Author Archives: Ryan D.

About Ryan D.

Where: Mass Audubon Headquarters, Lincoln | Who: A Vermont expat with maple sap in her veins | Favorite part of the job: Exploring sanctuaries with camera in hand.

Painted Lady © Gillian Henry

Take 5: To Paint the Lily

“To gild refined gold, to paint the lily…is wasteful and ridiculous excess.”

William Shakespeare, King John Act 4, Scene 2

The quote above seems fitting for this week’s featured creature: the lovely Painted Lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui). As if the vibrant flowers they grace in search of nectar were not gorgeous enough, Painted Ladies seem to adorn them even further with a near-excessive beauty.

Found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica, Painted Ladies were once known as Cosmopolitan butterflies for their wide distribution, the widest of any butterfly in the world. What’s more, they are extremely adaptable and can be found in a variety of settings from the suburbs to the mountains and everywhere in between. More than 100 host plants have been identified for them, but they love thistle in particular.

You may have spotted iconic Monarch butterflies passing through Massachusetts on their way south, but they’re not the only orange migrating butterfly: Painted Ladies are also heading southward, following the seasonal availability of food sources. They breed year-round, and many successive generations are spawned along their migratory routes, but they don’t overwinter in cold climates—adults must migrate to warmer, more agreeable breeding conditions through the winter or will perish when freezing temperatures set it.

Here are five photos of beautiful Painted Ladies form our annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest. Only two more weeks to enter the 2020 photo contest, so submit your beautiful nature photography today!

Painted Lady © David Perkins
Painted Lady © David Perkins
Painted Lady at Broad Meadow Brook Wildlife Sanctuary in Worcester © Belia Buys
Painted Lady at Broad Meadow Brook Wildlife Sanctuary in Worcester © Belia Buys
Painted Lady © Don Bullens
Painted Lady © Don Bullens
Painted Lady at North River Wildlife Sanctuary in Marshfield © Irene Coleman
Painted Lady at North River Wildlife Sanctuary in Marshfield © Irene Coleman
Painted Lady © Gillian Henry
Painted Lady © Gillian Henry
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!

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
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
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
Turkey Vulture © Beth Finney

Take 5: The Strength to Carrion

This week, we’re speaking up for an invaluable member of the avian class: the Turkey Vulture. Sure, their diet of carrion (dead animals) is pretty unappetizing to us, but they are amazing birds and serve a vital function as a member of nature’s cleanup crew. A wake of Turkey Vultures (yes, even their collective name is a little morbid) can clean a carcass down to the bone in a matter of a few days!

There’s still a lot we don’t know about Turkey Vultures, but we do know they have adaptations that together allow them to take advantage of a food resource that would sicken or kill most other animals:

  • Their keen sense of smell (the strongest of any bird, in fact) helps them find food.
  • Their heads are naked so that they can dive right into a carcass without yucking up their feathers.
  • In order to digest rotting tissue and protect themselves from pathogens like salmonella, botulism, and anthrax, they have specialized gut biomes that contain a potent cocktail of gastric enzymes, acids, and bacteria.
  • Their primary defense mechanism is to vomit putrid meat onto would-be attackers.
  • Unrelated to their diet, but still interesting: To keep cool in hot weather, they will defecate on their feet and legs.

And with an average wingspan just under 6 feet, Turkey Vultures are truly awesome birds. On a clear day, look for kettles of Turkey Vultures soaring on rising thermals with barely a flap of their wings, smelling for the faintest whiff of their next meal.

From April to November, you can observe one or more Turkey Vultures at Drumlin Farm’s Bird Hill exhibit, where injured or human-habituated animals that cannot survive in the wild are tended to by the Wildlife Care team—in captivity, Turkey Vultures often have inquisitive personalities and seem to enjoy interacting with different enriching stimuli provided by the caretakers. At the annual Halloween events at Drumlin Farm, one vulture has the important job of sitting on a whale bone “acting scary” and munching on a rat. Here are five photos of magnificent Turkey Vultures from our Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest.

Turkey Vulture © Beth Finney
Turkey Vulture © Beth Finney
Turkey Vulture © George Ann Millet
Turkey Vulture © George Ann Millet
Turkey Vulture © Nigel Cunningham
Turkey Vulture © Nigel Cunningham
Turkey Vulture © Dennis Durette
Turkey Vulture © Dennis Durette
Turkey Vulture © Brad Dinerman
Turkey Vulture © Brad Dinerman
Campers inspect a bird nest at Wachusett Meadow Nature Day Camp in Princeton

Hip, Hip, Hooray for Camp!

Summer just isn’t summer without camp. Sunshine, fresh air, friends, and fun in the outdoors are the optimal nourishment for body, mind, and soul. So when COVID-19 shut down Massachusetts this spring, our camp and education staff immediately got to work, developing plans to open some of our day camps if the opportunity presented itself.

While awaiting guidance from the state and local boards of health, they rewrote policies and created new safety and hygiene protocols, ordered PPE supplies, and adapted programming for the age of social distancing. Our top priority was to make camp as safe and fun as possible and give kids a healthy “dose of normalcy” for the first time in months.

Campers inspect a bird nest at Wachusett Meadow Nature Day Camp in Princeton
Campers inspect a bird nest at Wachusett Meadow Nature Day Camp in Princeton

And based on what we are seeing at our ten day camps that are open across the state, it was all worth it. Don’t take our word for it, though. Here’s what a few camp families have recently shared with us.

Toads and Games and Friends, Oh My!

“What a gift to offer this magical experience during COVID! Our children came home every day energized and inspired, regaled us with stories of their encounters with the farm animals, catching toads, playing games outside, meeting new friends, and entertaining camp counselor stories about birds.”

Epidemiologist-Approved

“I am an epidemiologist and I was so happy with the safety precautions taken by the camp staff! I felt completely comfortable leaving my child at camp each day. The staff went above and beyond to create a fun and healthy environment for campers. I am so appreciative of the entire staff’s hard work this summer!” 

Hitting the Reset Button

Screenshot of a text message from "Kristine" that reads: "I just wanted to reach out to say that just 2 days of camp has reversed months of COVID damage in both my kids. It's compounding each day. [Heart Eyes Emoji] It really is special."
Text message received by one of our camp directors from a happy camp parent.

Rising to the Occasion

“I’m sad that the kids and our world is going through this, but I’m grateful you all rose to the occasion and still made it all happen. You did a GREAT job navigating this year.”

Heartful Thanks

“Camp was the best week we’ve had since COVID closed Massachusetts schools in March, no exaggeration. Your enthusiasm, warmth, professionalism and flexibility were utterly fantastic. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.” 

Looking to Join the Fun?

The appreciation from our camper families and the smiles on our campers’ faces (underneath masks, of course) are just the fuel we need to persevere through these challenging times, together.  

There are still a small handful of slots available at a few sites, so if your child is eager to get in on camp this summer, check with your local day camp to see if they have availability. We can’t wait to see you! 

Onset, MA © Dean Martin

Take 5: Down By the Sea

The coastal towns of Massachusetts are an artist’s dream: historic fishing villages, picturesque lighthouses, sandy beaches, rocky coastlines, and harbors brimming with boats of all shapes and sizes make for postcard-perfect scenes, accompanied by the vibrant culture and deep history of the region.

Unfortunately, climate change is threatening our coastal communities. Rising ocean temperatures cause water to expand, and with global glaciers and land ice melting (adding more water to our ocean), we’re experiencing a phenomenon called sea level rise.

These five photos of coastal scenes from our annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest show just what’s at stake. Take one of our climate pledges to commit to reducing your greenhouse gas emissions and help share what makes the nature of Massachusetts so important by entering your photos in the 2020 contest today!

Onset, MA © Dean Martin
Onset, MA © Dean Martin
Eastern Point Wildlife Sanctuary © Michael Le
Eastern Point Wildlife Sanctuary © Michael Le
Rockport, MA © Jessica Speece
Rockport, MA © Jessica Speece
Gloucester, MA © Adam Doyon
Gloucester, MA © Adam Doyon
Chatham, MA © Carol Duffy
Chatham, MA © Carol Duffy
American Bittern © Mark Grimason

Take 5: Once Bittern, Twice Shy

Shy and secretive by nature, bitterns have frustrated and eluded many a birder for generations. At the slightest alarm, they can appear to vanish into the marshy reeds by freezing with their bills pointing upward, sometimes swaying in order to better resemble the windblown marsh vegetation they inhabit.

Both American and Least bitterns are members of the heron family and breed almost exclusively in freshwater marshland and moist meadows. The two species differ most notably in size and sound: American Bitterns range from 24″–34″ in length, somewhere between a Green and a Great Blue Heron in size, while the smaller Least Bittern measures only 11″–14″. The spring mating call of the male Least Bittern is a soft, subtle coo. American Bitterns, on the other hand, have one of the strangest songs of all our native birds—The male will inflate his esophagus and contort his body wildly to produce a hollow, almost “liquid”, pumping oonk-ka-choonk that can be described, depending on the listener’s age and life experience, like the priming of an old pump or the sound of a distant pile driver.

Bitterns have always been considered rare and local summer residents in Massachusetts and, in earlier years, this status may have had more to do with their secretive and retiring habits than actual numbers. However, today there is no question that bitterns have become scarce (both native species are listed as endangered), the consequence of the widespread draining and filling of wetlands for human development.

Protection of our remaining wetlands and restoration of degraded wetlands is crucial for the future of not just bitterns, but for the future of people in Massachusetts, too. Learn more about our efforts to combat climate change through land protection as well as how you can get involved on our website, and enjoy these five photos of bitterns from our annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest.

American Bittern © Fred Harwood
American Bittern © Fred Harwood
Least Bittern © Henry Zimberlin
Least Bittern © Henry Zimberlin
American Bittern © Mark Grimason
American Bittern © Mark Grimason
Least Bittern © Liam Waters
Least Bittern © Liam Waters
American Bittern © Jesse Costa
American Bittern © Jesse Costa
Ovenbird © Asli Ertekin

Take 5: One in the Oven

“There is a singer everyone has heard, / Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird, / Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.” —Robert Frost, “The Oven Bird”

An unassuming warbler more often seen than heard, the Ovenbird’s loud “tea-cher tea-cher tea-cher tea-cher” song is prevalent in forests across nearly all of Massachusetts, except for Nantucket. Unlike most warblers, which spend their time flitting about in the canopy, Ovenbirds are more often found foraging on the ground and in leaf litter for insects and other invertebrates, their preferred diet.

The name “Ovenbird” comes from the unique, dome-shaped nests they build on the ground, resembling old-fashioned, outdoor Dutch ovens covered with leaves and other vegetation. Despite the female Ovenbird’s architectural prowess, nesting on the ground can leave her eggs and fledglings more susceptible to predators than above-ground nests. When hungry snakes, Blue Jays, Brown-headed Cowbirds, raccoons, skunks, squirrels, weasels, and even chipmunks approach the nest looking for a meal, the female will perform a “distraction display,” feigning injury to lure the predator away from the nest.

Because they rely on large, uninterrupted tracts of forest to breed successfully, they are quite sensitive to forest fragmentation by human activity (development, logging, agriculture and other activities that divide forested areas into smaller sections), and also to nest parasitism by Brown-headed Cowbirds.

Here are five photos of Ovenbirds from our annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest. Submit your nature photography to the 2020 photo contest today!

Ovenbird © Asli Ertekin
Ovenbird © Asli Ertekin
Ovenbird © Joel Eckerson
Ovenbird © Joel Eckerson
Ovenbird © Arav Karighattam
Ovenbird © Arav Karighattam
Ovenbird © Matt Watson
Ovenbird © Matt Watson
Ovenbird © Francis Morello
Ovenbird © Francis Morello