2013 New England Birding Big Year

Looking back on 2013: 200 species of birds, from New England to Israel

Redheads in the Brookline Reservoir in Boston, MA on New Year's Day, 2013. These were not only a new life bird for me, but an exciting find on a frigid winter day and a great way to start off my attempt at a 2013 big year. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
As 2013 draws to a close I've been thinking a lot about the birding I've done over the past year, as I attempted to do my own version of "big year." I started out with the goal of seeing 300 species in Massachusetts, then shifted my geographic range to all of New England, since I knew I would be spending some time in Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Connecticut as well. In the end I saw a total of 200 species for year, the vast majority in New England, but a good number in Israel as well. My final stats for the year were as follows:

Total species seen in New England: 179

Total species seen in Israel : 23 

Total species seen (or heard) for the year: 200

New life birds added for North America: 57 (I also managed to begin my year with a new life bird on New Year's day with a group of Redhead ducks and end the year with another new bird, a Snowy Owl seen in Rhode Island)
One of the best things about this project was that it gave me a chance to meet some really great people in the birding community, see new places and learn more about bird life and general ecology. I spent many winter hours walking along the edges of semi-frozen ponds, sweltering days fighting mosquitoes and dehydration in forests and wetlands and had a tremendous amount of fun doing it all.

At the Jerusalem Botanical Garden in Israel I cam across this Little Egret (a fairly common Eurasian bird closely resembling Snowy Egret) which  was a nice addition to both my 2013 year list and my life list.  Image copyright Daniel E.Levenson.
There were many great experiences and moments, but I think one of the best was defintiely participating in the Mass Audubon Bird-a-Thon as part of the Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary team - with Strickland Wheelock as our expert coach we spent 24 hours scouring the outer cape where there were Whip-poor-wills to be heard calling in an old graveyard, Northern harriers hunting over dunes, a large breeding colony of Double-Crested Cormorants to be seen at the entrance of Provincetown harbor and a spectacular sunrise to watch at Pilgrim Heights. We also had very good luck when it comes to the numbers and diversity of warblers to be found. This was a fantastic birding experience and one I am looking forward to doing again this year.

During my 2013 New England big year I had a chance to visit many beautiful beaches and coastal areas, from Rhode Island to Maine. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
In 2014 I plan to slow things down and focus much more on field observation and trying to sharpen my bird ID skills. Instead of checking e-bird reports constantly (a habit I alternately embraced and rejected several times throughout the course of this past year) I plan to focus on just getting outside wherever and whenever I can, with my binoculars and a notebook.  My goal is to keep detailed lists not only of the birds I see, but to gather as much data as I can, including notes on weather, bird behavior and breeding activity. Another thing I would like to do is make notes on field marks to help sharpen my ID skills, especially when it comes to sparrows, gulls, flycatchers and warblers. Wherever I go birding in the coming year this is going to be my approach - so I'll see where I end up birding and exploring, and of course I plan to share what I find, here on this blog.

So here's to a year of slow birding in 2014, and thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.


A Spotted Sandpiper along the Charles River is Bird #174 for the Year

October 5, 2013

Over the past week I've managed to get out and do a little more birding by kayak on Lake Cohituate in Natick and the on the Charles River in Newton. Both times I've brought my camera along and on each outing I've been able to get quite close to a number of very striking birds, including a Black-Crowned Night Heron (found perched in the same place I saw one mentioned in my last post), several brightly-colored male Wood Ducks, an Osprey and  a Spotted Sandpiper.

A Painted Turtle sits on a half-submerged log on Lake Cochituate in Natick, enjoying the last few rays of summer sunshine. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Paddling around Lake Cochituate I saw fewer birds than my previous trip, but there was still plenty to see, including the Painted Turtle in the photo above. There was also a raucous chorus of Blue Jays in the trees and many Mallards out on the water. The absence of the sound of Gray Catbirds was also noteworthy - perhaps they've already begun their migration.

A Spotted Sandpiper hunts for food along the muddy banks of the Charles River in Waltham, Massachusetts. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
While paddling on the Charles River this past week I added a Spotted Sandpiper to my year list, bringing my total to 174 species. At this point it would be practically impossible to get my New England big year list up to 300 species, but I am hoping to hit at least 200 species for the year in New England, which should be an attainable goal if I get out this fall and early winter in search of Finches, Snowy Owls, etc. With one trip abroad planned before December 31 I's hoping to hit at l;east 210 for my personal year total. Either way it's been a fun project and down the road I would defintiely consider attempting another "big year," most likely within tighter parameters - i.e., only in Massachusetts or only for a month.

A Great Blue Heron sits perched on some branches along the Charles River in Newton, MA. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
I have to admit that as much as I've enjoyed being able to be out in the woods without wearing many layers of clothing that birding in the warm weather can be just as challenging as birding when it's cold outside. This is one of the wonderful things about New England - last March when I had taken just about all I could handle of blizzards, ice and freezing winds I was ready for warm nights, sunshine and a steady stream of Warblers and now that I've endured a summer full of biting insects, sunburn and dehydration I'm more than ready to throw on an extra layer or two and head out to look for wintering sea ducks, Snowy Owls and Finches. I suppose that just like the birds themselves that birders have seasonal patterns too.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.



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

May 20, 2013

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.



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

May 18, 2013 

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.


A visit to the grasslands of Moose Hill Farm

May 15, 2013

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.


A walk in the park

May 12, 2013

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.


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

May 11, 2013

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.



The Warblers arrive 

May 10, 2013

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.



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

May 8, 2013

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.



Two more species bring my big year birding list to 121 species

May 3, 2013 

After such a long and cold winter it felt amazing to be outside today in the bright spring sunshine, under a perfectly clear blue sky, surrounded by birdsong. Today was one of those days where I wander along the trail stopping every once in a while just to appreciate how green and vibrant the natural world has become in the last two weeks. With so many plants budding and flowering the insects have returned, and with their presence many of the familiar warm-weather birds are back as well. I had a little time this afternoon after work to get outside, so I drove over to Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary in Natick, Massachusetts, where I managed to see 27 species of birds in a couple of hours, along with a few other surprises.

Spring comes to Broadmoor wildlife sanctuary in Natick, Massachusetts. image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
I started out by visiting the marsh along the boardwalk, where a number of Eastern painted Turtles were out basking on half-submerged logs. There were also plenty of nosiy Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles calling from trees along the edge of the water and from within the marsh itself. As I was watching the blackbirds I spotted a pair of Canada Geese on a nest and looked up to see two Wood Ducks come careening down toward the water, their nervous call echoing out as they disappeared into the vegetation. One of these days I plan to spend some time learning to ID the most common local plants beyond Skunk Cabbage and Poison Ivy. Today I spent some time taking photos of plant life that caught my eye and I would certainly welcome any assistance in ID'ing the plants in the photos below.

A plant emerges from the marsh. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

New plant life in the marsh. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

With the trees and other plants in bloom both insects and birds are re-appearing after a long winter. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

As I left the shade of the pine woods I came out into the sunlit open fields and decided to walk through the old orchard, one of my favorite spots in the sanctuary. It's a marvelous, sunny, open and rolling stretch of land with what looks like shrubland to me on one side, and grassland on the other. It's a great place to look for flycatchers, Eastern Bluebirds and a variety of other species. This afternoon I spotted my first Eastern Kingbird of the year in this area, bringing my New England birding big year total to 120 species. As I was about to turn and keep going something caught my eye in the distance at the far edge of the field, and I looked carefully through my binoculars, scanning the area. At first I thought it might be a fox or coyote, but I was very happily surprised to see that it was in fact a Fisher, a fairly common but rarely seen member of the weasel family.

A former orchard and the surrounding woods and grassland provide important sources of food and shelter for Eastern Bluebirds, Tree Swallows and other species of birds. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
I finished up the afternoon by adding one more bird to my New England birding big year list - a beautiful Eastern Towhee singing from the top of a dead branch at the edge of the orchard. I heard the bird before I saw it, and was excited to follow the sound of its song until I got a clear view of it perched at the top of the tree. Between the weather, the kingbird, the towhee and the Fisher, I would have to say that today was a pretty great day to be outside.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

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

April 22, 2013

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.


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


Sunday, April 7, 2013

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.


Phoebes, Turtles and more at Broadmoor 

April 6, 2013

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.

A Cranberry Bog and Moose Hill 

March 24, 2013

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

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

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

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


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

March 23, 2013

Clear blue skies and open water made for some excellent birding at the Great Meadows national wildlife refuge unit in Concord, Massachusetts. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Today  I set out for Carlisle, massachusetts, where I hoped to catch a glimpse of a widely reported Fieldfare, a bird usually found in northern Europe or Asia and only rarely reported in the United States. At this point in my big year I have to admit I'm a little conflicted about chasing rare birds. On the one hand I know I will probably need to do this sometimes if I want to reach 300 species for the year, on the other hand I don't really enjoy showing up  in the middle of a mob scene in some random place to look for just one particular bird. In any case, I got directions to the location where the Fieldfare had been seen most recently and arrived to find a quiet neighborhood dotted with farm equipment, barns and a few horses, not to mention about 50 or so birders. Some were wandering up and down the narrow road while a group of about 35 people were set up in someone's backyard, hoping for an appearance.
While I normally dislike these episodes of mass convergence there is a certain degree of camaraderie among birders when the word goes out that a super rare species has been seen. also, there is something oddly satisfying (and perhaps a bit disturbing) about seeing so many other people in one spot who are willing to stand outside for hours to do the same insane thing you've decided to spend your day doing. while I was there I spoke with one man who had come up from Pennsylvania just to truly and catch a glimpse of it, but I think he had a pretty healthy attitude. I asked him if he had really come all this way to see one bird, "I'm retired," he said, "bird or no bird, its still great to get out and see new places." I couldn't have said it better myself. After an hour of scouring the trees, listening to the delightful whistling buzz of Red-winged Blackbirds and scanning some nearby fields I decided that my time would be better spent elsewhere and drove over to Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord, which is rapidly becoming one of my top birding spots close to Boston.

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.


The upper Cape: My New England birding big year continues 

March 3, 2013

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.


Out with the Owls: birds #89 and 90 

February 23, 2013

Being outdoors after dark is  a special experience, and always brings back fond memories of friends, campfires and night hikes. It's amazing how much a landscape which looks so familiar during the day can look different when darkness has rendered the trees, rocks and water in shades of gray. I always find this transformation to be revelatory - for one thing, being out in the woods at night challenges us to use our sense of hearing in a more intense way and for another, once our eyes adjust, especially if there is a little moon or starlight, there's something great about realizing that a flashlight isn't really a necessity for exploring after dark. Up until last night most of my birding had taken place during the day, with the exception of one unsuccessful attempt to see Woodcoks last year, which was really more of an early evening activity. But last night my girlfriend and I joined an "owl prowl" program at Mass Audubon's Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary in Natick, MA to go out and search the forest for these mainly nocturnal predators.

With my New England birding big year in full swing now, I knew I would also need to add owls to my year list and I thought this would be a great way to not only find and hear them, but to learn something about their natural history as well.  I was particularly impressed to learn that Great Horned Owls actually like to eat skunks, a fact which I had not previously known. It was also surprising to learn about the dietary predilections of the Eastern Screech Owl, which will take prey ranging from tadpoles to mice to other Eastern Screech Owls under certain circumstances.

After a slideshow and auditory presentation designed to familiarize us with the more common species of owl we were likely to hear, we split up into three groups and headed outside. Our group took a route that brought us along the edge of a large open field which was covered in half-melted snow. The moon shone down through the clouds, giving us ample light to see the path as we crunched along. It wasn't until we entered the forest that we heard our first owl, an Eastern Screech-Owl calling from the far side of a marsh, its eery, trilling voice ringing out clearly in the windless night. We stood quietly and listened intently and were rewarded with more of this unearthly song, soon joined by the deep hooting of a Great Horned Owl.Not long after the Great Horned Owl made its presence known we heard something else calling from the darkness - a group of Eastern Coyotes were howling not far away. It brought me back to the last time I had heard coyotes, in a very different setting, sitting out on top of boulder in southern California in the summer. As I've said before, sometimes the best thing about birding isn't the birds, it's all the places you see and the things you experience as you look for them.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.




Checking in: Day #53 of my New England birding big year 

February 22, 2013

I had read reports of Canvasback ducks in the area but discovered these two quite by accident while scanning the Charles River in Newton. For me, a big part of the fun of birding is finding unexpected species and exploring new places. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
As I continue my New England birding big year I plan to sit down occasionally and offer some thoughts on things I've noticed, and the ways in which my plans and approach shange as the year progresses. One of the biggest changes I've made so far in these first 53 days is to shift my birding big year focus from only Massachusetts to all of New England. I did this for a couple of reasons, including the fact that I plan to be out of state quite a bit, and with limited time when I'm not working I really wanted to be able to count some amazing birds I've seen in Rhode Island, including a Thick-billed Murre, Sandhill Crane and Northern Lapwing. I suppose it's bending the rues a bit, but then again, I made them for myself in the first place.

The second change I've made is that as of today I've decided to suspend my email subscription to the Massachusetts e-bird rarity alert notice. I still plan to check out e-bird and to look at the ABA Massachusetts birding lists online, but I was beginning to feel like instead of going out and searching for birds based on my knowledge of avian life, geography and ecology, that I had begun to "shop" for my birds, gleaning updates on a daily basis on the whereabouts of every unusual species someone spotted. I still think the emails from e-bird and the online resources are great and really valuable, I'm just going to try and use on them less.

In terms of things I've learned or noticed, I have been having great fun joining birding field trips run by Mass Audubon. I've gone on three this year and have already signed up for two more. One excursion was run by the center at Joppa Flats where I got to see my very first Bald Eagle, while two others were led by Strickland Wheelock out of Drumlin Farm and took me to Rhode Island for a whole host of rare birds and some amazing views of wintering ducks, grebes and loons. On these outings I've been continually impressed by the more advanced birders in the group, who display an impressive depth of knowledge and a marked willingness to share that knowledge with other less-experienced birders (including myself, of course !)  I've also enjoyed exploring new places and having a chance to sharpen some of my ID skills.

As I write this I am already thinking about my next outing, to look for owls. Hopefully in the next blog post I write I will be able to say that not only have I added a species or two to my list, but learned something new from my rambles in the natural world. That's really my main goal every time I go outdoors.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.


A frozen day afield 

February 18, 2013

It was pretty cold out today, but the sky was bright and blue as I continued my pursuit of a New England birding big year. Today I explored the Concord section of the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. I had hear from several people that this was a good spot to go birding, and it defintiely looked like it would have great potential in warmer weather - it offers expansive wetlands and  trails that follow the river nearby.

Great Meadows national Wildlife Refuge is a complex of different5 locations offering diverse habitat for birders, photographers and anyone who wants to enjoy nature to explore. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
 With a cold wind blowing forcefully I didn't see much bird activity at first, but after I crossed over the dike in the middle I began to hear birdsong from the trees and soon came across one of several Downy Woodpeckers I would see today.

A male Downy Woodpecker searches for insects along the trunk of a tree at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord, Massachusetts. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

In addition to the Downy Woodpeckers there were also a number of Song Sparrows and Black-capped Chickadees around, the latter singing quite loudly as they moved from one spot to another in the trees and brush that lined the trail. As I was walking around I stopped to talk with other birders who had decided to brave the cold, and one of them told me about a Marsh Wren that had been seen regularly not farm from the parking lot, so after I completed my circuit along the edge trail I decided to take another look near the first foot bridge. I stood quietly to the side scanning the vegetation and a little section of open water, and it wasn't long before I saw the wren. It looked a little worn, but definitely hardy, and seemed totally unperturbed by my presence. I watched it for a while as it hopped from one place to another, inspecting little sections of vegetation, then disappeared under the bridge only to pop back up again. At one point it came so close I probably could have reached down and picked it up in my hand. With the Marsh Wren, I reached 88 species for the year so far. I think reaching 300 is defintiely going to take some luck and a lot of planning, but I'm hopeful that if I can continue at a good pace, I will have 100 species by March and 200 by the end of May.

I decided to make one more stop before heading home, at Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary in Lincoln, MA. I didn't add any new species to my year or life list, but I did see 14 different species, mainly the expected winter birds, but also a very nice Eastern Blue Bird and a few Wild Turkeys. All of this winter birding has me dreaming of summer ...

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.



A "chevron" of geese and some wonderful winter ducks in Rhode Island 

February 17, 2013

This weekend I joined a group of birders looking for wintering sea ducks along the coast of Rhode Island. image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Yesterday morning I dragged myself out of bed at 6:30 AM, got dressed and headed over to join a program focused on wintering ducks in Rhode Island with a group from Mass Audubon's Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary. I figured since I had had such great luck last time on the "Mission: Possible" trip, where I added several new life birds including Northern Lapwing and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, that it would be worth going on another excursion with Drumlin Farm. And once again, I was not disappointed. Our group of 8 included both novices and more experienced birders, and was led by two expert guides who were eager to share their knowledge and enthusiasm, Strickland Wheelock and Barrett Lawson (author of A Bird Finding Guide to Costa Rica). The morning started off in the Drumlin Farm education center parking lot, where about a dozen Wild Turkeys were present, picking up fallen birdseed under the feeders, while a  Carolina Wren and a Hairy Woodpecker called from unseen perches.

As we drove south light snow began to fall and we started to wonder if the predicted "dusting" might in fact turn out to be a little more robust. As it turned out the snow came and went during the day, but the sun never appeared and it was very cold in the coastal areas we birded. As we drove along someone asked what a "gander" was, as in the expression "what's good for the goose is good for the gander" which led to a serious search via smartphone, which in turn led us to discover several alleged names for groups of geese, including a "chevron" of geese, which could make sense given the "V" formation Canada geese tend to fly in, and a "plump" of geese which made no sense to me.  In any case, throughout the day we say many chevrons of Canada Geese and no shortage of plumps of Brant.

Our first stop of the day was along a rocky section of shoreline in East Providence, where I got my first really good look at a Greater Scaup, a new life bird for me. They were quite close and easy to see with binoculars. The Scaup were joined by Common Goldeneye, Red-breated Mergansers, a Common Loon and a Horned Grebe. One of my side projects for the winter has been to try and get better at winter plumage loon and grebe ID. So far it's going slowly, but I think at this point I can confidently tell a Common Loon from a Red-throated, so that's progress, I suppose. With the Hairy Woodpecker, Greater Scaup and an American Wigeon, I was at 80 species for the year, and feeling optimistic about the day.

After we were done exploring this piece of shoreline we drove over to a field where a Ross's Goose had been reported, mixed in with a very large flock (plump ? chevron?) of Canada Geese. This would have been an extremely exciting find so we were all pretty excited. In the end, Strickland ID'd it as a Snow Goose, which was still exciting (and a life bird for me), so the Ross's Goose remains to be found for my list.  Brant were positively everywhere yesterday, and even in this field covered in Canada Geese we managed to find a small group of them feeding on the grass. Along the water we also saw two seals, seemingly content to bob in the water, their heads peeking out from among the waves.

A "chevron" of Brant prepare to take off from the water.This was just one of several groups of these winter geese we encountered during the day. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

The lone shorebird of the day was a solitary Sanderling feeding at the water's edge among a group of Herring gulls. We drove through along some  beautiful shoreline and past some very promising salt marsh and wetland habitat which I would defintiely like to revisit in the spring and summer. Following the Snow Goose I added 6 more species to the year list: a group of Cedar Waxwings whizzed by overhead during one stop, several Great Cormorant were seen sitting on the edge of the ice, two Northern Pintails showed up on a reservoir and in the same spot we saw a group of American Coot way out in the distance diving for vegetation and popping back up to the surface. We also saw a Gadwall along the coast, and the highlight of the day for me was a stop at Beavertail State Park, where I got to see one of the most beautiful ducks (in my humble opinion) one can see in New England, the Harlequin Duck. There were several groups of them floating around in the surf, and I got a very close look at both the males and females.

This group of Harlequin Ducks was a very exciting find yesterday. Not only were they a new life bird for me, but they brought my New England birding big year total to 87 species to date. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

With the Harlequins I was up to 87 species for the year in my quest to reach 300 species seen in New England during my 2013 New England birding big year. My thanks to Barret and Strickland for a great day of birding.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.


New England Big Year 2013 - Chasing rare birds in Rhode Island 

February 3, 2013

A group of birders head out into a farm field in Tiverton, Rhode Island, in search of Vesper Sparrows and other unusual winter birds. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
As things in life often do, my big year plans have recently changed a bit - instead of doing a Massachusetts big year, I've decided to do a New England big year. The reasons for this are manifold, but chief among them is the fact that I have a busy work schedule with limited time, and I know with a fair degree of certainty that on some weekends I will be in Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire or Maine. I came to the decision to expand the geographic range of my big year based on these plans, and on the fact that I live within a relatively easy drive of both New Hampshire and Rhode Island, two states which are great for birding. Rhode Island, with its endless miles of coastline offers innumerable beaches, wetlands and other great bird habitat to explore, especially in the winter, and New Hampshire will offer me a chance to see Boreal species which I might otherwise miss this year. My new goal for the year is to try and reach 325 species seen/heard in the 6 New England states.

So yesterday I went on a group trip organized by the Mass Audubon Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary, and met a great group of birders and some very knowledgeable trip leaders. Even before we left the sanctuary I got a great look at some nice biurds, including several American Goldfinches and a Carolina Wren which was singing loudly from behind an old wooden fence. I began this expansion yesterday with a  great day of birding in Rhode Island, where I added 14 more species to my year list, and 5 new life species. One of my new life birds, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker showed up on an early stop in the day, at a small wildlife sanctuary near Tiverton, Rhode Island.  I

A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker clings to the side of a tree at a wildlife sanctuary near Tiverton, Rhode Island. These rare visitors to New England eat sap and insects. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Seeing this new bird was very exciting, as I had previously spent a few lunch breaks scouring the Boston Public Garden in search of a reported sapsucker seen along Arlington Street. In addition to this bird, we were also lucky enough to see three other species of woodpecker in the same area - Downy, Red-bellied and Northern Flicker (yellow shafted).  Along with the woodpeckers came other birds - titmice, chickadees and even a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. In just a few minutes I had added 3 more species to my year list and new bird to my life list. We continued on in the woods, looking and listening, and I heard  a Golden-crowned Kinglet calling from some brush, which was exciting.

Our next stop was a big farm field, open and covered with the stubble of last year's crops. As we scanned the field our trip leader pointed out a group of about 20 small birds moving low to the ground across an open section of the field. I looked through my binoculars and added another life bird to my list - the Horned Lark. As we made our way around the fields I added another species to the year list: Savannah Sparrow. We searched hard for any sign of a Vesper Sparrow, but none were seen.

 A marsh beside farm fields in Tiverton, Rhode Island attracts a wide range of winter birds, from American Tree Sparrow and Black Ducks to the rare Sandhill Crane. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
We next checked some marshes and an open section of beach, with fields in the distance. It was here that we got an amazing look at a Sandhill Crane - a life bird for many of the people in our group, and certainly for me. We were able to watch it fly high above the field for several minutes as it flapped and glided. A very cool bird, and one I would really like to get a closer look at sometime soon. it also made me wish I had a better camera - I got a couple of photos, but the bird just looks like a little grey speck against a blue sky. At this point I was pretty happy with the trip, I had added two new life birds and many to my year list, including a solitary Turkey Vulture seen from the car. The day was not over yet, however, and we made two more great stops. One was at an open section of beach where I added Surf Scoter and Thick-billed Murre to my life and year lists, and another was along a road in front of a farm where I had the opportunity to see two Northern Lapwings which had shown up in a field. Although I could only get a marginal look at them through my binoculars, there were plenty of generous people there who were willing to let others peer at these super rare birds through their spotting scopes.

A rocky beach in Rhode Island was one of the last stops in a day of birding the Ocean State. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

All in all it was an amazing day of birding and a lot of fun. Maybe next time I'll hit New Hampshire, as this big year continues.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.


Along the South Shore of Massachusetts: Marshfield and Plymouth, MA 

January 26, 2013

The office at Mass Audubon's North Shore Wildlife Sanctuary. Well-stocked bird feeders between the building and the parking lot attract a wide variety of birds in winter. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
The weather was cold and clear today, with only a dusting of snow in place of the much-promised storm the weather reports had been talking about all week. As it turned out, the birds thought today was a fine day to be out and active, and I managed to 8 more species to my Massachusetts year list, and one new life bird. I started out this afternoon at the  Mass Audubon North River wildlife sanctuary in Marshfield, Massachusetts. I was hoping to add a few of the more common winter birds that were not on my list yet, including Common Edier, Brant and any wintering sea ducks that might be around. The sanctuary itself was deserted - I didn't see anyone else there, although the website said it was open today - but I immediately encountered an impressive range of bird life, tallying a dozen species in a few minutes. There were a number of well-stocked bird feeders around the Audubon office, and without walking more than a few feet I saw many of the usual winter suspects, such as chickadees and titmice, but also two Red-bellied Woodpeckers, several White-throated Sparrows, a Carolina Wren and most excitingly, a Common Redpoll - a new life bird and species #56 for the year.

A Common Redpoll looks for seeds on the ground North River wildlife sanctuary,  These small finches are ussually make their home far to the north, but they have been seen in large numbers in Massachusetts this winter. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
After watching the feeders for a while I went for a walk on a short loop trail that brought me down to the North River. The woods were very quiet, aside from the occasional calls of Blue Jays and American Crows. Standing out at the end of the boardwalk was pretty uncomfortable,  temperatures in the low twenties and the wind blowing full-on, but I still took a few photos and managed to add species #57 when I saw three Bufflehead in the water, along the far bank of the river.

The North River in Marshfield, Massachusetts attracts different species of wintering ducks in the winter. image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
When it got too cold for me to take off my gloves to take pictures, I decided to continue on my way. there was a large open field which looks like it could be very promising in the spring, and as I made my way along the edge of it I checked the brush and tree line for any signs of bird life, and came across one American Robin and another Carolina Wren. One of my most exciting birds of the day, however, turned out to be a hawk that was sitting on a limb right above the birdfeeders outside the Audubon office. I could tell right away it was not a Red-tailed Hawk, but it was fairly big, so I studied it through my binoculars, and dug out my Sibley guide. Fortunately this was a pretty cooperative bird, it sat still for a while, then turned around on the limb before flying a short distance, where it perched again where I could get a good look. After watching it for a while I was certain I was looking at an adult Red-shouldered Hawk, one of only a very small number I've seen in my life, and bird #58 for my list.

Jenney Pond in Plymouth, Massachusetts is a great place to look for ducks, gulls and other birds in the winter. Image copyright Danuiel E. Levenson 2013.
My next stop was at Jenney Pond in Plymouth, Massachusetts, a fantastic place to see ducks which did not disappoint today.  Almost as soon as I got out of my car I could see a very large group of mallards on the open section of the pond, with two Mute Swans behind them and several other species mixed in. Moving closer I was happy to add 3 more species to my year list: Gadwall, Ring-necked Duck and American Black Duck. The only part of my experience there which I did not enjoy was when two people showed up to feed the ducks stale bread and yell to each other at the top of their lungs about how hungry the ducks were. I was tempted to go over and tell them that :

A. White bread is not something ducks should be eating.

B. The ducks are not starving - if the ducks were starving they would either be dead or have moved
     somewhere else, after all they are wild animals.

C. Their yelling and screaming was both annoying and scaring the other birds.

Alas, I gritted my teeth and waited for them to leave. No matter, because in the end I saw some great birds. In addition to the ducks I mentioned above there were also five Hooded Mergansers and a male Red-breasted Merganser. The latter didn't seem bothered by my closeness to the shoreline at all, and I got a few OK photos. Later I watched as he made several dives, tucking his head down and slipping effortlessly underwater at the edge of the ice.

A male Red-breasted Merganser hunts for fish on Jenney Pong in Plymouth, MA. These diving ducks are more commonly seen on salt water. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
My final stop of the day was along the beach in Plymouth, where I saw a large number of gulls, and added birds #62 and 63 to my list - I saw Common Eiders swimming far out in the bay, and on shore right next to a parking lot there was a large group of Brant. Much of the surface close to the beach was covered in ice, with crows and gulls walking on top. I even saw a confused-looking Sanderling land on the ice, slip and slide around a for a few minutes, then take flight again.

One interesting thing I noticed while watching the gulls closer in was an American Crow harassing a female Mallard. I know crows will mob owls and other birds of prey, but I have never seen (or heard of) a crow chasing after a duck. I saw a similar interaction between a crow and a gull at Jenney Pond. If anyone out there has seen anything like this before I would definitely love to hear about it.

A group of Brant feeding on the grass near Plymouth Harbor. These small geese breed far to the north but can be seen along the New England coast in winter. Image copyright Danuiel E. Levenson 2013.
Overall it was another cold day to be outdoors, but well worth it. In the areas I visited the birds were quite active and the beaches, ocean and river were all very beautiful in the snow and ice.

Although the surface directly offshore was covered in ice there was plenty of open water a little farther out in Plymouth Harbor, where gulls and Common Eider could be seen bobbing in the waves. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.


West of Boston: Lincoln, Concord and Natick 

January 19, 2013

This morning I managed to get out of bed and into my car by 7:45, a herculean task if ever there was one.  For my efforts, I was rewarded with some terrific birds, as I drove back and forth across several towns in the Metro West area. My general plan for the day was to check out Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary in Lincoln, MA, with stops before and after along the way.My first stop was at Newton City Hall, where before I even got out of the car I added bird #50 to my year list - a Song Sparrow. It was still quite cold at 8 this morning, but I did a fairly thorough check of the city hall area where the small group of American Green-winged Teal can still be seen.  The last few times I've been there I've seen a total of 5, 4 males and 1 female, but today there were only 4 of these colorful little ducks present, 3 males and 1 female.

My next stop was the parking area at Norumbega which is used by renters at the Charles River Canoe and Kayak shop across the Charles. I stopped here more on a whim than any concrete ideas about adding to my list and was totally surprised (and exhilarated) to see two Canvasback ducks as soon as I pulled in. The light wasn't so great, but I jumped out of the car with my binoculars and camera and got an excellent look at these noble birds and took a few decent photos. Not only was species # 51 for the year in my Bay State Big Year count, but the first of 3 new life birds I would add to my list today.

Two Canvasback ducks swim in the Charles River near Norumbega Park in Newton, MA. The Canvasback is not a common bird in Massachusetts, but several have been seen this winter in and around Boston. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
While I was watching the Canvasbacks I also decided to take some time to look more closely at the gulls which were right in front of me and to take some photos. Gulls are not easy to identify, appearing in different plumage at different stages of their lives and in different seasons. Today I managed to pick out a number Ring-billed gulls - both adults and juveniles, as well as Herring Gulls and a single Greater Black- backed Gull.

An adult Ring-billed Gull (left) and adult Herring Gull (Right) are seen feeding near the Charles River in Weston, MA. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Finally I arrived at my destination - Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary. In the summer this place is generally quite crowded, but in the winter it's very peaceful for the most part, and a good place to look for birds which favor open fields and brushy areas. I started off watching the feeders where I saw lots of White-throated Sparrows, Juncos and Black-capped Chickadees, then moved to the other feeders behind the Audubon Store. It was here that I added another bird to my year and life list - a Pine Warbler - definitely out of season and unexpected. At first I wasn't sure, but after watching it for a while, consulting my Subley's guide and taking a couple of photos, I am convinced it was a Pine Warbler. The photo below was the best of several that I took - in it you can see the overall shape of the bird, the yellow around the head and throat and its wing bars. Through binoculars I could also clearly see light streaking on the breast.

A Pine Warbler sits atop a bird feeder at Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary in Lincoln, MA. This small bird is not usually seen during the winter in Massachusetts. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
As I moved on I added two more year birds, an Eastern Bluebird and a Hermit Thrush (also a new life bird for me. Needless to say, to have added 3 new life birds before noon was pretty exciting. I also got a nice look at a large Red-tailed Hawk and an accipter of indeterminate species sweeping across an open field.

A Hermit Thrush sits silently in a tree at Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary. This was year bird #54 and life bird #204 for me. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
After a while I decided to move on and stopped for a quick sandwich at the Whistlestop Gourmet in Lincoln center. One of the fun things about this big year project is that I end up finding all kinds of out of the way restaurants and new places to explore. Lincoln center is probably one such place I would have otherwise never come across - composed of a few stores, a post office and grocery store beside the MBTA tracks, it would be easy to miss. My next stop was at the Codman Estate, a place I came across while heading toward Walden Pond. There was only one other car in the parking lot, and the place looked fairly deserted, but I decided to take a walk around anyway, thinking there might be some birds in the open fields or gardens. At night this place could feel decidedly creepy, but during the day it was pleasant enough - I only saw two birds, and ID'ed one (a White-breasted Nuthatch) but it looked like it could have potential in the spring or summer. There were several nice open fields with brushy/woodsy edges and a small pond close to the road, so I may very well stop in again when it gets warm out.

The Codman Estate in Lincoln, MA was built in the 1790's by Chambers Russell, one of the founders of the town of Lincoln. The estate sits on on an expansive property containing gardens and open fields. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
After wandering around the Codman Estate grounds for a while I got back in the car and headed to Walden Pond. In retrospect this was an awful idea, but I figured I was close so I should at least check it out and see if there might be any birds around. I must have temporarily forgotten that generally speaking, state parks and reservations, especially those easily accessible from suburban Boston, are generally pretty terrible places to find any semblance of peace and quiet, and hence, tend to be pretty bad places to look for birds or other wildlife. Anyway, I went and had a terrible time. The pond itself is beautiful, but otherwise it's not such a fun place to go if you want to observe the natural world - hordes of screaming kids, people walking their dogs right past the sign that says "no dogs allowed,"  etc., Even in Thoreau's day of course this was a bustling place, but I would gladly take the sound of blacksmiths at the forge, farmers at the plow and other auditory fruits of honest labor over people shouting into cell phones or yelling to each other down the trail. Yes, Walden Pond is beautiful, but if I go back it will be in my kayak, where I will paddly out to the middle of the pond and float around a safe (and blissful) distance from the crowding masses.

Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts is a popular destination for swimmers in the summer and draws tourists year-round, While the pond itself is quiet picturesque,the large number of people it draws makes it a less ideal site for birding. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
After this less-than-stellar experience at Walden Pond I was in serious need of some actual nature, so I headed over to Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary in Natick. I didn't add any more birds to my list at Broadmoor, but I did take a nice hour-long walk where I got to enjoy the peace of the forest and watch the sun set. I even got a really nice look at two White-tailed Deer feeding in a meadow as the sun went down behind the trees.Overall it wasa splendid day of birding and exploration.

The sun sets behind the trees at Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary in Natick, Massachusetts. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.



Watching feeders at Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary 

January 13, 2013

Today I spent some time at Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary, watching the bird feeders both outside the nature center and along one of the trails. I had seen reports of Redpolls and Siskins at the sanctuary, and I was hoping that with a little patience and no small measure of luck, I might get a glimpse of these uncommon northern birds. As I got out of my car I could already see that there was a lot of activity at and around the feeders - Chickadees, Red-breasted and White-breasted Nuthatches and Tufted Titmice were swooping in and out, grabbing seeds, occasionally quarreling with one another over a prime spot at one of the feeders.

A Black-capped Chickadee visits a bird feeder at Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary in Sharon, Massachusetts. These small, gregarious birds are a common sight in backyards and other suburban locations. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
As much as I searched for any signs of the Siskins or Redpolls, I had no luck. I did, however, get to add species #48 to my list for the year - a very nice Carolina Wren. I had seen a Carolina Wren in the same location back in December, and I'm guessing this is the same continuing bird. It moved too quickly for me to get a photo, but I did get a great look at it through my binoculars. A quick check of the surrounding woods turned up several Northern Cardinals, more Chickadees and Titmice and a Brown Creeper. I suspect that the Siskins and Redpolls are still around somewhere. Hopefully I'll have a chance to take another look in the area next weekend.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.




A quick Chat in Burlington, wandering through foggy woods in Natick 

January 12, 2013

I woke up this morning with the goal of expanding my year list as my quest for a Massachusetts big year continues. Earlier in the week I had added species #45 to my list with a White-throated Sparrow art Newton City Hall and yesterday on my lunch break I got #46 when I came across a flock of boisterous House Finches in the Boston Public Garden. Today I decided to try and make another attempt at seeing the Yellow-breasted Chat which has been hanging out in some woods beside the Kohl's store in Burlington, MA. My efforts to see it last week were not successful, although I did get a great look at a Cooper's Hawk while checking out the area.

I arrived in Burlington around mid-day and immediately began a close inspection of the brush and trees beside the parking lot. As I was looking around I noticed someone else with binoculars who was motioning toward the trees, so I went over and said hello. "You just missed him," the guy said, "he was right there." I felt a moment of disappointment, but based on what I've been reading online this particular bird has been hanging around the area for a while, so I thought there was a good chance it would pop into view again. As the other birder and I scanned the trees he suddenly motioned again and pointed out exactly where the Chat was sitting - I got an excellent look at it sitting there, a beautiful bird with striking yellow coloration, especially against a gray and foggy sky. While I was there I also spotted a Red-tailed Hawk perched in a tree and an accipeter flew over, likely a Sharp-shinned Hawk, but too high up to tell for sure.

Snow blankets a field at Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary in Natick, Massachusetts on a foggy, damp January day. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

My next stop was a decidedly less busy place than a mall parking lot - Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary in Natick, Massachusetts. I felt like I wanted to get out and stretch my legs, and in the past this has been a great place to see a range of species, from raptors to ducks, herons and songbirds. I was hoping I might be able to add Red-bellied Woodpecker and possibly American Wigeon to my year list (two species I saw there in late December) but no such luck. I did, however, enjoy a good three hour ramble through the woods and wetlands, enjoying the stillness of a world shrouded in fog. I also counted 15 species, including a Brown Creeper, several White-Throated and Tree Sparrows, multiple Red-Breasted Nuthatches, American Goldfinch and other common winter birds. There were also plenty of Mallards to be found in little open spots where the ice had melted.

Despite the chilly, damp weather the woods were very peaceful, the stillness broken by occasional birdsong to keep me company.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013




No Yellow-breasted Chat, but a Swan and a Cooper's bring my year list to 44 species 


January 7, 2013

On Sunday afternoon I only had a little time to look for birds, so I decided to stop off at the Kohl's parking lot in Burlington. Massachusetts. to see if I could find the continuing Yellow-breasted Chat which people have been posting about on various birding list serves. Before we got on the highway, however, my girlfriend Joanna and I spotted two Mute Swans in an open section of water in the Charles River, across from the Charles River Canoe and Kayak rental location in Newton.  We pulled over for a few minutes and I took a good look at the swans through my binoculars. The Swans were species #43 for the year, and while  there we also counted a number of Canada Geese, Ring-billed Gulls and Mallards, along with one solitary Rock Pigeon.

Two mute swans swim on the Charles River while Mallards venture onto shore in the foreground. Image copyright Joanna Barker 2013.
Back on the road we saw three Red-tailed hawks perched along the highway, and when we got to the Kohl's parking lot there there were already a few birders there searching for the chat. We spent about 25 minutes peering into the brush and trees beside the parking lot, but the chat failed to make an appearance. I would be very curious to know if anyone else saw it tyesterday.

We did see several American Robins while searching for the chat and I was happy to add bird #44 for the year, a gorgeous Cooper's Hawk which I got an excellent look at as it flew over the marsh behind the parking lot. At first I wasn't sure if it might be a Sharp-shinned, but it had a very obviously rounded tail and seemed larger than the Sharp-Shinned hawks I have seen before.

So, sadly, no Yellow-breasted Chat for me this weekend. I plan to keep an eye on the list serves though, and if it pops again I will defintely try to see it.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.



A delightful day of birding at Plum Island 


January 6, 2013

Although much of the landscape was covered beneath snow and ice, Plum Island and the Parker River National Widlife Refuge were full of avian life during a recent outing. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Yesterday was one of the best days of birding I can recall, both in terms of adding new species to my year and life lists, and also just for experiencing the beauty of the natural world. I spent most of the day on Plum Island in Newburyport, Massachusetts, where I added bird #200 to my life list, and brought my year to date total to 41 species. Including bird #200, I added 6 new life birds. Also, I was quite proud of myself for getting up when my alarm went off, so I would say it was a banner day all around.

I started off the morning outside the Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Education Center, waiting for the doors to open. Since I was a little early I decided to look around and added an American Tree Sparrow to my year list. After the center I opened I went inside and signed up for the Saturday morning birding trip, a weekly program run by the staff at the center. Readers of this blog may be aware that my past attempts to join Mass Audubon outings have been repeatedly foiled by horrible weather, bad luck and my ability to sleep through any known alarm clock. This time, things turned out just fine and I had a great time exploring the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge with an excellent naturalist guide and some very knowledgeable fellow birders.

Even before we left the center, though, I managed to add two more species to my year list, an American goldfinch and a Bald Eagle. The eagle was a life bird and truly amazing - I saw it through both my binoculars and through a scope set up by the window. Through my binoculars it appeared as a very large brown bird with a white head sitting at the edge of the ice. Through the scope I could see it in much greater detail and it was an impressive sight.

With clear skies and relatively light wind, yesterday was an excellent day to explore the beaches of Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, with a variety of loons, grebes and wintering ducks visible just off shore.Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Our first stop inside the refuge was at Parking Lot 1, where we all piled out of the vans and took an ice and sand covered boardwalk up to the beach. When we got there the water spread out in all directions, brilliant blue under a clear, cold sky. The wind was tolerable, but I was glad to be wearing 5 layers of warm winter clothing. One of the fun things about birding with other people is that you have more pairs of eyes looking in different directions, so the group tends to spot more birds.

I also really liked how the people from Mass Audubon made sure everyone had a chance to see the different species we encountered and took the time to offer ID tips and some basic information. Standing on the wooden platform I scanned the water with my binoculars and those in the group who had scopes were kind enough to let everyone have a look as new species popped up. In addition to Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls we also saw a Red-throated Grebe, two Common Loons, about 20 Red-breasted Mergansers, many Sanderlings and White-winged Scoter.

Soon after we got back into the car a Northern Harrier was spotted and during out next stop at the hellcat Wildlife Observation area  I was very excited to see my very first Snow Bunting. I first saw Harriers a few years ago on the South Shore of Massachusetts when I was out birding at Mass Audubon's Daniel Webster sanctuary, these skilled areal hunters made quite an impression then as we watched them swoop low over frozen wetlands in fading winter light, and they were just as beautiful to watch today.

Not my best bird photo, but it does document an exciting new life bird that I have wanted to see for quite some time. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Driving back to the nature center we made one final stop by the side of the road to see a dark morph Rough-legged Hawk. It was sitting serenely on top of a post along a raised area beside the water. Because of the way the bird was sitting there was some speculation at first about what species it might be, but as it took flight and hovered, lingering above the same spot where it had just perched, it was identified as a Rough-legged Hawk. We also got very close to a Red-tailed Hawk perched in a tree right next to the road.

A Red-tailed Hawk sits perched in a tree inside the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, seemingly unbothered by its many human admirers. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

The Red-tailed Hawk takes flight, Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013

After the program I ended I went back to the reserve and added Horned Grebe to my list. I also took some time to walk out to a quieter part of the property where I only saw one or two other people in the distance. It was a gorgeous section of beach, reached by a long boardwalk that took me over frozen dunes and marsh. Along the way another Northern Harrier appeared, an adult female, and I watched it surf an invisible current of air just above the sand, following the contours of the frozen dunes.

I ended the day with a quick stop at Newton City Hall where I added species #42 to my year list - a Great Blue Heron. All in all a terrific day of birding and outdoor exploration, I can't wait to visit Plum Island again.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.



A Quick trip to the Public Garden and Newton City Hall 

January 4, 2013

Since my office isn't too far from the Boston Public Garden I thought I would take a walk over after work today to see if there might be any birds around. I know park can act as a migrant trap, and when the water in the pond is open it's an attractive spot for ducks. The temperature was around 35 degrees as I walked around the pond on an ice-encrusted path. Compared to the last few days of single digit temperatures it actually felt pretty comfortable, and I was delighted to add bird #27 to my year list when I spotted two or three House Sparrows under a bush. Yesterday I picked up species #26, an American Crow, on my way to work in the morning.

The Boston Public Garden sits beneath a thin layer of snow and ice. In warmer weather a variety of bird species can be found in around the pond and gardens. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

I spent the last hour of daylight at the Newton City Hall and Bullough's Pond where there was very little activity. While I normally see five or ten species within minutes of arrival, today the air was quiet and a flcok of Rock Pigeons huddled atop the city hall was the only sign of bird life in the area. After scouring the park and checking and Bullough's pond I only came up with six species, including the continuing American Green Teal, a few Mallards and a Cardinal. Although the birds weren't too cooperative it was nice to get outside, and the sunset was beautiful..

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.


25 Down, 275 To Go ... The Start of My Bay State Big Year 

January 1, 2013

A Red-tailed Hawk perches on a limb near the Chestnut Hill Reservoir, watching a nearby flock of Mourning Doves. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Despite my excitement to start my Bay State big year, I still managed to hit snooze several dozen times on my alarm clock this morning.Nonetheless, once I did manage to get out of bed and out the door I had a wonderful start to the project, with some great views of typical species and a few unexpected surprises along the way.

One of the nice things about living in Newton is that within an hour's drive I can hit not only many different Mass Audubon Sanctuaries, State Parks and conservation areas, but an impressive range of habitats too, from forest to grassland to the coast. This morning I decided to start off at Newton City Hall - it's one of the places I go birding frequently and is usually a pretty productive spot. I also had a hunch that the American Green-winged Teal might still be around, and this is also a place where I routinely see Red-tailed hawks, two species I wanted to add to the list early. I found the teal with relative ease, and the Red-Tailed Hawk was also quite cooperative, posing perfectly still atop the city hall. There was also a boisterous flock of wintering American Robins and another of European Starlings. The robins were beautiful against the bright winter landscape - flashing warm orange as they moved noisily from one tree to the next.

I decided to head over to the Chestnut Hill Reservoir next. This has proven a great place in the past for large numbers of Hooded and Common Merganser, as well as relatively high counts of Ruddy Duck (20-25 birds). This was also my first attempt at chasing a rarity - for the past couple of weeks I've been seeing reports of Redhead ducks showing up on both Hammond Pond and Chestnut Hill Reservoir. The latest report put the group of 3 females and 2 males at the reservoir. Adding a Redhead to the list was something I really wanted to do, both for the year and for my life list. I could see from the car as I approached that the water was almost entirely free of ice, and there were lots of Canada Geese and ducks visible. The Common Mergansers were a little far out, but very nice to watch as they dove for fish, surrounded by larger group of Hooded Mergansers, also making frequent dives.

In addition to the mergansers, Canada Geese, Mallards, Ruddy Ducks and Ring-billed gulls, I also saw two birds which seemed a bit out of place. I studied them through my binoculars for a few minutes and it occurred to me that in terms of their overall shape and the shape of the bill, they reminded me very strongly of Pied-billed Grebes. After a few more minutes of study and consultation with my Sibley's guide confirmed that I was in fact looking at two of these birds, wearing their dull brown winter plumage. I even managed to get a photo or two - not my best work, but you can see the overall shape and coloring.

A Pied-billed Grebe rests on the surface of Chestnut Hill Reservoir in Brighton, Massachusetts. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
As I was watching the ducks and the grebe someone stopped on a bicycle stopped to tell me he often sees Red-tailed hawks in the area. Just as we were talking I looked up and saw the bird in the photo at the top of this post. It was on the smaller side - likely a male, and seemed totally unperturbed by all of the walkers, runners and other people passing by below. I watched this bird for a while until it made an enthusiastic but unsuccessful attempt at grabbing a mourning dove from a neighboring tree. The dove managed to escape and the hawk flew off with strong wingbeats, lifting up over the treeline and disappearing.

I continued to follow the path around the reservoir, scanning the water for any sign of the Redheads. As I made my way to the other side there were fewer and fewer ducks to be seen, but I continued on anyway and was very excited to come around a corner and see 5 Redheads sitting together in a little cove. The birds were very beautiful - my photos defintiely do not do them justice.

This small group of Redhead Ducks is an unusual sight in Massachusetts. These birds were seen feeding on the Chestnut Hill Reservoir. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.
Moving on, a strong and very cold wind began to kick up, blowing without mercy off of the water. I wrapped my scarf around my face and trudged along, taking shelter temporarily behind one of the old pumping stations. As I was battling the wind I looked up and saw a Ring-billed gull which seemed to be taking delight in the wind, swooping and turning playfully, seemingly unaffected by the cold.  When I was almost back at my car I stopped once more to inspect a mixed foraging group, hoping that a Golden-crowned Kinglet might turn up, and in fact, one did, along with a male Downy Woodpecker and a Brown Creeper. In total I saw 21 species at the reservoir, and 7 total at Newton City Hall in the morning, which brought me to a combined total of 24 species for the day at this point.

After grabbing a quick lunch I headed over to check out a new place, Cold Spring Park in Newton. I had heard it could be a good spot, but had never made it over before. I added one new species for the day while I was there (2 really bright red Northern Cardinals) and explored the area a bit. Aside from the fact that there is a dog park there (something not usually conducive to wildlife observation) it did look like it could be promising. There was a nice mix of wetlands, streams, small ponds, forest and brush, as well as a large open area with baseball fields, so I'm guessing that a large number of species make use of the park throughout the year and especially in the warmer months.

Two Mallards take advantage of an open stream at Cold Spring Park in Newton, Massachusetts. Image Copyright Daniel E Levenson 2013.
All in all I was very pleased with the first day of 2013 - the Redheads, Pied-billed Grebe and brown Creeper were all unexpected surprises and to be able to get so close to the Red-tailed Hawk at the reservoir and the continuing American green-winged Teal in Newton was a lot of fun. It was also interesting to have so many people stop and ask me about the birds right in front of them, or to tell me about a bird they had just seen in the area. I think this is going to be a very interesting year.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.



A Bit of Bay State Big Year Strategery 

December 31, 2012

Yes, I know "strategery" is not a word, but I like the way it sounds do I decided to use it in the title of this blog post about my plan for birding across massachusetts in 2013. In this post I would like to share my general plan for my 2013 Bay State big year, and I would definitely welcome any feedback or suggestions from fellow birds and/or nature enthusiasts, both in terms of interesting places to see in the Commonwealth and potential birding spots. I have no doubt that life (and the weather) will intervene and change the course of my plans, so I guess we'll just call this a rough draft and see where I end up.


I'm still keeping an eye on weather reports for January 1 and where I go will probably depend, in part, on whether there is any open water around. My goal for the fist day of my big year is to get 20 species of birds, ideally a mix of ducks, common "feeder" birds and if I'm lucky, some of the key winter species.

In general, in the early part of the year I plan to make regular trips to some of my favorite local suburban locations in the Newton/Brookline area, including the Chestnut Hill Reservoir which is usually a pretty good bet for wintering ducks, including mergansers and Ruddy Duck, and to the Newton City Hall park where I have recorded close to 70 different species in the last few years. These locations are not far from where I live, and with limited daylight they are spots I can check with some frequency. I also plan to try and add whatever species of grosbeak, cross bill and siskin that I can, to both my life and year lists, so I will likely head to some of the more heavily forested areas I know well, such as Moose Hill and Broadmoor wildlife sanctuaries. I'd also like to get in at least one or two trips to Plum Island, again, for wintering ducks, and I'll be keeping a sharpy eye out for reports of snowy owls.


As much as I can, I plan to get outside and look for migrants in parks and cemeteries. No doubt seasonal allergies will put a damper on some of my planned birding, but I also intend to hit Stony Brook wildlife sanctuary, a place I've had good success in the past with warblers and early returning swallows and blackbird species.


Unfortunately my allergies tend to stick around into May, but I plan to still be on the lookout for late migrants, and by June I will be heading to Moose Hill Farm in Sharon to look for grassland and forest birds. This is a terrific spot to see Bobolinks and Grosbeaks in the wide open fields, orioles along the forest edge and woodpeckers and forest birds in the thickly shaded woods. I also plan to return to the north shore in June,  head out to the middle part of the state to revisit Wachusett Meadow wildlife sanctuary and hopefully go a bit further west and finally get to Arcadia wildlife sanctuary. As the days get longer and there is more daylight after work hours I plan to also start chasing rarity listings on the e-bird alert list.


As the weather heats up I will likely try to get more birding in toward the start and the end of the day, and I'll probably use my kayak more often to look for waterfowl and wading birds at places like Lake Cochituate State Park and on the Charles River. I'm also hoping to squeeze in a pelagic trip or two, something which will probably be crucial in my attempt to hit 300 species this year. I'd also like to get out to the Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and to Nantucket over the summer.


Fall migration will probably be my focus as the summer winds down and we move into Autumn. During this period I would like to get back out to western Massachusetts again, maybe to the Berkshires. Hawk migration is also something I would like to make a point of seeing - every year I notice announcements for various hawk watching programs and I have yet to actually join one.


I imagine I'll spend the last two months of the year chasing after rarities and species that have eluded me up that point. If I can make myself get up early enough I'd also like to do another pelagic trip, and I would love to get back to World's End on the south shore to look for ducks.

So that's the basic idea -subject (and very likely) to change - I would love to hear from anyone else out there who has attempted a big year in Massachusetts and has some thoughts/advice to offer.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.



Starting to Plan for My 2013 Bay State Big Year 

December 27, 2012

Part of the appeal of doing a "big year" (on a small scale) for me is the chance to work on my overall birding skills and learn more about avian life in general
As I start to think about my plans for a 2013 Bay State Big Year I've begun to do a little research into how other birders have tackled this sort of project and so far it's been a lot of fun to read about the different approaches people have tried and the adventures they have had along the way. It seems like the one unifying element across the board is a desire to see as many birds as possible in a given geographic area over the course of a calender year. For me, my goals are as follows:

1. To try and see 300 species of birds in Massachusetts.

2. To explore and experience new places in the state.

3. To improve my birding skills.

4. To gain a deeper knowledge of the varied habitats that birds (and other wildlife) call home in the Bay  State.

5. And last but not least, of course I want to have fun along the way.

Right now I am doing some research online, but I also keep a stack of birding books on my night table to look through each night before I fall asleep. At the moment, I have the two books in the photo above: Kenn Kaufman's Field Guide to Advanced Birding and The Shorebird Guide, as well as Sibley's guide to birds of western North America - my much-loved and well-worn Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America tends to never leave my car, a safeguard against forgetting it when going out birding. This last book is definitely my constant companion and go-to field guide when I'm outdoors. I find the illustrations extremely useful in making identifications when I encounter unfamiliar birds and overall it's easy to use.

I'm also starting to think about the places I want to check out in the coming year, from familiar haunts such as Broadmoor and Stony Brook wildlife sanctuaries to places I've been meaning to get back to, including Plum Island and the Halibut Point State Park, not to mention spots I've yet to visit on Cape Cod and in western Massachusetts.This weekend I'm hoping to get outside and perhaps add a few more last-minute species to my list for 2012. Maybe I'll even find some promising places to continue my search in 2013 as I embark on my adventure.

In the meantime, I'd like to share a few links to some birding blogs which touch on this rather strange yet wonderful notion of a big year. Happy reading !

1. Lynn Barber writing on the ABA blog about big year strategies

2. John Vanderpoel chronicles his 2011 big year.

3. Robert Mortensen offers some strategic thoughts on planning for a big year.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

To Ramble Across Meadow, Forest and Marsh: Contemplating a Massachusetts Big Year 

December 15, 2012

Each night when I check my email one of the first messages which pops up is the e-bird rarity alert list for Massachusetts. I always open this email right away and scan the sightings to see what kinds of strange or unusual birds might have made their way to the Commonwealth, and I have to admit that as I do this, there is part of the that wants to seek out these birds - whether they are rare vagrants like the lapwings that have been sighted on the south shore recently, following Hurricane Sandy, or late-season birds that have somehow stayed behind, such as the reports of Barn Swallows I've been seeing lately. And then of course the list can be useful for tracking the arrival of rare but regular visitors, especially this time of year, when I am keeping an eye out for Snowy owls and Pine grosbeak, two species I have yet to add to either my state or life list.

In summer, the vibrant and verdant fields and forests of Moose Hill Farm prove irresistible to breeding Bobolink, Baltimore Oriole and a wide range of other bird species. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Looking back over the past year there are definitely some sightings I have been excited about. Although my total number of the species was well below what I had hoped for, with 88 species of birds in New England and New York, I did manage to add 12 new species to my life list, including Northern Shoveler and Brown Creeper in New York's Central Park early last January. As the year progressed, I wandered many of my usual haunts, including Mass Audubon Broodmoor Wildlife Sanctuary where I added a Pied-billed Grebe in March and a gorgeous Green Heron to my list in May.  In a park in Newton, MA I added an Orchard Oriole and Brown Thrasher to my list, while trips to the Connecticut shore, Cape Cod and Plymouth Harbor added Great Shearwater, Wilson's Storm Petrel, Common Tern and perhaps most unexpectedly, Helmeted Guinea fowl, to my life list. The last new species to join both my year and life list so far was a Palm Warbler, which I spotted at the end of September at Broadmoor. Of course there is still some time left in 2012, so perhaps I will be lucky enough to add a few more names,

Massachusetts offers all kinds of great places to look for shorebirds, sea ducks and gulls. Above, a sandy stretch of beach in Barnstable, MA. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.
But with January only two weeks away, I have to admit that those emails from e-bird have me thinking about attempting a Massachusetts big year. It's a notion I've been kicking around for a little while now, and one that my girlfriend Joanna has been encouraging. I don't enjoy listing for its own sake, but I do like to be able to look back and recall the time spent outdoors in pursuit of catching a glimpse of wild, feathered life. And there is a little of the spirit of the hunt to it as well, the thrill of pursuit. It strikes me as a romantic notion, to read about the presence of a Sandhill Crane or a Brown Pelican having mysteriously arrived in the Bay State, and then to go off and pursue it, to insert a little avian adventure into the day. Based on the little research I have done, it seems possible for an active birder to chase down around 400 species in one year in massachusetts, depending, of course, on a whole range of unpredictable factors - weather, climate change, work and family, etc. I also love the idea of seeing new places in a state I have called home for most of my life, of seeking out new wetlands, forests, meadows and shorelines to see not only the bird life there, but to experience the sun, rain, snow and tides that these places have to offer. The truth is that such an endeavor is really an excuse, a reason to explore. In eastern massachusetts alone there are dozens of places I have meant to visit a hundred times and never gotten out to see - this project is one way to finally get out there.

Stony Brook Wildlife Sanctuary in Norfolk, MA offers quiet trails and beautiful views of ponds and wetlands. Visitors to this Mass Audubon sanctuary can expect to find an impressive level of avian diversity among the wooded glades, hushed pine groves and sprawling wetlands and meadows. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

It's the totality of the potential experience that appeals to me, and that is what I intend to try to capture and chronicle here on my blog. Even if I only get half the number of species I aim for, I'm excited by the idea. And whether my first bird of 2013 is House Sparrow or a Snowy Owl, I look forward to sharing these moments of discovery with anyone who would like follow this journey here on New England Nature Notes.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012. 

2013  Big Year Final Count

Total species:  200

Total species for New England: 179 

Total species in Israel: 23 


Snowy Owl
Purple Sandpiper
Ruddy Turnstone
White-crowned Sparrow
Black Scoter


Spotted Sandpiper


Black-crowned Night Heron


Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Ruby-throated Hummingbird 
Scarlet Tanager
Eastern Wood-Peewee
Indigo Bunting
Field Sparrow
Prairie Warbler
Purple Finch
American Redstart
Louisiana Waterthrush 
Common Raven
Blue-headed Vireo
Yellow-throated Vireo


Eastern Kingbird
Eastern Towhee
Warbling Vireo
Gray Catbird
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Common Yellow-throat
Black-and-White Warbler
Oven Bird
Chimney Swift
Baltimore Oriole
Pileated Woodpecker
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Rose-breated Grosbeak
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
House Wren


Tufted Duck
Blue-winged Teal
Wilson's Snipe
American Kestrel
Northern Gannet 
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Egret
Piping Plover
Pectoral Sandpiper
Chipping Sparrow
Palm Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Barn Swallow
Broad-winged Hawk
Yellow Warbler


Fish Crow
Long-tailed Duck
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Greater Yellowlegs
Lesser Scaup
Eurasian Wigeon
Tree Swallow
Wood Duck
Pine Siskin
Brown-headed Cowbird


Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Northern Flicker
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Common Goldeneye
Red-throated Loon
Sandhill Crane
Belted Kingfisher
Horned Lark
Savannah Sparrow
Turkey Vulture
Northern Lapwing
Surf Scoter
Thick-billed Murre
Hairy Woodpecker
Greater Scaup
American Wigeon
Snow Goose
Northern Pintail
American Coot
Cedar Waxwing
Northern Shoveler
Great Cormorant
Harlequin Duck
Marsh Wren
Eastern Screech Owl
Great horned Owl


    Canada Goose
    Mute Swan       
    Green-winged Teal       
    White-winged Scoter       
    Hooded Merganser       
    Common Merganser       
    Red-breasted Merganser       
    Ruddy Duck       
    Common Loon       
    Pied-billed Grebe       
    Horned Grebe       
    Red-necked Grebe       
    Great Blue Heron       
    Northern Harrier       
    Cooper's Hawk       
    Bald Eagle       
    Red-tailed Hawk       
    Rough-legged Hawk       
    Ring-billed Gull       
    Herring Gull       
    Great Black-backed Gull       
    Rock Pigeon       
    Mourning Dove       
    Downy Woodpecker       
    Blue Jay       
    American Crow       
    Black-capped Chickadee       
    Tufted Titmouse       
    Red-breasted Nuthatch       
    White-breasted Nuthatch       
    Brown Creeper       
    Carolina Wren       
    Golden-crowned Kinglet       
    American Robin       
    Northern Mockingbird       
    European Starling       
    Snow Bunting
    Yellow-breasted Chat       
    American Tree Sparrow       
    White-throated Sparrow       
    Dark-eyed Junco       
    Northern Cardinal       
    House Finch       
    American Goldfinch       
    House Sparrow
    Red-bellied Woodpecker
    Song Sparrow           
   Eastern Bluebird       
   Hermit Thrush       
   Pine Warbler
   Common Redpoll
   Red-shouldered Hawk
   American Black Duck
   Ring-necked Duck
   Common Eider

Other wildlife seen along the way and birds outside of New England

Birds seen in Jerusalem, Israel, in November of 2013

Little Egret
White-throated Kingfisher
Sardinian Warbler
Gray Wagtail
Common Myna
 House Crow
 Rock Pigeon
Laughing Dove
Syrian Woodpecker
 Eurasian Jay
 Great Tit       
   White-spectacled Bulbul
  Common Chiffchaff
    European Robin       
    Black Redstart       
    European Stonechat       
    Eurasian Blackbird       
    Palestine Sunbird
   White Wagtail       
    Common Chaffinch       
    House Sparrow       
    Hooded Crow


Red Squirrel
Gray Squiarrel
Fisher (Moose Hill Farm and Broadmoor WLS)
Red Fox
Humpback Whale
Minke Whale
White-sided Dolphin
Harbor Seal

Reptiles and Amphibians

Eastern Painted Turtle
Garter Snake
Northern Water Snake
Snapping Turtle


Hummingbird Moth
Eastern Pondhawk (dragonfly)


Ocean Sunfish

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