Tag Archives: birds

Hot Off the Press! State of the Birds 2017

Black-capped Chickadee may face an uncertain future in Massachusetts. ©Bill Thompson, USFWS

It is with great pleasure that we announce that our third edition of State of the Birds is now available. State of the Birds: Massachusetts Birds and Our Changing Climate focuses on what the future may hold for the breeding birds of Massachusetts as the climate continues to change.

Our last two State of the Birds reports, released in 2011 and 2013, compared the past to the present and identified changes in Massachusetts bird populations. The 2017 edition builds on that work by using science to predict the future.

Climate Matters For Birds and People

Most birds have limited distributions and, to some extent, climate controls the range of those distributions. To glimpse the future, we used a statistical analysis called climate envelope modelling.

Put simply, climate envelope modelling uses real bird and climate (various measures of temperature and precipitation) data to define the preferred climate of a bird species—their “climate envelope”—as it is today. Then the models substitute predicted values of the climate variables into the equation to project a bird’s climate envelope in 2050.

Using the results of our analysis, we assigned each of the 143 species analyzed a “Climate Vulnerability” score. There were some expected results and some surprising results. The overarching message was that birds are already feeling the effects of climate change and even some of our most common birds will probably experience further changes by 2050.

It’s In Our Power to Change the Future

While climate change can feel like an overwhelming problem, it is a problem that we can solve. Much like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, we are being shown a possible future for our birds, and, just like Scrooge, we can take action today to change that future.

Visit the website, download the report, and share it with your friends and family. If we work together we can protect birds, wildlife, and ourselves.

Check out the article in the Boston Globe about the State of the Birds report.

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

Beachfront Armageddon: A fish tale and a seabird saga

For several weeks the sandy beaches at Race Point and Herring Cove Beach in Provincetown have witnessed a spectacular and practically unique confluence of seabirds and fish.  The players in the P-town saga have been Atlantic menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) and Great Shearwaters (Ardenna gravis).

Great Shearwaters are Ring-billed Gull-sized seabirds that maintain their breeding terminus at Tristan de Cunha, a remote archipelago located deep in the southern hemisphere approximately halfway between the tip of southern South America and Cape Horn in South Africa.  Annually most of the world’s population of Great Shearwaters migrates north across the equator to spend the austral winter in the northwest Atlantic Ocean. By late summer most of the adult population has begun the long return journey back to Tristan du Cunha to nest, but the non-breeding sub-adult population regularly remains in North Atlantic waters until late fall.  While in the northern hemisphere Great Shearwaters typically remain on remote fishing banks far off the New England and Atlantic Canadian coasts where they forage on baitfish such as sand lance, capelin, sea herring, or squid and fish bycatch obtained by tracking commercial fishing vessels.

Each high tide left behind a swath of dead menhaden.

Menhaden are a super-abundant forage fish often characterized as one of the most commercially important fishes occurring along the Atlantic coast of the United States, particularly from Massachusetts to the Carolinas (Bigelow and Schroeder’s Fishes of the Gulf of Maine, Collette & Klein-MacPhee, eds., Smithsonian Press, 2002).  Due to their super abundance, immature Menhaden typically less than 2” in length are important fodder for a variety larger predatory fish, marine mammals, and seabirds.  For reasons not always clear, the literature suggests that they are periodically subject to mass late summer stranding and mortality events. These mortality events most often occur in shoal water habitats such as the heads of tidal creeks or small coves like the Herring Cove area in P-town where they may suffer from oxygen depletion or are driven ashore by predators (op.cit.).

Regardless of the explanation, a massive menhaden mortality event took place during the last couple weeks of August and early September.  Most notable however was the fact that unprecedented numbers (i.e., many thousands!) of Great Shearwaters appeared inshore to feast on the abundant fish.  For many days in a row, on each falling tide the voracious shearwaters literally swarmed in the surf picking off the tiny fish like popcorn. For a normally completely pelagic species that spends most of its life out of sight of land, this behavior was most unusual and provided birdwatchers, fisherman, and beach-goers a rare opportunity to observe these interesting seabirds at literally pointblank range!

Check out this video to see what this phenomenon looked like.

 

The Treasure Islands of Essex County

by Chris Leahy, Gerard A. Bertrand Chair of Natural History and Field Ornithology emeritus

Halfway Rock © Chris Leahy

There is something about islands. Their remoteness generates a certain mystique.  Even islands inhabited by people have an aura of “away-ness,” and uninhabited ones stimulate visions of hidden treasures of one kind or another. There is also an ecological significance to islands: their plants and animal communities are often different from those of even nearby mainlands; their isolation from other populations promote evolutionary change; and they may act as refuges for certain species because they are hard to reach by predators.

The coastal waters of Essex County from Nahant Bay to Cape Ann are dotted with more than 50 islands ranging in size from small rocky “skerries” which are nearly submerged at high tide to the well-wooded 83-acre Great Misery Island, two of them populated at least seasonally. In 2002 these were formally designated as the Essex County Coastal Birds Islands Important Bird Area*, due to their breeding populations of water birds that rarely nest on the mainland, including a number of rare or uncommon species.

Straitsmouth Island © Chris Leahy

This summer Mass Audubon’s Conservation Science Department, supported by a grant from the Nuttall Ornithological Club, and the help of several generous private boat owners began a survey of these islands with the following basic objectives:

  • Developing a comprehensive understanding of past and current bird survey efforts, data sources, and management activities.
  • Completing an assessment of current breeding bird activity on the islands.
  • Identifying existing stresses such as human use, presence of rats and other predators, vegetation change, and climate vulnerability.
  • Developing recommendations for future management in support of the breeding birds.
  • Raising public awareness of the importance of these islands through programming and networking with state and regional conservation entities.

The survey has already turned up a number of previously unrecorded breeding sites for wading birds and American Oystercatcher.  We will be publishing more detailed results in the near future.

 

*An Important Bird Area (IBA) is an area identified using an internationally agreed upon set of criteria as being globally important for the conservation of bird populations. The program was developed and sites are identified by Birdlife International based in Cambridge, England. Currently there are over 12,000 IBAs worldwide and 79 in Massachusetts.

 

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

In the Field: Elm Hill

Scarlet Tanager © Ruby Sarkar

Past blog posts about our Elm Hill Sanctuary – a Foresters for the Birds demonstration site—have largely discussed the planning of forestry practices to manage and enhance bird habitat.  We kicked the project off last fall and winter, when our migratory birds were hundreds or thousands of miles away.  So, until spring arrived, we were not able to work much with the birds themselves.

A primary focus of the program is indeed birds and their habitat, so it is important to assess how effective any implemented forestry practices are.  This enables us to make adjustments to future management and maximize the benefit for birds.  We do this by monitoring how the birds respond.  At the earliest, on the ground management at Elm Hill will not happen until this coming winter.  However, we will need to compare the future bird response to current, baseline conditions.  A before-and-after, if you will.

Late May through early July is the ideal time to sample breeding birds.  Migration is over, so all the birds have arrived and will likely remain through the season.  They are on breeding territories and actively singing, which helps us to detect their presence.  During this time we can begin to answer some important questions.

For example, which species are present, and what are their general habitat preferences?  How many species are present?  How many individuals of each species are present?  Is a particular species absent that we may have expected?  Answering questions like these help us to characterize the current bird community.  Answering the same questions after habitat management will help us assess just how effective our efforts were.

Wood Thrush nest © Michael Ross

This is why, with the help of volunteers, Sheila Carroll and Mark Lynch, we recently completed a series of point count surveys at Elm Hill, all within areas that are slated for management in the near future.  With this initial information in hand, we will eventually see how things change after management, which is geared towards helping species in need of conservation action.  The next step will be to dig into the data, and some results will be shared in future Elm Hill updates.  Stay tuned!

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

How birds sing such intricate songs

The colorful bursts of flowers and the familiar smell of thawing soils that we all associate with spring is always accompanied by the wonderful sound of bird song.  There is nothing quite like waking early enough to experience the dawn chorus, where male birds, representing a slew of different species, are persistently singing to secure a breeding territory and attract a mate for the season.

Wood Thrush © Sheila Carroll

The beauty and complexity of these songs is attributable to a unique organ that most birds possess, called a syrinx.  Located where the trachea – commonly known as the windpipe – splits into the bronchial tubes before entering the lungs, the syrinx has two symmetric halves, each capable of producing sound independently.  This enables songsters to make seamless changes in pitch, articulate a complex burst of short notes, and even sing two tones at once.

Some of our most impressive singers are the thrushes.  This family (Turdidae) includes species such as the American Robin and Eastern Bluebird, but perhaps the most impressive singers are those which inhabit deep forests.  Some of these songs, such as the Wood Thrush’s and Veery’s, are featured on the following website, where you to listen at regular speed as well as slowed down:

http://www.wildmusic.org/animals/thrush

When you slow the songs down you can really hear the intricacies.  Put some headphones on to really have a close listen, and maybe you will have a fuller appreciation the next time you hear a bird singing.

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

The Bobolink Project: 2017 season update

 

Male Bobolink © Allan Strong

The Bobolinks are arriving in New England and we’re finalizing the contracts with our participating Bobolink Project farmers. Thanks to the generosity of our Bobolink Project donors, we can protect over 630 acres of farmland this year! In return for some compensation, the Bobolink Project farmers will delay mowing on their hay fields until the young grassland birds have had time to fledge.

As in past years, we had more acres submitted into the project than we could cover with the available pool of donations. This year, we received 40 applications from farmers in Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, and New York—but our donation pool, as of April 1st (our deadline for donations), could cover only 17 of the farmers’ fields. This may sound disappointing, but we are able to cover 20% more acres this year at a lower per acre price of $60 (vs. $75 last year).

We are glad that the project is continuing to grow and look forward to welcoming grassland birds to fields enrolled in the program this summer and sharing our results with you. Keep up to date with The Bobolink Project by signing up to the mail-list or follow us on Facebook.

The Bobolink Project donations are accepted all year. The 2018 donation pool is already growing: since April 1st we have received over $8,000 in donations that will be saved for next year. Donate now to help us protect more acres and birds next year.

 

Eastern Meadowlark Citizen Science Project May 15–June 15

Eastern Meadowlark © Phil Brown

Calling all birders and bird enthusiasts!

We have launched a multi-year citizen science project to study Eastern Meadowlarks. The project aims to collect presence-absence data for Eastern Meadowlarks at randomly selected sites throughout Massachusetts from May 15 to June 15, 2017. Eastern Meadowlarks are in serious decline, both in Massachusetts and elsewhere in North America, and in order to better help this species we need to know more about their status in Massachusetts. The data collected through this project will provide valuable information about this species’ current distribution in the Commonwealth, and will form the basis for a better assessment of meadowlark habitat requirements and future conservation needs.

To get the information we need it is critical that we get help from citizen scientists. There are a lot of potential sites where Eastern Meadowlarks could be nesting, but there are only a few of us! The results of this work will help us develop models for use in evaluating potential sites that have not been visited.

Project data can be easily entered through the Anecdata website on a computer or in the field on a mobile smartphone device. The surveys required are simple and quick (10 minutes!) to do. We’ve provided our citizen scientist volunteers with “hotspots” where we specifically need a volunteer to do a meadowlark survey on three separate dates (with preferably at least 3 days in between each date) during the period of May 15 and June 15. Many of these hotspots will likely not have Eastern Meadowlarks, but knowing where Eastern Meadowlarks are not is just as valuable for scientific analysis as knowing where Eastern Meadowlarks are.

More information about how to get involved is available on the project website.

Not familiar with Eastern Meadowlarks? Check out our quick guide and listen to their song.

Questions? Contact us at birdconservation@massaudubon.org.

Blackpoll Warbler: an impressive sprinter

Male Blackpoll Warbler © Kenneth Cole Schneider

“Its activity is pleasing, but its notes have no title to be called a song. They are shrill, and resemble the noise made by striking two small pebbles together, more than any other sound that I know.” – John James Audubon, Birds of America

The Blackpoll Warbler is a very common migrant in Massachusetts, and it is often located by its high-frequency song as it passes through the state. The sound is so high that many birders claim that being unable to hear the Blackpoll Warbler’s song is one of the first signs of hearing loss. From June through August, however, there are precious few places in the Commonwealth where even observers with the keenest hearing can hope to hear a Blackpoll Warbler sing. Given that we are on the extreme southern edge of this species’ breeding range, it is not surprising that breeding pairs of this subalpine specialist are few and far between in the Bay State. Mount Greylock is most likely place to see a breeding Blackpoll Warbler in Massachusetts.

Did You Know?

During migration the Blackpoll Warbler—weighing in at just 12 grams (lighter than a soda can)—flies for three straight days over the Atlantic Ocean before stopping in Colombia or Venezuela. In addition, Blackpoll Warblers that breed on the northwest coast of the U.S. first fly across the continent to join up with their eastern counterparts before flying south. This is one of the most impressive migrations of any animal.

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

What is it like to participate in Bird-a-thon?

Bird-a-thon, Mass Audubon’s largest annual fundraiser, features a 24-hour team birding competition where birders and team supporters raise money to support Mass Audubon programs and sanctuaries. What is it like to be a part of Mass Audubon’s Bird-a-thon? Michael Pappone, longtime member of the Bird Conservation team and Mass Audubon board member, shares his experiences from Bird-a-thon 2016:

“My team is up by 3:30 a.m. to gather well before dawn at the Bolton Flats Wildlife Management Area in Worcester County. The mist lurks around the cat-tails and willows. The Eastern Phoebe’s ‘vree-bee’ call rings out in the near distance (check!), and then the ‘oonk-a-dunk’ of the endangered American Bittern crouching somewhere out there in the wetness signals that it was time for another (check!) and that it is going to be a great day in the field. Then suddenly a Sandhill Crane floats by. Is he mistaking the Worcester County wetlands for Nebraska? Big (check!).

Bird-a-thon is in full swing! Behind us, a Scarlet Tanager let loose with his robin-with-a-sore-throat imitation. (Check!) At this rate our palms will be smarting from all the high-fiving before sunrise. Over at the sandy end of the Flats, another endangered fellow greets us from the heights of his very own 3-foot shrub sticking out of the sandy soil: a Grasshopper Sparrow, sounding very much like a grasshopper that just touched a high-voltage wire. With about 40 check marks on our list, we obey the law of diminishing marginal returns and split for new territory.

Next stop is Wachusett Mountain, where our ascent is rewarded with not only a good number of (checks!) but amazing numbers of Ovenbirds (teacher-Teacher-TEACHER!), Scarlet Tanagers, and Black-and-White (te-tsee te-Tsee-Te-TSEE) and Black-throated Green Warblers vocally squabbling over territory. The (non-check!) bonus is the sighting of a few remaining snow patches. Really good ‘gets’ here are the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Winter Wren. The last of the Dark-eyed Juncos has favored us with a delayed trip north just so we could be the team who gets to count him. Nice.

It’s on to the Quabbin Reservoir: a totally new venue for me out in Hampshire County. The reservoir was formed by a dam built in the Depression years from 1930-1939. The public works project flooded a number of communities to make way for 420 billion gallons of water and a new 181 miles of shoreline. It’s a big hit with the birds, that’s for sure. We revisit a number of previous species – in broad daylight this time; and notch a good number of new ticks on our checklist.”

©Michael Pappone

Join the Bird Conservation team as either a Booster or an Official Birder!

2016-2017 Christmas Bird Count Summary

Ross’s Geese have been seen more often in Massachusetts in the last few years © Aaron Maizlish

The last issue of The Warbler provided a brief history of the venerable Christmas Bird Count (CBC) – a scheme established in 1900 to monitor winter bird populations during a three-week period around Christmas.  This issue offers a few Massachusetts highlights from the 2016-2017 CBC season.  In checklist order, waterfowl made a big splash this winter with rarities such as Pink-footed Goose, Greater White-fronted Goose, Ross’s Goose, and Cackling Goose variously honking things up on several counts, along with some mega-numbers like 17,629 Black Scoters on the Truro CBC, 33,054 Long-tailed Ducks at Nantucket, and a state-wide total of 2,231 Hooded Mergansers.  Several “chickens” continued a downward trend with only 13 Northern Bobwhites tallied on one count, and a state-wide total of 12 Ruffed Grouse on only 6 CBCs.  Compare these figures with the state total of 2,273 Wild Turkeys!

Vultures continued maintained a northward shift in winter numbers (possibly a climate change signal) with a total of 19 Black Vultures noted on just two counts, and 133 Turkey Vultures on 8 CBCs.  A rare-in-winter Osprey appeared in Truro, and state-wide, 219 Cooper’s Hawks maintained their seasonal dominance over the 138 recorded Sharp-shinned Hawks.  In the unobtrusive category, a Yellow Rail recorded at Nantucket was most unusual, and a total of 255 Lesser Black-backed Gulls on that same island speaks to how rapidly this Old World species is moving into North America.

A heavy fall flight of Northern Saw-whet Owls was no doubt responsible for tallies of 45 Saw-whets on the Concord CBC and 30 in Truro.  Two White-winged Doves in Boston’s Victory Gardens and a hardy Rufous Hummingbird on the Buzzards Bay CBC were unique this CBC season. Falcons reflected varying success, with the beleaguered American Kestrel state total of only 13 individuals continuing a disappointing downward trend, while cumulative totals of 37 Merlins and 34 Peregrine Falcons can only be described as optimistic.

Several bona fide rarities included an Ash-throated Flycatcher on the Mid-Cape Cod CBC, a Sedge Wren at Buzzards Bay, and a Townsend’s Solitaire at Cape Ann.  And for any readers who think that American Robins are only harbingers of spring, consider a total of 35,125 robins on the Mid-Cape CBC and the state-wide total of 53,300!

Late lingering can only explain the occurrence of an Ovenbird, a Northern Waterthrush, and a Black-throated Green Warbler at three different localities.

While this summary speaks only to some of the highlights gleaned from this season’s CBC, full details and more information will soon be available at the CBC website.