Category Archives: Birds & Birding

Species Highlight: 5 Birds for Bird-a-thon

On May 13, birders from across the state will be hiking quietly through bushes, binoculars in hand, patiently waiting for a bird to come into view. Throughout the heat of the day and into the cover of darkness, these dedicated birders silently wait. Why, you may ask? All for a chance to win Bird-a-thon’s coveted Brewster Cup.  

Bird-a-thon is Mass Audubon’s largest fundraising event and a great opportunity to see some unique creatures across the state. Learn more about five special species and how Mass Audubon works to help them.  

Saltmarsh Sparrows  

Saltmarsh Sparrow © Andy Eckerson

High in the saltmarsh hay and cordgrass, a Saltmarsh Sparrow makes its nest. They are unmistakable with their burnt-yellow facial pattern and a stark grey ear patch that blends into a white and brown-streaked breast. While you might not think much of this small bird, Saltmarsh Sparrows are unique because they only live and breed in salt marshes along the Atlantic coast.

However, rising sea levels are shrinking and dividing their breeding environment. With less available area to breed and nest, the Saltmarsh Sparrow population is rapidly declining.  

The Coastal Resilience Program uses nature-based climate solutions to focus on the protection, management, and restoration of coastal habitats, like salt marshes. By protecting, educating, and advocating for salt marsh ecosystems, we can help preserve the Saltmarsh Sparrow. 

Indigo Buntings  

Indigo Buntings © Jason Gilbody

When walking through a weedy meadow or near the edge of a shrubby forest, keep your eyes out for the brilliant blue of the Indigo Bunting. Not only do buntings look beautiful, but they sound beautiful too. From dawn until dusk, you can hear their high-pitched songs—individual notes often cluster in pairs and pairs often come in threes, (“what what, where where, here here?“) but songs can vary widely from one individual to the next. 

In the spring, Indigo Buntings migrate to the Northeast from South America to breed in young forests and fields. Without thoughtful and intentional forest management, these habitats are becoming more elusive in Massachusetts. One of the hallmarks of the Foresters for the Birds program is educating private landowners about how to create a home for open-country birds, like Indigo Buntings, on the land they manage. 

Wood Thrushes  

Wood Thrush © Liam Waters

Under the shady canopy of a forest and in the mix of shrubs and young trees, a Wood Thrush hops across the ground in search of a snack. Although they appear to be very similar to other thrushes, Wood Thrushes are slightly larger and have prominent black and brown spots speckled down their plump, white belly.  

Wood Thrushes need large areas of forest to nest—about sixty acres per pair! When we focus on protecting properties that already connect to conserved lands, like Greater Gales Brook, we’re giving species like Wood Thrushes the space they need to thrive.  

Bobolinks  

Bobolink

Pay attention as you walk through hayfields and meadows to find a Bobolink. You can easily spot a male Bobolink in the spring and summer when its plumage is still black with a yellow cap on the back of its head and streaks of white down the back and wings. When fall rolls around, males turn to match their female counterparts with a brown and black plumage.  

Today, the conservation of Bobolink depends on sustainable farming methods that don’t diminish the habitat of grassland birds, which is key to the Bobolink Project. Mass Audubon, the Connecticut Audubon Society, and Audubon Vermont all work together to raise money to financially support farmers in delaying their hay harvest until the birds have finished their nesting cycle. The project also offers resources for grassland owners that do not farm but want to preserve their meadows for birds.  

Osprey  

Osprey © Nicole Mordecai

As one of the top aerial predators in Massachusetts, it’s always a treat to watch an Osprey swoop down to catch its prey in salt marsh estuaries or nearby bays. Even though these birds are tough, they suffered a drastic population decline in the mid to late 20th century. Before its ban in the 1970s, DDT was a pesticide used to kill insects, but it also made Osprey eggs very fragile and chicks were unable to hatch. It took decades for their population to rebound from DDT exposure, but other human activities still threaten Ospreys today. 

Ospreys are important because they serve as a tracker for their environment. If Ospreys aren’t doing well, then there might be something going wrong in their ecosystem. For almost 20 years, the South Coast Osprey Project has monitored Osprey breeding activity at Allens Pond Wildlife Sanctuary in Westport, to observe the rebound of the species and gauge the health of the surrounding ecosystem and wildlife.  

You Can Help Too! 

Even if going out and birding isn’t your thing, you can still help your team raise donations to make an impact on wildlife across the state. Learn about all the ways you can get involved and join Bird-a-thon today.  

Come One, Come All: Bird-a-thon 2022

Every May, around a thousand of people participate in Bird-a-thon. Last year, 13 teams recorded a combined total of 274 bird species in 24 hours, while raising over $310,000 to support Mass Audubon’s wildlife sanctuaries, conservation efforts, and education programs across the state. 

Finding 274 different species of birds is quite an accomplishment, but if you’re new to birding, a competition may sound intimidating. Don’t worry! Bird-a-thon is actually a great way to learn and hone your birding skills. Whether you love exploring nature or just want a good reason to go outside, everyone is welcome to Bird-a-thon.  

Read some tips and tricks to help you maximize your time birding. 

Tools and Resources for Bird Identification 

Some birds are easy to identify, like the bright red Northern Cardinal or the unmistakable Blue Jay. But telling a Purple Finch and House Finch, or a Cooper’s Hawk from a Sharp-shinned Hawk, is a bit trickier. 

Experienced birders suggest getting a book or field guide to learn the basic physical characteristics of different species. You can also download tools like the Merlin app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, where you can practice identifying birds based on their look and sound.  

Look through our program catalog to find an online and in-person class or event where you can build your birding foundation. Options range from joining staff on a morning walk as they teach you how to identify different species, to taking birdwatching basics class. 

© Susan Balser

Birding Hotspots in Massachusetts 

When you’re ready to put your new skills to the test, start going to birding hotspots, or places that can be “bird magnets”. There are many places across Massachusetts where you can practice your birding, including any Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuary. Over a dozen of our sanctuaries have a bird checklist for you to keep track of what you see. Here are just a sample of our hotspots: 

  • The swamps, thickets, and woodlands of Marblehead Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Marblehead are great spots to find spring migratory birds, especially warblers. Rocks jutting from the ground on Warbler Trail offer a higher observation point to look for birds in the trees below or the sky above.  
  • In the dead trees surrounding the secluded pond at Waseeka Wildlife Sanctuary in Hopkinton, you can find woodland birds and waterbirds like Pileated Woodpeckers, Great Blue Herons, Ospreys, and an occasional Great Horned Owls. You may also spot some Wood Ducks and Hooded Mergansers nesting in the duck boxes installed near the pond. 
  • The Berkshires is an ideal location for both beginner and experienced birders. At Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary in Lenox, you can join a program with a skilled guide or bird on your own as you look for species like Eastern Bluebirds, Yellow Warblers, and Cedar Waxwings. 
  • Along the salt marshes and woodlands in the Barnstable Great Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary in Barnstable, you may see birds like the Northern Harrier, Saltmarsh Sparrow, and Willet. The sanctuary is also a great place to see scenic views of the barrier beach habitat.  
© Andy Eckerson

When to go Birding 

Just as the early bird gets the worm, an early birder sees the bird. Bird-a-thon pros know that dawn and dusk are the best times to look for a majority of birds. Many species take advantage of the insects and small creatures crawling around before the sun sends them back to tunnels and holes in the ground. 

For some species, you’ll have a better time finding them after sunset. At dusk, listen for the courting whistles from the American Woodcock or the loud ‘wok’ sounds of the Black-crowned Night-Heron. If you want to hear the haunting calls of a Barred Owl or Eastern Screech Owl, you will have to stay up late or wake up early to hear these night predators. 

How do you Bird-a-thon? 

While birding for Bird-a-thon can be highly competitive, it’s also a great way to get outdoors and learn about wildlife while raising money to support Mass Audubon’s conservation initiatives.  

From admiring them in your backyard to exploring new landscapes, there is no one way to be part of this annual tradition. Visit the Bird-a-thon website to join a team and make an impact.