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.

 

 

November Is Western Vagrants Month: 6 Species To Watch For

Every November, most migratory birds of the American West are on their way south, but a handful always end up in New England. While it might seem surprising to find a Western Kingbird along the chilly Massachusetts coastline, it can be fairly easy to predict which weather conditions will bring a small wave of western vagrants into the Northeast.

Fronts and storms are key, especially those bringing winds from the southwest. After the breeding season, some migratory species disperse in seemingly random, weather-dependent ways before continuing to the tropics. Additionally, most populations of migratory birds include a few individuals born without their cohort’s navigational abilities. These birds with “reversed compasses” often migrate irregularly during their first year of life.

These vagrants can show up anywhere, but there are a few tricks to looking for them. Watch the weather, and go birding a few days to a week after strong southwesterly winds. Seek out edge habitats, bodies of water, and potential sources of food— like thickets of late-season berries, or low and sheltered areas near coastlines where flying insects persist later into the fall.

The past few weeks have been a promising lead-up to western rarity season, with Cave Swallows already appearing on the South Shore, and a Say’s Phoebe seen in Barre in mid-October.

Right now, conditions look fairly promising—winds over the dry interior of the US are blowing strongly from the northwest, but they connect with two large cyclonic storms moving northeast. Following that, forecasters call for strong southwest winds. It will be interesting to see whether or not the upcoming storm system leaves any vagrants in its wake, and in all likelihood, it will.

 

 

Here are some species to stay on the lookout for:

  1. Cave Swallow: These small birds of the south-central US and Caribbean have begun to show up like clockwork. They arrive almost exclusively at coastal sites after strong pulses of southwest winds, and in recent years, there have been numerous annual sightings several birds at once. The phenomenon of Cave Swallows showing up in the Northeast is fairly new. Cave Swallows were extremely rare in Massachusetts before the last decade or so.
  1. Ash-throated Flycatcher: These also used to be much less frequent, but in recent years, have been showing up every 1-2 years at coastal sites. A couple have been seen a few miles inland at open, brushy sites like Drumlin Farm in Lincoln and Danehy Park in Cambridge, but with less regularity.
  1. Western Tanager: Roughly the same patterns as Ash-throated Flycatcher, but with more inland records.
  1. MacGillivray’s Warbler: One or several show up about every other year. They are mostly detected in farm fields and suburban thickets . Most sightings are from November, though a few exist from the Cape and South Coast regions in the early fall or late winter.
  1. Mountain Bluebird. These only show up every 3-5 years, having been most recently seen in MA at Turner’s Falls Airport from November 13-16, 2016.
  1. Townsend’s Solitaire: Almost annually, some solitaires arrive in November and linger until at least midwinter. In Massachusetts, most records are from Cape Ann and Cape Cod, although there are many inland records from Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire.

There are plenty of other species that show up well outside of their range in November, from the annual Western Kingbird to the exceptionally rare Common Ground-Dove. Will you be the next Massachusetts birder to find one?

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Studying Forest Structure At Elm Hill

Our bird conservation staff spent the past week collecting data at Elm Hill Wildlife Sanctuary, our demonstration site for Foresters for the Birds. Since we’re using this site to show how responsible forest management can enrich bird habitat, we need before-and-after data to compare changes in vegetation and bird diversity.

Birds See Forests For The Trees

The physical structure of a forest directly affects which birds are found there. The amount of vegetation near the forest floor (or “understory”) changes whether or not the forest can host a whole suite species that nest near the ground, like Ovenbirds and Black-throated Blue Warblers. Forests with open midstories (the layer of vegetation between 5–50 feet off the ground) attract flycatching birds like Eastern Wood-Pewees, but dense midstories appeal to Wood Thrushes and Canada Warblers.

The goal of our work at Elm Hill is to demonstrate how every forest species has its own habitat preferences, and how thoughtful land management can create habitat for declining species. Since three quarters of Massachusetts’ forests are in private hands, it’s critical to make these lands as hospitable as possible to wildlife.

Collecting Vegetation Data

A data sheet we use for recording information about trees and forest structure at Elm Hill.

Before we alter any habitat at Elm Hill, we’re recording these factors at sites where we’ve previously done bird surveys:

  • Total woody biomass (i.e., the average size and number of trees in a given area)
  • Tree species makeup (i.e., which trees are there, and how many of each)
  • Canopy density (i.e., the amount of cover provided by leaves in the treetops)
  • Sapling density (i.e., the number of young trees from around 1–6 feet tall)
  • Coarse woody debris (i.e., the number of logs and slash piles on the ground)

We outline a 400-square-meter plot with ropes at every site to make sure we collect data from the same area of land each time. This works pretty well until somebody tangles the ropes:

Jeff tangled the ropes. It definitely was not me.

While measuring trees, logs, and saplings is straightforward, you might wonder how researchers measure canopy density— and the instrument for this is quite cool. A spherical densiometer (pictured below) condenses a wide view of the canopy into a small image (much like a fisheye camera lens) with a grid over it. By estimating the percentage of each grid square occupied by leaves or trunks (and adding them up, and taking readings in each cardinal direction), we have a standardized and simple way of measuring canopy density. This also works as a proxy for determining how much light reaches the forest floor.

A spherical densiometer, used for measuring the amount of leaves in the treetops.

Long-term Goals

After foresters have cleared the woods of invasive species and created a variety of spatial habitat types, we’ll be able to show what changes this brings to Elm Hill’s bird species.

Elm Hill contains mostly 70–90-year-old forest, like much of Massachusetts. We’ll manage parts of the sanctuary for birds that prefer young forest, which are in trouble statewide, and in other part’s we’ll try to mimic old-growth forest conditions, which would take over a century to emerge naturally. Hopefully, we can then use this site as a physical example of how foresters and landowners can improve bird habitat on the properties they manage.

 

 

Cities Need Bird-Friendly Buildings

Between 100 million and 1 billion birds die annually from collisions with windows. Glass windowpanes can reflect nearby trees, shrubs, and sky. Birds’ eyes aren’t able to distinguish clear reflections from the real thing, so they sometimes aim for a reflection and fly smack into a pane of glass.

Earlier this year, Mass Audubon’s advocacy team expressed concern about a plan to install an all-glass façade on a building facing Post Office Square in Boston. An island of green in downtown’s sea of concrete, Post Office Square is a locally important stopover site for migratory birds. A few plantings in the middle of a nearly treeless part of the city attracts a surprising diversity of species, and adding a wall of glass panels across from one side of the park increases the risk of collisions . The well-meaning developer wanted to add a perimeter garden and a green roof to the site, which ironically would increase window strikes by attracting birds to reflections of the greenery.

Luckily, when told about the risk the project posed for birds, this developer was willing to make the site safer. They are in the process of installing glass with non-reflective stripes, which will break up reflections of what’s outside and steer birds away from the windows. Many similar technologies exist to make windows visible obstacles to birds without interfering with peoples’ view—from glass incorporating ultraviolet patterns that only birds can see, to entire panes made of non-reflective material.

Post Office Square, an urban stopover site for migrating birds (Photo by Will Freedberg)

You Can Help!

Skyscrapers account for disproportionate numbers of bird deaths, but the number of single-story buildings in the US make them an equally important front for reducing window strikes. Every homeowner interested in conservation can take steps to make their homes safer for birds:

  1. Keeping window screens on year-round. This is a great option because it provides a visual barrier as well as soft, springy physical barrier to incoming birds.
  2. Purchase and apply a one-way, see-through film to your windows, which both cuts reflections for birds and blocks the view into your home from outside.
  3. Finally, any birdfeeders close to your house (within 15 feet) should be even closer to windows (less than 1.5 feet away). While this sounds weird, birds do slow down before perching, so any window collisions as a bird comes in to land at your feeder is unlikely to injure the bird.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References: Daniel Klem, 1990: Collisions Between Birds And Windows: Mortality And Prevention

 

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.

1,027 Bobolink Fledglings Saved This Summer

By The Numbers: The 2018 Bobolink Project

We’re tallying up the results of this year’s Bobolink Project, and the numbers look great! The Project protected 932 acres of nesting habitat, up from 512 acres in 2016 (which was the project’s first year at Mass Audubon). Field surveys showed 368 pairs of Bobolinks on participating farmers’ land. Since Bobolinks fledge an average of 2.79 chicks every season, this translates to saving an estimated 1,027 Bobolinks—many of which may return to nest again next year!

It takes just 12 days for nestlings to leave the nest, but another two to three weeks before they can fly well enough to escape the mowers used for haying. Photo by S. Bardella

How it Works

Bobolinks rely on grasslands to breed, and often find that hayfields work just as well. Until the mid-20th century, many hayfields were mowed in late summer, weeks after Bobolink chicks had left the nest. Now, high demand for livestock feed means that farmers are mowing earlier and earlier; early-cut hay is richer in protein and more valuable. Sadly, this means that many Bobolink nestlings end up under the mower.

Every year, Mass Audubon offers farmers compensation for waiting to mow their hayfields until after nesting season. This model has so far proved effective: plenty of farmers would rather not mow over active bird nests, but need their hayfields to produce some source of income. Mass Audubon uses donations to cover these farmers’ losses from delaying mowing, keeping their farms economically viable while protecting grassland birds.

Bobolink © Martha Akey

Photo by Martha Akey

Next Year’s Goals

Even with increased donations, the number of interested farmers is outpacing available funds. This year, we had enough funds to protect two thirds of project applicants’ land. We also had to leave an additional 492 acres of Bobolink habitat on the table. Sadly, this funding gap meant that most fledglings on the unprotected acreage didn’t make it.

While it may not be possible to prevent every single agriculture-related Bobolink death across the region, it is painful to have to turn away farmers who want to partner with us to protect birds.

If you’d like to help us protect even more acres and Bobolinks next year, please donate here!

How Do Pelagic Birds Find Fresh Water At Sea?

The short answer: they don’t.

Seabirds drink ocean water, and excrete the excess salt that would otherwise leave them dehydrated. Specialized glands, located above the beak and just under the eyes, filter salt ions from seabirds’ bloodstream. The glands also draw out just enough water to dissolve salt into a highly concentrated saline solution, which runs out through the bird’s nostrils.

If you’ve ever seen a gull standing on dry land, with fluid dripping down the tip of its beak… that’s because it’s expelling salt!

These glands can atrophy and stop working if not regularly used. Seabirds at zoos and wildlife rehabilitation clinics actually need to be kept in saltwater—if their glands stop pumping, the birds can experience salt poisoning when re-exposed to ocean water.

 

A Sooty Shearwater exhibits a typical “tubenose” beak structure: elongated nostrils through which salt is excreted. Photo © William Freedberg

 

Terrific Tubenoses

Birds in the family Procellariformes (which includes albatrosses, shearwaters, petrels and storm-petrels) excrete salt through one or two tubes that sit atop their beaks, giving the group the informal name of “tubenoses”. A common misconception among birders is that this tube is an organ used uniquely for excreting salt.

In fact, it’s not clear that these birds process salt any more efficiently than any other seabirds, like pelicans or marine ducks. Tubenoses’ beak structure might help them keep saline excretions from blowing into their eyes in high oceanic winds, but that’s probably not its primary function.

Recent evidence suggests that these tubes help channel airborne scents, contributing to tubenoses’ ability to sniff out plankton blooms on the open ocean. There’s also evidence that the nasal tubes of albatrosses contain pressure-sensing nerves, helping these birds find and navigate the rising air currents they use to stay aloft.

 

Seabirds Under Threat

Seabirds’ exquisitely fine-tuned sense of smell serves them poorly in oceans plagued by plastic pollution. It turns out that plastic, especially when covered in marine algae, smells just like the zooplankton seabirds love to eat.

While some seabirds that frequent Massachusetts waters are doing well (like Wilson’s Storm-Petrels and Cory’s Shearwaters) others are in serious trouble. And unlike some declining groups, pelagic birds’ absence flies largely under the radar of most land-bound naturalists. Among myriad dangers, entanglement in fishing gear, climate volatility, and invasive species drive seabird declines.

Help fight these threats by purchasing American-caught seafood—fishery regulations here favor seabirds more than in much of the world— and by reducing plastic waste.

The World’s Funniest Bird Sounds- And How They’re Made

Last month’ post about amazing bird sounds from Massachusetts was so popular, we decided to create a definitive ranking of the funniest bird vocalizations from around the world.

How do birds make so many sounds?

Birds have a vocal organ called a “syrinx” that mammals (and other vertebrates) lack. Different groups of birds have specialized syrinxes that can produce different sounds, but all of them allow for a wide variety of vocalizations.

Humans have a single set of vocal chords that sit in the windpipe, or trachea. Most birds’ syrinxes, on the other hand, are located where their trachea branches in two (towards each lung). This allows some songbirds, like thrushes, to regulate the air exiting each lung individually, creating two distinct notes at once. Other birds, like parrots, have a syrinx in their trachea—but with more moving parts than human vocal chords.

All syrinxes share this complexity. In addition to using membranes that vibrate to produce sound, the syrinx contains a network of muscles to “shape” air as it exits their lungs—sort of like how we use our lips to whistle, but with a few added degrees of complexity.


The contenders:

10. Screaming Piha


This group of Pihas from the Amazon sound… just plain rude.

 

9. Slate-colored Solitaire


Like the Veery in Massachusetts, these members of the thrush family give the forest soundscape an ethereal feel with their clear, echoing whistles. Click on 2:18 for the best part!

 

8. Andean Goose


These aren’t flatulent geese- that’s just their syringeal flutter.

 

7. Willow Ptarmigan


Ptarmigans sound cartoonish, and their clucking can resemble the sound of human speech.

 

6. Great Jacamar


Ambush predators of the rainforest mid-story, Jacamars can sit motionless for hours waiting for their butterfly prey to come within catching distance. Their nasal, drawn-out calls fade out towards the end, sounding almost lazy, and evoking the midday heat of tropical forests.

 

5. Short-tailed Shearwater


Shearwaters and petrels are often silent at sea, but clamorous at their burrows.

 

4. Capuchinbird


These birds are incredibly loud, and their voices can carry for miles. They’re known locally as the “calfbird” for their lowing, cow-like moans.

 

3. Laughing Kookaburra


A classic sound of the Australian bush at dawn, gregarious Kookaburras duet and countersing with each other frequently.

 

2. Imperial Snipe


This combination of cackles and what sounds like a landing spaceship is just about as weird as it gets. But the otherwordly humming and buzzing that accompanies the Snipe’s vocalization is created by air rushing past its wings as it displays– so the snipe only comes in at #2.

 

1. Horned Screamer


Screamers gulp like bitterns, honk like geese, and irritate residents of Amazonian South America with their dawn cacophanies like no other bird.

 


With such a wide range of sounds, it’s no wonder birdsong inspired so many human musicians—from Vivaldi’s 17th century goldfinch themes, to DJ Ben Mirin’s wildlife-inspired EDM.

What do you think about this (deeply subjective) ranking? Can you think of any birds that should have made the cut?

 

 

Two Poems for Bobolinks: Dickinson and Bryant

Mass Audubon’s Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary: a few miles from where Emily Dickinson was inspired by Bobolinks- which have returned to the property thanks to careful stewardship.

References to Bobolinks abound in poetry from 19th-century New England. Massachusetts authors drew inspiration from local birds for a host of reasons, not least because they saw local species as uniquely American subjects (as opposed to, say, the European Nightingale). Bobolinks and Meadowlarks helped distinguish their work from other English-language poets’, and perhaps more importantly, ground it in a sense of place.

Bobolinks were also particularly an familiar and evocative sight through the 1800s and into the past century. Widespread low-impact agriculture provided habitat for field-loving Bobolinks, which don’t mind living near humans as long as their nests are undisturbed. Conspicuous and bold, Bobolinks became an icon of the countryside, and a cultural touchstone for many.

Emily Dickinson, one of rural Massachusetts most-celebrated poets, took a particular liking to them. Bobolinks recurred as a motif in more than 20 of her works. Dickinson often made the birds into rowdy or joyfully anti-authoritarian figures, as here:

 

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –
I, just wear my Wings –
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton – sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.

–Emily Dickinson

 

Loosely interpreted, the poem emphasizes finding joy in nature and in the everyday. Here, the Bobolink is part of Dickinson’s everyday “Heaven” on earth; its song part of her quiet resistance to organized religion. Dickinson had studied religion in a seminary, but perhaps tellingly, dropped out after a year.

Dickinson always ascribes human qualities to the bird to illustrate a point—whether as a “Sexton” (someone who rings the bells of a church) calling her attention to beauty in nature, or in other poems, as a disruptive “Rowdy of the Meadow.”

Other poets, however, grounded poems in Bobolinks’ natural history and biology, although few connected them with complex societal themes as adroitly as Dickinson. William Cullen Bryant, for example, managed to accurately convey key points about Bobolinks’ seasonal behavior (despite leaning pretty heavily on twee personification and cutesy metaphors):

 

Merrily swinging on briar and weed,
Near to the nest of his little dame,
Over the mountain-side or mead,
Robert of Lincoln is telling his name:
Bob-o’-link, bob-o’-link,
Spink, spank, spink;
Snug and safe is that nest of ours,
Hidden among the summer flowers;
Chee, chee, chee.

Robert of Lincoln is gaily drest,
Wearing a bright black wedding-coat;
White are his shoulders, and white his crest;
Hear him call in his merry note:
Bob-o’-link, bob-o’-link,
Spink, spank, spink;
Look what a nice new coat is mine,
Sure there was never a bird so fine.
Chee, chee, chee.

Robert of Lincoln’s Quaker wife,
Pretty and quiet, with plain brown wings,
Passing at home a patient life,
Broods in the grass while her husband sings:
Bob-o’-link, bob-o’-link,
Spink, spank, spink;
Brood, kind creature; you need not fear
Thieves and robbers while I am here.
Chee, chee, chee.

Modest and shy as a nun is she;
One weak chirp is her only note,
Braggart and prince of braggarts is he,
Pouring boasts from his little throat:
Bob-o’-link, bob-o’-link,
Spink, spank, spink;
Never was I afraid of man;
Catch me cowardly knaves, if you can !
Chee, chee, chee.

Six white eggs on a bed of hay,
Flecked with purple, a pretty sight!
There as the mother sits all day,
Robert is singing with all his might:
Bob-o’-link, bob-o’-link,
Spink, spank, spink;
Nice good wife, that never goes out,
Keeping house while I frolic about.
Chee, chee, chee.

Soon as the little ones chip the shell,
Six wide mouths are open for food;
Robert of Lincoln bestirs him well,
Gathering seeds for the hungry brood.
Bob-o’-link, bob-o’-link,
Spink, spank, spink;
This new life is likely to be
Hard for a gay young fellow like me.
Chee, chee, chee.

Robert of Lincoln at length is made
Sober with work, and silent with care;
Off is his holiday garment laid,
Half forgotten that merry air:
Bob-o’-link, bob-o’-link,
Spink, spank, spink;
Nobody knows but my mate and I
Where our nest and our nestlings lie.
Chee, chee, chee.

Summer wanes; the children are grown;
Fun and frolic no more he knows;
Robert of Lincoln’s a humdrum crone;
Off he flies, and we sing as he goes :
“Bob-o’-link, bob-o’-link,
Spink, spank, spink;
When you can pipe that merry old strain,
Robert of Lincoln, come back again.
Chee, chee, chee.

– William Cullen Bryant

 

Bryant’s poem draws a parallel between the Bobolink’s behavioral changes over a breeding season and a human who is burdened with work and worry as they age. But the poem is essentially fanciful, and its goal is mainly to describe these seasonal arcs with flowery language. Still, it’s a rare poem for weaving in a significant amount of natural history.

One could say that Dickinson’s and Bryant’s poems have different goals. Dickinson uses the Bobolink as a device to illustrate the experience of finding joy and religion in nature; she ascribes human qualities to a bird to tell us something about ourselves. Bryant’s poem ascribes human qualities to a bird, but more to illustrate points about the bird itself.

Which poem do you prefer? Do you know of any contemporary poems about Bobolinks—or maybe have written one yourself? Share with us below in the comments!

You can also learn more about (currently-living) Bobolinks and how to protect them at Mass Audubon’s Bobolink Project website.

 

Tips For August Nighthawk-Spotting

Aerobats. Daredevils. Show-offs. The bounding, athletic flight the Common Nighthawk makes for an impressive spectacle in late summer twilight, when groups of these birds swoop to catch insects in midflight.

In the last two weeks of August into early September, these birds power across Massachusetts on hooked, falconlike wings. Nighthawks pause during migration to gather and feed near the edges of open fields, making them easy to observe on their way South.

Two Common Nighthawks streak through the sunset light in Cambridge, MA. Composite image by Will Freedberg.

Nighthawks are totally unrelated to hawks, a group with which they share very little. As members of the nightjar family, nighthawks look similar to the closely-related Whip-poor-will when perched on the ground. In the air, they appear totally unique, agilely swooping and diving in continuous flight.

While springtime brings modest numbers of nighthawks to New England, they show up in much greater numbers on their southbound migration. Nighthawks feed on flying ants, which hatch here en masse in late summer, to fatten up before making the long trip to South America. In spring, when insects are scarce, most nighthawks take a more direct route around Massachusetts to their breeding grounds.

Don’t miss the three-week window for seeing migrating nighthawks this year! Here are some tips for finding them.

 

Find a Field

Just before sunset, nighthawks often emerge around grasslands and big fields. Near Boston, nighthawk hotspots include Millennium Park in West Roxbury, Rock Meadow in Belmont, and Heard Conservation Land in Wayland. In the rest of the state, any open hilltop or good vantage point near a river will do!

 

Follow the Rivers

Nighthawks use river valleys to navigate. While any open field is apt to produce a nighthawk sighting at dusk in late August, rivers running North-South tend to concentrate nighthawks in impressive numbers. In the Connecticut River Valley, this can mean over a thousand birds streaming by over the course of the evening—although such a spectacle doesn’t happen every year.

 

Join a Program

Mass Audubon sanctuaries host nighthawk searches in every part of the state! Here are a few that are coming up:

 

Connecticut River Valley
August 22, 2018

Nighthawks and Chimney Swifts at Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary

This program will begin with an indoor presentation about each bird before heading out to search the sky for nighthawks and swifts.

 

Western Massachusetts
August 24, 2018

Evening Nighthawk Watch at Canoe Meadows

Search the evening sky for migrating nighthawks at Canoe Meadows. With luck, you’ll be able to observe these beautiful aerial acrobats catching insects on the wing. This event is free.

 

Worcester Area
August 28, 2018:

Migration of the Common Nighthawk in Millbury

Learn about nighthawk adaptations, ecology, and how to look for feeding behavior, while witnessing their migration flight.

 

Boston Area
September 5, 2018:

Sudbury River Nighthawks with Drumlin Farm

Open vistas along the Sudbury River offer perfect vantage points from which to scan the sky for nighthawks. The group will explore the marsh, grassland and orchards for other fall migrants.