a pair of Wood Ducks flew low over the standing dead trees, a Belted Kingfisher let out a loud call and circled out of sight and Red-Tailed Hawk kept watch from atop a distant pine tree. 

A trio of Painted Turtles enjoying the afternoon sunshine in a wetland at Mass Audubon's Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Mostly I had the woods to myself, though in the distance I could hear people yelling, people whom I am sure are much more accustomed to the confines of shopping malls and city parks, places where nature is at best subjugated, a second-thought. I was content to let them remain in the distance to get whatever enjoyment they might be able to glean, and to wander the trails quietly, soaking in the sounds, scents and sights of so many amazing birds, some settling down for the season, others just passing through.
Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Getting ready for the Bird-a-Thon

During this year's Mass Audubon bird-a-thon I'll have the chance to explore the beaches and waters of cape cod, like those in the photo above taken last summer at Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary in Barnstable, MA. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

In a recent post I wrote about how excited I am to have the opportunity to participate in this year's Massachusetts Audubon Bird-a-Thon as a member of the Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary team. I'm really looking forward to not only seeing a wide variety of interesting birds on Cape Cod during the 24-hour birding contest and meeting other birders, but to helping raise money for environmental education and protection, two things I care about very deeply. A few people have asked me what the Bird-a-thon is, and although the essential explanation is simple enough - it's a fundraising contest in which various teams compete to see as many species of birds as possible in 24 hours, that question has gotten me thinking a little more about the history of birding contests and the impact these activities can have on conservation. So in this post I'd like to share a few things I've learned about bird-a-Thons and how they have helped support conservation initiatives not only through the dollars raised but the data gathered by hordes of bleary-eyed birders as they take to the field for a full day and night,

The Massachusetts Audubon Society has been organizing an annual Bird-a-Thon for 30 years now, and over the past three decades teams have seen some very interesting birds, including Yellow-throated Warbler, Eurasian Collared-dove and White-faced Ibis. My current year list stands at 113 species and I'm hoping to hit 150 by the end of April. Either way, I feel confident I'll get a boost as part of the Drumlin Farm team which won the Brewster cup in 2012 with an astounding total of 236 species seen. Drumlin Farm has also consistently raised a significant amount of money each year, funds which have allowed for purchase of vital equipment and supplies, allowing the sanctuary to offer a wide range of educational programs for both children and adults. If you would like to learn more about the history of the Massachusetts Auduon Bird-a-Thon, please click here.

Cape Cod offers a wide range of great habitat for birders and other nature lovers to explore year-round, including salt marsh, sand dunes, freshwater ponds and beaches. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Of course bird-a-thons also take place in other areas of the country. I wanted to get a feel for what the experience was like for others birders, so I did some online research and came across several blogs where birders had recounted their own bird-a-thon experiences.

One blog I came across is run by the Gloden Gate Audubon Society in California. In a recent post on their blog they describe their own upcoming bird-a-thon and post some really nice photos of several different species of birds frequently encountered in northern California. From what I can tell their bird-a-thon takes place over a longer period of time than 24 hours, with trips offered for participants to join the competition and options for birders to strike out on their own and raise money for the organization independently. This sounds like a great way to get a large number of birders involved including people new to the activity and I would be very curious to know how successful the model has been, both in terms of species seen and money raised for conservation.

A little closer to home Maine Audubon also organizes a yearly bird-a-thon to raise money for conservation. From what I can tell Maine Audubon, much like the Golden Gate Audubon Society also allows birders to head out on their own and create their own bird-a-thon, which is an interesting concept. Personally I like both concepts, the idea of doing a bird-a-thon as part of a competitive team is exciting and the the idea of being able to do one's own bird-a-thon is also interesting. Maybe I'll try and do my own personal bird-a-thon sometime in the future to raise funds for conservation and education. For anyone living in Maine (or interested in birding in Maine) I would defintiely recommend checking out the Maine Audubon website if you'd like to learn more about opportunities to explore this great New England State.

As you can see there are a number of organizations who have embraced this fun, creative way to raise funds for conservation and environmental education. Personally I'm really excited to have the opportunity to become a part of this important tradition and to help raise funds for Mass Audubon, and of course I'm also looking forward to sharing this experience on my blog, so please be sure to check back again mid-May (if not sooner !) to hear about my bird-a-thon adventure.

Oh, and if you'd like to help sponsor me in the bird-a-thon, please click here.  Any amount helps and is enormously appreciated.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

9 Great birds bring my New England birding big year total to 113 species

Plum Island and Parker River National Wildlife Refuge offer great birding throughout the seasons. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
For the past 4 or so years birding has been a fun, exciting and engaging way to interact with, and learn about, the natural world.  I would argue it's nearly impossible to really spend time learning about birds without also becoming curious as well about weather, plants and the ecosystems that the birds both depend on and help to shape. It's also great fun to visit different places as well as some of the same places in different seasons, so I was delighted to have a chance today to head north once again to visit Plum Island and the surrounding area, a part of Massachusetts I haven't birded since early January. Plum Island is a special place; with acres of sandy dunes, salt marsh, beach and surf it draws both human and avian visitors from across the country.

But before we would get to Plum Island there were some other interesting places to see and birds to chase, so we started out the day at Johnson's Pond in Groveland, Massachusetts where a Tufted Duck has been reported for at least a week now. With some expert guidance and a few minutes gazing through a spotting scope, I was able to add this striking new life bird to my list, bringing my year total to 105. One of the trip leaders pointed out that although the tuft on the duck was barely visible on this bird, that the clean white side below a black back was a good field mark to look for. During this outing with Drumlin Farm I was also reminded of the power of patience when it comes to taking in the many different elements that make up different habitats, and how birding slowly can return great rewards. Perhaps I felt this lesson most intensely when we stopped at a partially flooded field and began to scan the water and grass for birds. There were four Turkey Vultures tottering overhead, while in the wet sections of the field we spotted Green-winged Teal and Blue-winged Teal. In the field though was where I saw one of the funniest looking and most interesting birds I've come across lately - Wilson's Snipe. As I peered through a borrowed spotting scope I could see half a dozen of these long-billed shorebirds working their way around the clumps of vegetation as they searched for food. With the Blue-winged Teal and the snipe I was up to 107 species and feeling positive about the day.

Cherry Hill Reservoir in West Newbury is a popular stopping place for migratory waterfowl and is surrounded by rolling hills. Image Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Our next stop was in West Newbury at the Cherry Hill Reservoir , which is part of the Essex national Heritage Area, where we scanned the surface and found Bufflehead, Lesser Scaup, a Red-Throated Loon and Common Mergansers. I was told that this is a great place to visit in the fall, when migrating waterfowl make frequent use of the reservoir as a place to stop along their journey. From Cherry Hill Reservoir we drove over to Salisbury Beach State Reservation, hoping to catch a glimpse of the crossbills which had been seen so frequently throughout the winter. While these normally northern finches were nowhere to be found I did see my first Great Egret of the year in a marsh near the entrance of the reservation and out along the beach itself I saw my very first Norther Gannet, an impressive sea-faring bird, all white except for the tips of its wings which are black. From the beach we watched it cut easily through the wind, it's long wings spread straight out. These two birds brought me up to 109 species

The Parker River National Wildlife Refuge was one of our last stops of the day and it was quite beautiful in the late afternoon sun. To my eye the landscape there always looks like it's been painted in varying hues of purple and blue, from the sand on the beach to the clouds above. we made a few stops along the road to look for ducks and I got excellent views of many American Black Ducks as well as Northern Pintail. We also spotted an Osprey hunting high above the marsh. At the very end of the road, where the beach turns back into state (as opposed to federal) land, we were able to get out and explore the beach a bit.

This sign on Plum Island warns visitors not to venture onto the beach beyond where Piping Plovers return each year to nest and raise their young. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
As we were scanning the water for ducks and other birds I noticed two small brown birds fly in just in front of us and begin to forage in a section of dark pebbles. They turned out to be Savannah Sparrows of the Ipswich subspecies - at one time they were their own separate species, but have since been lumped in with the Savannah Sparrows. Personally I think they deserve to be a species of their own, and not just because it would give me another bird for my year list. Given that these birds all breed on the same small island in Canada, are paler than other Savannah Sparrows and much larger, my vote (not that it counts for anything) is for considering them a separate species.

As we stood around discussing the potential for the species to be split again, thus restoring the Ipswich Sparrow to full species-hood, I noticed a small group of four shorebirds circling in the distance and began to watch them. The rest of the group soon turned their attention to these little birds and our expert guide told us that they were in fact Piping Plovers, a state and federally listed threatened species of bird  I had heard about often but never actually seen. The plovers were enough to fly around some more, before one landed and began picking its way along the sand toward us, providing everyone in the group with a clear view of this diminutive species. We also got to hear their distinctive "piping"call as they flew by us, which was cool. With the Pipiing Plover my year total now stood at 111 species.

On our way out back to Drumlin Farm we made one more stop, returning to the flooded fields we had visited earlier in the day. Within a few minutes of getting out of the van I saw a large bird flying low over the field and through my binoculars I saw the distinctive white rump of a Northern Harrier as it lifted up over the field, then flew higher, moving out of sight in the distance. Not long after that I saw a smaller bird flying near the harrier which one of the trip leaders fixed his scope on and then invited us all to have a look at a bird I know well from birding in southern California, an American Kestrel. At this point I was pretty happy to have brought my year list for New England to 112, but just as we were about to leave the same trip leader found an unexpected bird in the distance, feeding in the field among the snipe and Killdeer: a Pectoral Sandpiper, at first barely visible among the tufts of grass and feeding snipe, but easy to see when it popped its head up occasionally to look around.

All in all a great day of birding with some fun and highly knowledgeable companions. My personal goal for April is to break the 125 species mark and then as migration really picks up in May to try and hit 200 by the end of that month. Maybe with some decent weather, a little perseverance and a lot of luck I'll get there.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Phoebes, Turtles and more at Broadmoor

A Painted Turtle sits in the Spring sunshine at Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary in Natick, Massachusetts. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

I've seen Canada Geese try to nest in all sorts of crazy places, from a floating piece of a wooden dock out in the middle of a pond to a mud flat that was regularly flooded. I suppose it's not the fault of the geese - after all, such spots probably look perfectly suitable, otherwise, why would they choose to build their nests there ? In any case, today I saw some more sensible geese who have chosen to build their nests this year in places that are less likely to be flooded, float away or expose their young to potential predators in an obvious way. Even as I continued my New England birding big year quest this afternoon I was extra careful to try and spot Canada Geese nesting in out of the way places in the marshes and ponds at Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary in Natick, Massachusetts. The goose in the photo below seems to have found a pretty good spot to build a nest, on a level rock in the middle of a small pond.

A Canada goose rests on a nest it has built on a large rock in the middle of a pond. Image copyright Daniel; E. Levenson 2013.
In addition to the Canada Geese I saw 23 other species of birds, including a beautiful male Wood Duck and three Ring-necked Ducks. My most exciting birds of the day were the three Eastern Phoebes I spotted during my walk, each one in a different kind of habitat. The first one I saw was calling quite loudly from an exposed branch near the board walk, at the edge of open water. I heard this bird first, but I have to admit I had no idea what it sounded like, I only knew I was hearing a bird call that I didn't recognize, so I went over to investigate and sure enough it turned out to be an Eastern Phoebe, its tail bobbing distinctively as sang out from the branch. I came across another phoebe at the edge of a meadow and ran into one more that was in a tree near the old orchard. This bird brings me to 104 species in my big year quest, and I'm hopeful that as temperatures warm up and migration increases I'll be able to boost my number significantly in the next 4 to 6 weeks.

The frogs were quite vocal today, greeting me with a rousing chorus at every vernal pool, wetland and pond. I also came across a Wood Chuck, many Painted Turtles, a Chain Pickerel and the first snake I've come across this year.

The Garter Snake is a common sight throughout Massachusetts in the warmer months. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Despite the slightly chilly temperatures there was a lot of bird activity throughout the sanctuary, with Eastern Blue Birds visible in the old orchard, Song Sparrows singing loudly in many places and at least a dozen Tree Swallows actively feeding and starting to take up residence in bird boxes by the wildlife observation pond. I also spotted a Pine Warbler moving frenetically from branch to branch at the top of a conifer along the Indian Brook trail.

A Tree Swallow rests atop a pole at the edge of a pond at Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary. The Tree Swallow is among the first migrants to return to Massachusetts in the spring. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
With temperatures expected to rise in the next few days I'll definitely be on the lookout for other early arrivals, including Barn Swallows, Purple Martin and Blue-winged teal, three birds I'm eager to add to my year list.According to Cornell University's e-bird website the next week or so should bring many more returning birds and I would highly recommend checking out their migrant forecast, whether you're chasing a big year or just eager to get outside and welcome back the birds that fill the New England landscape with sound and color throughout the spring and summer.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

A great day of birding at Drumlin Farm WLS offers close views of Turkey Vultures, Killdeer and other birds

Open fields are a great place to look for a variety of birds in the early spring, including Red-winged Blackbirds, Killdeer and Brown-headed Cowbirds. Image Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Typically the Turkey Vulture is a bird seen at great distances, often surfing a current of air high above a field, mountaintop or road where it's distinctive profile and teeter-totter flight make it easy to distinguish from other hawks and other large birds. The vultures are up there looking for food, and unlike other birds, the Turkey Vulture uses its keen sense of smell to find a meal, usually a dead bird or mammal. Today I was lucky enough to get only my second look at one of these birds up close, while birding at the Mass Audubon Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary in Lincon, Massachusetts. As I was scanning a large farm field I noticed a Turkey Vulture which seemed to be flying quite close to the ground, so I followed its flight with my binoculars and was excited to see it land and begin to pick at the carcass of something in the short stubble of last year's crops. I was also on the lookout for my first Killdeer and brown-headed Cowbirds of the season, so I decided to walk around the edge of the field and try to spot these two likely species while getting closer to the vulture.

A Turkey Vulture sweeps low over the treeline bordering a farm field at the Mass Audubon Drumlin Farm sanctuary in Lincoln, MA. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
As I made my way slowly down the trail toward the vulture I spotted a group of American Robbins feeding in the far corner of the field. I watched them through my binoculars and saw that there were other, smaller birds mixed in with the group and decided to make a quick detour to investigate.  It turned out to be a good idea, too, as I saw my first Brown-headed Cowbirds of the year, bringing my New England birding big year total to 102 species for 2013. Not long after sighting the cowbirds I heard a familiar call from several hundred feet away and looked up to see my first Killdeer of 2013, bringing my total to 103 species. Having added these two new species to my list I decided to go over and try to get a closer look at the vulture and perhaps what it had been eating. As I approached, though, another Turkey Vulture showed up overhead and swooped down on the carrion, scaring off the first vulture. I watched the newly arrived bird for a while, then moved closer, trying not to disturb it. When I got within about 150 feet it took off and disapeared behind the treeline, leaving me to inspect the remains it had been feeding on. I was expecting to find the half-chewed body of a woodchuck or rabbit, but was somehwat surprised to find only feathers - I'm not sure what kind of bird they belonged to, but there were a few clumps scattered around, so I took a photo.

Turkey Vultures will eat a variety of dead animals, including other birds. The photo above shows the remains of a bird that a vulture at Drumlin Farm was feeding on. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
In addition to the birds mentioned above I also got a great look at a male American Goldfinch in breeding plumage which was visiting a feeder near the education office, as well as several Wild Turkeys by the feeders near the parking lot. There were 3 female turkeys foraging on the ground beneath the feeders, while a male turkey kept watch over the group, puffing himself up to twice his normal size whenever someone came a little too close for comfort. Fortunately he didn't seem to mind having his picture taken.

A male Wild Turkey stands guard as several females forage beneath bird feeders at Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary in Lincoln, MA. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Spring paints the landscape with new sights and sounds

Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge is located west of Boston, Massachusetts and has much to offer for birders looking to see a variety of species. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
I was delighted to get outside today and finally feel the earth soft beneath my boots, ready for spring and new life.  The air was filled with the distinctive call of Red-winged Blackbirds and the croaking call of Common Grackles, as I spent the afternoon birding at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord, Massachusetts today. I had seen multiple reports online of Rusty Blackbirds as well as a report of an American Pipit, so I was hoping I might be able to find one or both species today, but in the end they proved elusive. Fortunately there were a lot of other things to see, including two American Tree Sparrows who greeted me as I began my walk along the impoundment.

 Since I started this New England birding big year project in January I've spent a lot of time outdoors in cold, snowy, icy conditions, often visiting the coast to look for wintering sea ducks or in forests searching for finches, chickadees and other common New England Birds. While mixed foraging flocks of Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted titmice, White-breasted Nuthatches and other small songbirds can often be quite boisterous as they move through the forest, the noise they make does not compare to the spring chorus just getting underway now. Within a few minutes of starting my walk today my ears were filled with the sounds of Red-winged blackbirds, Common Grackles, Song Sparrows, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Wood Ducks and other birds.

The presence of this beaver lodge at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge is further evidence of the impressive comeback of the Beaver in Massachusetts. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
More and more I'm beginning to see spring as a paintbrush, filling in the canvas of the landscape - not only with images, but sounds, smells and sensations. Even animals which I saw throughout the winter are behaving differently now: birds are singing different songs and today the air above the water was filled with the graceful arch and swoop of at least thirty Tree Swallows, catching insects which have also somehow miraculously appeared and I saw several Canada Geese dunk below the water, completely submerging themselves and then popping up again.

I decided to follow one trail a little farther today, and came to a small pond separated from a wetland  by a narrow strip of land. Above the pond a Red-tailed Hawk caught the wind as it increased, cutting across the sky and disappearing into the clouds, while on the other side of the path I saw many signs of the presence of beavers, including a large lodge at the far edge of the wetland. It was a beautiful spot, very quiet save for the wind, until I managed to accidentally flush a pair of Wood Ducks which let loose their squeaky call as they took to the air and then vanished again into the cattails. Walking back I came across a male Northern Shoveler and a Hairy Woodpecker. Spring is definitely here.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.