Author Archives: Jon Atwood

Barn Swallows Successfully Return to Nest at Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge

Barn Swallows build their nests out of mud often on the eaves, rafters, and cross beams of barns, stables, and sheds.

Last summer, Mass Audubon’s Director of Bird Conservation, Jon Atwood, collaborated with Andy French, project leader at the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, to study Barn Swallows that were nesting in an aging horse stable destined for demolition during the non-breeding season. Approximately 40 pairs of swallows nested in the stable during 2019; an additional 4-7 pairs nested in an adjacent building, known as the Boat House, which the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) planned to set aside as a more long-term Barn Swallow nesting site and storage area. The aging horse stable was eventually demolished after the resident swallows had migrated to their South American wintering grounds.

The Barn Swallows are back!

We have good news to report! As hoped, the majority of swallows that nested in the stable in 2019 have returned and set up housekeeping in the Boat House. As of June 16 (still relatively early in the breeding season), 30 pairs were actively nesting in the Boat House, and four additional pairs had established nests in nearby artificial structures built for this purpose.

Jon Atwood removes a captured Barn Swallow from a mist net for banding.

Last year Jon banded many (but not all) of the Barn Swallow adults so that we could tell if they returned to the site in future years. Of 51 birds that have been captured using mist nets in the Boat House in 2020, 22 (43%) had been banded as adults in 2019 in the stable. In other studies, researchers have found that return rates of breeding swallows to undisturbed nesting sites have ranged from 20% in Oklahoma to 42% in New York. Although most Barn Swallows do not return to where they were hatched, we have even captured 2 individuals that hatched from nests that were located last year in the horse stable.

A new kiosk gives an up close look at the birds

Conte Refuge visitors watch nesting Barn Swallows at the kiosk at Fort River (photo by Andy French).

USFWS has placed video cameras in the Boat House, and visitors can watch the nesting swallows feed their young from an observation kiosk located near the start of the 1.2 mile long universally-accessible Fort River Birding Trail. Visitors may also be greeted by the families of Tree Swallows and Barn Swallows that are also nesting in the kiosk. The kiosk will eventually house a professionally-designed and fabricated exhibit with information about aerial insectivores.

This success will lead to other successes going forward

Not only does this success story provide a happy ending to the difficult management debate that swirled around the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to remove the horse stable, but these efforts have also paved the way for future conservation actions that can be applied to other situations. Aging barns occupied by Barn Swallows are a common feature in New England’s historically agricultural landscape, and sometimes these structures cannot be saved. Through the experience at Conte Refuge we have learned important lessons about how to attract and relocate Barn Swallows into alternative structures where they can be protected if occupied barns need to be removed.

We’ll keep you posted as the season progresses.

Two New Citizen Science Projects for 2020: Kestrel and Swallow Nest Site Reporting

American Kestrels, Barn Swallows, and Cliff Swallows are all declining in Massachusetts, like many other open-country birds. The Bird Conservation team is initiating two exciting studies on these species during this spring and summer, and data from the community will be integral to both studies’ success!

Barn Swallow young on nest (Photo by Ginger Lane)

Have you seen these birds nesting?

If you have any information on these species’ current (2020) nest sites, or are willing to look for them, please submit data via our swallow project and kestrel project webpages on Anecdata (a citizen science website).

You’ll need to set up an Anecdata account first. Click on “register” to first create an account, and click on “join project” once you’ve signed up with Anecdata.

A screenshot of a social media post

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Both projects are fairly simple for users: simply click on “add an observation” and report the coordinates of nesting American Kestrels, Barn Swallows, and Cliff Swallows.  In the case of both swallow species’, it’s also useful to know if you observe structures that do NOT host a colony but which you think potentially could (e.g., old barns or small wooden bridges near open grassland and freshwater). Note that this study is focused on nesting sites, not places where birds are observed foraging or flying around.

What we hope to accomplish with your help

The purpose of the swallow project is straightforward: we want to identify sites where Barn and Cliff Swallows are nesting that may not yet be known to biologists.

Mass Audubon’s work on the kestrel project on the other hand, will be a little more involved. After compiling a list of remaining nest sites, the Bird Conservation Department will team up with state biologists in 2021 to fit kestrels with radio tags. These tags will track their movements around the region after nesting, and eventually to their wintering grounds.

Kestrels breed widely throughout Massachusetts, but there are many Breeding Bird Atlas blocks that showed declines between Atlas 1 (1974-1979) and Atlas 2 (2007-2011). Interestingly, there are both urban-nesting and farmland-nesting American Kestrels, and the two populations may be showing different population trajectories. Studying the life histories of these birds, including tracking their movements away from nest sites, could hold clues as to why so much apparently good kestrel habitat goes unoccupied in the state.

As always, all nest data is kept strictly within the community of biologists working to conserve these species.

American Kestrel at nest box (Photo by Mark Grimason)

More Tips For Searching

  • Both projects run from May 20 – August 20, to reduce potential confusion between nesting birds and migrants.
  • The focus is on nest sites and not on places where birds are seen flying around.
  • If you need a refresher on identifying Barn and Cliff Swallows in the field, check out our ID tips for these similar-looking birds.
  • Please participate only if you can do so in your own local communities.
  • It’s likely that some sites will be on private property where direct observer access is impossible. Please don’t trespass! Even if you’re only able to observe from a road edge and can’t collect, it’s helpful to know that you saw swallows or kestrels entering or leaving a particular cavity or structure.

All three of these species were once common sightings in rural parts of Massachusetts, and they’re all a joy to observe and spend time near. Thank you for helping Mass Audubon protect them, and happy birding!

Report on Barn Swallows in Hadley Now Available

The final report describing “Barn Swallow Nesting Biology at Bri Mar Stable, Hadley, Massachusetts During 2019” is available here. The report, written by Mass Audubon’s Director of Bird Conservation, Jon Atwood, as well as collaborators with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, describes the scientific context and behavioral ecology of Barn Swallows nesting at the Fort River Division of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge.

In Mass Audubon’s formal response to the proposed demolition of an abandoned horse stable that is used by a large colony of nesting Barn Swallows, we wrote “If the barn does indeed need to be demolished in the near future, Mass Audubon supports the Refuge’s proposed action, Alternative A – Phased Closure of Stable and Delayed Demolition. We encourage the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to use the opportunities available under Alternative A to study methods that can be used to promote colony relocation on private and public lands. We also support monitoring of Barn Swallows on and around the site during the phased closure process. Mass Audubon’s bird conservation staff are willing to advise and support the refuge staff in those efforts.”  This report is the result of this promised research effort.

The report provides useful data that is relevant to decisions regarding future plans of the refuge. There is no doubt that this site hosts a large colony of this declining species. However, multiple authors have pointed out that factors other than availability of nest sites are most likely responsible for the species’ regional population declines, and have even noted that small colonies often have higher reproductive success than large nesting groups. In 2019 we had good success in attracting swallows to nest in an adjacent structure where they can be protected in the future. And, we also discovered other nearby Barn Swallow colonies, including at least one site that is probably comparable in size to the colony at Bri Mar Stable.

We’ll keep you posted as we learn more about this ongoing issue.

Barn Swallows nested on electrical boxes in structures nearby the Bri Mar Stable. Photo by Ainsley Brosnan-Smith.

Errata: After we published the final report about Barn Swallow nesting biology at Bri Mar Stable, we discovered information about past nesting activity within the Boat House. These sentences, found in the Abstract and Results sections of the report, have been corrected.

The Bobolink Project 2019: End of Season Report

© Allan Strong

The Bobolinks are making their way south to their wintering home in South America and there are more Bobolinks doing so thanks to The Bobolink Project. THANK YOU to all of our donors and participating landowners for making 2019 another successful year for Bobolinks!

Male Bobolink with food for nestlings © Allan Strong

The numbers are in!

This year The Bobolink project protected 928 acres of hayfields for grassland birds. On these fields we estimated that there were 227 Bobolink pairs and 633 young fledged. Those estimated 633 fledglings would not have survived without the help of The Bobolink Project!

For those of you familiar with last year’s numbers, this year’s numbers don’t sound nearly as good. Bobolink numbers were down (633 fledglings this year vs. 1,027 fledglings in 2018) despite us protecting about the same number of acres. Why? The answer is, we don’t really know! But here are some possible explanations to consider:

  • Perhaps this observed decline is not real. Each year we base our calculation of fledgling number on the number of breeding males which are estimated at the start of the nesting season. This is a difficult number to collect, since we always prefer to spend our Bobolink Project donations on enrolling more acres rather than hiring field crews to do careful censuses of participating fields. In similar year-to-year bird monitoring efforts, for example the USGS Breeding Bird Survey, numerical estimates are typically averaged across several years in order to calculate trends, rather than making comparisons from one year to the next.
  • However, 11 of the farms enrolled this year were also enrolled in 2018, so maybe there was a decline. There are several possible causes of decline:
    • Fewer birds returned from their South American wintering grounds.
    • Unusually wet spring weather may have delayed the onset of nesting, thus causing lower estimates of breeding birds.
    • The wet spring weather may have improved nesting conditions throughout the region, causing some of the birds that previously nested on Bobolink Project fields to nest on a different field.
    • Fields could be degrading due to weather conditions or other factors, making them less suitable for the birds.

Because of these—and other—uncertainties, the most reliable metric to us in evaluating The Bobolink Project’s success is the number of acres protected. This number increased significantly between 2017 and 2018 and held steady this year.

And don’t forget—The Bobolink Project protected fields are home to other birds too. Savannah Sparrows, Eastern Meadowlarks, and other birds were also seen on the fields.

Savannah Sparrow © Allan Strong

2020 season will be here before we know it

The 2020 season may seem a long way off, but the sooner we can start collecting donations, the better. This project is only as successful as the amount of donations it receives from people like you. Donate now >

Meet The Bird Conservation Department’s Two New Members

Two new college fledglings will be joining Mass Audubon’s Conservation Science Department this year. Cameron Piper and Kaleigh Keohane are be on board for an 11-month term through July 2020 as TerraCorps service members. TerraCorps is a branch of AmeriCorps focused on land stewardship for the benefit of people and nature in Massachusetts. The program cultivates a new generation of leaders and builds capacity for nonprofits. Read on for more about the Conservation Science Department’s two new TerraCorps members:



Red-headed woodpeckers have become one of my favorite birds with their beautiful coloration and engaging personalities. We captured adults using a hoop with a bag attached to a long pole we held up to cavities. To capture nestlings, I climbed a 40 ft ladder to grab them before they fledged, getting a great view of the oak forests. 

Hi there! My name is Cameron Piper and I am one of the two Landscape Stewardship Coordinators serving at Mass Audubon Headquarters this year. I am originally from outside Denver, Colorado where I fell in love with the mountains, conservation and wildlife. While volunteering at the Denver Zoo, I was inspired to pursue a career in conservation science, leading me to attend SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in central New York, where I graduated this past May majoring in Conservation Biology and a Food Studies minor.  

I’ve been involved in many field research projects, including studying red-headed woodpeckers in Michigan and Ohio for three years, using remote cameras to monitor piping plover nesting behavior, and testing mobbing behavior of forest birds to various owl species in the Adirondacks. I spent a semester in northern Mongolia researching waterfowl, pikas, camera trapping mammals, and developing the first ecological study on the endangered medicinal plant, vansemberuu.

This year at Mass Audubon, I am excited to be joining the team where I will be working on projects including building on deer monitoring and exploring the rare native plants found on our properties, plus hopefully getting out to explore (and bird of course!) more beautiful Mass Audubon sanctuaries. 

We found an old cinereous vulture nest in Mongolia, so I decided to see what it was like to be a bird. Cinereous vultures are the largest vulture in the world with a wingspan of over 10 feet! 


Hello! My name is Kaleigh Keohane and I am a huge bird nerd. I grew up in Shrewsbury, MA, and recently graduated from UMass Amherst with a dual degree in Natural Resources Conservation and Journalism. I’ve completed three seasons of bird-related field work from 2017-2019.

This year I will be working with the bird conservation crew on standardizing methods across for Tree Swallow nest box monitoring across Mass Audubon’s sanctuaries, as well as helping coordinate the Avian Collision Team (ACT). I’m looking forward to working on these and developing new projects with the conservation science department! 

Science communication is something I’m passionate about, so I’ve included some of my field journalism linked in the photo captions below:

2017: House Wren field technician in Amherst (video: Warren Lab Field Research at UMass Amherst

2018: Grassland bird field technician in Montana (podcast: Declining Grassland Birds Could Be An Indicator of Climate Change

2019: AmeriCorps service member at Manassas National Battlefield Park (blog: Virginia

Thanks for reading!

Barn Swallows at Conte Refuge, Hadley

Since mid-May, Jon Atwood has been collaborating with US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) managers at the Silvio O. Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge in a study aimed at monitoring Barn Swallow use of an abandoned stable located on the refuge’s Fort River Division in Hadley, MA.

Barn Swallows © Kim Caruso

Barn Swallows Are Declining in Some Places and Increasing in Others—Why?

Barn Swallows, along with many other aerial insectivores, are showing serious population declines in many portions of their North American range. However, the causes of these declines are uncertain. Pesticide impacts associated with large-scale agriculture, reduction of flying insect populations, landscape conversions, habitat changes along the species’ migration pathways, unknown impacts on the species’ Central and South American wintering grounds, and loss of barns and similar structures that are often used as nesting sites have all been postulated as possible factors.

The question is complicated—Barn Swallows in the northern portions of their range are mostly declining, while those in the south and west are increasing. If there is a single explanation, presumably the “answer” needs to make sense throughout that extensive range—why are populations increasing in some areas but decreasing in others?

Barn Swallow population trends in North America. Red areas highlight substantial declines, while blue areas reflect increasing populations. From USGS Breeding Bird Survey data, 1966-2015.

Understanding Barn Swallows in MA

In this year’s work in Hadley, our focus is on starting to understand the population dynamics of Barn Swallows nesting in this portion of the Connecticut River Valley. About 30 pairs of swallows have nested in the abandoned stable in the last few years, making this site one of the largest known colonies in Massachusetts. Unfortunately, as is often true of aging barns in New England’s agricultural landscape, the stables in Hadley are in serious disrepair, and the Fish and Wildlife Service has recommended that the building be taken down over a several year period, while simultaneously making efforts to attract the birds to alternative nesting sites.

Mass Audubon and USFWS are studying this situation to collect information that will help inform the policy decisions. This work includes regular censusing of nesting efforts in the stables and banding of nesting adults. At the end of the season we will issue a final report that details our findings, so stay tuned for more information.

Bird Conservation on the Road in Iceland

Hrisey Island © Margo Servison

From June 12–21 two members of the Bird Conservation team, Jon Atwood and Margo Servison, were privileged to visit Iceland with a Mass Audubon Natural History Tour. Along with 14 other travelers, we saw incredible geology, waterfalls, geysers, flowers, sea cliffs, and landscapes that can only be described as ‘otherworldly’. Oh, and lots of birds—74 species, the majority of which are seldom seen in North America, and nearly all of which were seen by all trip participants.

European Golden-Plover © Margo Servison

It was an amazing experience, to be in a world where the dominant bird species were shorebirds, waterfowl, and seabirds—there were only about 10 species of songbirds. Black-tailed Godwits, Red-necked Phalaropes, Gyrfalcon (even including a nest with 3 chicks), Atlantic Puffin, and European Golden-Plover were the trip favorites. And our super-fabulous local tour guide (Trausti Gunnarsson), one of those people who knows everything about everything, made the trip far more than simply a great birding experience.

Red-necked Phalarope © Margo Servison

To join Mass Audubon on two NEW Iceland birding tours next year, watch this website.

 

Species Spotlight: Ovenbird

Ovenbird © Tom Murray

The Ovenbird, whose familiar tea-cher, tea-cher, tea-cher, tea-cher song is a dominant feature of the spring and summer woodlands of New England, was identified in Breeding Bird Atlas 2 as a species on the increase, especially in the central and eastern portions of the state. These increases were thought to reflect increased amounts of suitable forest habitat due to formerly agricultural land reverting to forest.

Change in Ovenbird distribution in Massachusetts between Breeding Bird Atlas 1 (1974-1979) and Breeding Bird Atlas 2 (2007-2011).

But the newly-released State of the Birds report tells a less optimistic story.  Ovenbird distribution in Massachusetts is likely to be adversely impacted by projected future changes in temperature and precipitation patterns. By 2050 the species will continue to occur statewide, but occupancy in eastern areas of the state may decline as the species’ climate envelope (their preferred climate) drifts northward, leaving Massachusetts near the southern limit of the species’ continental distribution.

Current climate suitability for Ovenbird in Massachusetts.

Climate suitability for Ovenbird in Massachusetts in 2050.

How to read the climate suitability maps >

Keeping Large Forest Tracts Intact Will Lessen the Stress Ovenbirds May Face

Research has found that Ovenbirds require large intact expanses of forest habitat for successful breeding. This could be in part due to the fact that larger undisturbed forests have lower risk of nest predation and brood parasitism. Therefore, maintenance of large tracts of mature forest is crucial to future conservation of Ovenbirds in Massachusetts. Such areas will continue to be threatened by suburban development and associated habitat fragmentation.

Additionally, climate change may add to the stress of losing intact core habitat, because warmer temperatures may reduce the soil moisture levels that influence Ovenbird’s food resources (mainly insect larvae gathered on the ground).

Conservation Is Needed for the Full Life Cycle of a Migratory Bird

Distribution of Ovenbirds during breeding (orange), migration (yellow), and winter (blue) periods. © Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Neotropical Birds

Ovenbirds migrate through the southeastern U.S., wintering mainly in the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America – including areas that were recently damaged by Hurricane Irma. Throughout its annual life cycle it is vulnerable to habitat loss and degradation, window collisions, and predation by cats.

Conservation of Ovenbirds demonstrates the broad suite of actions that are important for most

of our Neotropical migrant songbirds. Efforts to reduce losses throughout the full annual cycle are important. Action must be taken on their breeding, migrating, and wintering grounds to effect positive change in the population.

How Can We Help Ovenbirds and Others?

  • Prevent forest fragmentation in the breeding range by supporting the efforts of local land trusts.
  • Ensure that your backyard is a bird-friendly sanctuary safe from cats and potential collisions with windows.
  • Support efforts to reduce window collisions at tall skyscrapers and other office buildings.
  • Donate to organizations focused on protecting lowland forest habitats in the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America—actions directed toward all those efforts will help reduce the pervasive impacts of changing temperature and precipitation patterns on breeding Ovenbirds in Massachusetts.

Ovenbirds are often observed strutting (never hopping) like a chicken along the forest floor. © Tom Benson

Please consider supporting our bird conservation work by making a donation today. Thank you!