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Dial-a-Bird: A Tribute to the Voice of Audubon

Before the internet age, informational phone lines were widespread— providing everything from weather forecasts, time of day, or even local rare bird alerts.

Mass Audubon started the original bird hotline in 1954 with some help from a telecom executive, Henry Parker, who happened to be an avid birder.

In fact, the system that Parker developed for the Voice of Audubon came before the widespread use of phone hotlines. The Dictaphone-based system he gave Mass Audubon eventually became the basis for other users to pre-record airline schedules, theater showtimes, and other, more general-interest uses.

The rarities hotline, called “The Voice of Audubon” or VoA, reduced the need for staff to recite sightings to every birder who asked—making it as much a boon for Mass Audubon as for the hundreds of birders calling in each week.

The Voice of Audubon is still updated every week with recent sightings, and can be dialed at 781-259-8805.

Making the Papers

Shortly after its introduction, the Voice of Audubon was incorporated every week into a bird sightings column in the Boston Globe.

Initially, non-birder Globe interns had to transcribe the bulletin entirely by ear, leading to some amusing misspellings of bird names—such as “short-billed dowagers” instead of “Short-billed Dowitchers,” “dick sizzles” instead of “Dickcissels,” and a “gear falcon” instead of a “Gyrfalcon.” Eventually, a written transcript was made available to anyone interested in printing the week’s bird sightings.

Changing Tastes

The Voice of Audubon became a wildly popular model, with similar call-in lines eventually cropping up in most US states. The nationwide rare bird alert even made it in the birding-centric Hollywood movie, The Big Year.

Email changed everything for birding hotlines. With the advent of the listserv, or email message board, call-ins to the Voice of Audubon began to decrease.

Listservs went out of vogue when eBird emerged on the scene, revolutionizing how birders reported their observations. Still, some preferred listservs for the opportunity to discuss sightings in addition to reporting them, for the way listserv conversations build community, and for the ease of reporting a sighting in text rather than via online form. These needs have also come to be addressed by Facebook groups for bird sightings, adding another medium vying for birders’ time and information.

Standing the Test of Time

Through it all, the Voice of Audubon has held firm as a resource for birders, even as it’s call-ins have declined since the heyday of the 1960s and 70s.

Continuing to publish the VoA serves a dual purpose. Firstly, it informs birders who don’t have access to a computer or who prefer the hotline format. Perhaps more importantly, its existence and regular publication in newspapers serves to raise the public profile of birdwatching among the general public.

Do you ever call the Voice of Audubon, read it in the Sunday Globe, or check out the sightings on our website? Let us know in the comments!

Do Vagrant Birds Indicate a Changing Climate?

It’s been an incredible past few weeks for rare birds in Massachusetts. First, a Purple Gallinule showed up in Milton. Then a White-faced Ibis arrived in Sterling, and a Tropical Kingbird shocked birders in Belmont—the first ever to be seen in Middlesex County. Finally, the first Pacific-Slope Flycatcher seen anywhere in the state was spotted in Hadley, and a Western Kingbird and Rufous Hummingbird rounded out the glut of unusual visitors.

More than 2,000 miles from home, this boldly-colored Tropical Kingbird in Belmont made birding headlines.

It’s tempting to think that these out-of-range birds (or “vagrants”) are the result of climate change. Although climate change certainly affects species’ normal ranges, and may make vagrancy more common and extreme, it’s a reach to say that these “lost” birds themselves indicate any larger trends.

Instead, these birds are just as likely examples of species that only show in Massachusetts every several hundred years. This phenomenon of once-in-a-lifetime birds has plenty of precedent. Consider, for example, the first time a Masked Duck was seen in Massachusetts was in 1889—and the species hasn’t been reported in New England since. Similarly, the first and only record of a Brewer’s Sparrow was in 1873, and the first and only record of a White-tailed Kite was in 1910.

Vagrants: Unpredictable in Predictable Ways

As fall migration draws to a close, there’s almost always a spike in vagrant birds in Massachusetts. Birds from the interior southwest of the US ride winds blowing northeast, often making it as far as the coast.

Many bird populations contain a few individuals prone to wandering. In some cases, wanderers are biologically hard-wired to migrate differently than others of their species, and in other cases, the cause is unknown. These outliers aren’t unique to migratory species; even flightless penguins have been documented walking into the icy mountains of Antarctica, far from any food source.

Most vagrants either perish or (less often) make it back to their home ranges. Even if the vast majority of these birds don’t manage to reproduce on terra incognita, some scientists theorize that having a few exploratory or mis-oriented individuals gives the species an evolutionary advantage. This may allow a population to very occasionally colonize new, faraway areas that turn out to be hospitable, serving as a bulwark against sudden cataclysmic change across its entire normal range.

Climate Affects Vagrants, But Vagrants Aren’t Necessarily Climate Indicators

Fall isn’t the only time when wind patterns regularly bring Massachusetts a handful of unusual birds. Southern birds that overshoot their breeding grounds in spring are mostly the result of wind patterns that blow them far over the Atlantic, where they continue north until making landfall in New England. Even more noticeable are the hurricanes that have brought tropical seabirds like Sooty Terns and Red-billed Tropicbirds inland into Massachusetts.

As rising global temperatures create stronger storms and shift continental wind currents, it’s reasonable to think that new patterns in bird vagrancy will emerge. This doesn’t mean, however, that recent “firsts” (such as last month’s Pacific-slope Flycatcher or Tropical Kingbird) are indicators of climate change– especially with only 200 years of records and a long list of vagrants that showed up in the 18th century and never again.

Demonstrating an increase in vagrant birds (or changes in where they show up) is a tricky proposition, in part because there’s no good way to adjust for how many people are looking. Not only has the number of birders increased dramatically since the 19th century, but birders’ knowledge of how to predict vagrants has improved—and their interest in finding them has intensified. This complicates studying patterns in bird vagrancy, let alone linking them to long-term climate trends.

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!

Bird-Themed Summer Camps

Budding bird enthusiasts love our summer camps, many of which offer special bird-themed sessions. Check out the following opportunities for kids and teens to learn about birds this summer!

Connecticut River Valley

Raptor Camp (ages 12–16)

June 24–28 Ÿ Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary, Easthampton & Northampton

Set out to discover birds by foot and canoe at Arcadia and local birding hot spots. See bird banding up close, and learn how to identify birds by sight and sound. An entire day will be devoted to birds of prey.

Greater Boston

Wild about Birds: Curiosity Club (ages 4–5)

Wild about Birds: Naturalists (ages 7–8)

July 22–26 & July 1–3 Ÿ Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary, Natick

Explore what makes a bird a bird, play a game about bird migration, sing in a birdsong choir, and get an up-close look at birds through a telescope. Look inside nest boxes for baby birds and empty nests and meet live birds with an ornithologist.

Wild about Birds: Explorers (ages 9–10)

Wild about Birds: Voyagers (ages 11–14)

July 1–3 Ÿ Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary, Natick

Learn when to use binoculars, a birding scope, or your bare eyes to watch for birds. Meet with an ornithologist to learn how scientists study and track birds that migrate. Head off-site to find birds in different habitats, investigate adaptations that allow birds to survive in different environments, and track species and diversity in a bio-blitz.

That’s Wild: Owl Extravaganza (ages 4–6, 7–8)

July 8–12 Ÿ Museum of American Bird Art, Canton

Back by popular demand: owls soar into camp again this summer! Spend the week on the prowl for owls. See live owls up close, learn about their special adaptations, and create art based on the different owl species found in Massachusetts.

Coastal Birding Adventure (ages 13–17)

August 19–23 Ÿ Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary, Lincoln

Travel through the unique coastal ecosystems of Massachusetts, and search for and learn about the unique birds that inhabit them. Spot warblers in Pine Barrens, plovers and sandpipers in the dunes, and terns over the ocean. Check out the latest rare sightings and search for early migrant visitors.

North Shore

Winged Wonders (ages 7–8, 9–11)

July 29–August 2 Ÿ Joppa Flats Education Center, Newburyport

Using binoculars, scout Parker River National Wildlife Refuge for all kinds of wading marsh birds and soaring birds of prey. In the forest at Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary, listen for songbirds on a forest hike, and climb the observation tower and Rockery Grotto. Back at Joppa Flats, get ready for a live wildlife visit from a local raptor rehabilitator, and dissect owl pellets!

Cape & Islands

Fabulous Fliers (ages 7–8)

July 15–19 Ÿ Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, Edgartown

Why do birds flock together? How do they fly? And why do they sing? Identify and explore adaptations of the many fabulous fliers at Felix Neck, including the osprey, songbirds, and shorebirds.


Research Update: S4 – The Stellwagen Sanctuary Seabird Steward Program

 

Leach's Storm Petrel by John Sill

Leach’s Storm Petrel by John Sill

Seabirds constitute one of the most difficult groups of birds to systematically monitor, particularly when they are at sea and away from their breeding colonies.  Fortuitously, the inshore location and rich marine biota of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary provide a unique opportunity to support a long-term seabird monitoring program.

In 2011 Mass Audubon joined Stellwagen Sanctuary staff in initiating the S4 Program (Stellwagen Sanctuary Seabird Steward Program). The goal of this program is to systematically gather baseline data about seabird seasonal distribution and abundance within the Stellwagen Bank Important Bird Area (IBA).  By using sanctuary scientists and Mass Audubon personnel working in concert with trained volunteer observers, seabird data has now been systematically gathered for six years.  It is hoped that this information will increasingly inform seabird scientists and Massachusetts residents about how seabirds utilize local marine waters.  More importantly, the information will hopefully also help predict future environmental impacts possibly caused by climate change and its effect on the regional marine ecosystem.

Since the initiation of the S4 Program in 2011, regular seabird surveys have been conducted at least six times throughout the year along a 63 nautical mile-long transect located within the Stellwagen Sanctuary. Observations recorded during these surveys have collectively provided hundreds to thousands of sightings annually of a majority of the seabird species regularly utilizing the Stellwagen Sanctuary. In addition to the observers participating in the regular year-round systematic surveys, volunteer observers coordinated and trained by Stellwagen Sanctuary and Mass Audubon staff, have also been monitoring seabirds on public whale watching vessels the during the regular whale-watching seasons.

With concurrent regular monitoring efforts taking place in the sanctuary of other marine features including physical ocean characteristics, plankton, fish, and marine mammals, it is hoped that the information gathered will gradually help elucidate both short-term and long-term fluctuations taking place in seabird distribution and abundance that may possibly correlate with climate change. The S4 project represents a unique opportunity to allow citizen scientists to partner with both Mass Audubon and a federal agency to support local research and conservation efforts.  Future editions of The Warbler will provide highlights of some of the already noteworthy findings provided by the S4 Program.  For more information and volunteer opportunities with the S4 Program, contact Wayne Petersen, Director of the IBA Program at wpetersen@massaudubon.org.

A Tribute To Vern Laux

BY WAYNE PETERSEN

Vern Laux,1955-2016. Thanks to Lanny McDowell for providing this photo.

Vern Laux,1955-2016. Thanks to Lanny McDowell for providing this photo.

Both the world and the birding community lost a superstar to cancer with the passing of Vern Laux on Nantucket last month. Vern Laux was at once a newspaper columnist, a radio personality, an author, an educator, a tour leader, a master birder, a champion of birding and bird conservation, and a larger than life personality. Like a little boy in a giant’s body, through the years Vern’s infectious enthusiasm for people, birds, and birding never ceased to afford him a devoted following.

From his youthful days running birding trips on the outer beaches of Cape Cod for Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and driving zodiacs for cruise ships in Antarctica, to routinely making stunning birding discoveries like finding the first North American record of Red-footed Falcon on Martha’s Vineyard in 2004, and more recently establishing and organizing the Nantucket Birding Festival for the Linda Loring Nature Foundation, Vern always had an enthusiastic following and was usually at the head of the line.

Always outgoing, willing, and uniquely able to share his vast knowledge of birds with any and all who were interested (and even some that may not have been!), Vern was a virtual Pied Piper, and more than once overheard comments included remarks like, “See that big guy over there with the red knit cap on. He is both a hoot and a truly amazing birder!”, or “Vern must be bionic! How did he ever spot that bird?” To see Vern Laux at his best was to stand atop the Aquinnah cliffs on Martha’s Vineyard at first light and watch and listen as he reeled off the names of tiny migrant birds in flight by both sight and sound at seemingly any distance, or to listen as he described with Howard Cosell- like precision and humor the pursuit of a tiny warbler by a streaking Merlin. Vern could hear, see, and describe to others things that seemingly no one else around him could – he was truly a master of his craft.

Thanks in no small part to an outstanding junior high school science teacher that he encountered while growing up in Wellesley, he was early on captivated by birds – an interest he maintained with a passion for the rest of his life. To all (and there are many) who came in contact with him, or were touched by his zest for life, he will forever go down as “one of the great ones,” and he will surely be missed by all who were fortunate to know him.