On Bug Boxes, Climate Grief, and Human Health 

My connection to nature sparked as a  kid in the eighties. I owned a bug box – my  grandmother’s neighbor made them in bulk and then let the kids on the block decorate them. It was a simple wooden construction with a panel door that swung sideways and up, with fine mesh netting  that let the bugs breathe. I’d catch and inspect all kinds of bugs in there. I especially remember summer nights chasing fireflies, carrying my bug box like a lantern on the lawn of our South St. Louis home as dusk fell, and releasing the fireflies as rogue twinkle lights before I went inside for bed.  

I’m Claire Berman, a nature lover, an author, a health communicator, and an aunt. Each of these roles motivates me to act on climate change.  

Claire Berman, Climate Champion.

As I conducted research for my first novel this year, I learned more about the impact of climate change on birds and other animals. I wanted to write about the way they were being forced to find new homes or change their migration patterns. So I bought a pair of binoculars, made a few birder friends, and became amazed by the herculean task of migration. Yet I was also troubled by the ways human-caused climate change can alter when and where birds migrate because of temperature changes or availability of food.  

In my job as a health communicator, I see firsthand the ways that climate change affects human health in addition to animals. Through this  work, I  have seen communities struggle against intense hurricanes, mosquito- and water-borne illnesses, or displacement from their homes because of climate change. I’ve seen how systemic racism creates conditions that put  people of color and people in poverty  more at risk of respiratory illnesses and other public health threats borne from climate change.  

I’m fighting for the climate on all of these fronts.  

This year, I completed a certificate program in Climate Change and Human Health to learn how we can mitigate, adapt to, and communicate about climate change’s public health impacts. I wrote to my senators in support of the Green New Deal for clean energy and millions of new jobs. I signed up to support the youth-led Sunrise Movement. I phone banked and wrote postcards to get out the vote. I donated to wildlife conservation organizations like Mass Audubon.

Anyone can take actions like these. We can all do our small part to protect the natural world and work towards a safe and healthy future for humanity and all living things.  

Claire’s childhood bug box.

A few months ago, my mom asked if my 8-year-old nephew could have my old bug box. He’d found it buried somewhere in the basement, a bit worse for the wear. I said yes, of course. I want him to find joy in the beauty of nature, just as I did at his age, and I’ll do whatever I can to make sure it survives for his generation of kids and beyond.

Claire Berman, Mass Audubon Member.

Walking on a All Persons Trail

Access Nature Through These ADA-Accessible Trails

If you, or someone you care about, has had trouble accessing scenic outdoor areas via traditional trails in the past, our ADA-Accessible All Persons Trails may be your key to unlocking the great outdoors.  

What is an All Persons Trail? 

What began in 2008 with the construction of a pilot “sensory trail” at Stony Brook Wildlife Sanctuary in Norfolk, has evolved into Mass Audubon’s Accessible Interpretive Trails Project, funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). The project has yielded the installation of 12 Americans With Disabilities (ADA)-accessible All Persons Trails throughout the state.  

The trails are typically 0.5-1 miles long and meander through some of Mass Audubon’s most scenic wildlife-watching areas in the state. They’re designed to meet ADA compliance for trail width, slope, and surfacing, and are typically made of crushed gravel material, or wooden boardwalk, suitable for wheelchairs, walkers, and strollers.

All Persons Trails Features

Post & Rope Guiding Systems: About half of our All Persons Trails have post and rope guiding systems that provide navigational support for visitors with low vision. Hanging from the guiding ropes along the trails, round beads are placed to indicate an interpretive stop marker is within an arm’s reach. Square beads indicate seating is nearby, with specific directions explained in tour booklets or audio recordings. 

Sensory-Supporting Features: You can take advantage of tactile maps, and interpretive booklets in regular print, large print, Braille, and audio formats. Audio tours, available on cellphone or audio players, provide sensory-rich interpretations of the sights, sounds, and nature found along your route.  

Stops Along the Way: If you need a break along your journey, or want to pause to soak in your surroundings, accessible wildlife observation structures, specialized gardens, seating, play areas, and picnic areas, can be found along your route.  

Service-Animals: Service animals are, as always, welcome to accompany your visit. Due to the nature of our wildlife conservation mission, we ask that those bringing their service animal familiarize themselves with our service animal statement prior to your visit.  

Find Your Trail 

With over 12 All Persons Trails throughout the state, you’re sure to find something close by. Whether it’s strolling through the farmyard loop at Drumlin Farm in Lincoln, by the Frog Pond at Broad Meadow Brook in Worcester, or over the boardwalk at Arcadia in Easthampton & Northampton, we hope to see you out on a trail soon! 

Search All Persons Trails

Please note some sanctuaries require reservations to visit at this time.  

Wild Turkey © Brad Dinerman

Take 5: Turkey Trot

It has been quite a year, to say the least. Many folks use Thanksgiving as a time to reflect on the past year and give thanks for the goodness in their lives, especially in challenging times. While 2020 has certainly been challenging, we have also seen more people than ever getting outdoors at our sanctuaries and discovering the powerful benefits that time in the outdoors brings to our physical and mental well-being. So what better way to give thanks and give back than spending more time in nature?

This year, Mass Audubon is encouraging as many people as possible to get outside and hike with us the weekend after Thanksgiving during Hike-a-thon 2020. Anyone can join Hike-a-thon from anywhere, and all types of hikes are encouraged, from a stroll around the neighborhood to trying out one of our universally accessible All Persons Trails to taking on a challenging summit hike. You can even join a naturalist-guided walk hosted by one of our sanctuaries!

And since it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without some wild turkey photos, here are five shots of turkeys out for a “Turkey Trot” of their own from our annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest.

Wild Turkey © Justin Miel
Wild Turkey © Justin Miel
Wild Turkey © Cynthia Vogan
Wild Turkey © Cynthia Vogan
Wild Turkey © Brad Dinerman
Wild Turkey © Brad Dinerman
Wild Turkeys © Bruce Carnevale
Wild Turkeys © Bruce Carnevale
Wild Turkey © Stewart Ting Chong
Wild Turkey © Stewart Ting Chong
Kids at camp

The Power of Camp

Today is Summer Camp Day of Action for Black Lives

As a statewide conservation organization that operates 19 nature day camps and a residential summer camp serving more than 15,000 campers, we stand with our colleagues and friends in the camp world affirming that Black Lives Matter at Camp.  

Nature itself is untainted with prejudice; however, too many Black and Brown community members have felt the sting of systemic racism when exploring the outdoors, connecting with and studying nature.  

Designing thoughtful and impactful summer camps in nature, about nature, and for nature is core to our work and why our commitment to our summer camp program runs deep. We understand the power of camp to uplift and empower youth, families, and communities. Our camps are focused on nature, yes, and they are also about people and community.  

Creating safe, welcoming, and inclusive communities for positive youth development is what camp is all about. It is our most essential work, and yet we know we need to continue to do better for all our campers.  

Why? Because we know that camps are agents of change—the communities of campers, staff, and families that we build can serve as a model for the just, fair, and equitable world that our Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) campers and their families deserve.   

We commit to creating and fostering spaces that are welcoming, equitable, and inclusive for all of our campers, staff, and families. 

We pledge to cultivate an inclusive community and recognize that this work will be ongoing and ever-evolving.  

What We Are Doing 

  • Forming a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice (DEIJ) Camp Director Committee that works collaboratively to define the role and responsibilities of Mass Audubon camps in activating Mass Audubon’s DEIJ strategic priorities 
  • Providing professional development workshops for all camp staff including facilitating activities and group initiatives that build an understanding of and appreciation for DEIJ in the camp community and in life 
  • Celebrating the diversity of our current campership and camp staff and honoring the voices and perspective they bring to building our camp community 

What We Are Committed to Doing   

  • Listening, learning, and acting to ensure that our nature camps are safe, welcoming, and inclusive spaces for Black and Brown campers and their families, because what happens at camp can deeply affect individuals and communities  
  • Working diligently to increase the representation of BIPOC staff and campers at our camps  
  • Fostering relationships with young people who move through our camp programs as campers to become staff and future environmental and social justice leaders  
  • Using our platform as the largest provider of nature-based summer camps in Massachusetts to promote diversity and inclusion and lift up BIPOC voices of our staff and colleagues who are doing inspiring and impactful work in camp and in the environmental education field.  

Mass Audubon camps are committed to the learning and growth that is required to move this commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice into deeper forms of action and leadership. We know we have lots of work to do and we look forward to working with our colleagues across the nation as well as our camp families on this important work.  

Understanding Coastal Climate Vulnerability

Our coasts are home to valuable habitats and beloved species. To protect them from climate change and understand how vulnerable these important regions are, Mass Audubon’s Climate Adaptation Ecologist, Dr. Danielle Perry, PhD, laces up her work boots and jumps headfirst into cordgrass and salt water.

Joppa Flats Education Center © Jorge Galvez

Why Study Vulnerability

When a habitat is vulnerable to climate change, it means that it is at an elevated risk of suffering from climate change’s impacts, like sea level and temperature rise. Analyzing a habitat’s vulnerability is critical to understanding how well equipped it is to withstand these impacts, which then allows us to urgently act to ensure their protection both now and in the future.

Dr. Perry’s initial study is a trial for a series of vulnerability assessments that analyze the resilience of Mass Audubon properties to the various impacts of climate change. These first assessments examined the effects of sea level rise at five properties: Mass Audubon’s Joppa Flats, Rough Meadows, Eastern Point, Barnstable Great Marsh, and Wellfleet Bay wildlife sanctuaries.

Breaking Down Methodology

Dr. Danielle Perry, PhD

First, with the expertise of sanctuary staff and other scientists, Dr. Perry assigned the resources within each sanctuary a numerical score based on their value to wildlife, the sanctuary, and surrounding communities. Resources ranged from hard infrastructure (man-made) to natural environments (like salt marsh habitats).

Then, she used data available by the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to project the effect that sea level rise will have on these resources by 2030 and 2050.

Finally, Dr. Perry supplemented her projections with real-time field surveys that looked at the current conditions of salt marsh habitats, since salt marshes serve an important role in increasing our resilience to climate change. She observed cues that demonstrated how resilient the habitat currently is, its health, and how easily it could migrate (or move more landward) as sea levels rise.

The Results

Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary in Wellfleet had stable salt marsh conditions, with some evidence of disturbances like crab burrows that degrade the marsh’s peat. However, this site is projected to be the most impacted by sea level rise out of all five sanctuaries.

Eastern Point Wildlife Sanctuary in Gloucester showed similar results: a salt marsh with better current conditions than the other sanctuaries, but significant projected sea level rise impact, right after Wellfleet Bay.

Dr. Perry’s boot reveals a low spot in the high marsh – a sign of peat degradation at Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.

Then came Joppa Flats Education Center in Newburyport, one that stood out to Dr. Perry for a completely different reason than the previous two. This site’s current conditions were among the most degraded: with low climate resilience and an ecosystem health score of five (out of 10).

Rough Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary in Rowley is a little more prepared for sea level rise, with moderate climate resilience and a high landward migration potential. Barnstable Great Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary in Barnstable mirrored this finding, but with even less severe projected sea level rise impacts. This is because most of Barnstable Great Marsh’s infrastructure is located upland, more out of reach of rising tides.

Where We Go From Here

Dr. Perry’s preliminary results, while part of a pilot study, show us that even though all the sites will be affected by sea level rise, each has different levels of resilience. These findings will allow Mass Audubon to prioritize those sites most in need of urgent action. Eventually, we will use this data to inform land use and restoration project decisions at each of the studied locations. Our goal is to increase the resilience of our wildlife sanctuaries and reduce the vulnerability of the surrounding communities.

Snowy Owl © Paul Malenfant

Take 5: Superb Snowy Owls

They’re here! Snowy Owls have arrived from their breeding grounds in the Arctic and can be spotted at Plum Island, Duxbury Beach, and other open, treeless areas near the coast through March—if you make the trip to see Snowy Owls this winter, please protect these beautiful raptors by viewing them from a safe and respectful distance at public sites and do not approach them.

Norman Smith, the former director of Mass Audubon’s Blue Hills Trailside Museum, is keeping busy in his retirement by continuing his Snowy Owl rescue and research efforts: The first report of a Snowy Owl at Logan Airport this season came in on November 5, so he hurried down to capture the owl, take some measurements and research notes, and release it at Duxbury Beach.

Norman reports that it was a healthy “hatch-year” bird (meaning it was born this past summer), which suggests there was good breeding this year in the region of the Arctic where this particular owl was born. Historically, since he started with the Snowy Owl Project in 1981, Norman would capture almost all hatch-year birds, but the past several winters saw predominantly adults arriving in Massachusetts, a poor sign for breeding success. Norman says his colleagues in Greenland reported their best breeding year since 1998 this past summer, while others in Barrow, Alaska, reported no breeding at all, so it can vary dramatically by location due to a number of factors, including climate change.

Snowy Owls predominantly feed on rodents called lemmings, so the success of lemming populations affects Snowy Owl populations: when there’s a boom in lemmings, we see a rise in the number of hatch-year owls traveling south. Lemmings are now facing increased pressure from climate change, such as rising temperatures, milder winters, shifting weather patterns, and changes in vegetation, which makes breeding success more difficult. So a decline in hatch-year Snowy Owls can signal climate impacts across entire food chains.

Enjoy these five photos of Snowy Owls from our annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest, then visit our website to learn how you can support our work to monitor and protect these beautiful birds and where and how to observe Snowy Owls yourself.

Snowy Owl © A. Grigorenko
Snowy Owl © A. Grigorenko
Snowy Owl © Jenny Zhao
Snowy Owl © Jenny Zhao
Snowy Owl © Paul Malenfant
Snowy Owl © Paul Malenfant
Snowy Owl © Sara Silverberg
Snowy Owl © Sara Silverberg
Snowy Owl © Karen Walker
Snowy Owl © Karen Walker

Leaving the Paris Agreement: What’s Next?

Mass Audubon Ipswich River wildlife sanctuary © Jared Leeds

Born from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s 21st summit, the Paris Agreement pledges to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius. This agreement was pivotal, demonstrating international dedication to collectively reducing and mitigating the effects of climate change. Since its inception in 2015, about 188 of the attending 197 countries have ratified the agreement

Last week, however, the United States officially became the first country to exit the Paris Agreement. While the withdrawal process began one year ago, the exit became finalized on November 4, 2020. 

Our Role in Greenhouse Gas Emissions 

The reason this withdrawal is so concerning is related to the United States’ enormous contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) – the root cause of climate change and its byproduct, global temperature rise. Between 1850 and 2011, our country was responsible for the largest portion of total greenhouse gas emissions compared to every other nation in the world. Even today, the United States continues to be the second largest GHG emitter worldwide. 

This global nature of GHGs is part of the reason why international collective action is so important. No matter where we are, our combined emissions contribute to the global phenomenon of climate change. Even more significant, just a few nations are responsible for a majority of these emissions, which then impact the entire planet. 

Collective Climate Action Isn’t Over 

Although the US has formally withdrawn from the Paris Agreement, much of the country is still committed to reaching these international targets. 

Including Massachusetts. 

We know that to fight climate change and protect the natural and human communities we love, we have to act boldly and urgently. Massachusetts is dedicated to reaching net zero emissions by 2050. This means that statewide, through a combination of reducing emissions and improving nature-based solutions, we, as a state, will not emit more GHGs than what we can soak back up and remove from the atmosphere. 

And here at Mass Audubon, we know when we work together, we can make an impact. 

Where We Go from Here 

There is still an opportunity for the United States to rejoin the Paris Agreement as soon as February 2021. There are also steps that we can all take to keep the momentum going on climate action.  

You can write to your elected official, urging them to continue to support clean, equitable climate legislation. You can make sure your community and local organizations (like schools) are committed to the nation-wide pledge dedicated to achieving the Paris Agreement’s goals. You can support community programs, like green municipal aggregation, which “greens” community electricity supply. You can talk about climate change with your friends and family to inspire hope and dedication to climate action (here’s an upcoming webinar to learn more).  

Use your voice, get active in your community, and inspire the people around you to make change. Our collective climate fight is far from over. 

Pine Siskin. Photo © Terri Nicker

Siskins and Grosbeaks and Purple Finches, Oh My!

Most bird species overwinter in the same general area from year to year. Not so with some finches. Around eight species of winter finch become nomadic in winter, sometimes crossing the continent in search of food.

One reason these birds don’t stick to an annual pattern is the annually shifting availability of their favorite foods. If conifer seeds and mountain-ash berries are abundant in Canada, winter finches stay put on their northern breeding grounds. In less fruitful years, they head off in search of their next meal.

Biologists and birders in Canada who keep track of seed availability are forecasting that this will be a good year for finch movements. Here’s what to look for this winter.

Purple Finches

Purple Finch
Purple Finches have more extensive color and a different shape than similar House Finches.

Purple Finches had a great breeding season in Canada, in part due to an outbreak of spruce budworm, their go-to summer food. But the new hordes of yearling birds will need more seeds and berries than what’s available this winter in the north, and we’re already seeing a big movement of them in Massachusetts.

At feeders, Purple Finches love to eat safflower seed, but they’ll also stop for black-oil sunflower and thistle seed. Unlike the similar-looking House Finch, Purple Finches have a reddish wash that extends all the way down their wings and back, and a thicker bill.

Pine Siskins

Pine Siskin. Photo © Terri Nicker
Pine Siskin © Terri Nicker

Siskins are the stars of the show so far this year. Pine Siskins have arrived early in Massachusetts in spectacular numbers (with some observers recording overhead movements of more than 2,000!) At feeders, these finches don’t stop for much other than thistle seed, or other seeds small enough for their narrow bills.  

Evening Grosbeaks

Evening Grosbeak © Jim Renault
Evening Grosbeak © Jim Renault

These bold-colored finches last irrupted into Massachusetts in 2018, a bit more recently than the other two finches on this list. Major irruption years were infrequent in the 1980s through 2000s, so it’s a pleasant surprise to see these birds again just two years after their last big movement through the region. At feeders, these thick-billed birds prefer larger seeds, like black-oil sunflower.

Bonus species: Red-breasted Nuthatches

Red-breasted Nuthatch
Red-breasted Nuthatch

While not technically a finch, this species is nearly as nomadic. Red-breasted Nuthatches are year-round residents in high-elevation coniferous forests, and normally, they only visit the rest of the state in winter. But this summer and fall saw several big pushes of Red-breasted Nuthatch into Eastern Mass as well, and it’s a real possibility that they’ll continue through the winter in great numbers.

All of these species have arrived earlier than in most irruption years. That leads to a question of whether or not they’ll persist all winter in Massachusetts. It’s possible that these birds are mostly transients on their way even farther south: feeder-watchers are reporting that flocks of winter finches are showing up for a day and leaving, and grosbeaks and siskins have already been reported as far south as the Gulf Coast.

This is a great winter to hang up some feeders and see what happens!

Common Yellowthroat © Jeff Martineau

Take 5: Animal Masks

Wearing masks in public in a great way to protect yourself, protect those around you, and help slow the spread of COVID-19. Since we’re all wearing masks in public for the foreseeable future, we thought it might be fun to highlight a few mask-wearers from the animal kingdom, as well.

While you’re outdoors, safely enjoying our trails, consider these five Massachusetts natives that “wear” their masks 24/7, with photos from our annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest.

Common Yellowthroat © Jeff Martineau
Common Yellowthroat © Jeff Martineau
Wood Frog © Lucas Beaudette
Wood Frog © Lucas Beaudette
Cedar Waxwing © Sandra Taylor
Cedar Waxwing © Sandra Taylor
Raccoon © Richard Ruggiero
Raccoon © Richard Ruggiero
Peregrine Falcon © Martha Akey
Peregrine Falcon © Martha Akey
volunteer planting a tree at Arcadia

Planting a Forest with the Climate in Mind

More than 50 volunteers turned out in the last days of a mild October to help restore a floodplain forest at Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Northampton. Together, these nature heroes planted around 1,500 of the 2,000 trees and shrubs going in the ground before winter.

Volunteer planting a tree at Arcadia
Volunteer at Arcadia

In this first phase of the project, 8.5 acres of field that is unproductive for both farming and grassland bird habitat will be turned back into land dominated by trees—including pin oaks, silver maples, and even American elm.  

Floodplain forests are uncommon in Massachusetts, hosting rare plants and wildlife habitat, storing stormwater during floods, and, like all forests, keeping carbon out of the atmosphere. 

But visitors to Arcadia who walk the Fern Trail are lucky to be able to see the large shagbark hickories and tulip trees, that make up one of the best examples of this natural community in the state. The restoration project will significantly expand Arcadia’s protection of this special forest type. 

Climate Implications 

This is a climate adaptation project, preparing us for the impacts that have already begun and will be continuing through the coming years and decades. 

Like all living things, trees have optimal conditions where they grow and reproduce. As temperatures continue to rise because of climate change, tree species’ ideal habitats are shifting northward; however, natural movement rates over generations of trees are generally too slow to keep up with rapid warming.  

This restoration project assists the trees’ northward migration in two ways.  First, for some of the species native to the Connecticut River Valley, saplings are being sourced from nurseries further south so they go into the soil already better adapted to warmer climates.  

Second, volunteers are planting trees that currently don’t occur in the wild in Massachusetts, such as sweet gum, a tree that exists in floodplain forests further south, up to southern Connecticut. These choices increase the likelihood that the forest will flourish in the future, since Massachusetts’s climate is projected to become comparable to the climate of the south between 2070 and 2100.  

The Massachusetts Division of Ecological Restoration has selected this restoration for Priority Project designation and have been a key partner in the process. Mass Audubon is also partnering with the Nature Conservancy’s Christian Marks, who has planted his Dutch-elm-disease-tolerant American Elms on the site. 

— Jonah Keane, Arcadia’s Sanctuary Director