Category Archives: Where in the World?

Join Us In Costa Rica!

A Fiery-throated Hummingbird in central Costa Rica’s Talamanca Highlands. Photo by Will Freedberg.

This March, our Director of Conservation Science, Jeff Collins, is leading a group trip to Costa Rica. In addition to supporting Costa Rican ecotourism ventures, proceeds from the trip will go towards bird conservation projects at Mass Audubon.

Bird diversity in Costa Rica is higher than anywhere north of the Andes, but that’s not the country’s only draw. Read on for details on what makes Costa Rica such a unique destination for birders.

Costa Rica’s Conservation Legacy

Costa Rica’s commitment to conservation is one of the strongest of any country in the Americas, rivaling (and in many ways outdoing) that of the US and Canada.

In the 1980s, the government decided to bet on making conservation at least as much a priority as agriculture, extraction and development. The country invested in protected areas, sustainable livelihoods for rural communities, and reforestation programs that increased forest cover from 21% to 50% in a few decades.

Ecotourism is certainly the most-often cited economic benefit to come from these decisions, and indeed nearly 15% of the country’s GDP comes from tourism (and about half of that from ecotourism). But another major boon was the emergence of Costa Rica as a hub for tropical biology studies. The country’s high index of human development paired with its intact ecosystems have both attracted researchers and engaged the international community as well as developed Costa Rica’s now-booming national academe.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that some of the best birding areas that travelers will visit on this trip are famous research sites.

For example, La Selva Biological Station, the most prolific research site in the Americas, has yielded as many as 8 papers describing new species per week.  Carara National Park, which in addition to hosting over 430 bird species in just 20 square miles, also hosts important studies on tropical forest birds’ response to roads and development near protected areas.

The Birding

While the basic rhythm of forest birding is similar much of the world over, a few phenomena give birding the neotropics a very different “feel” than, say, New England.

Mixed-species foraging flocks feature prominently on most birding days. While mixed-species flocking is a global phenomenon, these aggregations reach epic proportions in Costa Rica. A quiet patch of forest turns into a birding bonanza when two dozen species of birds pass through over the course of a few minutes, each feeding according to their niche—tanagers plucking berries, warblers gleaning insects off leaves, and woodcreepers probing moss and debris on tree trunks.

Army ants often serve as the nucleus of a more specialized foraging flock: as the ants maraud across the forest floor searching for prey, they scare up insects, which in revealing themselves make easy prey for a host of understory birds. Finding an “antswarm” and an attendant cohort of skulking antbirds, antpittas, and flycatchers—all with a specific niche they fill in the feeding aggregation—can be a spectacular sight.

Leks, or cooperative mating displays, are another phenomenon rarely seen in the US (outside of the lekking grouse of the interior west). These are more predictable than feeding flocks—most leks have a fixed location in the forest where it’s easy to watch moonwalking Red-capped Manakins or the popcorn-like snapping displays of White-collared Manakins.

The Landscape

Costa Rica also stands apart from many other countries for packing in five major biogeographic regions within a couple hours’ drive of the capital:

  • The cloud forests of the high central cordillera, home to quetzals and most of the country’s endemics,
  • The dry northwest, low on bird diversity but famous for waterbirds at its seasonal wetlands,
  • The Caribbean foothills, famous for massive mixed-species flocks and some of the most enigmatic species in the country, like Snowcaps and Black-crowned Gnatpittas,
  • The rainy and humid Caribbean lowlands, where species richness peaks for birds, and charismatic species like Keel-billed Toucans and Great Green Macaws are easy finds,
  • The equally wet South Pacific lowlands, Costa Rica’s most unique biome with a completely different suite of rainforest species from the Caribbean, including incomparable Turquoise Cotingas and Scarlet Macaws.

Our upcoming short trip focuses on the latter three ecoregions. There is simply too much ground to cover in Costa Rica without spending several weeks there!

If you have any questions about the trip, get in touch with our travel office, or register here.



50 Years Of Discovery At Great Gull Island

A Season With The Terns

I first visited Great Gull Island as a volunteer in 1980. I was an undergraduate at Southern Connecticut State College, and had friends who worked on the island. I went out for a weekend, and like many others, I never really left. Sure, I’ve gone off and worked in Georgia, on the Farallones, in Cape May, and for Mass Audubon, but there is something about this place that never leaves you.

This year, the project celebrates its 50th year of full-season tern research. I wanted to go back and indulge in a full summer once again. I arrived on April 22 for an 8-week stint, which meant that for the first time, I saw the birds arrive fresh from their wintering grounds in South America. On a cold and grey April 29 morning, burrowed deep into my winter-weight sleeping bag I heard one tern, then a second calling. I raced outdoors, camera in hand, and got a video of them drifting through the clouds, calling as they came home.

A tern and a bander on Great Gull Island. Photo by Joan Walsh.

A quick check of eBird records showed very few had been reported south of us before they came home. Had they flown over water most of the way? Was the last place they saw South America? Did they fly directly to their island? The details of the transit were important to my science brain, but the shimmering white birds falling from the grey sky, calling for their 20,000 neighbors, was one of the most powerful natural moments I have ever witnessed.

They come back slowly – just a few at first, coming in in the morning, the numbers, and noise, building each day. At first they fly in tight flocks, looking more like a group of migrating Red Knots than terns. They leave at midday to go forage, then return at night and through the early morning. Then, one day you realize they aren’t leaving, and some are even courting, then more, then more.

Their tentative residence is no longer. They are home, and they are fierce.

The Setting

Great Gull Island seems unremarkable at first: 19 acres of sand and rock, formed as so much of our coastline was by the terminal moraine of retreating glaciers 10,000 years ago. The island is tiny— about half a mile long and a quarter mile wide.

The island sits in some of the roughest waters in Long Island Sound, between Plum Island and Fisher’s Island, NY. Each outgoing tide drains Long Island Sound of 2-3 feet of water, and about half of that water comes past Great Gull. A typical tide rushes by at 5 knots; a strong tide moves even faster. The sea is often heaped into 4 foot standing whitecaps, giving the water to the east of Great Gull the title of The Race, and to the west, Plum Gut.

The currents are so strong that sandlance and small herring can’t swim well against them, making them easy prey for lurking striped bass and bluefish. The currents also put baitfish at risk from aerial predators, which is one reason Great Gull Island hosts up 30,000+ Common and Roseate Terns during the summer breeding season.

In profile, the island shows a tall “hill” to the east, a flat meadow in the center flanked by another hill, and a long meadow towards the west. Much of the island is lined with huge granite boulders, similar to those used in jetties along the rest of the coast. In the summer the Island sprouts 20 or more small white-topped towers used as blinds for watching nesting birds. This, coupled with severe signs warning “DO NOT LAND” give it an otherworldly appearance – a mysterious place clinging to the bedrock as tide rush by, and thousands of birds swirl and scream overhead.

The Military History

The two “hills” seen in profile are anything but. They are the remains of a US Army coastal defense project. Great Gull was re-christened Fort Michie when the Army ejected the resident tern colony and began construction of a fort in 1896, which they occupied through World War 2. At one point hundreds of men lived on the island in a self-contained small town, complete with electricity, running water, and a hospital. The remains of the coastal defenses are still in evidence everywhere. Most notable are those cement “hills,” honeycombed with tunnels where armaments were stored.

These tunnels, and 6 gun emplacements, are still standing around the island. And the biggest of them all is the massive gun emplacement that held a 16 inch gun – it actually took a shell that was 16 inches in diameter. Three brick officer’s quarters also remain, and two concrete watch towers are still standing. The rest of the fort was reclaimed by the weather or demolished by 1960.

The Return of Nature

After World War 2, the Army sold the island to the American Museum of Natural History for $1, and for the most part little was done on the island for about 10 years.

In the early 1960s, the island was visited by a group of ornithologists from the American Museum of Natural History. One woman, Helen Hays, saw the island’s potential as a research site, grabbed ahold of her work, and 58 years later is still directing the research on Great Gull Island (GGI). A handful of Common and Roseate Terns had begun to colonize the retired US Army fort, and the visitors, being curious scientists, hatched a plan to return Fort Michie to its former natural glory (and name).

The Research

At GGI, Helen Hays has managed thousands of volunteers to amass one of the longest runs of known-lineage data in the world. It is not hard to trap a bird, read the band, and follow that bird’s lineage back to 1980. This is done by daily nest searches, aided now by GPS locations for all nests. A subset of the adult birds are trapped and banded, and as many Common Tern chicks are banded as possible. Roseate Terns, as federally endangered species, have stricter rules for handling. All nests are marked, but a very limited number of adults and chicks are handled.

Despite the presence of the researchers the colony has flourished. Hundreds of papers have come from the work, and each year more questions are brought to the forefront. Helen has encouraged work by independent researchers, and has mentored thousands of ecologists, despite managing one of the most complex research stations on the eastern seaboard.

Four years ago I began a series of simple observations on Common Tern. We had done them in the past, but what would a repeat show? I select a set of nests, and for two hour intervals record the time of each fish delivery to the young. I identify the fish, and estimate the size. Each year I choose between 10 and 30 nests to watch. Preliminary work with the data showed really impressive changes in the feeding rates for the nestlings. For two years we recorded fairly similar feeding rates – each nest received about 1.1 per hour. But in 2018 that rate tripled to 3.3 fish per hour per nest. These data support the anecdotal observations we had on GGI this year – there were a lot of fish!

Data like these are important for understanding the variability in chick survival, and can act as a surrogate for understanding changes in fish populations. Coupled with the long-term research on annual productivity and survival rates on the island, this helps us to flesh out what is happening in Long Island Sound from year to year, and as the waters warm due to climate change.


A team of researchers from Argentina that visits Great Gull every Summer. Photo by Joan Walsh.

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.


Wildlife and Birding in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks

© David Parish

While it’s true that Mass Audubon regularly sponsors outstanding wildlife and birding trips to exotic corners of the planet, the Natural History Travel Program also features domestic departures that rival some of the finest wildlife spectacles on the planet.  One of these is the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem—a region covering approximately 34,375 square miles in the northwestern corner of Wyoming, but also extending into Idaho and Montana.  Comprised of more than 2.2 million acres, this scenically magnificent region with an elevation averaging over 7500’ hosts the largest concentration of wildlife in the United States outside of Alaska, including the largest free-ranging herd of American Bison in the world, one of the largest American Elk herds in North America, and one of very few Grizzly Bear populations in the contiguous United States.  And thanks to a repatriation effort in the mid-1990s, Yellowstone supports 11 packs of Gray Wolves numbering approximately 110 individuals.

Bison © David Parish

From June 12-22, Mass Audubon President, Gary Clayton and Important Bird Areas Director, Wayne Petersen were able to share 21 species of mammals and 133 species of birds with an appreciative and congenial group of colleagues and clients in this extravagantly beautiful region.  Among the trip’s highlights was a wolf pack trying (in vain) to take down a young Pronghorn, baby bison practically at every turn, a Golden Eagle at its nest, a Dipper feeding and teaching a young one how to swim and dive, a fine variety of waterfowl including several pairs of rare Trumpeter Swans, and hosts of colorful wildflowers.  In addition, the food was hearty and fine throughout, the weather was variable but comfortable, and canoodling Grizzly Bears and Moose and Black Bears with young were consistently voted as favorites.  One of the most intact temperate zone ecosystems in the world, the Yellowstone is a region like few others and is destination that every American should see at least once in their life!

Pronghorn © David Parish

Partnerships for Plovers: Birdlife International and Mass Audubon

An endangered Piping Plover at one of Mass Audubon’s coastal sanctuaries. (Photo by Will Freedberg)


This year, Mass Audubon is partnering with BirdLife International to help coordinate migratory shorebird conservation across the hemisphere. By joining the Friends across the Flyway initiative, Mass Audubon can link up with conservation organizations along the Atlantic Flyway to protect species shared across borders.


Connectivity Counts

For birds whose ranges cross international borders, it’s crucial that regional conservation groups coordinate with each other. All threatened or endangered shorebirds in Massachusetts spend half the year in migration or at their wintering grounds. Every year, Piping Plovers, Red Knots, and Least Terns migrate to Mexico, the Bahamas, and even Argentina—and they depend on stopover habitats to feed and “refuel” along the way.

Removing just one link in this chain of habitats can spell the demise for an entire population. When making a conservation plan, biologists like to emphasize “habitat connectivity,” or keeping open routes between areas where a species lives. With New England’s shorebirds, this means more than preserving a physical link between protected areas—it means conserving breeding habitat in Massachusetts, wintering habitat in the Southern Hemisphere, and key stopover sites birds use while migrating in between.


How We Help In Massachusetts

Mass Audubon’s Coastal Waterbird Program approaches local shorebird conservation from all possible angles. Firstly, Mass Audubon puts boots on the ground—or rather, on the sand—to monitor shorebird populations and develop science-based conservation plans. Then, we work with local and state governments to put those plans into action. This includes setting goals for shorebird recovery, res-siting energy projects, and helping lawmakers identify beaches where shorebirds are threatened by offroad vehicles.

So far, the program has been a huge success! Piping Plover numbers have quintupled in Massachusetts since the program started in 1984.  American Oystercatchers, once a rare sight in our state, now number over 200 nesting pairs.


Partnerships Save Species

We’re excited that our Coastal Waterbird Program is linking up with BirdLife and its partners! This suite of organizations can pool resources to protect habitat and produce research on these shorebirds’ global needs. To learn more about Friends across the Flyway, check out BirdLife’s video on Rowan, the cute Red Knot.

Birding Ecuador: Travel & Grassroots Conservation

A wintering Blackburnian Warbler in the Ecuadorean rainforest. Photo ©Will Freedberg


More than a dozen species of migratory birds from Massachusetts also depend on Ecuadorean forests for wintering habitat. At the intersection of five tropical biomes, Ecuador packs 1,600 bird species into an country the size of Oregon, making it a hot destination for international bird tours. But as in any part of the world, bird conservation efforts succeed far more frequently when adequately funded, or when they contribute to peoples’ livelihoods.

If You Build It, They Will Come

Take the case of the Amagusa reserve owned by two farmers, Sergio and Doris Basantes. When the young couple inherited some land in northwestern Ecuador, they wondered about hosting ecotourists as an alternative to clearing forest for agriculture. They thought that tourism would never come their way– they normally saw tourists visiting towns much closer to the capital, with better infrastructure.

They may have underestimated how motivated birdwatchers are. Word got out about some rare species nesting along the road near their land, and lo and behold, birders began to make the trip to see them. Doris and Sergio quickly set up feeders and trails on their own property, and started planning to construct cabins.

The site abounds with flashy tropical birds. Migratory Blackburnian Warblers mingle with resident Glistening-green Tanagers, and other species unique to the region. Some of these endemic birds, like the coveted and clownish Toucan Barbet, nest in plain view.


Feeders at Amagusa attract globally rare Moss-backed Tanagers.  Photo ©Will Freedberg


A Toucan Barbet at its nest cavity. Photo ©Will Freedberg

Take A Trip For Conservation!

Sergio and Doris are proud to make a living off of their bustling ecotourism operation. But as a strategy for bird conservation abroad, ecotourism is limited mostly by demand. Only increased interest on tourists’ part can allow sustainable birding lodges to multiply and protect more land.

To help ecotourism grow in Ecuadorsimply visit!  Small-scale birding lodges abound. There’s even an upcoming Mass Audubon tour that visits hotspots in a different region the eastern Andes and Amazonfeaturing two locally-owned lodges, and a dazzling surfeit of tropical birds.


Wayne Petersen and Mass Audubon Tonight at the Hatch Shell

Whaat?!? That’s right folks, tonight, at 7PM,  the Boston Landmark’s Orchestra will be opening their season with Rhapsody in Green. Our own Wayne Petersen will be offering some opening thoughts on bird conservation, and the performance will feature an app for the audience that includes data and maps from our very own Breeding Bird Atlas 2. You can get more information at their website. See you there!

Peru 2016 – A Beginner’s Guide to the Wildest Place on Earth

Black-collared Hawk, by Jon Atwood

Black-collared Hawk by Polly Pattison

In January Joan Walsh, Dr Jon Atwood, and David Sibley led 24 explorers on the Mass Audubon Travel Program’s expedition to the Peruvian Amazon. The trip logged 640 miles on three different rivers, and combined bird lists of the participants and guides topped 200 species. From the pre-dawn calling Undulated Tinamous and the lumbering Horned Screamers (nicknamed The Peruvian Air Force by the guides), on through the exceptionally rare Black-and-white Hawk-eagle and hundreds of Sand-colored Nightjars, this trip did not disappoint.

We had the privilege of visiting two small villages, visits that helped us to build a more complete vision of how people sustain their communities in a place where the river can rise 50 vertical feet each year. Scarlet and Blue and Yellow Macaws, Hoatzin (on nest!), Long-billed Woodcreeper, and the dashing (and ubiquitous) Yellow-rumped Caciques kept us company while the river rolled by.

Dr Jon Atwood, with a pet sloth in Peru.

Dr Jon Atwood, with a pet sloth in Peru.

You needed to like heat and sun, humidity and uncertainty. Each day new species popped up as fast as we could identify them, sometimes faster, and even the local guides didn’t know which species would be next. It was exciting, rewarding, and challenging – all the things that drew us to birding in the first place. Change has met this wild place, and while it retains an air of mystery and wilderness, there is no mistaking the long arm of settlement. These were some of the most exciting days of birding and nature study we have ever had – and we encourage you to try to make this trip in the future.

Mass Audubon will run this tour again in March 2017 and November 2017. Find out where in the world we are going next!


Mass Audubon tour group, bird watching aboard the skiff, by Jon Atwood.

Hoatzin, by Joan Walsh.

Hoatzin, by Joan Walsh.


River scenery on the Mass Audubon Peru tour, by Jon Atwood.

Great Gull Island

The days are long, the weather is warm and many birds are busy breeding. During these summer days, our Bird Conservation Staff have been busy collecting important data on breeding attempts by several species. Our Staff have traveled all over the United States monitoring breeding birds: from grasslands in Northern Maine, to fields in Cape Cod, and to river deltas in Alaska.

Great Gull Island, the view looking East.

Great Gull Island, the view looking East.

Recently, Joan Walsh and Lindall Kidd spent some time on Great Gull Island, located at the Eastern end of Long Island Sound. Originally fortified during the Spanish-American war, Great Gull Island is now defended by 9,500 breeding pairs of Common and Roseate Terns, making it the  largest colony of these species in North America – indeed in the entire North Atlantic.

The terns have been monitored here by the American Museum of Natural History continuously since 1961 and Joan has been helping with the project since the 1980’s. Helen Hays has directed the restoration of Great Gull Island’s terns, and this year recieved an honorary Ph.D. from the University of Connecticut for her work, and Mass Audubon was proud to write a letter of support for than honor.

The breeding season on Great Gull offers the unique opportunity for researchers to band adult terns and their chicks at the nest. Each year on the island, a uniquely identifiable metal leg band is placed on over 10, 000 individuals, mostly hatchlings but some adults also get new ‘bling’ each year. These bands allow survival and recruitment rates to be monitored and can be used to collect data on why population numbers are changing. Such data are particularly crucial for Endangered species such as the Roseate Tern.

In addition to assisting with banding, Joan studied the feeding patterns of Common Terns in order to investigate the consequences of changing fish stocks and feeding behavior. One of the nests Joan was watching belonged to an adult previously banded while wintering in Argentina — a perfect illustration of the usefulness of banding!

A Roseate Tern showing off it's leg bands.

A Roseate Tern showing off it’s ‘bling’ leg bands.

Common Tern hatchling

Common Tern hatchling.

All About Alaska

Earlier this summer two Bird Conservation staff members were fortunate in having the opportunity to enjoy Alaska’s spectacular wildlife and wilderness. Wayne Petersen and Lindall Kidd were birding in separate parts of the state, both for different reasons.

Mt Mckinley,by Wayne Petersen.

Seasoned Alaska tour leader Wayne Petersen led a group of enthusiastic Natural History Travel Program travelers on a trip throughout the state. Starting their journey in Anchorage the group gradually traveled north to Nome on the Seward Peninsula, then to spectacular Denali National Park, and finally to Seward on the Kenai Peninsula in South Coastal Alaska.

Wildlife highlights were many, including sightings of a fearless Gyrfalcon mother eyeing the group from a nest beneath a wilderness bridge at eye level, pods of Orcas gently rolling beside the boat in Resurrection Bay, and a Gray Wolf unconcernedly trotting right past the bus on the way into Denali National Park.

In Nome travelers had the chance to encounter an especially bold Muskox at close range, enjoy the thrill of picking out such cryptic species as a rare Arctic Loon and Hoary Redpoll among crowds of similar congeners, and thrilling at the sight of displaying Bluethroats and witnessing thousands of Black-legged Kittiwakes, Glaucous Gulls, Common Murres, Red-throated Loons, and literally dozens of jaegers of three species all in view at the same time gorging on spawning candlefish. On top of all this was returning to Anchorage from Denali after midnight because of delays caused by a forest fire!  A truly fine adventure.

You too can travel and help support Mass Audubon’s bird conservation initiatives by signing up for a Mass Audubon Tour. With trips from Mongolia and Spitsbergen to Tanzania and Chile, there is something for everyone. Check out our upcoming travel programs here.

Field Work In the Yukon–Kuskokwim Delta

Yukon- Kuskowim delta, Alaska.

Yukon- Kuskowim Delta, Alaska.

Lindall Kidd spent the month of June working as a field crew member in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge, which encompasses approximately 19 million acres, hosts one of the highest densities of ground nesting birds in the world. In this bio-rich ecosystem, Lindall was collecting nest data on breeding waterfowl, most notably the threatened Emperor Goose. More than 90% of this species global population breeds on the  Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

The work was done as part of a 20-year demographic study of the Emperor Goose, with a particular focus on the survival and breeding consequences of climate variation, and wildlife disease.  This year light weight geolocators were attached to leg bands and fitted to 100 breeding females. These females will eventually return to breed near to where they were banded, thus allowing the geolocators to be retrieved. These electronic archival tracking devices will help answer some unknown questions about migratory and wintering patterns.

In addition to the magnificent Emperor Goose, other spectacular sightings in the area included a pair of Steller’s Eiders, Spectacled Eiders, and a Bar-tailed Godwit wearing a band and geolocator from a previous capture (most likely from a study taking place in New Zealand!).


Female Emperor Goose in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, Alaska.


Emperor Goose Goslings in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, Alaska.