Author Archives: kkeohane

Historic Warbler Fallout and Record Bird-a-thon Participation

Warblers seemed to rain from the sky during Bird-a-thon 2020 after unusual weather doused Massachusetts in migrants. Birder participation more than doubled, too, but not because conditions predicted a massive influx of birds. Instead, it seems that more beginners were brought in by a family-friendly approach and a focus on birding from home.

Birds were everywhere

As the sun rose on the Outer Cape on May 16th, thousands of birds gathered in the dunes after being blown in from the southwest and grounded by rain. The subsequent dawn flight became the subject of several expert articles, including an in-depth analysis of the conditions by ornithology professor Sean Williams. Some eBird checklists recorded over 100 Bay-breasted and Cape May Warblers, plus dozens of individuals of other uncommon migrants like White-crowned and Lincoln’s Sparrows.

Inland, the action was almost as good, with several Bird-a-thon-ers in dense suburbs and towns setting personal records for their yards. Nonstop north winds had held birds back for nearly two weeks, and when the wind finally turned southwest, restless migrants pushed ahead despite the storms. Nearly everything showed up at once; yard reports of Cerulean Warblers, Bay-breasted Warblers, and Bobolinks highlighted the strength of the previous night’s migration.

“Fallout” may be an overused term– but this was real

The word “fallout” often gets misapplied to any day with really good migration. In reality, even in the loosest sense, this word refers to exhausted migrants that land in adverse weather. In the strict sense, it describes a stream of migrants that are knocked down by fast-moving storms, landing en masse when they meet the edge of the weather front.

In this case, adverse weather formed well before nightfall, but the long-delayed migrants pushed ahead anyway—there was no “knockdown” effect from the edge of a front, but the wind and rain did exhaust many birds that were blown east into Massachusetts. So, yes, this was a fallout, loosely speaking—and a uniquely great birding day by any stretch of the imagination.

New birders drove up participation

A normally competitive endeavor, this year’s Bird-a-thon focused on participation.The team cap was lifted, and new activities were made up to engage kids and non-bird enthusiasts in earning points for their team, like inventing silly bird names and creating bird art.  With a stay-at-home order driving a surge in interest in birding, it was important to welcome new enthusiasts to the fold– and avoid encouraging birders to tear across the state in search of rare species. Subsequently, Bird-a-thon attracted 1,600 participants this year, more than double the 750 who took part in 2019. 

Donations were up, too

As of right now, Bird-a-thon raised over $295,000 – far surpassing the $250,000 goal. Despite the current economic hardships of the coronavirus pandemic, these funds are up from the $240,000 raised last year.

The final tally

In total, Mass Audubon teams saw 242 unique species in Massachusetts. Teams were awarded points based on the number of unique bird species the team saw plus the number of nature-based activities team members completed. Drumlin Farm took first place with 992 points and a team of 230 participants (including 90 kids), earning the “Eagle Eye Award.” Second place, for the “Home Habitat Award” went to Wellfleet Bay with 537 points. The team from Ipswich River took home the award for the highest number of species seen: 206.

For a full recap of the incredible birding day participants shared, check out local birder and documentarian Shawn Carey’s video on the experience, complete with teammate interviews and great bird footage.

ACT at Home: Volunteer to Track Bird-Window Collisions at Residences

Even with most volunteer programs on hold for public health reasons, there’s still a way to participate in bird-window collision monitoring from home.

The normal format of the Avian Collision Team (ACT) will not be possible this spring. Last year, ACT involved around 40 volunteers looked for dead or injured migrants along routes through Boston. Working a couple of days each week during migration, those volunteers tallied 193 window-struck birds in total, representing nearly five dozen species.

Many volunteers, once primed to look for window strikes, also started reporting injured birds outside their homes and offices. Window strikes are indeed not only an urban issue, and houses in the suburbs or countryside play an important role. While a skyscraper kills an average of 24 birds per year, low-rises are not far behind at 22, and most single-family residences kill between 1–3. (Buildings vary, of course, and some are responsible for more than 100 collisions a year).

Feathers left behind on a glass residential window after a bird collided with it.

Residences: a silent culprit

Standalone homes are responsible for 90% of bird-window collisions. Even though sleek, all-glass facades on non-residential buildings kill many more birds on a per-building basis than the average single-family home, residences are more than 60 times as common as tall city buildings—making their collective impact even more significant.

More importantly, bird collisions are harder to detect outside of the city. Landscaping around houses conceals the bodies of window strike victims, and scavengers like raccoons and squirrels abound. Consequently, window strikes at residences are underreported.

Help us track bird-window collisions at home

Participating in this project requires less effort than a normal ACT season, since it only involves a quick daily check at one building (your home). It’s important, however, to make this a daily or near-daily routine, since there may only be one or two days out of the season when you find a bird (although there may be many more). As always, data on where window collisions are not occurring is just as important as where they are. The data from this project will help us better understand the problem and eventually develop recommendations for reducing bird kills caused by window collisions at residential structures and low-rise office buildings.

The survey period officially runs until June 2, when most migrants are settled into their breeding territory. Anyone is welcome to continue submitting data after that, though—breeding birds are nearly as likely to collide with windows as migrants.

If you want to learn how to make your home safer for birds, check out these tips. Please only put up bird-friendly products like window tapes or screens before or after the data collection period. Modifying your windows in the middle of the data collection period will make it impossible to analyze data from your building.

To learn more about why birds have a hard time detecting glass, and to sign up to survey your home, visit our Anecdata webpage.

Enjoying Nature From the Comfort of your Phone

While many of us are stuck at home, opportunities to explore nature are more limited.  However, there are many ways to engage with nature from your phone or computer, from sharpening your ID skills to submitting observations to a citizen science project. Below are five apps that will keep naturalists and non-naturalists engaged and excited.  

iNaturalist 

This app is like social media for nature sightings. The platform is designed to connect people to a community of wildlife and plant enthusiasts. Create a (free) account and upload photo (or audio) observations of living things. iNaturalist will give you its best guess based on your location and identifications of similar-looking species. Other users can comment on your observations and suggest an ID, which helps the program better identify future observations. Plus, iNaturalist observations can be scientifically useful: iNaturalist’s database has been used to redraw species range maps, and even describe new species.

Seek 

If you want to use iNaturalist’s identify tool without the rest of the app’s features, consider downloading Seek instead. This app has been described as “Shazam for nature” for its ability to ID a living thing by just pointing your camera.  

eBird  

This app is for bird-lovers and life-listers. Create “checklists” of any birds you see in a fixed location or on a walk. eBird tracks your distance and time and shows you a list of possible species based on your location. A half-moon orange circle notes uncommon species for the area and a red circle notes rare species.  

As with iNaturalist, eBird sightings become part of a database of millions of observations, helping scientists monitor large-scale patterns in bird populations.

Merlin Bird ID 

If you’re new to birding, consider downloading Merlin from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Browse a digital field guide of photos, bird sounds, and maps or answer five questions based on a bird you saw to have the app give you its best guess. 

Zooniverse 

Think of this app as digital volunteering. Instead of going out and monitoring nests, you can digitize historical nesting info (see below) that researchers at Cornell Lab of Ornithology will use for their database. Of course, this is only one of any citizen science projects on Zooniverse and topics range from nature to history and everything in between. The app will even track your progress, allowing you to see how much you’ve accomplished. 

Let us know if you decide to use any of these, have used them before, or have other recommendations for nature-based websites and apps you love! 

Be on the Beaver Lookout

Mass Audubon and the Boston NASA DEVELOP National Program team are collaborating to learn more about how Massachusetts beavers impact the landscape using satellite imagery, and we need your help.

The NASA DEVELOP National Program addresses environmental and public policy issues through interdisciplinary research projects, applying NASA Earth observations to community concerns around the globe. Teams of DEVELOP participants partner with decision-makers to conduct 10-week rapid feasibility projects, highlighting relevant applications of NASA Earth observing missions, cultivating advanced skills, and increasing understanding and use of NASA Earth science data and technology. The DEVELOP Program conducts 55-65 projects annually across 11 national locations. This spring, the DEVELOP Boston team is partnering with Mass Audubon to explore how beavers influence the Massachusetts landscape.

Beaver © Allison Bell

A Conservation Success Story 

The beaver (Castor canadensis) is North America’s largest native rodent. They are adapted for aquatic environments and easily recognizable by their long, flat tail and sharp front teeth.

European colonists found beaver’s thick, waterproof fur highly desirable and decimated their populations across the U.S. Unregulated trapping, deforestation, and the destruction of wetlands led to the local extinction of beavers in Massachusetts by the end of the 18th century.

In one of the most successful conservation efforts in U.S. history, New York reintroduced approximately 20 beavers from Canada and Yellowstone in 1904. By 1915, the population exploded to about 15,000 individuals and began to disperse to surrounding states. In 1928, beavers were discovered in West Stockbridge, the first recorded occurrence in Massachusetts since 1750.

To support Massachusetts populations, Mass Audubon’s Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary reintroduced three additional beavers in 1932. Today, beavers have been restored to nearly their entire historic range throughout the state, found everywhere except Cape Cod.

Busy Beavers Build Habitat

Beavers are known as ecological engineers. They alter and create new habitats by building dams from sticks and mud to create still, deep ponds. These ponds provide beavers with access to food, protection from land predators, and shelter.

Beaver Pond © Allison Bell

By building dams and creating ponds, beavers restore lost wetlands, of which about half have disappeared in the lower 48 states since European settlement. Beaver ponds are home to rich biodiversity, including amphibians, reptiles, spawning fish, muskrats, bats, various birds, and a wide variety of plants.

Altering the hydrology helps control downstream flooding, improve water quality, trap silt, and resupply groundwater. When the dam is abandoned and the pond drains, nutrient-rich silt creates highly productive meadows. However, beaver dams may cause unwanted flooding to neighboring properties, but can be mitigated through various solutions.

Tracking Beavers from Space and on the Ground

The spring 2020 Boston NASA DEVELOP team is using NASA satellite imagery to find and track beaver flooding events across Massachusetts to see how their populations are impacting landscapes. The team will be corroborating potential beaver flooding using iNaturalist beaver observations. iNaturalist is an online citizen science platform, where users upload and identify species observations (images or audio recordings).

Map showing beaver flood events at Wachusett Meadow & Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuaries © Dr. Valerie Pasquarella, Boston University

How You Can Help

Help Mass Audubon and the NASA DEVELOP team by reporting beaver signs, including dams, lodges, chewed logs, or beaver themselves using iNaturalist, either in our sanctuaries or anywhere across Massachusetts.

https://static.inaturalist.org/photos/60714452/large.jpeg?1580660129
Beaver chewed tree at Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary reported on iNaturalist © Jennifer Clifford

Written by Cameron Piper, TerraCorps Service Member

Mass Audubon works on “Climate-Smart Forestry”

The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation has funded Mass Audubon for three years of “Climate-Smart Forestry.” This program is a collaborative effort between Mass Audubon and the New England Forestry Foundation (NEFF) to support landowners in making climate-friendly forestry management decisions. This is especially important in Massachusetts, where forests cover 60% of the total land area and much of it is privately owned. 

The Climate-Smart Forestry project is divided into three main “tasks.” The first is to update the state’s Forest Stewardship Plan to include a climate component. This is a voluntary program where landowners work with consulting foresters to create a ten-year management plan. Future plans will explain how a landowner’s forest fits into the larger climate change picture, and will nicely complement our Foresters for the Bird Program.

Mass Audubon Central/Western Regional Scientist Tom Lautzenheiser educates a group of forestry professionals about sustainable forest management at Mass Audubon’s Elm Hill Sanctuary.

The second task is encouraging municipalities to participate in carbon offset markets. Forest landowners receive payments from the California Compliance Offset Program for carbon stored in the trees on their land. In exchange, these landowners reduce clear-cutting and lengthen their harvest rotations to maintain a specified level of carbon storage over time spans ranging from 40 – 100 years.  

The third task is to update the Best Management Practices (BMPs) for timber harvesting to address the reality of climate-driven changes in harvesting conditions and promote climate-friendly practices. This will be completed by NEFF, which currently provides BMPs designed to reduce erosion and minimize damage to wetlands and soils during harvest operations. The updates will ensure that projected changes due to climate change are reflected in BMPs. 

The project is led by Jeff Ritterson and Josh Rapp in Conservation Science. Jeff currently leads our Foresters for the Birds program and is developing a project for Bird Friendly Maple Syrup. Josh has 15 years of experience in forest ecology research with an emphasis on climate change impacts on forests. Tom Lautzenheiser, who led the effort to enroll Mass Audubon lands in the California carbon market, will contribute heavily to the carbon offset component. Alexandra Vecchio, Climate Change Program Director, will contribute her experience in building climate resilience at the municipal scale, as well as expertise in climate change communications and education for the various outreach components of this project. 

ACT Season 2 Wrap-up

The Avian Collision Team is a volunteer effort to monitor bird-window strikes in downtown Boston. This fall was the second season, running from early August to mid-October. Volunteers walked 7 survey routes from Saturday to Tuesday between 6 and 9 a.m., finding a total of 74 individuals. This makes 193 total strikes between the fall and spring seasons. 

The volunteer process

Birds that were alive but injured, which was about a quarter of the time, were taken to Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine to be rehabilitated and released. Those that were deceased were collected and donated to the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology’s Ornithology department to be used as study specimen. 

Note: Mass Audubon’s volunteers collect specimen with a permit from the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. It is illegal to collect birds under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

A Commmon Yellowthroat outside of University Hall at UMass Boston

Table 1 shows a preliminary roundup of the window-strike species found by ACT volunteers. Locations and images can be found on iNaturalist, where other citizen scientists around the world are submitting similar window-strike data on a project called “Bird-window collisions”.  

Table 1: Number of individuals of each species found by ACT

White-throated Sparrow. . . 23 House Finch. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3 Black-billed Cuckoo. . . . . . . . . 1
Ovenbird . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 22 Northern Waterthrush. . . . . . . 3 Yellow-billed Cuckoo . . . . . . . 1
Common Yellowthroat . . . . 19 Blackpoll Warbler. . . . . . . . . . . 3 Red-eyed Vireo. . . . . . . . . . . . 1
Hermit Thrush . . . . . . . . . . . 7 Northern Flicker . . . . . . . . . . . . 2 Blue-headed Vireo . . . . . . . . . 1
Black-and-white Warbler. . 7 American Robin. . . . . . . . . . . . . 2 Blue Jay . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
Lincoln’s Sparrow . . . . . . . . 6 Song Sparrow. . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2 European Starling . . . . . . . . . . 1
Magnolia Warbler. . . . . . . . 5 Nashville Warbler. . . . . . . . . . . 2 Cedar Waxwing . . . . . . . . . . . 1
American Redstart . . . . . . . 5 Chestnut-sided Warbler. . . . . . 2 Veery . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
Brown Creeper . . . . . . . . . . 4 Black-throated Green Warbler 2 Chipping Sparrow. . . . . . . . . . 1
Golden-crowned Kinglet . . 4 Canada Warbler. . . . . . . . . . . . 2 Clay-colored Sparrow. . . . . .  . 1
Dark-eyed Junco . . . . . . . . . 4 Indigo Bunting. . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2 Swamp Sparrow . . . . . . . . . . . 1
Savannah Sparrow. . . . . . . 4 Virginia Rail. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 Pine Warbler. . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
Northern Parula . . . . . . . . . 4 Belted Kingfisher. . . . . . . . . . . 1 Black-throated Blue Warbler 1
American Woodcock . . . . . 3 Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. . . . . 1 Palm Warbler. . . . . . . . . . .  . 1
Ruby-throated Hummingbird 3 Red-bellied Woodpecker . . . . 1 House Sparrow. . . . . . . . . . . 1
Mourning Dove . . . . . . . . . . . 3 Red-breasted Nuthatch. . . . . . 1 Brown-headed Cowbird . . . 1
Swainson’s Thrush . . . . . . . . . 3 White-breasted Nuthatch. . . . 1 Baltimore Oriole . . . . . . . . . 1

Note: This list is still being updated as we finalize our data

As evident in Table 1, window collisions in downtown Boston during the times in which we survey are primarily migratory species. Much like moths to a light bulb, migrating birds are drawn to city lights during their nighttime migratory journeys. They land in cities and in the early mornings when they re-orient themselves and look for food, they fly into glass windows. Learn more about this hazard and how you can do something about it on Mass Audubon’s website

A Lincoln’s Sparrow at the John Hancock Tower

ACT will start again during spring migration, running its third season from April 11 – June 2. Sign up to be a volunteer and direct questions to kkeohane@massaudubon.org. 

Drumlin Farm is banding Massachusetts’ smallest owl – the Northern Saw-whet

A team of researchers measure the wing feathers on a Saw-whet owl at Drumlin Farm’s banding center. Handling owls is only legal with a government permit, and only by researchers trained to handle them safely.

Each year, Mass Audubon sanctuaries across the state set up banding stations to track Saw-whet owl migration. Drumlin Farm in Lincoln, Moose Hill in Sharon, and Daniel Webster in Marshfield all have dedicated crews of Saw-whet owl banders. November is the best time to find these tiny predators, as large numbers are passing through Massachusetts on their migration route.  

Saw-whets were an under-studied species 

At 7-8 inches long and weighing 2-5 ounces, Saw-whet owls are about the size of an American Robin. Because of their small size, Saw-whets are difficult to find. Many birders used to consider them a rarity, but in 1994 a study at Daniel Webster Wildlife Sanctuary revealed that these birds are much more widespread than previously thought. In fact, they are found in higher numbers than any other owl species in Massachusetts in the fall. 

Saw-whets are migratory 

Not only were these birds mistakenly thought to be a rarity, but they were also thought to be permanent residents. With anecdotal evidence as well as increased banding efforts, researchers have discovered that most of them do migrate, and can travel as far south as the Mexican border. Their migration routes, however, are less consistent and more unpredictable than other migrants, making them a complicated species to study.

A scientist holds a Saw-whet Owl with a “bander’s grip,” securing it’s talons in a way that’s safe and comfortable for both the bird and the human.

Banding efforts in the US 

In 1994, Project Owlnet was initiated as a way to bring together data from across the country and recruit new banding stations. Participating organizations share research and best practices to better understand these birds. The map below shows a map of owl banding stations that are a part of Project Owlnet. 

Mass Audubon sanctuaries contribute to this dataset by banding, weighing, and measuring Saw-whets. They also identify each bird’s age, sex, and take feather samples for DNA research. 

Fun fact: Saw-whet age can be determined with UV light 

The fluorescent color in young owl feathers comes from a pigment called “porphyrin,” which causes the feathers to appear red under UV lights. This pigment breaks down over time and exposure to light, so researchers can use this technique to identify an owl’s age. The pictures above show a second-year Saw-whet because they have clear pink hues in their newer primary feathers and on their coverts.  

Findings 

The map below shows banding stations in Massachusetts (yellow dots), Saw-whet owls from Massachusetts that were recaptured elsewhere (red dots), and Saw-whet owls banded elsewhere that were recaptured in Massachusetts (blue dots). Owls have been banded along their migratory route from as far north as Ontario and as far south as Maryland. 

Interested in seeing these owls for yourself? Join Mass Audubon at one of many upcoming nocturnal events. Happy owling! 

Fall is Social Season for Blue Jays

Fall holidays mean family gatherings – for people and for Blue Jays. Much like people, these highly social birds are more active in the fall, when the harvest is good and families are reuniting. This pattern is borne out by data on eBird, when observers’ Autumn checklists show a spike in sightings. Here are a few explanations for jays’ noisy behavior right now. 

Image: David Young

Predators on the move mean agitated birds 

When there is a predator nearby, many birds exhibit mobbing behavior to warn others of the threat. This means loud calling and erratic flight patterns. During migration, higher numbers of hawks, owls, and falcons may excite young jays and cause them to vocalize more frequently.  

Blue Jays have also been known to imitate hawk calls. Some researchers think this is a signal to their flock of a potential threat nearby. Others believe Blue Jays are cleverly trying to scare other birds away from their food source. Ross D. James, in a 2002 edition of Ontario Birds, theorizes that young birds learn raptor calls during periods of high stress and excitement and therefore will reproduce them under those same conditions.  

Acorns are plentiful  

Image: Peter Flood 

Every two to five years, Oak trees drop their acorns in much higher abundance than usual. These periods of higher acorn production are called “mast years” and greater Boston residents have taken notice. Fortunately for Blue Jays, who eat mostly seeds, this means lots and lots of food. They flock to areas with high densities of Oak trees, like many Massachusetts forests, and call out to their kin that they’ve hit the jackpot. 

Winter flocks are recruiting 

Blue Jays are winter residents in Massachusetts. Some individuals do migrate, but little is known about how or why they decide to do so. Families group together in large flocks starting in the fall. These flocks are constantly communicating potential threats and food sources since fledglings are still learning the ropes.  

One study of Blue Jays at Mass Audubon’s Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary observed wintering jay groups of 14-49 individuals. These birds tended to stay in the same groups throughout the winter and in subsequent years.  

Image: Raina Aiello 

Have you noticed more Blue Jay activity lately? Let us know in the comments!