Tag Archives: birds

Barn Swallows Successfully Return to Nest at Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge

Barn Swallows build their nests out of mud often on the eaves, rafters, and cross beams of barns, stables, and sheds.

Last summer, Mass Audubon’s Director of Bird Conservation, Jon Atwood, collaborated with Andy French, project leader at the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, to study Barn Swallows that were nesting in an aging horse stable destined for demolition during the non-breeding season. Approximately 40 pairs of swallows nested in the stable during 2019; an additional 4-7 pairs nested in an adjacent building, known as the Boat House, which the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) planned to set aside as a more long-term Barn Swallow nesting site and storage area. The aging horse stable was eventually demolished after the resident swallows had migrated to their South American wintering grounds.

The Barn Swallows are back!

We have good news to report! As hoped, the majority of swallows that nested in the stable in 2019 have returned and set up housekeeping in the Boat House. As of June 16 (still relatively early in the breeding season), 30 pairs were actively nesting in the Boat House, and four additional pairs had established nests in nearby artificial structures built for this purpose.

Jon Atwood removes a captured Barn Swallow from a mist net for banding.

Last year Jon banded many (but not all) of the Barn Swallow adults so that we could tell if they returned to the site in future years. Of 51 birds that have been captured using mist nets in the Boat House in 2020, 22 (43%) had been banded as adults in 2019 in the stable. In other studies, researchers have found that return rates of breeding swallows to undisturbed nesting sites have ranged from 20% in Oklahoma to 42% in New York. Although most Barn Swallows do not return to where they were hatched, we have even captured 2 individuals that hatched from nests that were located last year in the horse stable.

A new kiosk gives an up close look at the birds

Conte Refuge visitors watch nesting Barn Swallows at the kiosk at Fort River (photo by Andy French).

USFWS has placed video cameras in the Boat House, and visitors can watch the nesting swallows feed their young from an observation kiosk located near the start of the 1.2 mile long universally-accessible Fort River Birding Trail. Visitors may also be greeted by the families of Tree Swallows and Barn Swallows that are also nesting in the kiosk. The kiosk will eventually house a professionally-designed and fabricated exhibit with information about aerial insectivores.

This success will lead to other successes going forward

Not only does this success story provide a happy ending to the difficult management debate that swirled around the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to remove the horse stable, but these efforts have also paved the way for future conservation actions that can be applied to other situations. Aging barns occupied by Barn Swallows are a common feature in New England’s historically agricultural landscape, and sometimes these structures cannot be saved. Through the experience at Conte Refuge we have learned important lessons about how to attract and relocate Barn Swallows into alternative structures where they can be protected if occupied barns need to be removed.

We’ll keep you posted as the season progresses.

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

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

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

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

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

Residences: a silent culprit

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

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

Help us track bird-window collisions at home

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

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

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

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

The Saga of the “Robin Snipe”—An Artful Overview of an Atlantic Flyway Tragedy

The Red Knot (Calidris canutus) is a shorebird, roughly the size of an American Robin, and similarly colored in spring, with rusty red underparts and a ruddy brownish back sprinkled with black and calico. This species’ legacy has been punctuated by eras of superabundance, intense market hunting persecution, habitat disruption, and most recently anthropogenic events that have nearly brought the Atlantic flyway population to its knees. Favored sandy beaches on the South Shore of Cape Cod Bay and outer Cape Cod in Massachusetts have for many decades hosted great numbers of “Robin Snipes” (so-called by early market gunners) during their autumn migration en route to the far reaches of southern South America for the winter. And it was on these same Bay State beaches that the Atlantic population of knots was mercilessly persecuted from July-October during much of the 19th and early 20th century. 

Red Knot (Photo by A Grigorenko)

Fast forward to the last half of the 20th century when the ornithological community, initially in the Mid-Atlantic Coast region, began systematically registering measurable declines in the vast numbers of knots that once stopped on Massachusetts shores during autumn migration and on the shores of Delaware Bay in May. These early warnings presaged what was to become one of the most precipitous declines in modern shorebird history. The sad and well-documented chronicle of the near collapse of the eastern North American Red Knot population is one of the most dramatic sagas in modern-day bird conservation.

The pathos and intimate details of this ongoing conservation drama have recently been eloquently presented in Orion magazine by author and Audubon A awardee Deborah Cramer and artist Janet Essley. To explore the details of this fascinating story, follow this link >

ACT Season 2 Wrap-up

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

The volunteer process

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

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

A Commmon Yellowthroat outside of University Hall at UMass Boston

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

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

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

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

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

A Lincoln’s Sparrow at the John Hancock Tower

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

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.

 

The Curious Case of a Barn Owl in Lexington

Among the half-dozen breeding owl species in the Commonwealth, the nearly cosmopolitan Barn Owl (Tyto alba) is clearly one of the most unusual.

Almost completely nocturnal (active at night), Barn Owls are so inconspicuous that they can sometimes go undetected even in localities where they may be fairly common. In Massachusetts, the raspy nocturnal shrieks of this owl are seldom heard away from their principal year-round nesting areas on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, where they are close to the extreme northeastern limit of their range in eastern North America.

In Massachusetts, any Barn Owl found away from their favored haunts on the offshore islands is decidedly unusual. Consequently, the recent discovery of a dead Barn Owl on the surface of the snow at Dunback Meadow in Lexington (reported to our Wildlife Information Line) was most notable.

Dead Barn Owl found in Lexington © Marj Rines

Out of context the frozen corpse of a Barn Owl in Lexington might simply seem to be an anomaly. However, when all the facts are considered, it may not be as anomalous as it first appears.

At over 170 acres, Dunback Meadow is the largest conservation property in Lexington and it is comprised of a variety of habitats including an extensive open wet meadow and a pine grove. This combination of habitats is highly favorable to several species of small rodents and shrews, most notably the Meadow Vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus).

The Meadow Vole is frequently the number one prey species for several open country foraging raptor species, especially Northern Harriers, Rough-legged Hawks, Long-eared Owls, and Short-eared Owls. In winters when any given field is heavily populated by voles, some of these raptors occasionally become concentrated, much the way high populations of lemmings may concentrate jaegers and Snowy Owls in Arctic tundra areas.

This winter two Rough-legged Hawks and as many as four Long-eared Owls have regularly been recorded at Dunback Meadow – an indication that the vole population in the meadow is probably high this season.

Add to the abundance of food the recent bitter cold wave accompanied by a foot or more of newly fallen snow, and suddenly there is a combination of extreme stressors for a semi-hardy, rodent-eating raptors like Barn Owls trying to survive at the northern terminus of their range. But why was the Barn Owl in Lexington in the first place?

While the definitive answer may never be truly known, it is plausible to think that the Lexington Barn Owl was a wandering individual that was attracted by the same high concentration of rodents that had attracted the Rough-legged Hawks and the Long-eared Owls. But when it was suddenly confronted with a bitter cold wave accompanied by a foot of fresh-fallen snow, it probably became over-stressed and starved to death.

And from a belated report of a Barn Owl in a nearby garage several days previous to its being found dead on the snow, it seems likely that the owl may have been in the area for a period of time before meeting its demise due to starvation and the frigid cold weather.

The Lexington Barn Owl was spotted in a garage prior to being found dead © Charles Hornig

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.