Friday, December 26, 2014

Late December at Chestnut Hill Reservoir

With unusually warm weather in New England this late fall and early winter, some of my go to places for ducks have not been as productive as usual. I'm guessing this has to do with an abundance of open water this year, while over the last few years most lakes and ponds have been frozen in December, thus helping to concentrate the birds in the few places that are not iced over. In any event, yesterday the temperature was hovering around an unseasonably balmy 60 degrees, so I headed to one place where I've always had pretty good luck, regardless of the weather: Chestnut Hill Reservoir in Boston, MA.

Although I don't go birding there perhaps as often as I should, I do find that whenever I make the time to walk around the reservoir I'm usually rewarded with lots of ducks and this time was no exception. As soon as I approached the parking area I could see several groups of different size ducks floating on the water, so I had a good sense that I would put together a reasonably diverse list. For whatever reason the reservoir was extremely low, exposing lots of rock formations which I had never seen before. Some of the birds took advantage of these newly exposed perches, including a solitary Great Blue Heron standing tall among a group of Canada Geese out toward the middle of the water.

While there were probably in excess of 150 Canada Geese in the area, the most abundant duck of the day were the Ruddy Ducks - I counted approximately 100 of these small diving ducks and I'm guessing there were likely more. They were clumped up in several rafts around the edge of the reservoir, sometimes mixing in with the Mallards and the occasional Hooded Merganser. During my walk I also ran into two other birders who were kind enough to alert me to the presence of an (American) Green-winged Teal and a male Northern Pintail. The teal was hanging out with a few Mallards in a little corner, and it was neat to see these two species side by side and observe the noticeable size difference between the two up close. The Northern Pintail was especially exciting to see - it was very close to the shore (maybe 15 feet away from me) and in gorgeous, bright plumage. While I've seen pintails before on Plum Island, I had never gotten this close to one.

All in all I spent an hour walking around the Chestnut Hill Reservoir, enjoying the strange weather and seeing some beautiful birds. Not a bad way to spend a December afternoon.

My complete list for this outing:

Blue Jay
Mourning Dove
Canada Goose
Hooded Merganser
Ruddy Duck
Common Merganser
Green-winged Teal (American)
Great Blue Heron
Northern Pintail
Gull Sp.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Yellow Warblers arrive at Nahanton Park

It's wonderful to be able to look out the window and see bare branches filling in with bright green leaves - not only does it do much to lift my spirits after a very long, cold winter, but it also means that more and more migratory birds should be showing up in the wetlands, forests and rivers. This past week I had a chance to get over to one of my favorite places in Newton to go birding, Nahanton Park. This is a great birding spot because it has a nice mix of open meadow, forest and community gardens which attract a range of birds, from warblers to grosbeaks to swallows. it's a nice place to visit year-round, but I especially love it in the spring when the air is full of birdsong.

Two male Downy Woodpeckers inspect a tree trunk at Nahanton Park in Newton, MA. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Wandering through the lower gardens I was surrounded by the singing of male Yellow Warblers. these small, bright yellow warblers with crimson streaked-chests have a distinctive appearance and song, and are often found in brushy, wet habitat. There was also a gray catbird singing from a hidden perch in some low trees and shrubs, letting loose it's incredibly varied, complicated song. While the Yellow Warblers were the only warblers I encountered there, this is usually a pretty good spot for other warblers, including Black and White. Now that spring is finally here I'm looking forward to more birding at Nahanton Park and adding new species to my list for this location.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Birding Florida, part 2

A Tricolored Heron wades in the shallows at Wakodahatchee Wetlands in Palm Beach County, Florida. Image Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

One of the most beautiful and productive spots I've ever been birding has to be the Wakodahatchee Wetlands, a gorgeous and easily accessible park with a long, winding boardwalk that takes visitors over and through a remarkable mix of marsh, pond and edge habitat filled with a wide range of avian and reptilian life. We were very lucky to get there on a bright, beautiful morning, before the park got too crowded and I was struck right away by the abundance of birds everywhere, from Tricolored Herons to Common Gallinule and Anhinga.

The boardwalk at Wakodahatchee Wetlands offers prime viewing of an amazing range of birds and other wildlife, including alligators. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

I was particularly excited to see the Tricolored Herons, a new life bird and one that I was able to see up close from the boardwalk. The air above the boardwalk was alive with the flapping wings and awkward flight of Anhinga moving from one tree to another, and in the vegetation there were plenty of Little Blue Hersons, Green Herons and Blac-Crowned Night Herons on the lookout for their aquatic prey. We were also lucky enough to get a really good look at a pair of Blue-Winged Teal, a bird I had only previously observed at a distance.

An Anhinga in a tree gathers vegetation, presumably for a nest. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.
Overall this was one of the best places I have ever been birding and would highly recommend it to both beginning and advanced birders -  the opportunity to see a range of wading species, ducks and other birds up close which are normally difficult to spot is not only a lot of fun, but also affords the chance to sharpen ID skills and observe a range of behaviors, from feeding to nesting. I know I can't wait to get back.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Unexpected Owls

Now that the snow is gone, the ice has melted and the trees are once again bursting forth with buds, leaves and birds, I find myself itching to get back out into the woods and onto the water. Just this past week I spent some time birding at Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary in Sharon, MA, where I was delighted to see early returning migrants, including metallic-blue Tree Swallows hunting in swooping arcs over meadows, their liquid chirps filling the air. The Eastern Phoebes were also around, perched conspicuously on still-bare branches at the edge of a field, tails bobbing.

Along the boardwalk the skunk cabbage was starting to emerge from its long slumber beneath the frozen mud and as I walked along I suddenly heard, very distinctly, the sound of a Barred Owl calling in the distance to my left. I paused, listened again, and there it was  - repeating - at first I thought perhaps someone was playing a recording of a Barred Owl, but then I heard another one calling from the other side of the boardwalk. I have heard these birds many times at night, and their distinctive "Who cooks, who cooks for you ?" call is one of the easiest for me to remember. Beginning birders are often told that if they hear hooting or cooing during the day, its most likely a dove or pigeon, but this was definitely two Barred Owls making their presence known, in broad daylight.

After a little research I learned that it is actually not uncommon for these highly territorial, non-migratory birds to call during the day. I was positively delighted to learn this new fact about Barred Owl behavior, something I wouldn't have known if I hadn't had the strange experience of standing on a boardwalk in a wetland in the middle of the day and been taken by surprise by the calls of a bird I know well in another context. This is what I love about birding and outdoor exportation in general - there is always something new to discover and explore, and one never knows when one of these moments will occur.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Friday, February 7, 2014

South Florida, Part 1 : Alligators, Palm Trees and Purple Gallinule.

A White Ibis searches for food at the edge of a parking lot in Boca Raton, Florida. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.
After trudging around in the cold and snow all winter, it was nice to get away for a few days and explore south Florida. This was a great trip, from a birding perspective, because I not only managed to pick up a number of new life birds but also had a chance to see a number of species, such as Red-winged Blackbirds and Osprey, which I'm unlikely to see in New England for another couple of months.Over the 5 days I spent in Florida I had the opportunity to see some amazing wildlife, starting off with a trip to the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, where we had the opportunity to see a variety of sea turtle species up close, learn about the important conservation work going on at the center and check out some very cool spiders spinning enormous, elaborate webs, along the boardwalk.

A Green Sea Turtle swims in a large tank at the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton Florida. This particular turtle was badly injured by a motor boat and was sent to the nature center for medical care. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

A Crab Spider sits patiently on its web along the boardwalk at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.
Although we didn't see any birds as we walked along the boardwalk, we did hear a few calling from within the thick tangle of trees that surrounded the path.  There were also several Crab Spiders, such as the one in the photo above - truly intriguing creatures which at first glance really do resemble crabs. There was also a beautiful butterfly garden to explore and a nice variety of plant life to enjoy, from the Gumbo Limbo trees to Mangroves.

A lizard at the4 Gumbo Limbo Nature Center. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.
An Atala butterfly perches on a plant in the butterfly garden at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.
One of the most interesting animals we saw during our visit to Gumbo Limbo was an Atala butterfly (shown in the photo above). This butterfly was in serious trouble during the 1970's as the the species of plant they rely on for food was declining. Fortuately, through the dedicated work of conservationists, this butterfly has made something of a comeback in south Florida, the only place in the US where it can be seen in the wild.

The Florida Everglades are an amazing place to observe all kinds of wildlife, from Purple Gallinule to American Alligators. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.
As we drove around this part of Florida we continually saw  a variety of birds along the sides of the highways, in little pockets of wetland and small ponds and in virtually every parking lot, including Cattle Egret, Double-Crested Cormorant, White Ibis and Common Gallinule. The skies overhead were also filled with vultures and practially everywhere we went there were large groups of Boat-tailed Grackles.

The next day we got a taste of the Florida Everglades on a air boat tour from the Everglades Holiday Park in Fort Lauderdale. Before embarking on our tour we had some time to watch the many Boat-tailed Grackles around the parking lot and the Turkey Vultures wheeling in the sky overhead.

A Boat-tailed Grackle perches on a railing outside the store at the Everglades Holiday Oark in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Image copyright Daniel E. levenson 2014. 

A Black Vulture sits close to the water's edge in the Everglades. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.
This year I am trying to focus on improving my field ID skills, so it was great to have the chance to get a really good look at a group of Black Vultures in a tree and along the shore during our boat ride. I've had the opportunity in the past to get close to Turkey Vultures, but these Black Vultures were a new life bird for me and I was very happy to be able to see how different they really are from Turkey Vultures. I also had the chance to observe them in flight a few other times, often sharing a patch of sky with Turkey Vultures, which afforded me the opportunity to compare the differences in flight style, shape  and coloration, essentially side-by-side. Next to the Turkey Vultures the more compact tale and wing pattern of the Black Vultures were easy to see.

A Purple Gallinule comes out of the vegetation along the water in the Everglades. These colorful birds feed on insects they find in and around aquatic vegetation. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

In the next part of this two-part post I will share observations and photos from  an outing to the Wakodahatchee Wetlands, where we had amazing, up-close views of an incredible variety of bird life, not to mention several American Alligators and a feral Iguana. Be sure to check back soon for part two of my Florida birding experience.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

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

Redheads in the Chestnut Hill 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.

Friday, December 13, 2013

December birding in Rhode Island brings my list to 200 species for the year

A group of birders scans the waves for Surf Scoters, harlequin Ducks and other visitors to the Rhode Island coast in winter. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Back in January I began a quest to complete my own version a birding big year, with a focus on Massachusetts. My original goal was to find 300 species of birds in Massachusetts, but over the course of 2013 my focus shifted a little, first to include all of New England. This was a really great project and I feel like it taught me a lot about bird ID, where to find birds, and gave me a glimpse into larger patterns of migration and the ways that birds interact with their environment. Although there are still two weeks left in the year and I may add another species or two to the list if I'm lucky, I have to say I'm pretty happy to have seen 179 species in New England, and another 21 species in Israel, for a total count of 200 species for the year.

During a recent outing to Rhode Island with Mass Audubon's Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary, I added the most recent 5 species which brought my year list to 200, all of which also happened to be life birds, which was really exciting. During this outing I added a Purple Sandpiper feeding in the surf along a rocky outcropping, a Ruddy Turnstone along the beach, a beautfiul Snowy Owl perched atop a huge beach-side rock, a White-crowned Sparrow feeding in brush along a trail and several Black Scoters just off of the beaches near Newport. In the next two weeks I'm looking forward to getting out a little more, but for now I have to say I'm pretty happy to have reached 200 species for the year.

I'm looking forward to getting outdoors as often as I can in 2014, and hopefully exploring some new areas in New England other parts of the country.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.