Tag Archives: birding

The Greatest Black Hawk: An epic journey recounted

Great Black Hawk by John Harrison

Black hawks are hefty, Buteo-like hawks not too distantly related to the widespread and familiar Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). There are several species, but most common are the Common Black Hawk (Buteogallus anthracinus) that sparingly nests in the extreme southern portions of the southwestern U.S. south to northern South America, and the Great Black Hawk (Buteogallus urubitinga) that primarily breeds from coastal Mexico south through tropical South America. Both species feed on a variety of creatures including reptiles, amphibians, crayfish, crabs, small mammals, and occasionally even birds.  Both black hawks are relatively sedentary and neither species is a long-distance migrant.

With this information in mind, it understandably came as a mind-blowing surprise to several ecstatic birders who saw and definitively photographed for 20 minutes a juvenile Great Black Hawk on South Padre Island on the coast of Texas, April 24, 2018.  But this is only the beginning of a saga! 

Fast forward to August 6 in Biddeford, ME, where the same individual Great Black Hawk was again definitively photographed and the images were matched exactly to the April sighting in Texas.  The hawk lingered in Biddeford until August 9 before once again disappearing, this time until October 29, when it showed up in Portland, ME! Only this time the elusive tropical raptor only stayed under cover until November 28 when it appeared in a different part of the city only two miles away.

Virtually as I write, this itinerant tropical raptor is still present in the vicinity of Deering Oaks Park, just west of downtown Portland where it has become headline news and is happily feeding on the plethora of gray squirrels inhabiting the urban park.  What will be its ultimate fate when the snow flies and the inevitable cold becomes extreme may never be known….but for now, this has to be the Greatest Black Hawk of them all!

Licorice In The Sky: A seasonal gathering of crows

Crows © Craig Gibson

An annual late autumn phenomenon in New England is the spectacular crepuscular gathering of American Crows into large nocturnal communal roosts. Felt by many to be large, raucous, and often pesky, crows in fact are intelligent, crafty, and creative survivors in a world heavily populated with humanity.  A crow aficionado ever since kidnapping a baby American Crow from a nest for a pet in my boyhood (don’t try that at home), I have been fascinated by crows.  Their myriad vocalizations, their ability to count at least to three, to eat practically anything, and to survive seemingly everywhere are collectively worthy attributes. But to fully appreciate the magnificence of crows in all their glory is to observe them at a winter roost.

To dispel the erroneous perception that American Crows are sedentary residents in Massachusetts throughout the year is to visit any of the leading autumn hawk watching sites in Massachusetts from late September to early November. As autumn’s foliage is acquiring its brilliance and then falling, small groups of crows daily stream southward from northern New England and eastern Canada, some following ridge lines and valleys, others the course of major river ways or the seacoast. As fall transitions to winter these northern migrants join more southerly resident crows every evening to form what are often aggregations of many thousands of individuals.  Wherever these nightly roosts happen to be, the late afternoon and nightly behavior of the crows within the roosts is a matter of considerable interest to the careful and dedicated watcher.  And there are lots of unanswered questions surrounding these winter roosts.

For example one might assume that every evening crows from far and wide simply fly directly to a communal roost site for the night, or that in the morning the crows utilizing a roost might routinely head for the same daytime foraging areas.  Not only are these assumptions untrue, they also offer insight into the mysteries of crow behavior.  Normally relatively solitary during the mid-spring nesting season, by mid-summer crows become increasingly gregarious, and by winter they have gathered into large roosts that may contain many thousands of individuals from great distances away.

© Craig Gibson

The behavior of crows near these evening roosts is particularly curious, if not mercurial.  For instance, from night to night crows approaching a roost will regularly make several pre-roosting stops (called staging areas), sometimes more than a mile from the final roost site.  These short stops are generally accompanied by much raucous vocalizing, before the birds present often suddenly depart and head off to another staging site where this behavior is then repeated.  This may occur several times before dark within a several mile diameter area of the final roost, and the staging areas may change location from day to day.

Finally, during deep dusk or shortly after dark, most of the birds in these staging areas will make a last and often silent flight to the ultimate roost site.  Surprisingly for birds as timid and wary as crows normally are during the day, at these nighttime roosts the birds often perched on bare, leafless deciduous tree branches where it is sometimes possible to literally walk under roost tree without disturbing them – something that would be virtually impossible during the day.

American Crow © Craig Gibson

Undoubtedly a number of important functions occur in these enormous winter roosts.  One is the opportunity for crows in a winter roost to “meet other crows.”  Since crows do not breed in their first year after nesting, these roosts may serve as “dating bars” for un-mated immature crows to meet at the winter roost, then eventually breed for the first time in the spring with mates established in the winter roost.  Similarly, first-year immature crows probably learn what it truly means to be a crow in a winter roost.  They likely acquire important winter foraging skills, learn how to avoid predators and other related dangers, and how to modify the many nuances of complex crow vocabulary.  While seemingly speculative, there is also good evidence to reinforce and support these concepts.

To best appreciate some of the spectacular mysteries described above, currently there are few better places in eastern Massachusetts to experience them firsthand than a huge, well established American Crow and Fish Crow roost located in the city of Lawrence.  This Lawrence roost has been well described in a previous Distraction Display post.

So to appreciate one of winter’s most impressive avian spectacles, try spending a late afternoon in the months ahead near the New Balance building in downtown Lawrence adjacent to the Merrimack River and behold the sight of Licorice in the Sky for yourself.

 

Give the gift of birds this holiday season. You can make a gift to Mass Audubon in honor of your loved ones.

 

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.

 

Throwback Tuesday: Old And New Perspectives On Migration

Spring Migration: The Early Birders’ View

William Brewster, the famous 19th-century ornithologist and Cambridge resident, imagined that spring migrants preferred the rural countryside west of Boston to the woodlands near the city. But when he moved to Concord in 1892, he was surprised to find fewer migrants than he had become used to seeing in Cambridge.

Brewster’s student, Ludlow Griscom, hypothesized that this was the result of birds’ migratory routes. Brewster’s data, collected over decades, seemed to show that migrants did not move evenly across the state, but rather took routes based on the shape of the landscape.

Paraphrased, Griscom’s theory went like this: a big stream of birds passes up the mid-Atlantic coast, and two major contingents form in New York. One, with many inland migrants, would hit the Hudson river valley and follow it north, and the other would travel along the Connecticut coast. A small contingent of birds would then split off and follow the Housatonic River, and a major one would follow the Connecticut River Valley. The rest turn northeast just ahead of Narraganset Bay to avoid the pine barrens of southeastern Massachusetts and Cape Cod. These birds turn north near Boston Harbor, passing through Canton, Milton, Brookline and Cambridge, before continuing north into Essex County and along the New Hampshire coast.

Griscom and Brewster’s theory of migratory routes is roughly illustrated in this map:

Almost, But Not Quite

This particular set of routes has not been borne out by modern data gleaned from the radar. While some studies show that certain areas are regularly “birdier” than others during migration, (including sites along major river valleys), wind and weather patterns ultimately have more sway over bids’ trajectories than the topography of the landscape. Some expert birders still swear that migrating birds following “sight lines” or topographic features, but these observations remains anecdotal.

Even if migratory routes are not as fixed or as specific as Griscom imagined, radar does often show higher concentrations migrants in some areas than others. For example, in early May 2018, birds seemed to avoid southeastern Massachusetts and Boston, staying northwest of I-495. This is demonstrated on the radar maps below (note that the radar station is the white cross in the center of the circle, and that radar can detect birds equally in all directions- check out our blog series on reading radar images if you haven’t yet!)  Bear in mind that these are by no means typical nights—birds take very different migratory paths through Massachusetts every night, mostly depending on wind direction and time of year.

While the radar doesn’t show nocturnal migrants grouping together in narrow ribbons in the air, compiling images like these helps scientists observe patterns in bird migration. For example, this map by Kyle Horton of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology shows the direction in which birds are heading. The length of each bar shows how many birds are flying in that direction over the course of a season. The key takeaway: many birds fly over the ocean from Massachusetts, preferring to take the direct route over the Gulf of Maine rather than follow the coastline.

 

This map was recently featured in an awesome video by Jackson Childs, a local birder and friend of Mass Audubon. Check out Jackson’s video for more cool information about bird migration, including dawn flight, and some close-up footage of colorful warblers.

If you’ve found surprising patterns in spring migration, let us know in the comments!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Predicting Spring Migration: Part 3

(This is the final installment in a series on birding by radar. Read the first and second post first so this one makes sense!)

On May 20, 2017, Bay-breasted Warblers seemed to drip from every tree at Mass Audubon’s Marblehead Neck Wildlife Sanctuary. Birders tallied dozens of this normally scarce migrant practically on arrival, alongside equally impressive numbers of Canada Warblers, Blackburnian Warblers, and other migrants. The air filled with high-pitched warbler songs so much that it was difficult to distinguish one from the next. Plum Island was equally loaded, with some observers tallying 123 species for the day. Was this a fallout, or just an excellent day for migration?

Fallout is one of the most exciting spectacles a birder can hope to experience in migration. Serious birders mistakenly use this term all the time to mean “a lot of migrants in one area,” but fallout refers to a very specific phenomenon: birds that cut short their migratory journey due to severe weather or exhaustion.

Birds will fall out along the coast if they are blown far off course over the ocean; they return to land hungry and tired, and large numbers feed at ground-level in coastal vegetation.  Fast-moving fronts of severe weather can also cause fallouts when they interrupt bands of migrating birds, and stationary fronts can stall migrants that land when they encounter it and build up along its edge.

On May 20th, 2017, birders who read the radar saw that northeastern Massachusetts experienced a borderline fallout; a storm had blown birds against the coast and over the ocean, but the weather cleared early enough that many grounded birds continued migrating afterwards. Regardless, the superb birding that day was undeniably predictable.

Reading the Radar on May 20, 2017

The radar for this night showed moderate migration, with a front of severe weather pushing birds south and east. The dense (green and red) precipitation is pictured up against a group of birds, represented by the blue line between the edge of the storm and the mass of birds in the center of the frame.

As the front moved east (see below), the density of migrants increased just to its south. The birds at the edge of the storm, pictured in blue above, appear to have been pushed into the main mass of birds, where they show up as a streak of green (higher-density) in the image below.

The velocity map below paints a slightly different picture. The black areas between the storm and the birds show that the storm is grounding birds. But the birds just away from the edge—that red spur in New Hampshire, for example—are not getting pushed south by it.

The red color (that is, increased relative velocity reading) of that patch of birds shows that they are either 1) continuing to fly east but increasing their speed or 2) flying north instead of east, as if to go around the storm, and maintaining their speed.  In either case, the fact that these birds are being detected further away from the station than the rest of the cluster indicates that they increased their flying altitude (recall that the further away birds are from the station, the higher they need to be to show up on the radar). It’s anybody’s guess why they would be doing this; the storm exists at a higher altitude than the birds, so flying up into it seems counterintuitive.

What Was Missing

Since the front passed fairly early in the evening, many migrants had a chance to pick themselves up and move along after the storm passed. It is not a reach to imagine that the birds that built up along the edge of the storm took off again after the storm passed, and moved northeast again, landing in similar areas along the Maine coast.

What Looked Promising

Storm or no storm, a forecast of west winds turning northwest at dawn is always a good sign for coastal sites. West winds blow inland migrants against the coast, where many prefer to land instead of flying over the water. Other birds overshoot the coast in strong winds, and when winds turn northwest at dawn, these ambitious flyers drop back in at coastal sites like Plum Island and Marblehead Neck.

The Results

A small but significant stream of birds poured off the ocean and onto the coast in the morning. Some experts say that this was strictly because they were pushed east by the storm, but some hold that these birds would have overshot the coast with the west wind anyway.  In either case, velocity readings from early (4:30-5:30) the next morning show many birds over the ocean colored in yellows, olives, and some blue: birds that are not moving directly away from or directly towards the radar station. In some areas, this means they were moving towards the coast.

Arrows on this map indicating bird direction were determined by drawing a line from the radar station (circled) out to a point with birds, and then drawing an arrow slightly over 90 degrees to this line for birds moving slightly away from the station (yellow).

Likewise, the arrow would be at exactly 90 degrees to the line for birds moving neither towards nor away from the station, slightly under 90 degrees to the line for birds moving slightly towards the station (light blues and greys) and in the direction (or close to it) of the line for birds moving strongly towards or away from the station (colored red or deep blue). If you didn’t follow this, don’t worry: the key is that birds over the water at dawn often means coastal fallout.

To sum it up, there were three elements of that evening’s radar that practically screamed “Go birding on the coast tomorrow”:

  1. Radar showing many birds moving more east than north, and some shooting over the coast at high speed
  2. A strong storm that could force migrants against the coast even more vigorously than the winds could, and might even ground many of them.
  3. Most importantly, birds coming in off the ocean early in the morning (4:30-5:30).

Lo and behold, it was an incredible day on the coast the following morning, even though arguments over how much the early-evening storm had to do with it remain unresolved.

This is just one example of how reading the radar can lead to better birding.  Try it for yourself this spring and see if you strike spring migrant gold!

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.

 

Backyard Oddball: A “White-capped” Chickadee

In case our readers are tired of the endless news stories about the yellow Northern Cardinal in Alabama, a surprising color variant of a Black-capped Chickadee has shown up recently in our home state of Massachusetts.

A private homeowner in Charlton sent us some pictures of the bird, which was coming to her feeders.

©Laurie Dearnley

A partially leucistic Black-capped Chickadee in Charlton. ©Laurie Dearnley

In some ways, this bird looks more like a tit from the Eurasian genus Cyanistes—a group very closely related to North America’s chickadees.

However, Wayne Petersen and David Sibley confirmed that this bird’s body shape and plumage is indeed consistent with a partially leucistic Black-capped Chickadee.

What is Leucism?

Leucism is a genetic condition that prevents a bird’s body from depositing pigments in feathers, leaving some parts of the bird white or paler than normal. Leucism is not to be confused with albinism. Albino birds only lack a single pigment (melanin) responsible for producing blacks and browns, but the issue is not getting the pigment where it needs to be—albino birds simply do not produce melanin at all.  While these birds end up with no black or brown anywhere (even in the eye!) they might retain other colors like reds and yellows.  In leucistic birds, any or all colors could appear paler than normal, but their eyes (and often their skin) will be dark.

This bird is particularly fascinating because while it has retained some pigment in its feathers and its legs are partially dark, its toes are pink and unpigmented. Normally, a bird with partially pigmented feathers will have full pigmentation on its bare parts. Transporting pigment to living tissue (skin) is biologically easier than to dead tissue (feathers). It’s quite rare for a bird with partial leucism to have bare parts that are pale, and even rarer for a bird’s bare parts to be half dark and half pale.

Bird Pigments: Form Meets Function

Pigments often serve vital functions for birds beyond what we might expect. Feathers with melanin, for example, are stronger and more resistant to wear and tear than unpigmented feathers. This may be why some birds, like many gulls, have black outer edges on their otherwise-white wings. Female birds may also read certain plumage traits to indicate the physical health of potential mates. Several studies have correlated bright pigmentation with healthy immune systems in species from Zebra Finches to Red-winged Blackbirds (although never any chickadee species), and many birds with aberrant plumage show decreased mating success. Finally, birds with abnormally pale feathers tend to stick out visually, and run a greater risk of predation.

But even if this particular Black-capped Chickadee has a difficult (or short) life ahead of it, we think it’s beautiful just the way it is.

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

Patriots on the Move: tracking the migration of Great Shearwaters

While New England football fans are anxiously following the fortune of the New England Patriots, ornithologists at the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary are tracking the trans-equatorial movements of Great Shearwaters (individuals in this year’s group are named after Patriots players).

Through the use of sophisticated satellite technology, tiny transmitters now have the capacity to follow the movements of birds and secretive mammals more than a hemisphere away practically in real time.

Great Shearwater ©Peter Flood

Followers of Distraction Displays may recall that in late summer seabirds called Great Shearwaters made headlines when exceptional numbers were observed feeding on many thousands of Menhaden (small forage fish) in the surf-line at Provincetown on the tip of Cape Cod. Although most of these shearwaters have long since retreated toward their nesting grounds on the remote archipelago of Tristan du Cunha deep in the South Atlantic Ocean, scientists nonetheless now know precisely where some individuals are located!

A size comparison of one of the solar PTT transmitters used in the project and a standard U.S. penny. ©NOAA/SBNMS

While satellite tracking has been used to monitor wildlife for 20 years or more, the weight and size of transmitters today makes it possible to follow wildlife significantly smaller than eagles and bears. This summer, waterproof transmitters called PTT (Platform Transmitting Terminal) tags weighing only 12 g and manufactured by Microwave Technology were affixed to shearwaters off Cape Cod during the month of August.

Of nine tags originally affixed to Great Shearwaters and one to a Sooty Shearwater this summer, one is still generating round-the-clock signals from Argos satellites orbiting the earth at approximately 528 miles above the ground. The unique signals generated by the transmitters are regularly received by Argos and eventually made accessible to the researchers who are mapping the movements of the shearwaters. Needless to say the technology involved is complex, but the information gathered is elegant.

All 10 tagged shearwaters as of 1/4/2018. ©NOAA/SBNMS

The 10 shearwaters tagged this summer were all named after New England Patriots players. Of the 10 tagged shearwaters, only Gronkowski’s transmitter was still sending signals on January 2, 2018. Gronkowski crossed the equator on December 19, and as of Jan. 2 was at 16.5 degrees South in deep water (>2000 meters) off the coast of Brazil near Banco Minerva—a semount <100 meters deep. Go Gronk!

Gronkowski as of 1/2/2018 ©NOAA/SBNMS

Cooks crossed the equator on December 12, but its transmitter stopped working on Christmas Eve at 27 degrees South in deep water (>2500 meters) off of Paraguay.

Cooks 12/24/2017 ©NOAA/SBNMS

McCourty’s tag stopped working on December 19, hours after crossing the equator. Edelman was still in the mid-Atlantic on Dec 12, and unfortunately Brady’s Sooty Shearwater transmitter cut out while the bird was off Morocco in mid-October.

Edelman 12/12/17 ©NOAA/SBNMS

All of the tagged shearwaters were aged by plumage to be either one or two years-old, and most will not likely return to Tristan du Cunha this winter because few are likely to attain breeding age until they are at least 5-6 years-old. These sub-adult individuals will very likely remain on the Patagonian Shelf until March/April before beginning their northward migration, which will initially bring them up the east coast of South America before reaching North Atlantic waters and the Gulf of Maine.

Having the ability to track individual Great Shearwaters in this way affords ornithologists not only a fine way to chart how this highly pelagic seabird uses the entire Atlantic Ocean in the course of a year, but also a way to map prime foraging and other concentration areas while they are in Gulf of Maine as well as elsewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. This information ultimately enhances the ability to identify oceanic regions of highest conservation concern. Read more about this fascinating project >

Wings over the Water: a seasonal parade

It was gray and overcast, the sea was churning, and the wind was fresh from the Southeast – perfect conditions for watching a parade in early November….and watch we did!  Our viewing location was North Beach on Cape Cod’s back side, all the way from East Orleans to Chatham.

“Marching” in this winged parade were over 40,000 sea ducks and seabirds, all headed southward in a more or less continuous passage emanating from destinations as far away as Alaska, western Canada, James Bay, Labrador, the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, and Newfoundland.  This timeless event was part of the annual migration of vast numbers of waterbirds, all originating in nesting grounds far to the north, and all bound for winter destinations well to the south.

The departure of waterbirds escaping the rigors of sub-arctic and boreal winter is part of a great migratory cycle that has evolved through the millennia into one of the most magnificent autumn spectacles to be witnessed on the Atlantic Coast of North America.  When migration conditions are ideal, the number of birds involved may exceed extravagant!

Common Eiders © Peter Flood

And so it was on November 5, 2017.  Between 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. my companion and I tallied approximately 12,000 Common Eiders, 18,000 Black Scoters, 5000 Great Shearwaters, 3000 Northern Gannets, 100 Razorbills, 400 Black-legged Kittiwakes, and 550 Bonaparte’s Gulls.  When combined with lesser numbers of numerous other species recorded that day, we estimated we had seen over 44,000 waterbirds in approximately seven hours of more or less continuous watching!

The dynamics and precise timing of such movements varies from species to species, but the net effect is unequivocal—the birds moving under such conditions are singular in their purpose, and all are taking advantage of weather frontal conditions and wind directions in ways that will maximize their migratory efficiency.

On November 5,

  • The sea ducks (e.g., Common Eiders) were flying in linear or loosely organized groups, often numbering in the dozens or low hundreds, sometimes flying low over the wave troughs, and sometimes well above the sea surface.
  • The powerful gannets on the other hand tended to fly high, often more than 50 meters above the sea, occasionally turning abruptly and plunging into the sea to catch a fish during their journey.
  • The shearwaters scaled like skipping stones over the sea as far as the eye could see, alternately using the wind between the wave troughs to carry them upward well above the waves, and rapidly gliding downward between the waves to catch another updraft that would carry them skyward again.
  • The more delicate and tern-like Bonaparte’s Gulls stroked along in small parties relatively close to the beach, while further off shore, football-shaped Razorbills would periodically rocket southward between the wave troughs on stubby wings that reminded one of flying penguins.

All this motion, and all headed in the same direction, even though few were bound for the same precise destinations.

Razorbills and Black Scoters © Peter Flood

Where are they headed?

Many of the Black Scoters and Common Eiders are likely headed for the shallow shoals off Monomoy or Nantucket where great submarine beds of blue mussels will sustain them through the winter. Other scoters however might not stop until reaching New Jersey or shoal waters off the Mid-Atlantic Coast for the winter.

The Northern Gannets will likely precipitate out along the continental shelf all the way from Cape Cod to the Gulf of Mexico.

Northern Gannets and gulls off Diamond Shoals, NC © Peter Flood

Most of the Bonaparte’s Gulls will no doubt spend the winter from North Carolina’s outer banks to Florida and the shores of the Gulf of Mexico.

The Great Shearwaters, however, will not stop until they arrive at their austral summer destination on the Patagonian shelf off Argentina, or the remote archipelago of Tristan de Cunha.

So many birds and so little time to accomplish these epic migrations!  However, for land-bound observers privileged to live in a region where these avian parades are seasonally visible from shore, these great waterbird movements represent one of the most dramatic natural parades to seasonally be observed in Massachusetts.

So the next day a brisk east wind is blowing on the heels of a cold front, grab a pair of binoculars and head for the nearest coastal headland!  You won’t be disappointed.

 

 

Hoots, Toots, and Who Cooks For You

Great Horned Owl © Phil Sorrentino

Halloween is typically marked by creepiness—creepy creatures, creepy people, and often creepy sounds.  While it could be true that some of the creepy Halloween sounds are uttered by ghosts, ghouls, and goblins, it’s also true that most are not!  In fact, some mid-autumn night sounds are actually produced by several of our most popular, if not enigmatic birds: owls!

Massachusetts regularly hosts five nesting owl species: Barn Owl, Eastern Screech-Owl, Great Horned Owl, Barred Owl, and Northern Saw-whet Owl.  Other Bay State owl species are either rare or only seasonal visitors.  Because most owls are active at night, much about the lives and activity patterns of owls often goes undetected or unobserved, and frequently it is only the voices of owls that give us a clue about their presence, sometimes without our even knowing which species is making a particular sound.

What are they saying?

Like most birds, owls vocalize to communicate information important to locating or communicating with their mate, their offspring, or other owls intruding into their territory.  And for these different functions, owls regularly use a variety of calls, some of which are the creepy sounds potentially heard by little trick-or-treaters during their nocturnal Halloween walks.

Great Horned Owls and Barred Owls Hoot

If you happen to live where there is good mix of deciduous (broad-leaved) trees and large white pines interspersed with open areas practically anywhere in Massachusetts, especially if the trees border a lake or pond shore, the deep, resonant hoo, hoo-hoo-hoo, hoo, hoo at dusk or dawn in the autumn is a clear indication that your neighborhood is occupied by a pair of Great Horned Owls.

Alternatively, if you should be awakened in the middle of the night by a rhythmic hooting that clearly sounds like who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you, allll, and if it has the quality of a distant barking dog, then the neighboring woodland is almost certainly home to a pair of Barred Owls.

Barred Owl © Derek Allad

Northern Saw-whet Owls Toot

While most of our local owl species are relatively sedentary throughout the year, the tiny Northern Saw-whet Owl is highly migratory in varying numbers during October and November.  Impressive numbers are annually captured and banded at several different owl-banding stations in eastern parts of the state—including Drumlin Farm.

Generally silent, territorial saw-whets typically give a long series of mellow, mechanical, whistled toot-toot-toot-notes that sometimes may continue for many minutes.  Primarily a denizen of coniferous forests in western Massachusetts, but also in the pine barrens of southeastern parts of the state, including on Cape Cod where it is probably second only to the much larger Great Horned Owl.  In fact, the Northern Saw-whet Owl is undoubtedly far commoner than most folks suppose.

Northern Saw-whet Owl © Heather Demick

Barn Owls Shriek

For the keen listener abroad at night on Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket, one can occasionally hear the raspy shriek of a Barn Owl as it leaves its daytime roost, or forages for mice over open moorland.

Barn Owl © USFWS

Eastern Screech-Owls Whistle

At dusk on Halloween evening it would also not be surprising to hear the soft descending whistle (or whinnying sound) of the little Eastern Screech-Owl, the species which is undoubtedly the most common owl in Massachusetts.  Screech-owls also have a low, hollow, monotone whistle that can sometimes be heard throughout the night.

Eastern Screech-Owl (grey morph) © Nathan Goshgarian

Listen carefully and don’t fear!

So don’t be overly fearful of things that hoot or toot at night!  Indeed, go to the window or door and listen more carefully, or take an evening stroll with a flashlight and see if you can spot one of these fascinating creatures for yourself after dark.