Harlequin Ducks may not be the rarest ocean-going duck in Massachusetts, but they require a more specific habitat than any other kind of waterfowl: rocky, jagged coastlines with rough surf and abundant shellfish.
In fact, according to eBird, nobody had ever documented Harlequin Ducks more than a couple of miles inland in Massachusetts—until New Year’s Day 2021 when a local birder found a first-year male Harlequin on the fast-flowing Millers River in Turner’s Falls, MA, more than 120 miles away from the coast.
Powerful Rivers are Western Harlequins’ Summer Home
While it’s surprising to see this duck inland in Massachusetts, Harlequins in other parts of the country actually spend half of their lives on fresh water. In the Rocky Mountains and the Cascades of the West, these patchily-distributed ducks breed in fast flowing, whitewater rivers.
The Millers River is well-known among paddlers for its fast current and rough stretches. Not many rivers in Massachusetts have the wide expanses of rapids that Harlequins prefer, making the Millers a likely candidate for our first inland record of this species.
Even Wandering Birds Follow Habitat Guidelines
This sighting is a great example of how rigidly habitat preferences govern where birds are found, even in cases when birds show up in unusual geographic regions.
Most vagrant birds (that is, birds outside of their normal range) also stick to their usual habitats, or the closest thing they can find. Massachusetts’ last sighting of a Tropical Kingbird, for example, showed up in the brushy fields of Rock Meadow in Belmont—a fair local approximation of the low plains a prefers in the extreme Southwest.
And, true to its name, a Barn Owl that strayed farther north than normal was spotted taking shelter in the rafters of a high-ceilinged wooden garage in Lexington.
Enjoying watching birds visit your feeder? Great! Make sure the birds that visit stay healthy by keeping your feeder clean.
Why a Clean Feeder is a Happy Feeder
High concentrations of birds in close proximity to one another can contribute to the spread of disease at bird feeders. The four diseases that most frequently affect birds that use feeders are: salmonella, trichomoniasis, aspergillosis, and avian pox.
All of these diseases are transmitted from one bird to another at feeding stations, especially when overcrowding occurs. Birds are also susceptible to mites and lice. There are many steps you can take to help keep feeder birds and people safe and healthy.
How to Keep Birds Healthy
Clean feeders monthly using one part bleach to nine parts warm water. Soak the feeder in the solution for a few minutes, rinse, and air dry.
If uneaten food is accumulating in or under feeders, consider using less food or switch to a seed more to the birds’ liking.
If birds are fighting over space at a feeder, consider adding more feeders to alleviate the congestion that can potentially be responsible for the rapid spread of disease.
Store seed in airtight containers to prevent spoilage.
Avoid throwing large amounts of food on the ground or alternate ground feeding areas so that uneaten food does not accumulate and develop bacteria or mold.
If dead birds are found, stop feeding for a few weeks and thoroughly clean feeders and areas under feeders. Use disposable gloves when handling dead birds.
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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
This nest, located in a white pine tree, was discovered many months ago by a homeowner’s association and reported to MassWildlife. Subsequently, Josh Maloney, a burgeoning nature enthusiast and volunteer at Mass Audubon’s Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary discovered what appeared to be a chick in this nest in late May.
Josh carefully mapped the location of the nest, documented the chick with photographs, and reported the sighting to MassWildlife state ornithologist Andrew Vitz. Within days, Mass Wildlife ascended the tree and banded the eaglet in order to gather valuable life history information throughout its life and contribute to eagle research across the country. We are hopeful this chick will fledge in the coming weeks, and that this breeding pair will return to this nest annually for many years to come.
Bringing Eagles Back to Massachusetts
This historic benchmark is a living testament to the conservation efforts initiated in Massachusetts by Mass Wildlife and Mass Audubon in response to the significant regional decrease in the population of Bald Eagles that took place throughout the Northeast as a result of DDT use during the 1950s and 1960s.
In 1982, two healthy young eagle nestlings from Michigan were foster reared in a specially constructed tower in a remote section of the Quabbin Reservoir in central Massachusetts. Using a captive rearing protocol called hacking, the two fledglings were eventually released with hopes that upon reaching maturity in four to five years, they would return to the Quabbin area to breed. Between 1982 and 1988, 41 similarly raised eagle chicks were released at Quabbin Reservoir. By 1989 two pairs successfully reared young of their own.
Since the late 1980s, the Commonwealth’s eagle population has steadily grown and spread. Today pairs of this magnificent raptor are nesting from Berkshire to Barnstable County, and recently they have attempted to colonize Martha’s Vineyard.
Impact of Conservation
Thanks to the efforts of hundreds of Massachusetts citizen scientists who contributed the valuable breeding bird distribution data, Mass Audubon ornithologists now have two invaluable roadmaps to help highlight nesting species in need of state conservation assistance. This includes not only include Bald Eagles, but also declining grassland species such as American Kestrel, Bobolink, and Eastern Meadowlark.
In spite of last year’s chilling national report on 3 billion missing birds in “Decline of the North American Avifauna,” species recoveries like those shown by the Bald Eagle, Osprey, Peregrine Falcon, Piping Plover, and Eastern Bluebird offer clear evidence that it is never too late to implement sustained conservation efforts, and that many species will often dramatically respond.
These species offer clear evidence why Mass Audubon’s bird conservation efforts continue to make a difference, and why financial support for avian conservation programs is more important than ever.
You can support Mass Audubon’s Bird Conservation efforts and help us accomplish even more. Make an impact >
During on walk at Boston Nature Center on May 4, Preschool Director Claire Harris stumbled (literally) across an American Robin’s nest perched in the gate of the Clark Cooper Community Gardens.
She took the opportunity to take a photo of the nest containing four perfectly blue eggs and then backed away quickly. After observing from a distance, she watched as the robin returned.
Claire spent the next few weeks watching and photographing from a safe distance, reporting back to her preschoolers who have been learning remotely. On May 20, she came back to discover the robins had successfully fledged (ie left the nest).
Since baby birds can capture the hearts of preschoolers and grown-ups alike, we wanted to share her observations far and wide.
While this year’s Bird-a-thon has shifted focus to birding closer to home and around your neighborhood, you can still find tons of exciting birds. Some birds are common in many habitats, like Northern Cardinals and American Robins, but here is a list of other feathered friends you are likely to see (or hear!) in habitats across Massachusetts along with some fun facts.
Carolina Wrens (6) are also known to nest in odd places when living in suburban areas, like in an old boot, or in a mailbox.
White-breasted Nuthatches (7), like other nuthatches, can move head-first down tree trunks and are frequently seen in that upside-down pose.
The Gray Catbird’s (8) song may last up to 10 minutes.
Sometimes, Red-bellied Woodpeckers (9) wedge large nuts into bark crevices, then whack them into smaller pieces using their beaks. They also use cracks in trees and fence posts to store food for later in the year.
In 1929, Edward Forbush (MA ornithologist) described the Chipping Sparrow (10) as “the little brown-capped pensioner of the dooryard and lawn, that comes about farmhouse doors to glean crumbs shaken from the tablecloth by thrifty housewives.”
Although they can climb trees and hammer like other woodpeckers, Northern Flickers (11) prefer to find food, like ants, on the ground.
The Eastern Towhee’s (12) song sounds like they are saying “drink-your-tea.”
Wood Thrush (13) can sing two parts at once. In the final trilling phrase of their three-part song, they sing pairs of notes simultaneously, one in each branch of its y-shaped voicebox. The two parts harmonize to produce a haunting, ventriloquial sound.
The scientific name for Black-and-white Warblers (14) is Mniotilta varia meaning “moss-plucking,” after their habit of probing bark and moss for insects.
The yellow patch just above the Yellow-rumped Warbler‘s (15) tail gives them the nickname “butter butts.”
Tree Swallows (16) are one of the best-studied bird species in North America, helping researchers make major advances in several branches of ecology. Despite this, we still know little about their lives during migration and winter.
Eastern Bluebirds (17) typically have more than one successful brood per year. Young born in early nests usually leave their parents in summer, but young from later nests frequently stay with their parents over winter.
American Kestrels (18) can see ultraviolet light, which allows them to see the urine trails that voles leave as they run along the ground. These bright paths help kestrels find prey.
Bobolink (19) songs sound like R2D2’s voice from Star Wars.
Male Eastern Meadowlarks (20) can sing several variations of its song. Scientists analyzed one male meadowlark and found he sang more than 100 different song patterns.
Fossils of Belted Kingfishers (21) dated to 600,000 years old have been found in Florida, Virginia, Tennessee, and Texas.
Wood Ducks (22) nest in trees ranging from directly over water to over a mile away. After hatching, the ducklings jump down from the nest tree and make their way to water. The mother calls them to her but does not help them in any way. Ducklings may jump over 50 feet without injury.
Green Herons (23) are one of the world’s few bird species who use tools. They often create fishing lures with bread crusts, insects, and feathers, dropping them on the surface of the water to attract small fish.
Unlike most birds, Spotted Sandpiper (24) females establish and defend the territory, arriving to the breeding grounds before males. Males then take the primary role in parental care, incubating the eggs and caring for chicks.
Hooded Mergansers (25) find their prey underwater by sight. They can actually change the refraction properties of their eyes to improve their underwater vision. Plus, birds have an extra eyelid called a “nictitating membrane,” which is transparent and helps protect their eyes while swimming, like a pair of goggles.
Piping Plovers (26) will sometime use a foraging method called foot-trembling where they extend one foot out into wet sand and vibrate it to scare up food like marine worms, insects, and crustaceans.
Unlike most shorebirds, American Oystercatcher (27) chicks depend on their parents for food for at least 60 days after hatching.
Double-crested Cormorants (28) often stand in the sun with their wings outstretched to dry. Cormorants have less oil on their feathers so their feathers can get soaked rather than shedding water like a duck. Having wet feathers probably make it easier for cormorant to hunt underwater.
Common Eider (29) mothers and chicks form groups called “creches” that can include over 150 chicks and include non-breeding hens as protection.
During the Great Egrets (30) breeding season, a patch of skin on its face turns neon green and long feathers called aigrettes grow from its back. These feathers were prized for ladies’ hats in the 19th century and inspired Harriet Lawrence Hemenway and Minna B. Hall to form Mass Audubon to protect them.
When this video clip was posted to social media by one of our TerraCorps members, it was received with mixed reactions. Responses ranged from “so cool!” to “that’s definitely a trap and releasing poison.” Most people just wanted to know “what is coming out of them?” and “is that a type of fungi?” and “DOES IT SMELL?”
These alien-looking pods are actually a type of mushroom called Lycoperdon pyriforme or “stump puffball.” The name is not misleading –- stump puffballs grow on dead or decaying tree stumps in large clusters of dozens or sometimes hundreds.
Stump puffballs start out as regular-looking mushrooms but in the fall and early winter they transform into hollow, spore-filled air sacs. The green “dust” you see in the video are millions of tiny spores exploding out of a small hole in the mushroom top.
Aside from being poked and prodded by curious humans, these spores are released by natural forces like rain or animals.
The word pyriforme is Greek for “pear-shaped.” However, the origin of Lycoperdon is debated among researchers. Some believe Lyco comes from lýkos meaning wolf and pérdomai meaning “break wind,” aka the “wolf-fart” mushroom. Others believe it was incorrectly translated from its original Leuco-perdon meaning white puff.
Regardless of the Greek roots, the “wolf-fart,” nickname is a misnomer. These spores do not actually smell. However, you certainly do not want to inhale them as it could cause respiratory problems.
Have you ever encountered Lycoperdon pyriforme? We’d love to hear about your stump puffball finds in the comments below!
Before you mow them down or,
worse, reach for the herbicide, you might want to consider giving the
dandelions in your yard a second chance.
How They Got Here
The ubiquitous dandelions that pop up in our yards this time of year are actually native to Europe and Asia. They were brought here by European colonists who used them for medicine, food, and wine. The English name comes from the French “dent de lion” meaning “teeth of a lion” which refers to the jagged leaves.
A Useful Weed
Many people think of them as a
noxious weed but they are actually quite a useful plant. They flower earlier
than most of our native plants so they offer early pollen and nectar for
honeybees and native pollinators.
They are host plants for the
caterpillars of several moth species including the spectacular Giant Leopard
Moth. Their long tap root helps to break up the soil and move nutrients and
water throughout the soil. And dandelion greens are delicious.
This year, help out our native
pollinators and be kind to Mother Earth by forgoing any herbicides and letting
dandelions do their thing. Dandelions are an important food source for
honeybees and others throughout the spring and most herbicides are poisonous to
these insect pollinators.
Every few winters, several bird species abandon their normal wintering areas to our northwest, and move into Massachusetts by the thousands. While distantly related, redpolls, siskins, and grosbeaks all rely on food sources that go through boom and bust cycles, peaking and crashing every 3-6 years. When conifer and birch seeds are scarce in Canada’s boreal forest, these loosely-related species irrupt southwards in search of food.
The core group of these birds are collectively called “winter finches,” and this year will be huge for them!
This year, these sunset-yellow, black and white-patterned finches are the stars of the show. It’s been a few years since Massachusetts saw any wintertime movement of Evening Grosbeaks into the state, and the last major irruption was in the 1990s.
Unlike many winter finches, Evening Grosbeaks seem equally happy feeding on several food types—both fruits and large seeds. They’ll come to feeders, but their bulky size means that they prefer large platform feeders and will avoid tube feeders. Their fruit-eating tendencies means that they often move south with two other frugivores, Bohemian Waxwings and Pine Grosbeaks, which may show up in smaller numbers this year.
These finches specialize in eating birch catkins, and birches are the best place to look for them. Ornithologists predict a big redpoll incursion into the northeast this winter. Redpolls got a slow start in Massachusetts this year, but are starting to show up in larger numbers, especially in the Northern and Western parts of the state.
Siskins are showing up in abundance right now! These small finches with yellow-streaked wings love small seeds. Hang up feeders filled with nyjer or thistle seeds to take advantage of their incursion.
Where To Look
In addition to feeders, groves of spruce trees can be great places to look for seed-eating winter finches like siskins and crossbills. Redpolls are drawn to birch catkins. Fruit-eating finches often take well to ornamental varieties of crabapples, which bear fruit through the winter, so look for grosbeaks and waxwings anywhere large groves of these have been planted—which sometimes means office parks, parking lots, and gardens.
Last year was an excellent year for cone crops in Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec, leading to increased reproduction for seed-eating birds. This means that while spruce seeds, birch catkins, and mountain-ash berries are scarce in Ontario and Quebec, there will be loads of hungry birds looking for them—and moving into the US in search of food.
Birdfeeders do help birds survive harsh winters when food is scarce (though there’s a some This is a great time of year to put out black-oil sunflower seeds and nyjer seeds—two of winter finches’ favorite staples at birdfeeders.
For a more in-depth look at this year’s incursion of Evening Grosbeaks and their shifting distribution in New England, check out our birding blog.