Author Archives: William Freedberg

About William Freedberg

Studies indicate that Will Freedberg occupies the ecological niche of a semi-nocturnal generalist. His habits change seasonally, doing fieldwork and bird surveys in the summer, but also blogging, coordinating volunteers, taking photos, and doing background research. Life history traits include growing up in Boston and reluctantly graduating from Yale College. Behavioral research shows that William occasionally migrates to the tropics to seek out Hoatzins, pangolins, and sloths, but mostly socializes with his age cohort in urbanized areas of eastern North America. He is short-sighted, slow to react, and a poor swimmer.

Elm Hill Welcomes New Birds

Some species of threatened open-country birds are expanding into new habitat created for them at Elm Hill in Brookfield, a Mass Audubon sanctuary focused on providing shrubland, grassland, and young forest.

Prior to this year, Elm Hill was defined by a patchwork of forest and overgrown agricultural fields, some of which were separated by thin strips of woodland. This landscape offered the perfect opportunity to demonstrate how carefully planned, ecologically mindful forestry can improve habitat for declining open-country birds.

Elm Hill in 2019: scattered fields broken up by thin, wooded borders

Habitat Diversity Yields Species Diversity 

Habitat management at Elm Hill focused on joining fields together to create larger expanses of open space. This work wrapped up last winter, and the list of bird species using the sanctuary is already starting to reflect changes in the landscape.

A flock of at least 200 Bobolinks was recently spotted gathering in the new, larger shrubby fields. This doesn’t necessarily mean Bobolinks are breeding at Elm Hill, but it does mean the sanctuary can provide valuable staging habitat as these birds feed and gather ahead of migration.

Bobolinks are one of several dozen Massachusetts bird species that rely on big expanses of early-successional habitat—open habitat in the early stages of regrowing into forest. Early-successional habitat is a natural but temporary part of the local landscape—without fire or other disturbance, forest re-grows and matures. With small-scale agriculture and natural fire cycles giving way to development and fire suppression, birds that rely on these kinds of habitat are declining.

After their young fledge, Bobolinks gather in flocks before migration. Photo: Gary Leavens/Flickr

Other species that rely on early-successional habitat were also spotted at Elm Hill during this summer’s nesting season, like Prairie Warblers and Eastern Towhees. Prairie Warblers were entirely absent from the sanctuary during three years of bird surveys before Mass Audubon began forestry work there. 

Eliminating “Edge Effects” 

While small fields (like any habitat type) are great for certain birds, the pickiest early-successional habitat specialists avoid them. Nesting too near the edge of mature forest increases opportunities for predators that like to hunt open-habitat species from high perches—so certain birds rely on having big, expansive open areas far from the forest’s edge.

Standing trees give way to shrubby grassland at Elm Hill

Expanding shrubland or young-forest habitat requires a trade-off with standing trees, so it makes the most ecological sense in areas with low-quality forest habitat. Field borders at Elm Hill used to include a lot of red pine and invasive vines, which in central Mass host a limited range of birds—mostly generalists that use other habitat types too, like Tufted Titmice and American Goldfinches. 

Other parts of the sanctuary were left untouched, including mature bottomland forest with few invasive plants. These ecologically valuable forests host birds that rely on older trees and higher plant diversity, like Pileated Woodpeckers and Scarlet Tanagers. 

Now that the work at Elm Hill is done, we can watch new species arriving and share and implement what we learned. Our Forestry for the Birds program is dedicated to teaching other landowners across the state about bird-friendly forestry.

Top Wildlife Sanctuaries for Shorebird Migration

Late summer is peak season for watching shorebirds in Massachusetts. While most songbirds are laying low as they wrap up raising their young and molting (i.e. growing new feathers), shorebirds like sandpipers, plovers, and godwits are already on the move for the fall.

Mass Audubon protects locally-breeding shorebirds through our Coastal Waterbird Program, but our wildlife sanctuaries also provide habitat for the hungry migrants that pass through en route from their Arctic breeding grounds to points south. Here’s a shortlist of the best Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuaries to observe them. 

Easy Access: Joppa Flats Education Center, Newburyport 

Overlooking a vast, tidal mudflat on the Merrimack River, Joppa Flats is a great place to observe shorebirds without having to walk too far from the parking lot (the visitor’s center has a great view of the shorebirds from indoors, although it’s temporarily closed during the pandemic). Joppa Flats also a great jumping-off point for birding Plum Island, another amazing shorebird hotspot just down the road. 

On most days from late July through early October, flocks of common shorebirds like Greater Yellowlegs and Semipalmated Sandpipers feed on the flats. Occasionally, an uncommon visitor shows up, like the lanky and long-billed Hudsonian Godwit—a species that stops over in small numbers in Massachusetts before a direct, marathon flight over the Atlantic to their wintering grounds. 

A Hudsonian Godwit (left) on a Massachusetts mudflat. Photo: Will Freedberg

Wild and Little-Known: Rough Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary, Rowley 

Just a few miles to the south, this sanctuary includes more land and trails than Joppa Flats as well as several marsh overlooks. Twenty species of shorebird have been recorded here so far, with new species for the site being recorded almost annually. 

Finding shorebirds here takes a little more effort and searching than other sites on this list, but the under-birded marshes and mudflats have so much untapped potential for interesting sightings! At the later end of shorebird migration (particularly in the last week of September), Rough Meadows has proven to attract uncommon upland species like Pectoral Sandpiper and American Golden-Plover.  

American Golden-Plovers are just as happy in grassy uplands as they are in the water. Photo: Will Freedberg

Shorebird Central: Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, Wellfleet 

Wellfleet Bay is the crown jewel of Mass Audubon’s shorebird hotspots and one of our most-visited coastal sanctuaries. There’s a lot to see here, from box turtles and rare coastal heathland plants to expansive marshes and mudflats that seem to stretch past the horizon at low tide.  

Visitors looking for shorebirds can access these flats along the Try Island Trail after stopping at Goose Pond, which has hosted some rare visitors from Western Sandpipers to a Spotted Redshank from Eurasia. Further out, birders on the tidal flats beyond the marsh boardwalk often see Greater Yellowlegs picking crustaceans off the moist ground and Short-billed Dowitchers rapidly dipping their bills in and out of the mud like sewing machines.  

The stars of the show on most days, however, are the Whimbrels. These large and long-billed shorebirds are seen more consistently at Wellfleet Bay than anywhere else in the state, and can be seen daily from mid-July through the fall (though their numbers begin to taper off in September).  

Whimbrels sport an impressive bill for probing in the sand and mud. Photo: William Freedberg

Cape Cod’s Hidden Gem: Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary, Barnstable 

Long Pasture’s secluded beach and marsh boardwalk host at least a handful of migrating shorebirds most days in late summer, especially Ruddy Turnstones and Semipalmated Plovers.  

American Oystercatchers breed nearby and often visit with young, and uncommon Forster’s Terns are often seen resting on sandbars or feeding just offshore.   

A Ruddy Turnstone on a mudflat. Photo: Will Freedberg

Wild Card: Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary, Easthampton 

Coastal Massachusetts doesn’t get to have all the shorebird fun! Most species of shorebirds prefer beaches and salt marshes during migration, but Arcadia in the Connecticut River Valley draws some interesting species as well.  

From July through September, Lesser Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpipers, and Solitary Sandpipers frequent muddy edges of the sanctuary’s numerous ponds, riverbanks, and oxbows. And in early spring, Wilson’s Snipe are often seen in the wetter parts of the sanctuary’s open meadows.