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.

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