Friday, May 31, 2013

It's a bird, it's a bee..... nope, it's a Hummingbird Moth

This Common Clearwing moth, also known as a Hummingbird Moth, was photographed gathering nectar from flowers at Stony Brook WLS in Norfolk, MA. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Covered in sunscreen, fully hydrated and with hat and sunglasses on, I ventured out for a short while this afternoon to do a little birding south of Boston in the towns of Easton and Norfolk Massachusetts. This afternoon I definitely felt very far away from those frozen days in January and February when I was piling on layers of fleece and wool and trudging through snow and ice, chasing after wintering sea ducks and mixed flocks of kinglets and chickadees.

While I didn't add any species to my year list I did see a number of unexpected things along the way, including the moth in the photo above. This fascinating insect, often called a Hummingbird Moth for the superficial resemblance it bears to hummingbirds, is actually more accurately known as the Common Clearwing.  I came across this one at Stoney Brook Wildlife Sanctuary in Norfolk, as it was gathering nectar from flowers beside a shady path. They are definitely one of the most unusual visitors to show up in gardens and forests in New England in the summer. If you would like to learn more about them you can check out this Mass Audubon webpage.This site from the US Forest Service also offers details on the life history of these moths and tips on how to identify them.

At Old Pond in Easton I spotted a Baltimore Oriole and two high-flying Red-tailed Hawks taking advantage of the thermals way up among the clouds, as well as two Yellow Warblers and a Chimney Swift. I was only there a short while it was a beautiful place to stop and check for wildlife.I spent more time at Stony Brook WLS where I moved slowly in the afternoon humidity, taking care not to get dehydrated as I hunted for wading birds at the edges of the wetlands. While I was there I saw two female Wood Ducks, a number of Great Blue Heron and many of the other usual birds I would expect to see there this time of year. The moths, butterflies and dragonflies defintiely stole the show today though, with several very colorful dragonflies flying maddeningly just beyond the range of my camera. I did manage to get a shot of an Eastern Pond Hawk dragonfly taking a rest on the stem of a plant. These bright green insects are fierce predators, catching and eating other bugs, including butterflies.

An Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly at rest. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

If you've never spent any time looking closely at dragonflies or damselflies I highly recommend it. They display an impressive range of coloration and behaviors and are an important link in the food chain both as predators and prey, so the next time your out hiking or birding or just enjoying nature take a minute to look at the moths, butterflies and dragonflies around you - I bet you'll be glad you did.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Welcoming native plants into your yard

Pink Lady Slipper is a species of orchid found growing in semi-shaded woods throughout Massachusetts. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Although birds are often a featured subject of this blog my interests in the natural world also extend far beyond our feathered friends. As we come to the end of spring and move toward summer I also plan to write about the reptiles, amphibians, mammals and insects I come across in my outdoor adventures. As someone who tries to look at not just the constituent parts of different habitats but how they all fit together into larger ecosystems,  I am also deeply interested in the plants and plant communities which anchor these habitats, often providing the food, shelter and other resources that creatures from Bark Beatles to Beavers need to survive.

Milkweed is a commonly seen plant native to New England and is an important source of food for butterflies. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
I also love the idea of gardening and landscaping in suburban environments which not only encourages local wildlife to visit backyards, but also places an emphasis on native plants and perhaps restoring a little wilderness to the otherwise drab uniformity which has come to symbolize many of the yards and parks in our cities and towns. In today''s post I would like to share some links to online resources where you can learn more about native plant life in New England and perhaps suggest a few ideas which might make your backyard more enticing to wildlife. Please note that mention below of  any specific business or organizations should not be taken as an endorsement.

A home for butterflies and moths

Everyone loves butterflies - these brightly colored creatures are sure sign of spring and summer, lending vitality to any garden. There are also many beautiful moths that can be found frequenting open meadows and city parks. I have seen several purpose-built butterfly gardens over the years and always been impressed with the variety of native plant species growing in them. if you would like to attract butterflies to your yard in Massachusetts you might want to visit the website of the Massachusetts Butterfly Club
which also features a dedicated section on creating and maintaining a butterfly garden. 

An Eight-Spotted Forester Moth (Alypia octomaculata) takes a break at Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary in Sharon, MA. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.
If you live in northern New England you may want to check out this website from the University of Maine on how to create a welcoming environment for these colorful insects. This site also features an overview of the life history of butterflies, some very nice photos and lists the families commonly found in the state, including swallowtail and monarch. if you're looking for some inspiration, you can also check out this article written by Aislinn Sarnacki in the Bangor Daily News, where she describes a number of butterfly gardens that people have created in and around Bangor, Maine.

Putting out the welcome mat for our amphibian friends

Frogs, toads and salamanders are an integral part of a variety of different kinds of New England, they also provide a valuable service by eating many thousands of pest insects every year. They can also be great to look for, as finding them usually requires slogging around in marshes, turning over rotten logs and all kinds of other joyous muddy activities.

If you would like to attract frogs to your yard your best bet is to create a frog-friendly pond with plenty of cover, a sloped bottom and no fish. Moving adult frogs or tadpoles is often not a good idea - if you create the right environment, and have patience, experts say the frogs will eventually find the home you have built for them. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
If you would like to have more of these creatures in your yard or garden you might want to consider trying to entice a toad or two to settle nearby. This nice website from the National Wildlife Federation notes that "The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that a single adult toad can eat 10,000 insect pests over the course of an average summer." That's a lot of bugs. The site also offers great tips on how to create a home for toads and encourage them to make your yard their home. The site also offers advice on ways to make your property more attractive to frogs as well, with advice on avoiding the accidental introduction of alien invasive species, building a frog-friendly pond and the type of plants which are likely to attract these amphibians. Leaving stumps and rotting logs at the edge of your yard or in place on wooded property will also provide an important source of food and shelter for salamanders.

Bring on the birds

Of course there are many ways to make your property more attractive to birds, from providing a source of freshwater with a small pond or birdbath to putting up feeders. For long term success I think it is also very important to think about the kinds of flowers, trees and shrubs you plant on your property. This document from the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology offers some great tips on how to approach the design of a bird-friendly yard or garden from the birds' perspective. It includes concrete suggestions on different types of plants and trees to consider, different kinds of habitat you can create on your property and suggestions for further reading.

Creating space for the plants themselves

In addition to planting certain species to attract more wildlife to your yard there is of course great value in creating space for the native plants themselves to thrive.  While you should never collect native plants or flowers from the wild and transplant them to your own property, there are a number of organizations and garden clubs which run native plant sales throughout the spring, including one on Saturday, June 1st  and Sunday, June 2nd, at Mass Audubon's Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary in Sharon, Massachusetts. According to the Mass Audubon website, plants for sale will include:  "Mayapple, Turk's Cap Lily, Cardinal Flower, Canadian Ginger, Lowbush Blueberry, Spicebush, Mountain Laurel, Purple Joe-Pyeweed, Black-eyed Susan, Purple Coneflower, Swamp Milkweed" and others.

If you're looking for general information and inspiration when it comes to learning more about native plant life you can check out the website of the New England Wild Flower Society, an organization dedicated to the protection, propagation and promotion of native plans. The society also runs Garden in the Woods, a large garden and education center open to the public, located in Framingham, Massachusetts,where visitors can see more than 100 rare or endangered species of plants. To learn more about endangered and protected species of plants in Massachusetts, you can also visit this nice website from the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. In addition to a comprehensive list of the species concerned a fact sheet is also provided for many of them.

Well, I think that about covers it for now. As I continue to learn more about gardening for wildlife and the native plants of New England I will share these experiences, along with my other adventures searching for birds, kayaking, camping, hiking and exploring, here at the New England Nature Notes blog.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Checking in at Nahanton Park

An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly stops to inspect a plant in a garden plot at Nahanton Park in Newton, Massachusetts. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Although the atmosphere felt uneasy today, heavy with potential rain and ready to let loose with thunder and lighting, the air was also full of birdsong at Nahanton Park in Newton, MA this afternoon with Yellow Warblers, Baltimore Orioles, House Wrens and Gray Catbirds calling from treetops, brush and fence posts. I was only out birding for a little more than an hour, but I got to see 19 species of birds, as well as a range of avian behavior.There were also numerous moths and butterflies out and about, including the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail in the photo above.

A male American Goldfinch in breeding plumage sits atop a fence at Nahanaton Park in Newton, MA. Image copyright Daniel E.Levenson 2013.
Many of the birds I saw today were nesting or engaged in food gathering, which is typical for this time of year. The Yellow Warblers seemed to be around practically everywhere I went at Nahanton - I heard them singing as they moved from branch to branch, searching for food and I came across one of their nests in a fairly exposed spot by the trail, with the female was very much in sight but the male nowhere to be seen. This is the second Yellow Warbler nest Ive found this spring - the first one was in a wet, brushy area near the boardwalk at Mass Audubon's Broadmoor wildlife sanctuary in Natick, Massachusetts. In addition to the warblers which were nesting I saw several Tree Swallows peeking their heads out from nest boxes, no doubt sitting on eggs inside, and a beautiful pair of Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

Several of the birds I saw today looked fairly worn, including a Tufted Titmouse, an American Robin and one of the many Gray Catbirds I saw on my walk. It's possible that the weather played a factor in their appearance, but it's also possible that they are going through some stage of molting. This is a topic I would love to learn more about, if anyone out there has insight into the molting stages for these commonly seen birds.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Monday, May 20, 2013

24 hours of fun with Mass Audubon - Part 2 of my bird-a-thon experience

A view from Pilgrim Heights at Dawn, with a marsh and pond in the foreground. This is a great spot to watch raptors as they soar above the dunes. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
When the alarm on my cell phone rang at 3:30 AM on Saturday morning I jumped out of bed, got dressed and stepped outside into the darkness where I saw that two of my teammates were already awake. As my eyes were adjusting to the darkness they motioned for me to come join them, pointing out a strange noise coming from the woods somewhere behind our rooms at the Cape View Motel. It's hard to describe now precisely what it sounded like, but it sounded like a raspy snort of some kind. One person suggested it might be a White-tailed Deer, but noted they only tend to make those kinds of noises when startled, and whatever was making this sound was doing it continuously for at least 5 minutes. Someone else suggested it could be a fox. We didn't find out, but it was yet another example of the many mysteries of nature which can exist literally right outside our doors.

As we climbed haldf-asleep into the vans we drove out in the darkness, headed for Pilgrim Heights to look and listen for birds active at that strange intersection between the night and daylight. When we arrived we walked slowly down a narrow trail, listening to the far-off hooting of a Great-horned Owl still calling and the song of an Eastern Towhee no doubt about to begin its day. Our walk took us on a loop, past an important hawk watching site and down through a wetland and back to the parking lot. It was just as we were coming out of the woods that one of our group heard the distant calling of a Black-billed Cuckoo, a new life bird for me, and a species I had hoped to see the morning before at Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary. The Cuckoo kept calling as the sun began to peek over the horizon and we stood and listened to it serenade the morning for a few minutes, before heading into Provicentown to check the harbor.

A birder scans the harbor for new species to add to our bird-a-thon list in the early morning light. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
At the harbor we found many of the same species we'd been seeing near the water since the previous day - Laughing Gulls, Common Eider and Double-crested Cormorant, so we headed off again to check out the Beech Forest Trail, another part of the Cape Cod National Seashore. Here the trees were in a state of what I would call 3/4 leaf-out, there was just enough leaf cover to attract insects (and hence migrants) and often obscure them from view at first, but there was just enough space for us to see them with a little work. This proved to be one of our best stops of the trip, where I picked up a number of life birds, including Northern Parula, Magnolia Warbler and Chestnut-sided Warbler.

After a few more stops on land we headed to Provincetown Harbor where we boarded a whale watching boat that took us out to Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. We were hoping to see pelagic species such as shearwaters, but instead we were treated to a fantastic show by Humpback Whales, Minke Whales and White-sided Dolphins who were out in great numbers and very easy to see. We even got to witness a breach in which a Humpback whale lifted itself completely out of the water and came crashing back down again with a thunderous slap on the surface of the sea.

A Humpbacked Whale dives down again after surfacing. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

As much as we looked and looked, not a single pelagic bird species appeared. We saw plenty of Herring Gulls, Laughing Gulls, Double-crested Cormorant and Northern Gannet, but no petrels or shearwaters. We event spotted a lone Chimney Swift swooping over the stern of the boat and disappearing into the sky behind us. I also got to see some interesting interactions between the whales and the gulls which follow these mammoth marine mammals, hoping to grab a meal in the roiling froth created when the whales are feeding. I even saw several gulls land directly on a whale's head and go for a short ride as the animal swam through the water scooping up plankton.

Gulls and other seabirds will often gather near feeding whales, hoping to grab a meal in the chaos created by the feeding habits of these giant marine mammals. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
By the end of the boat trip the lack of sleep had begun to catch up with me, so I sat outside on the deck and enjoyed the peaceful trip back into the harbor, nodding off occasionally as the wind and the humming of the engines lulled me into a restful state. As we approached the entrance to the harbor I got an excellent look at a large group of Double-crested Cormorants which were nesting communally at the end of a long breakwater. I have been seeing these birds around the water my whole life, but I had never seen a nesting colony like this before.

A large group of Double-crested Cormorant nesting at the entrance to Provincetown Harbor. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
We ended our day with a stop at Fort Hill Trail, part of the Cape Cod National Seashore. We had some wonderful views here of large meadows, a salt marsh and the ocean in the distance. We stood above the salt marsh for a while, scanning for shorebirds and picked up a Willet, another life bird for me and an addition to our team;s bird-a-thon list. We were also treated to a great view of a juvenile male Orchard Oriole which landed in a nearby tree and gave a spirited performance. As the hour drew close to 6 o'clock we made one last attempt to add birds to the list with a walk through one of the meadows, hoping for a Bobolink or Eastern Meadowlark.  Neither of these grassland species were to be found, however, and we had to be content watching the swallows fill the skies overhead with their evening acrobatics.

In all I added the following 23 species of birds to my New England birding big year list:

Great Crested Flycatcher
Black-bellied Plover
Laughing Gull
Common Tern
Bonaparte's Gull
Least Tern
Green Heron
Virginia Rail
Lesser Yellowlegs
American Woodcock
Eastern Whip-poor-will
Black-billed Cuckoo
Red-eyed Vireo
Northern Parula
Parasitic Jaeger
Magnolia Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Snowy Egret
Blackburnian Warbler
Semipalmated Plover
Orchard Oriole

In  our 24 hours at the end of Cape Cod we saw over 100 species of birds, 7 species of mammals and some of the most beautiful scenery in New England. I can't wait to do it all again next spring.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

24 hours of fun with Mass Audubon, my birdathon experience, part 1

A group from the Drumlin Farm bird-a-thon team walks along Herring Cove Beach in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
This past Friday and Saturday I competed in my very first Mass Audubon Bird-a-thon, a 24 hour birding competition that brings together a great group of people who are very dedicated to both birding and environmental conservation.  Although this was my first experience with the competition this was the 30th year that it has been running, providing a fun opportunity for people who love birds to get outside, see some amazing animals and raise money for Mass Audubon. This year I was part of the Drumlin Farm team, with a group led by veteran birder Strickland Wheelock which covered the very end of Cape Cod in a well-planned effort to see as many species as we could between 6 PM on Friday evening and 6 PM on Saturday. We birded mainly in Provincetown and Truro, and along  the way we saw more than 100 species of birds, several species of mammal, explored numerous beaches, wetlands and forests and had a lot of laughs. I will be writing about this adventure in two parts: this first post will cover the first part of bird-a-thon on Friday night, and then I plan to pick up with a second post, covering our attempts to add many migrating warblers to our list, as well as see pelagic birds and a final stop at a truly beautiful place right along the coast.

Race Point Beach on Cape Cod was one of the first stops for our bird-a-thon team. Here we saw our first Bonaparte's Gull of the day as well as an Ocean Sunfish and Harbor Seal. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

On Friday morning I woke up early, excited to begin my bird-a-thon adventure, so I headed over to Drumlin Farm, hoping I might have a shot at seeing a reported Black-billed Cuckoo, a bird I wanted to add to both my life list and my New England birding big year list. The weather was absolutely perfect - clear blue skies, warm and with a light breeze - as I searched the sanctuary for the cuckoo. One of the education staff told me where it had been seen, and then I ran into Pam, the volunteer coordinator who had seen the bird and she told me the general area where she thought I should look. I birded for about 45 minutes with no luck, and then headed over to meet the rest of the team. I could tell right away that I was going to have a good time when I met the other birders, an enthusiastic and highly-knowledgeable group who had all done bird-a-thon before. After introductions we all piled into two minivans and headed south so that we could check into our motel, do a little scouting and grab dinner before the 6 PM start time.

After a quick stop for dinner at the Provincetown House of Pizza, our first location of the evening was Herring Cove Beach, where we hiked out a pretty good distance from the parking area to scan the waves and shoreline for whatever might be around.The beach was a quiet place to start our fevered competition and I think everyone appreciated the beauty of the spot, with gently rolling waves, White-winged Scoters winging past us, a large group of Red-breasted mergansers floating easily in the surf and the sun beginning its daily descent. Driving along the roads of the outer cape I was struck by how different the landscape looked than in other parts of Cape Cod - maybe it was the light, or the time of year - the dunes looked perfectly formed and un-trampled, many covered in pastel grasses and beach plants. And everywhere around us, even in the forests we visited, a sense of the sea, of the vastness of the ocean that surrounds this narrow peninsula was omnipresent.

After we finished at Herring Cove Beach we drove to a nearby wetland which was filled with birdsong. It was here that we were hoping to find several species which are normally quite secretive and difficult to detect.

This wetland proved to be an excellent spot to look for a wide range of wading and marsh birds, from song Sparrow and Red-winged Blackbirds to Virginia Rail and Greater Yellow Legs. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
The wetland was quite beautiful in the evening light, and we all stood in silence listening and watching the tall grass, waiting to see what would appear. It wasn't long after we got there that we spotted Greater and Lesser Yellow Legs on one side of the road, followed by a Wilson's Snipe and Virginia Rails on the other. the rails were a particularly exciting find - a new life bird for me, and one which is know for being hard to find. We got to hear and see them as they flew from one spot to another in the wetland in short bursts, seemingly appearing out of nowhere and then disappearing again back into the vegetation.

A spectacular sunset sets the dunes and marsh on fire with a red, yellow and orange glow at the end of Cape Cod. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
After about an hour we decided to move on to look for American Woodcock, but as we drove down the road we stopped as our team leader seemed to hear something out of an open window. We all got out of the vans and were amazed to see one of these odd-looking birds sitting in a small opening at the edge of the wetland, beside a short, scrubby a pine tree. The bird didn't seem bothered at all by our presence, and there was till enough light left for us to get excellent looks at him as he tentatively warmed up for his evening performance. Looking at this bird through the scope I was blown away by what a strangely beautfiul creature the woodcock is, a shorebird that's typically found farm from the ocean, with a long bill it uses to probe the earth for worms and a large wary eye set in its compact head.

Encouraged by the woodcock and other finds of the evening we went on to look for Whip-poor-wills, a nocturnal bird whose distinctive call used to cover much more of the New England landscape at night. I personally have great memories of camping in western Massachusetts and falling asleep to their unique, plaintive cry. Our destination was an old cemetery tucked away at the end of a dirt road, perhaps a mile or two from a main road. Birding in cemeteries has never been one of my favorite things, but it's a common practice and we had heard it was a good place to listen for nocturnal birds. Standing out in the evening chill we listened intensely for any sign of our quarry.  In the distance someone heard a Barred Owl, and overhead I saw a bat, but otherwise the air was quiet. We waited a while, then drove back down the road, windows down and listening. Suddenly the song was there, and we stopped the vans, got out, and listened with delight as we heard this signature singer of the night let loose its distinctive call.

With the Whip-poor-will found we called it a night, and headed back to the Cape View Motel to catch a few hours sleep before we would head out for the morning at 4:15 AM for a full day of birding. On the drive home we added one more wildlife sighting to the day's list, as a Red Fox ran across a lawn by the side of the road. Back at the motel I collapsed into bed, thinking about all of the birds we had seen that evening, and excited to see more the next day.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A visit to the grasslands of Moose Hill Farm

Moose Hill Farms in Sharon, massachusetts is owned and managed by the Trustees of Reservation, and features expansive grassland habitat as well as mixed woods to explore. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
It used to be the case that grassland birds, such as Boblink, Eastern Meadowlark and Upland Sandpiper could find abundant habitat in Massachusetts to meet their needs. With dramatic changes to the landscape over the last century, these species, which need large areas of un-mowed, wild grass, have been feeling immense pressure. Fortunately, some organizations such as Mass Audubon and the Trustees of Reservation have been working to preserve grasslands in Massachusetts, preventing vital habitat from becoming yet another housing subdivision or shopping mall. One place where this is happening is Moose Hill Farm in Sharon, Massachusetts, a property owned and managed by the Trustees of Reservation. Not only is this a beautiful place for a walk in the outdoors but it's also one of my favorite spots to see the Bobolink, a small grassland bird related to black birds which is almost entirely black, except for a few white areas and a cream colored shock of white feathers on the back of the male bird's head. They also have a very cool song which always reminds me of the sound effects that accompany laser guns in science fiction movies.

So it was in hopes of seeing Bobolinks and perhaps other grassland birds that I visited Moose Hill Farm this morning, soaking in the sunshine and feeling the cool breeze as it swept across acres of open grassland. In addition to the grassland area there is also a working farm with outbuildings which provide homes for Barn Swallows, large areas of forest that attract warblers, woodpeckers and vireos, and a section of trail that runs along a road beside power lines where the habitat is a mix of brush and shrubland. Visitors will also find remnants of earlier generations in the long stone walls and cellar holes slowly disappearing into the forest floor.

The remnants of earlier generations who farmed the land that became Moose Hill Farm can be seen in several places on the property. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
I started out my walk near the farm buildings, watching the Barn Swallows - for some reason they always seem to be moving more quickly than Tree Swallows; I'd be curious to know if they do actually tend to fly faster. Soon I entered a shady section of woods where I saw a few Chipping Sparrows and the first of three Eastern Towhees I saw throughout the day. I also kept an eye on the forest, watching for Wild Turkey and White-tailed Deer, both of which I have seen here many times. As soon as I got to the edge of the grassland section of the trail I began to hear a familiar call, and I knew right away the Bobolinks were back. The air was full of their song and then they appeared, zipping around above the grass, their futuristic sci-fi song filling my ears. A few were even considerate enough to perch long enough for me to take a photo. The Bobolinks were species # 134 for the year.

A male Bobolink rests at the edge of a grassland at Moose Hill Farm in Sharon, MA. The breeding plumage of the male is distinctive and unmistakeable. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

At the far end of the fields I heard and saw my first Baltimore Orioles of the day. I'm finding that while Baltimore Orioles are not a bird that the general public sees on a regular basis, that when I do encounter them in the woods they are not shy at all. Between the intense orange of the males and their confident song, often delivered from an exposed perch, I'm finding lately that it's hard to go birding without seeing 4 or 5 of them every time I'm out. There were also a few butterflies and dragonflies out and about, and now that the weather is getting warmer I plan to share some photos (hopefully along with accurate ID's !) of the butterflies and moths I see in the field.

A dragonfly resting beside the trail. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Two Yellow-rumped Warblers also made themselves known shortly before I saw another Eastern Towhee and heard at least one Red-bellied Woodpecker. I've been trying to make learning more about birdsong a part of my New England big year birding project - I should probably go out and buy some CD's, but for now whenever I'm out in the field and I hear a new song, I do my best to track down the singer. Today I added something new in this arena, when I realized that besides the familiar "Drink-your-tea" call which is a dead giveaway when it comes to the Eastern Towhee, that this bird has another call, a two-note vocalization, which to me, sounds like it's saying "Tow-Hee !" Maybe this is how it got its name - I'm definitely going to do a little research.

The Gray Catbirds were heard but not seen along the power lines, where I ran into an unexpected animal moving along the edge of the dirt road. At first I wasn't totally sure what it was, but then it stood up on its hind legs and looked right at me, and I looked through my binoculars to see that it was a Fisher. In al the time I've spent outdoors I've only seen two of these normally shy animals, and both instances have been in the past month, with the other sighting at Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary in Natick, MA.

The areas around power lines can often be good places to look for wildlife which make use of both the dirt roads to travel and the artificial edge habitat which is created as a result. The image above shows a section of Trustees trail which overlaps briefly with a power company road. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
I finished up the day with a short stop at Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary, just down the road from Moose Hill Farm. The skies were clouding up as I got out of the car, but I decided to look around anyway and I was very glad I did. I started off down the Billings Loop trail, scanning the canopy above for any signs of warblers and toward a fork in the path I finally caught a glimpse of movement in the trees. I stopped and waited quietly to see what would be revealed. Soon I saw more movement, and through my binoculars I saw two Tufted Titmice, an Eastern Towhee, an Eastern Bluebird and a Yellow-rumped Warbler. I think I may also have seen a Black-throated Green Warbler, but I couldn't get a good enough look to be sure.

Mass Audubon's Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary features hundreds of acres of woods, fields and wetlands to explore. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

I kept walking and attempted to wait out a passing shower under the cover of the forest, where I spotted a Hermit Thrush singing beautifully from a semi-hidden spot, low in a tree. As the rain eased up I walked through a meadow, fresh and green with spring-time rain, until I came to the boardwalk which takes visitors through a wetland that can be quite dry at certain times of the year and flooding up through the slats in the boardwalk at others. Today the water levels looked very low and I was surprised that I didn't see or hear a single frog. A few birds did make an appearance, though, including another Baltimore Oriole and a new bird for the year, number 135, a male Swamp Sparrow. As the sun attempted to reclaim the sky I walked back to my car, content to have seen a lot, learned a thing or two and come up with many more questions along the way.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

After a dredging project removes mud flats, which birds are back in Newton City Hall park ?

An Eastern Kingbird perches atop temporary fencing around the Newton City Hall park dredging project. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
New England weather is a funny thing, unpredictable and capricious. Take today for example, the morning started off brisk but sunny and then slowly a few white puffy clouds rolled in, later joined by a few more. Then some gray clouds appeared, there was an occasional drop of rain and I found myself birding around Newton, MA wearing a fleece jacket. In any case, the weather may have taken a temporary step back in time, but the birds still seem to be here and many were quite active this afternoon.

For the past few months the city of Newton, Massachusetts has been dredging a stream/pond/marshy area near the city hall. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
My first stop was at Newton city hall where a dredging project has been going on in the stream/pond area in the park along Walnut Street for the past few months. I have been checking this spot carefully as the dredging has been going on, to see which species returned to the park and which seemed to be absent. Now that spring migration is well underway I was not too surprised to see that the birds which were not too dependent on the marsh and mud flats were back, while those which did, appeared to be absent -the advantage has seemingly shifted to  the birds that were  mainly making use of the surrounding trees, brush and other vegetation. I should note that with the park still officially closed I could only view the birds that could be seen from the perimeter, but still, I think I got a fairly good sense of how the change to this small piece of habitat is affecting the birds.

Over the last week Gray Catbirds, such as the one in the photo above, have arrived throughout eastern Massachusetts. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Some of the birds which do not seem to have been impacted adversely include Eastern Kingbird, Mourning Dove, Chimney Swift, gray Catbird, Song Sparrow and Northern Flicker, all of which I saw today on my visit. While Eastern Kingbirds do like to be near the water to hunt insects, I don't believe they would have relied on the presence of aquatic vegetation and mud flats as a key element in assuring the presence of food.  Noticeably absent was any sign of nesting Wood Ducks, which I have noted for the last few springs, as well as Great Blue Heron, Solitary Sandpiper and Spotted Sandpiper. It's possible some of these birds are not back yet, or if they are they have moved on to other places. Either way, their absence was noteworthy. Red-winged blackbirds have been present this year, but not in the numbers I've seen in past years and I did not notice any signs when I was there today that they were nesting near the water. I plan to go back again soon to see how these changes will impact wildlife in the park and once the fencing is removed I will do a more thorough update as well.

I finished off the afternoon with a quick visit to Nahanton Park, hoping to see the Northern Water Thrush that eluded me during Sunday's bird walk with the Friends of Nahanton Park and the Newton Conservators. The wood thrush did not cooperate, but I did see Yellow and Black-and-White Warblers, the ubiquitous Tree Swallows, a few noisy Baltimore Orioles and a Turkey Vulture which came flying in low over the soccer field.

A Turkey Vulture flies low over Nahanton Park in Newton, Massachusetts. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Wandering around Nahanton Park I spent some time thinking about not only the importance of wild, unbroken, un-fractured landscapes, but about the vital role that city parks and green spaces play in the lives of migratory and resident wildlife. The park at Newton City Hall is not very big, but in this small area I have seen close to 70 species of birds over the years, as well as bats, Muskrat, Eastern Cottontail Rabbits and other animals which don't seem to mind that their pond or forest is surrounded by main roads. These places are also immensely valuable for people as well, providing a place to step out of the chaos of our daily lives to rejuvenate and reconnect with the natural world. They are places which we should not take for granted, and for which, I for one, am deeply grateful to have in the city I call home.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

A walk in the park

A group of birders scan the soccer field and treeline for warblers, grosbeaks and other spring arrivals at Nahaton Park in Newton, MA. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Birds almost never seem to mind the rain, which is one of the things I really like about them. Even when the weather is damp and overcast they still go about their business, finding food, building nests, singing their songs. And so this morning, even though most sensible people were still dry in their beds at 7 AM, I headed over to Nahanton Park in Newton, Massachusetts for a bird walk co-sponsored by the Newton Conservators and the Friends of Nahanton Park. We were fortunate enough to have two knowledgeable guides who were able to not only point us in the right direction to see many beautiful birds, but were also well-versed in birding by ear, picking out the tunes of individual species from among the forest chorus.

We started off the morning under some leafy trees scanning the parking area near the Charles River Canoe and Kayak rental dock, watching Warbling Vireo, Yellow Warbler and Black-and-White Warblers move in short, semi-hidden bursts in the canopy. These smaller birds were also joined by a number of vociferous Baltimore Orioles proclaiming their presence from the tree tops and an unseen Red-bellied Woodpecker which called frequently from the woods.

Flowering trees and shrubs provide food for insects, which in turn attract hungry birds. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

I was particularly keen to try and add a few more warblers to my list today - I think it's not just that they're interesting and colorful birds to watch which make them objects of such intense pursuit on the part of birders, it's also the fact that the majority are travelers just passing through, here for a week or two and then gone again. As we emnerged from the trail one of the leaders saw a Northern Water Thrush, which would have been a great addition to my list, but I missed it. Then someone else heard a Black-throated Blue Warbler, one of the first warblers I ever added to my life list a few years ago when I found one in a tangled section of brush at Stony Brook Wildlife Sanctuary in Norfolk, MA. Today I didn't hear it's song, but about 45 minutes later we spotted one, bringing my year list to 131 species.

The Black-throated Blue Warbler was followed by a Wood Thrush, number 132 and finally toward the end of the walk a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak brought me to 133 for the year. In total I saw 34 species of birds topday, including many Gray Catbirds and Baltimore Oiroles which seem to have shown up en masses toward the end of last week. Up until about the middle of the week I hadn't seen any birds of either species, and then it was like someone had opened up door and they came flooding into eastern Massachusetts. I can't wait to see what follows next.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

My birding big year reaches 130 species at Broadmoor WLS in Natick

A frog sits on a mossy, half-submerged log at Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary in Natick, MA. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
By dint of some miracle I was able to get myself up this morning before 7 AM. Though I suppose in reality I know what the reason was: Warblers.

It's almost like I can sense their presence in the newly green leafy canopy surrounding parks, fields and wetlands, and with so many reports of these delightful migrants passing through the area I woke up excited to begin the day looking for them. So with these tiny colorful migrants on my mind I drove over to Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary in Natick, MA with a quick stop along the way at Whole Foods in Wellesley to fuel up for my morning walk.

An Eastern Phoebe sits on a fence post. These birds can often be found near water where they hunt insects from an exposed perch. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

The weather seemed unsettled today - a bit rainy and overcast in the early morning, then cool and damp,  and finally warm and humid with the sun trying to peek through the gray blanket above. The trails were soft underfoot and the rocks and roots slippery from overnight rain. The birds, however, did not seem to mind as all. Although I tried to find new warblers that I haven't seen yet this year I only managed to see Yellow Warblers, typically one of the first to return and therefore already on my list. However I did mange to find a yellow Warbler nest, which was pretty neat. It was in some brush near the boardwalk and I'm sure I never would have found it had I not been following the flight of a female Yellow Warbler as she returned to it. I only saw one other person when I first arrived, otherwise the woods belonged to the birds and frogs, a spring-time chorus only interrupted occasionally by the sound of gunshots from a distant shooting range.

An Eastern Kingbird perches on a branch in the old orchard at Broadmoor WLS in Natick, MA. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013,.

While the warblers declined to cooperate today I did see many other interesting birds and plants. The Baltimore Orioles were especially active, with males singing loudly from trees near the boardwalk and by the wildlife observation pond. I have heard these birds call many times before but I never really paid attention to their song until today, when I heard a beautfiul four or five note tun coming from within a leaf-covered tree. Something about the birds voice made me think of an oriole, but it wasn't until I spent some time following the sound that I confirmed that it was in fact a male Baltimore Oriole calling. it's a pretty distinctive sound - if you'd like to hear an audio clip of one of these beautiful birds belting out its best the good folks at Cornell University's e-bird have compiled a collection of audio clips that you can listen to if you you can click here.

Like any good walk in the woods, today's outing left me with the sense that I was only seeing a very small sliver of the life and activity around me, not to mention more questions than answers. Perhaps chief among them was the mystery of why a Canada Goose nest I had seen an adult bird sitting on during my last visit to Broadmoor was now unoccupied, with several evidently undamaged eggs sitting in it, right out in the open.  This is a nest I have photographed before and I remembered thinking that the geese had chosen a good place to construct it, on a relatively flat, dry rock in the pond.

This Canada Goose nest on top of a rock in a pond at Broadmoor appeared to have been abandoned. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

I would love to know if anyone else has observed this phenomenon in New England and would welcome any ideas people might have about factors that could cause geese to abandon their nest.

One of the more exciting finds of the day was my sighting of a Pileated Woodpecker, a bird I've been trying to add to my year list for at least a month now. On the west coast my favorite woodpecker is the Acorn Woodpecker, a semi-comical looking bird that likes to sit on top of old telephone poles and caches acorns in the sides of the poles and in trees by hammering them into the wood with their bill. On the east coast my favorite woodpecker is the Pileated, a large, striking bird with a great red tuft which hunts for Carpenter Arts by whacking away at logs and tree trunks. If you haven't seen one of these birds in the wild I highly recommend looking for one. In the meantime, if you'd like to see a few photos and learn something about these birds, you can visit this National Geographic webpage devoted to them.The Pileated Woodpecker was species number 130 for me for the year in New England.

I'm hoping my year list will get a significant boost from the upcoming Mass Audubon bird-a-thon, when I will join the Drumlin Farm team on a quest to see as many species as we can in 24 hours on Cape Cod, an experience I definitely plan to share here on the New England Nature Notes blog.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Warblers arrive

Stony Brook Wildlife Sanctuary in Norfolk, MA offers a wide range of habitat to explore, including open fields, forest and extensive wetlands and ponds. Image Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
As I read reports this afternoon of birders finally finding Warblers in Massachusetts I couldn't wait to get outside and try to add some more names to the list for New England birding big year. By noon I was reading reports on the ABA Massachusetts list of all kinds of warblers and other spring arrivals, and by 2 PM I was in Norfolk, MA at the Stony Brook Wildlife Sanctuary and Bristol Black State Reservation, two adjoining properties south of Boston which offer great birding, with a mix of habiat including mixed forest, wetlands, ponds and meadows. I've seen lots of interesting birds here over the years and the boardwalk which runs through the pond and marsh area is a great place to see ducks in winter and herons, Red-winged Blackbirds, Swallows and the occasional Osprey in the summer. In total I saw 27 species of birds this afternoon, including 5 more species that were the first of the year for me.

Canada Geese with goslings. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
As I walked around the sanctuary the woods and meadows were alive with birdsong and the fluttering of wings as I watched Tree Swallows chase each other over an open field, Canada Geese shepherd their goslings as they ate vegetation and Common Grackles fly in graceful swoops from one tree to the next. In one of the first places I stopped to look and listen I soon heard a familiar call and looked up to see my first Chimney Swifts of the year high overhead. I took this as a good sign, and soon enough a male Baltimore Oriole appeared singing from a branch near one of the ponds. Between the Tree Swallows, the Red-winged Blackbirds and the oriole, I felt like spring was really here.

Near one of the small dams I heard some rustling in the grass and stopped to investigate. I thought I might find a sparrow or two, but there was something about the sound of the movement that made me think it might note be a bird - and in fact, it wasn't - as I looked carefully in the grass I saw that it was a Northern Water Snake, not a new bird for the year list of course, but the first of its species I've seen tin 2013.

A Northern Water Snake at Stony Brook WLS in Norfolk, MA. This species of snake is found throughout the northeastern US and preys on a range of small creatures, including salamanders, fish and small mammals. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
I continued my walk and arrived at the boardwalk, which took me far out into the wetland area and to a small island where I added two more species to my big year effort - a Common Yellow-throat and a Black-and-White Warbler. At this point I was beginning to feel like perhaps the expected tide of warblers had actually arrived and was excited to look for more of them. I took my time coming back over the boardwalk, pausing to watch one of the resident Mute Swans glide past and checking the underbrush for sparrows.

I finished up the afternoon on the other side of the sanctuary where I walked quietly through the forest pausing every few minutes to look and listen.In the woods I saw an American Goldfinch high in the treetops and lower down I saw my first Ovenbird of the year, bringing my New England big year birding total to 129 species.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

3 More species bring my New England birding big year total to 124

Nahanton Park in Newton, Massachusetts. Clear, pleasant weather followed by wind, rain and fog can cause migrating birds to stop and wait out the bad weather in parks and other green spots along their routes. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

For the last week or so we have had phenomenal weather here in Massachusetts, with consistently clear, blue skies and little humidity. It's been great being outside and enjoying this unusually pleasant weather, but when I saw that rain would be moving in toward the middle and end of this week. I got even more excited. My hope was that with the nice weather for the last week and the sudden arrival of rain, wind and fog that we would get what birders call "Fall out," a condition when migrating birds take a break from their journey and hunker down wherever they happen to be while they wait out the bad weather, so I drove over to Nahanton Park in Newton, Massachusetts. I was really hoping this might help me with my warblers - so far I only have 4 species for the year, which will probably really hurt my overall number for my New England birding big year. Unfortunately the only warbler I saw was a Yellow Warbler, a bird that is already on my year list. Despite the lack of warblers I had a nice time and managed to add 3 more species to my year list, bringing my total to 124 species for the year to date.

The first addition to the list came as I was standing near the parking area scanning the sky above the field, watching Tree Swallows hunt insects on the wing. These small, gregarious birds are one of my favorites to watch, especially as they swoop through the air over meadows, ponds and wetlands. As I was watching them I realized that one of the birds was different from the others and I began to track its flight through my binoculars. After quickly consulting my Sibley's field guide for a refresher I was certain that I was looking at a Northern Rough-winged Swallow. The bird was just as fast as the others, but uniformly brown on top, with a brown head, white underside and brownish tail. Not long after that I decided to explore a patch of brush and trees near one of the garden plots and heard a familiar rambling series of notes coming from the underbrush. I stood listening, trying to figure out if it might be a Northern Mockingbird when the animal in question flew up and landed on some vines, revealing itself to be a Gray Catbird, my first for the year. These two birds increased my New England birding big year list count to 123, but I wasn't done yet.

A Tree Swallow pokes its head out from inside a nesting box at Nahanton Park in Newton, Massachusetts. Image copyright Daniel E . Levenson 2013.
 There was plenty of activity going on all around me as I walked toward the soccer field and along the narrow path that leads to down the river: Song Sparrows were letting loose their out-sized tune, Common Grackles were creaking and wheezing in the tree tops and American Robins made themselves known through their distinctive squeaking call which always reminds of a dog toy. In past years this section of the park has been a good place to see a range of birds, including the first Rose-breasted Grosbeak I'd seen. There may have been a warbler or two hidden in the tangle, but any clear views eluded me. Over by the Charles River, where Charles River Canoe and Kayak has an on-site rental location I saw a number of birds moving quickly in the branches of a leafy tree and moved closer to investigate. First I saw two Eastern Phoebes - possibly a pair - they didn't seem overly concerned by my presence and sat mostly exposed, flicking their tails ever few seconds, in true phoebe style. Then I noticed a couple of Chipping Sparrows among the leaves. What really caught my attention, though, were two drab little birds, gray on top, white underneath with a hint of a yellow wash along the side and a whitish eyebrow. I watched them for a while as they moved from one branch to another grabbing insects from the leafy, flowering branches. After about ten minutes I knew I was looking at species #124 for the year, Warbling Vireo.

Kayaks and canoes wait to be used by paddlers near the Charles River in Newton, MA. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
As the light started to fade the chorus of frogs from the pond and river stepped in, taking the place of  grackles and robins, and the little clouds of insects overhead grew into bigger clouds of insects. Under the darkening sky I walked back to the parking area and stood for a while watching the Tree Swallows over the field. It was a nice way to end the day.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

A spring morning in the Boston Public Garden

A Canada Goose paddles into the shade of a Willow Tree at the Boston Public Garden. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Late this morning I managed to get outside for a short visit to the Boston Public Garden, which is truly one of the more beautiful urban green spots I have encountered in the city. Over the last few months I have seen a number of different species of birds here, including House Finches, a Red-tailed Hawk, Blue Jays, Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles. Throughout the winter a group of apparently resident Mallards also hung around (joined by one all-white Pekin Duck) swimming in open water when it was available and huddling at the edges of the ice when the temperatures dropped. I'm guessing that the Public Garden is a good migrant trap, but I haven;t had the opportunity yet to spend any time there with binoculars. On my visit today I saw many of the expected birds, including Canada Geese, Mallard, Rock Pigeon, Common Grackle and American Robin.

A male and female mallard on the pond at the Boston Public Garden. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Many of the birds seemed engaged in normal springtime activities, including a House Sparrow and an American Robin, each of which were gathering nesting material. I was a little surprised, though, to see the first Mallard ducklings I've encountered this season, swimming eagerly near a female I presumed was their mother.

A female Mallard and one of her ducklings swim near the shore of the pond in the Boston Public Garden.
Today was also the day that the two mute swans which spend the winter at the Franklin Park Zoo were returned to their summer home on the public garden pond. In general I am not a fan of Mute Swans in North America - they have escaped from captivity and now breed in many places where they don't belong, displacing native birds and behaving aggressively, but for these two I will make an exception, since I'm guessing their wings are clipped and they're not really being released into the wild. The release of the swans was preceded by much pomp and circumstance, including a parade with marching band refreshments provided by the Four Seasons Hotel and a proclamation by Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino. It was quite a sight !

The swans swam easily out onto the pond as a few Mallards and Canada Geese cruised by them. Neither party seemed to take much notice of the other and the swans swam around the edge of the man-made pool, seeming comfortably at home. After they glided out of view I walked around the garden a little while longer, looking at the flowering trees and shrubs and keeping an eye our for birds. It was definitely a nice break from work.

Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Flowers, trees and shrubs were in bloom across the Boston Public Garden today as Mallard ducklings followed their parents around the pond and tourists waited eagerly to see the return of the resident swans. image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Monday, May 6, 2013

In the footsteps of Theodore Roosevelt: Birding in Oyster Bay, Long Island

This weekend I found myself on Long Island with the chance to do a little birding. The opportunity to explore a new place is always fun, but it's not often I get the chance to go birding at Sagamore Hill, a place where Theodore Roosevelt, one of the key figures in the modern birding and conservation movement once spent many happy hours exploring the fields, woods and shoreline of this beloved estate. Roosevelt passed away in 1919 and it's been more than fifty years since members of the Roosevelt family called this place home and now the buildings and grounds are open to the public as a National Historic Site, under the auspices of the National Park Service. As I drove toward Sagamore Hill I noticed that the area was incredibly green with lots of tall, leafy trees with large, stately homes set back among expansive lawns and gardens. I couldn't help but think what a great stopping place this part of New York must make for migrating warblers.

Sagamore Hill in Oyster Bay, New York, was once home to President Theodore Roosevelt and his family. Today the grounds and buildings welcome visitors from around the world who come to learn about his legacy and explore the woods he loved so much. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Before this trip I did some research online to look for birding information and resources. One of the websites I came across was that of the Huntington-Oyster Bay Audubon Society. From what I read online it looks like they are doing some important conservation work on Long Island and I hope to meet some of their volunteers next time I am in New York.

On Saturday I was lucky enough to spend an afternoon exploring Sagamore Hill under clear blue skies. Nearly all of the trees were in bloom, some covered in bright green leaves while others were festooned with colorful flowers. Before heading out on the nature trail to look for birds I stopped in at the visitor center where a helpful ranger pointed out a few good places to check and told me to keep an eye out for egrets and ospreys near the water and as I walked down the quiet path I listened keenly for any sign of bird life and soon heard a Red-bellied Woodpecker calling in the distance, followed by a White-breasted Nuthatch. Their songs made me wonder if perhaps I was hearing the voices of the descendants of some of the birds Roosevelt himself might have heard on his regular walks around the grounds.

Sagamore Hill has a variety of forest, meadow and salt marsh environments which attract a range of birds, from Chipping Sparrows to Great Egrets. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson

At the bottom of a hill the trail passed by a muddy, brackish creek where two Great Egrets stood in the water fishing. As I watched, one of the birds lunged forward and grabbed a small fish in its bill, swallowing it. When I looked up from watching the egret I saw an Osprey flying above the water, a fish held in its talons, head forward.

A Great Egret fishes in a brackish creek at Sagamore Hill. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

I spent a little while longer exploring the rolling hills and farmland of Sagamore Hill and saw several more species of birds, including a pair of Wild Turkeys, two American Goldfinches and several loud, rattling-buzzy Chipping Sparrows. The grounds themselves were also interesting to explore - Roosevelt was a man of many and varied interests, and in addition to the expected farm buildings there was also a large silver windmill shining in the late afternoon sun.

A windmill sits on the property at Sagamore Hill, not far from the home where Theodore Roosevelt and his family lived. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
My next stop was the Theodore Roosevelt Audubon Sanctuary, which unfortunately was closing just as I arrived, but the staff there suggested I go across the road to a small public-access area by the water to look for wading birds and waterfowl. I took them up on the suggestion and walked  a short distance to find a spectacular view of Oyster Bay along with a half a dozen Brant, a Barn Swallow, several Mallards, a Canada Goose and a Mute Swan. The musical star of the day, though, was a Northern Mockingbird which kept moving back and forth from one stand of trees to another over the beach, belting out a wide variety of calls usually made by other birds. Among its repertoire I was able to pick out the songs of  Tufted Titmice and Northern Cardinals.

A colorful row of kayaks lean against a fence waiting to be used at a town beach in Oyster Bay, New York. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Along this open section of beach and marsh I spotted a number of Brant, Double-Crested Cormorant, Canada Geese and other birds. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

I finished up the day on Saturday with a short evening walk through the woods of Trail View State Park in Woodbury, New York. I was hoping to find some warblers, but came up empty again. I did, however, get a good look at a group of four Fish Crows which gathered noisily in a tree top nearby before taking off again and disappearing behind a shopping area.

On Sunday morning I drove over to Theodore Roosevelt Park where I spent an hour scanning the waves and shoreline for birds. It was much cooler by the water, but with the sun still shining brightly overhead it was an enjoyable experience watching terns and gulls swoop through the air as Mallards and Brant stuck close to the shoreline. All around me were Song Sparrows singing, and I watched with interest as two  Common Grackles attempted to dive-bomb and drive off an American Crow which must have strayed into what they perceived as "their" territory. I also saw what appeared to be two domestic Mallards who were busy chasing a wild male Mallard out of the area, and three terns (probably Common Terns, but I couldn't make a positive ID) chase a fourth which had a small fish held firmly in its bill.

A view from Theodore Roosevelt Park. On this bright morning there were several terns, numerous gulls and many other birds in the areas actively feeding. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
I finished up the day back the Theodore Roosevelt Sanctuary and Audubon Center where I met Wildlife Care Coordinator Alice Bryant who was standing near the center with a beautiful female Great-horned Owl. She explained to me that the bird had arrived recently from California and had a problem with its eyesight. I was happy to learn that at the center the owl would receive some much-needed eye care and also serve to help teach visitors about birds of prey. Seeing the owl up close was an amazing experience - I've heard these large predators calling at night, but until then I had never stood so close to one. It's a remarkable thing to see how dedicated staff and volunteers at places like the TR Sanctuary are not only saving the lives of injured wildlife but enriching the experience of visitors. I can't imagine how anyone would not want to learn more about such a magnificent creature (and hopefully feel invested in protecting it and its habitat) after seeing this sharp-beaked, bright-eyed animal up close.

A sign welcomes visitors to the Theodore Roosevelt nature Sanctuary. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

A female Great-horned Owl sits patiently on the gloved hand of Alice Bryant, Wildlife Care Coordinator at the Theodore Roosevelt Sanctuary and Audubon Center in Oyster Bay, New York. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Overall it was a great weekend to be outside and explore a new area. I wouldn't say that any of the places I went should be thought of as birding hotspots, but in the case of Sagamore Hill the landscape alone was worth the visit, and although I didn't add any year or life birds, I did manage to add 5 or 6 new species to my New York state life list and I got to enjoy one of the best two days of the year so far, out in the woods and along the water, among the birds.

Thanks for reading.

In the Area

Regular visitors to the New England Nature Notes blog may notice that I am now adding a new section to some of the posts with helpful hints about places to eat or check out if you happen to visit the areas I write about. All of these recommendations are based on my personal experiences there and are meant as reviews.

On the Road

If you're traveling south from New England to get to Long Island and want to stop at a classic New York deli (which happens to be located in Vernon, Connecticut) you may want to stop in at Rein's Deli, conveniently located off of exit 65 from Route 84. My personal favorite is corned beef and turkey on rye with a side of potato salad and a black and white cookie for dessert. On this trip I also tried their potato knish which was pretty good and not too flaky which made it relatively easy to eat while driving, without making a mess. They also have great pickles and a selection of frozen gluten-free foods. In my opinion, definitely worth a stop if you're passing through Connecticut.

In Woodbury, NY

In Woodbury itself I found a few great places to eat, including Gaby's Gourmet Bagelatessen, located at
8025 Jericho Turnpike. I walked into this place on Sunday morning and was really impressed with how fresh everything looked, from the pre-made salads to the bagels and bakery items. I went for a sesame bagel with cream cheese and in the interest of scientific comparison, a black and white cookie. The Rein's cookies are good, and nothing beats the ones you can get in Manhattan, but I would definitely give the Gaby's black and white cookie an 8.5 out of 10 on the black and white cookie scale - the cookie part had the right consistency and the icing was excellent. 

I also visited the On Parade Diner for dinner on Saturday night, ordering chicken parmigiana to go. I was tempted to stay and eat there, but after a long day of birding I was eager to get back to my hotel and rest. The meal came with a side salad (nothing special) and bread (pretty good) as well as bread sticks and crackers. The chicken itself was very good, lightly breaded and moist inside and the penne was good also. They have a very diverse menu and friendly staff, so if you're in the area and looking for comfort food at the end of the day you should check out this diner, I know I plan to go back the next time I'm in the area.

For lodging I stayed at the Best Western in Woodbury, located at 7940 Jericho Turnpike in Woodbury. For the price ($130/night, plus tax, booked online) I thought this place was a good deal - the front desk staff were pleasant and helpful, and the room itself was clean and comfortable with a refrigerator, microwave, flat-screen TV and complimentary tea and coffee. I didn't take advantage of the free breakfast ( I had birds to see!) but it definitely smelled appetizing as I was checking out in the morning.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.