Red-tailed Hawk copyright George Brehm

Fall Hawk Migration is in the Air

Hawks, falcons, and vultures are among the few groups of birds that migrate during the day.

Unlike songbirds and waterfowl, which migrate under cover of night, raptors are actually visible as they make their long journeys across continents.

Although hawks pass by some sites by the hundreds or thousands, that doesn’t necessarily mean you can see them from any site on any day of the season. To find your best day and destination, you have to think like a hawk.

Red-tailed Hawk copyright George Brehm
Red-tailed Hawk © George Brehm

Riding the Airwaves

Raptors have one goal when migrating: use as little energy as possible to make it to their destination. So, they seek out rising air currents to help them gain altitude without flapping. 

Air rises as it is heated by the warmth of the ground (a “thermal”), or pushed upwards by passing over a hill or mountain (an “updraft”). Raptors circle inside these columns of rising air as it carries them upwards. As the air cools and stops rising, raptors exit and glide for miles, slowly losing altitude until they find another column (or start flapping).

Hawks often end up riding the same air current together, forming a rising spiral of birds, or a “kettle.” Kettling isn’t actually a social behavior, even if it looks like the hawks are flying together. Thermal-surfing raptors are simply taking advantage of the most efficient route, like drivers on a highway.

Cool Weather, Hot Hawkwatching

Thermals are strongest when the ground is much warmer than the air. Hawkwatching can be excellent when a cold front moves through, bringing cold air over the (temporarily) much warmer ground and sending thermals spiraling upwards.

Cold fronts are often accompanied by winds from the north, which are conducive to southbound raptors in the fall. When clear, cold air moves in from the north after many days of poor migration conditions (either rain or strong winds from the south), unusually high numbers of restless raptors can be seen migrating at once.

Timing is Everything

Mid-September is prime season for viewing Massachusetts’ most numerous and conspicuous raptors, like Broad-winged Hawks and Ospreys, as well as less common species like American Kestrels and Sharp-shinned Hawks. As the season cools, the mix shifts a little, but the hawkwatching often stays good until late October and tapers off into November.

If you want to plan a trip to see migrating raptors this season, check out our list of hawkwatching sites as well as resources from the Eastern Massachusetts Hawk Watch club.

Take 5: August Facebook Favorites

Over the course of the 2020 Photo Contest, we will be highlighting 5 photos from the previous month’s entries on Facebook and asking fans to select their favorite. This is just a fun way of sharing some of the amazing entries and doesn’t have to do with the official judging process.

You can pick your favorite by “liking” it on Facebook. Not a Facebook user? Let us know your top pick in the comments. And, there’s still time to enter the contest—the deadline is September 30!

Great Blue Heron © Scott Creamer
© Janet Sharp
© Greg Kniseley
© Caroline Carton
© Will Draxler
Maria Vasco, UMass Boston Campus Ambassador to Mass Audubon

Student Ambassador to Mass Audubon Receives Highest Honors

Maria Vasco, UMass Boston Campus Ambassador to Mass Audubon
Maria Vasco, UMass Boston Campus Ambassador to Mass Audubon

As schools are getting back in session, we want to honor recent graduate and Mass Audubon alum Maria Vasco, an environmental studies and sustainability major in the School for the Environment at UMass Boston.

Maria received the top two honors a graduating undergraduate can receive from the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education: the John F. Kennedy Award for Academic Excellence and the “29 Who Shine” Award, for her academic achievements, commitment to service, and good citizenship. As part of the JFK Award, Maria will have the opportunity to address the graduating class at their commencement ceremony, although the event was postponed due to COVID-19 safety concerns.

In her sophomore and junior years, Maria was the campus ambassador for Mass Audubon, organizing and leading climate cafes on the UMass Boston campus and at the Timilty Middle School in Roxbury and recruiting fellow students as part of a partnership between the university and Mass Audubon.

“I love to tell my fellow students about all the inspiring work that Mass Audubon is doing and inviting them to be a part of it, from attending Climate Cafes to pursuing environmental careers,” Maria said. “For many, it’s the first time they’re hearing about Mass Audubon, and they’re usually interested to learn more.”

Maria’s passion and leadership led the way for the partnership to grow and flourish recruiting students for a variety of internships, work-study placements, and summer jobs in conservation as well as nonprofit management roles. It’s a natural “fit” between Boston’s only public research university and Massachusetts’s leading nonprofit organization in conservation, environmental education, and advocacy.

In addition to her impressive academic accomplishments and important work with Mass Audubon, Maria is also an entrepreneur. She launched the UVIDA Shop webstore, which aims to help consumers reduce their plastic waste through the use of eco-friendly products like bamboo toothbrushes, reusable water bottles, and biodegradable glitter.

After graduation, Maria is continuing to build her business on the side while working for Exporta Technologies, a Harvard-based software-as-a-service (Saas) startup based in Cambridge.

Reflecting on her time working with Mass Audubon, Maria noted, “An important trait I have picked up…is to be confident in myself and make more of a push to leap into bigger opportunities.”

Congratulations to Maria! And best of luck in your bright future from all of us at Mass Audubon. Keep pushing for even bigger opportunities to advocate for people and the environment!

You Asked, We Answered – Land, Hemlocks, and Climate Change

Last week, Olivia Barksdale, Mass Audubon’s Conservation Restriction Stewardship Specialist, journeyed into Rutland Brook wildlife sanctuary in Petersham to talk about land, hemlock trees, and climate change.

Photo © Clark University

An Overview of Hemlocks

Hemlock trees are evergreen conifers that are widely distributed across Massachusetts. They’re a long-lived tree, reaching up to 300-350 years old. You can find all sorts of critters thriving near hemlock trees, such as Red Efts (Eastern Newts in the middle stage, the “eft” stage, of their three-part life cycle) and Brook Trout.

Hemlock trees are our natural allies when it comes to adapting to impacts from climate change by buffering increasing storm events, providing shade from extreme heat, and even regulating water temperature and quality.

But these trees also need our help to combat the threats they face because of climate change. Eastern hemlocks are currently under attack by an invasive, sap sucking insect called the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid (HWA). Cold, hard winters typically lower the survival rates of HWAs, but climate change-induced milder winters are making more habitats suitable for these voracious bugs. The HWA can take down one ancient hemlock in as few as four years.

How can we Help?

By conserving land! Land conservation provides a wide array of services that help us, wildlife, and plants tackle the climate crisis. Protecting land preserves natural allies in our climate fight like hemlock trees, which not only help us adapt to climate impacts, but also mitigate climate change by soaking up excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We need your help to maximize the climate impact of land conservation – join us in our collective climate fight by supporting one of our current, urgent land projects. You can make a difference.

Here were some questions we received about land, hemlocks, and climate change:

1. How will climate change impact the prevalence of different tree species in our forests?

As temperatures warm, trees can become stressed – which makes them more susceptible to pests that can now find suitable range where they normally wouldn’t. These threatened trees will degrade, which can consequently degrade wildlife habitats. We might also see a “change of guard” as a result, where tree species more tolerant and resilient to climate impacts will emerge or expand in the face of those that are more vulnerable.

2. What is being done to reduce populations of the HWA?

Some universities have looked into different pesticide applications that impact the wooly adelgid’s life cycle, targeting different stages. However, since pesticide use in forest settings or at the scale necessary isn’t the most feasible to tackle our HWA issue, looking at other strategies (like beetles that eat the HWA) will be important as we navigate how to maintain healthy hemlocks in our environments. In fact, Massachusetts has released at least two, Sasajiscymnus tsugae and Laricobius nigrinus (both beetles), to deal with HWAs.

3. How do I get into the land conservation field?

Olivia started her journey through the SCA, or the Student Conservation Association. They place students into internships around the country. Another way to get involved is through state programs, like the Department of Conservation and Recreation, or federal programs like the US Fish and Wildlife Service or US Forest Service. Another way is the Conservation Corps which does fieldwork across the country.

Tune in Next Time

If you didn’t have time to submit your questions, you can ask away in the comments below. We’ll be back the first Friday of every month for Climate Action Instagram AMAs. Visit our Instagram Story in October to learn more and submit your questions for the next round.

In the meantime, if you’re looking for more ways to ask questions, talk about, and learn about climate change, register for our climate café Climate, Community, and Connection on September 29, 5:30-6:30 pm. You can also attend the Climate Change and Human Health virtual webinar  on September 24, 7:00-8:30 pm via the Discovery Museum, where we’ll join Dr. Jay Lemery of the University of Colorado to talk about climate change’s public health impacts.

Muskrats © Sylvia Zarco

Take 5: You Musk Be Joking!

While they do belong to the order Rodentia), muskrats are not, in fact, rats at all (i.e. members of the genus Rattus). Plus, they’re actually more closely related to lemmings than they are to their look-a-like cousins, beavers. The latter is a case of what is known as “convergent evolution”—two distinct species that evolve with a similar set of characteristics that just happen to work really well for the environment in which they live, kind of like two people coming up with the same idea at the same time in different locations.

From a distance, it can be difficult to tell muskrats and beavers apart. They are both semi-aquatic rodents with similar body shapes and colors; have bare, fleshy tails; and build lodges for their families. Side-by-side, though, it would be difficult to mistake them. Muskrats average 3–4 pounds each, one-tenth the size of beavers who clock in at a whopping 30–40 pounds, and their tails are long and narrow, not broad and paddle-shaped like a beaver’s. Additionally, beavers are strictly vegetarian while muskrats have a wider, more versatile, omnivorous diet of mostly aquatic plants (such as cattails and yellow water lilies) supplemented with small animals like frogs, crayfish, and fish.

Muskrats are prolific breeders, producing 2–3 litters per year of 6–8 kits each, but each individual only lives about 3–4 years in the wild. This rapid rate of regeneration is a key part of their survival strategy, since muskrats are a popular menu item for many predators, including coyotes and foxes, snapping turtles, weasels and otters, bobcats, owls, and especially minks and raccoons. Young muskrats may even fall prey to larger species of fish such as largemouth bass. As a result of their survival-by-numbers strategy, they occupy a very important role in the native food web.

Your best bet to spot a muskrat in the wild is along water edges and in wetlands at dawn or dusk, as they are crepuscular. Here are five photos of native muskrats from our Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest. The deadline to enter the 2020 contest is September 30, so be sure to submit your own amazing nature photography soon!

Muskrat © Janice Koskey
Muskrat © Janice Koskey
Muskrat © Bernard Kingsley
Muskrat © Bernard Kingsley
Muskrats © Sylvia Zarco
Muskrats © Sylvia Zarco
Muskrat © Matthew Watson
Muskrat © Matthew Watson
Muskrat © Yuh Yun Li
Muskrat © Yuh Yun Li

Looking to Land for Climate Solutions

It’s time to talk about land.

Not just about the diverse habitats, wildlife, and plants undeveloped land contains, but also the myriad of solutions land holds to our environment’s most pressing problem: climate change. When we look to land, we can see natural climate solutions that play an indispensable role in our larger, collective climate fight.

Photo © Diana Chaplin

Two Sides to the Climate Coin: Mitigation and Adaptation

In order to keep our communities and wildlife healthy while striding towards a carbon-neutral future by 2050, we need to both adapt to and mitigate climate change. Land helps us do both.

To adapt to climate change means to contend with its current impacts. Protected land boosts our resilience against these impacts we’re already seeing, right here and now, like extreme weather events and heat. For example, grasslands and farmlands can store significant stormwater from climate change-induced increased rainfall.

To mitigate climate change means to tackle the crisis at its roots. Land is home to natural tools, like trees and wetlands, that soak up carbon dioxide like a sponge, helping us remove rampant greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere. Right now, natural solutions are one of the few mitigation strategies that we can immediately and urgently utilize with large impact. Each acre of forest, for example, holds immense value in mitigation efforts by storing about 103 tons of carbon dioxide.

Paired with climate policy like An Act creating a 2050 roadmap to a clean and thriving Commonwealth (H.4912), which includes amended language to require Massachusetts to consider land’s climate impact, conserving land is one of the most tangible and powerful climate solutions in our toolkit.

Helping People and Wildlife Alike

Land provides home and refuge to plants and animals, including rare and threatened species. However, as climate change causes temperatures to rise in Massachusetts and around the world, we’re seeing wildlife forced to shift their habitat ranges to adapt.

Wildlife corridors are connected protected lands that allow plants and animals to move safely and as needed, unimpeded by human development and activity. These movements can be a part of migration, breeding, finding food, and so many more behaviors critical to the survival of our nature. Wildlife corridors are essential to safeguard our plants, animals, and nature’s biodiversity as they adapt to climate change by finding their natural habitat in new locations.

People also benefit from conserved land. Climate change aggravates public health issues, but conserving land can help us counteract some of these effects. The same natural tools that buffer the impacts of climate change and soak up excess greenhouse gas emissions also keep our communities healthy by purifying the air we breathe and the water we drink.

One Piece of the Climate Solutions Puzzle: Land Conservation

To boldly act on climate, we must turn to solutions that we can pursue right now, and conserved land is one piece of the larger, climate solutions puzzle. Mass Audubon is among the largest conservation non-profits in New England, and has conserved more than 38,000 acres of ecologically significant land.

But we need your help to maximize the climate impact of our land conservation. Join us in working towards a carbon neutral future by supporting one of our urgent land projects – you can make a difference in solving the crisis.

You can also join our climate community by signing up for our monthly e-newsletter, Climate Connection, and stay up to date on climate information, community action, and solutions.

American Goldfinch © Mark Uchneat

Take 5: Go For the Goldfinch

Out of the corner of your eye, a sunny, cheerful flash of bright yellow alights upon your bird feeder and almost certainly means one thing: the American Goldfinch!

Almost exclusively seed-eaters, the so-called “wild canaries” of the Americas are late nesters relative to most of our breeding birds here in Massachusetts, giving them access to nutritious native thistle seeds to feed their young. Known for their energetic seed-harvesting acrobatics, look for them plucking thistle seeds this time of year and listen for their sweet, enthusiastic song, a long, fluctuating string of warbles and twitters. They are also known to make contact calls, often mid-flight, the most common of which bears the mnemonic phrase po-ta-to-chip.

Before you know it, the arrival of cooler weather will turn the vibrant yellow males’ plumage a drab brown until the arrival of spring and the return of the breeding season, so enjoy the cheery colors while they last, but the varied sounds and acrobatic antics of these beloved birds can be appreciated year-round in virtually every part of the state.

Here are five photos of fabulous goldfinches to brighten your day. We want to see your nature photos, too! Enter the Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest by September 30

American Goldfinch © Mike Iwanicki
American Goldfinch © Mike Iwanicki
American Goldfinch © Sarah Keates
American Goldfinch © Sarah Keates
American Goldfinch © Karen Karlberg
American Goldfinch © Karen Karlberg
American Goldfinch © Mark Uchneat
American Goldfinch © Mark Uchneat
American Goldfinch © Anindya Sen
American Goldfinch © Anindya Sen

Pushing Forward in Spite of Methane Rollbacks

In a big setback for US climate action, the federal government has rolled back requirements for capturing methane pollution. On Friday, August 14, the EPA finalized a rule that lets oil and gas companies off the hook for their methane emissions, replacing a 2016 rule that set limits on these emissions and required companies to monitor and repair leaking equipment.

By shifting our support to renewables like solar energy, we can keep polluting oil and gas companies on the hook in spite of rollbacks.
By shifting our support to renewables like solar energy, we can keep polluting oil and gas companies on the hook in spite of rollbacks.

Methane 101 

Methane (or CH4) is the second most abundant greenhouse gas in our atmosphere. Alongside rampant carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses, methane wraps around earth like a blanket – trapping heat inside of our atmosphere and causing our world to change.

When we burn fossil fuels, like oil and gas, we release excess greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere – methane (CH4) included. The atmosphere wraps around Earth like a blanket (trapping heat inside it) and these excess greenhouse gasses make that blanket too thick, hurting plants, animals, and humans.
When we burn fossil fuels, like oil and gas, we release excess greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere – methane (CH4) included. The atmosphere wraps around Earth like a blanket (trapping heat inside it) and these excess greenhouse gasses make that blanket too thick, hurting plants, animals, and humans.

The sources most responsible for methane emissions are the production and transportation of natural gas, oil, and coal; in other words, the fossil fuels we burn for our energy.

But methane also comes from the decomposition of organic material in landfills and livestock farming (such as cattle farmed for beef). Because of the design of their stomach systems, livestock like cows emit methane during digestion. With just how many cows we’re farming for beef and dairy globally, about 1.4 billion, cattle (alongside other grazing livestock) account for 40% of the world’s methane emissions. 

A Cause for Concern 

This recent rollback is especially concerning since methane is more than 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period – which means its warming impact is far more severe in a shorter period of time. To make matters worse, the regulation change comes at a time when research has found much more methane is likely entering the atmosphere than we previously thought. 

We Can Still Make a Difference 

While the rule is now official, having already gone through a public comment process, it is expected to be challenged in court. In the meantime, we can still have an impact on methane emissions by coming together and acting on climate to safeguard our future for people and wildlife alike. Whether you’re a climate action novice or a seasoned pro, here are ways we can act in spite of this rollback.  

Stage 1: Increase Plant-based Meals and Start Composting 

Switching to plant-based meals helps reduce the demand for livestock farming, one of the sources of our global methane emissions. Photo © Keith Weller, USDA.
Switching to plant-based meals helps reduce the demand for livestock farming, one of the sources of our global methane emissions. Photo © Keith Weller, USDA.

A good way to start tackling methane emissions is to look at how we contribute to them. By switching to plant-based meals and encouraging others to do the same, we’re reducing the demand for livestock farming and lowering our personal carbon footprints. Through composting, we shift decomposing, organic materials from landfills (where they release methane) to a compost pile (where the methane is absorbed). 

It’s even more engaging to get your friends, families, and communities involved. For example, do some research to see if there’s a local composting program in your neighborhood, like the City of Boston’s Project Oscar

Stage 2: Urge your Elected Officials to Support Clean Energy 

Recently, the Massachusetts House passed the 2050 Roadmap bill, which brings us closer to an equitable, clean energy future by 2050. Send your local, elected officials a message thanking them for their support, but also urging them to continue their progress on clean energy policy that reduces our fossil fuel emissions.  

Stage 3: Address the Source of our Energy 

The production and transport of fossil fuels is main source of global methane emissions. While the EPA has reversed regulations holding polluting companies accountable, as a collective we still have the power to keep them on the hook by choosing to shift our support towards renewable energy. 

First, you can make the switch to green-powered energy, like solar or wind energy. If you’ve already switched your household over, you can take your support for renewable energy one step further by ensuring your municipality has a Green Municipal Aggregation program. Visit the Green Energy Consumers Alliance’s website to see if your municipality is already involved and how you can opt-in to this community effort.  

Belted Kingfisher © Kathy Hale

Take 5: Hail to the Kingfisher

“He may generally be seen sitting on some post or dead branch, near a solitary mill-dam, quietly watching his prey in the element below.”

William Peabody, in his 1839 report to the state legislature on the birds of Massachusetts.

Belted Kingfishers are widespread not only in Massachusetts but across North America. Still, you’d do well to learn to recognize their call, as you are far more like to hear one before you see it: They periodically utter a dry, metallic rattle that’s evocative of either the Predator, for fans of science-fiction/action movies, or one of those spinning, ratcheted noisemakers popular at New Year’s Eve celebrations.

Kingfishers favor lower elevations near waterways of all kinds, where they can dig their burrows to nest in earthen banks and mounds with little vegetation. If you’re looking to spot one on your next walk or hike, aim for trails along calm waters, where they dive to capture fish and crayfish in their long, straight bills. They love a good perch overlooking a wide river or lake, favoring branches or dead tree snags that give them a literal birds-eye view of their prey in the placid waters below.

An interesting point of note: Belted Kingfishers are one of the few bird species in which the female is more brightly colored than the male. Although both sexes sport a rakish-looking, ragged crest, males have a single, grey-blue band across their white breasts, while females have both a blue and a chestnut band.

Enjoy these five photos from the annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest, and remember to submit your own nature photography to the 2020 contest soon—the September 30 deadline is fast-approaching!

Belted Kingfisher at Daniel Webster © Edmund Prescottano
Belted Kingfisher at Daniel Webster © Edmund Prescottano
Belted Kingfisher at Wellfleet Bay © Sherri VandenAkker
Belted Kingfisher at Wellfleet Bay © Sherri VandenAkker
Belted Kingfisher at Horn Pond in Woburn © Jim Renault
Belted Kingfisher at Horn Pond in Woburn © Jim Renault
Belted Kingfisher at Wellfleet Bay ©Susan Wellington
Belted Kingfisher at Wellfleet Bay ©Susan Wellington
Belted Kingfisher © Kathy Hale
Belted Kingfisher © Kathy Hale

You Asked, We Answered – Climate Action 101

On August 7, Zach D’Arbeloff, Education Coordinator and Camp Director at Blue Hills Trailside Museum took over Mass Audubon’s Instagram story to answer all your questions about climate action! 

We took it back-to-basics this month to discuss what it means to act, who can get involved, and how we can all start collectively acting on climate. 

Here Were the Top Three Most Asked Questions:

Zach D’Arbeloff holding a Barn Owl.

Q: What is the age group most involved in climate action? 

A: Whether you’re 3 or 93, it’s never too early or late to start thinking about climate action. Climate action at its core starts with small lifestyles changes and then builds up to community, collective impact – which adds up to make a big difference.  

For example, you might start out by trying to eat more plant-based meals. Then you might get your family or friends to start eating more plant-based meals with you. After, you might then figure out how you can get your whole community to join you in eating and serving more plant-based meals: perhaps you look towards local schools or restaurants, even! 

Q: What’s the most effective climate action for my neighborhood to take on? 

A: Think about things that start in a neighborhood but expand beyond it. Planting a rain garden in our backyards, making sure we’re refusing and reusing (and then recycling) single-use plastics, and even composting start right at home, but have regional and even global impacts. Engaging our neighborhoods in simple, daily challenges to embark on your journey is a great way to build up your climate action, together. 

Q: What are daily actions I can take to help fight climate change? 

A: Starting out our climate action journeys is all about consistent, daily actions – from driving your car less to eating less meat to even drying your clothes in the sun in the summer. Remember to continue challenging yourself in your climate action, scaling up as you get more comfortable with what you started with, and looking for ways to get the people around you involved. 

It’s Up to Us to Tackle Climate Change 

No matter who we are, we all have a stake in our collective climate fight. The crisis is something we can solve when we put our hearts and minds together, challenge ourselves, and empower each other. Visit our website for ideas on where you can  start. 

Tune in Next Time

If you didn’t have time to submit your questions, you can ask away in the comments below. We’ll be back the first Friday of every month to takeover Mass Audubon’s Instagram and talk about Climate Action. Visit our Instagram Story in September to learn more about land and climate change and submit your questions. See you then!