Category Archives: Nature Notes

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Spring Migration is Finally Here

On the evening of Tuesday, May 1, a wave of migratory birds arrived in Massachusetts. While some early-migrating species have been trickling in since April, Wednesday, May 2, marks the beginning of the season for our most colorful migrants. Scarlet Tanagers, Yellow Warblers, melodious Wood Thrushes, and a host of other species have finally arrived after waiting out winter in the tropics. 

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are one of dozens of showy migratory species. Photo © Will Freedberg

Understanding Migration

Most migratory songbirds fly north under the cover of darkness, out of sight of daytime predators like falcons and hawks. Sometimes, it’s possible to hear them in quiet, open spaces: a faint “chip” noise is the telltale sign of a warbler flying overhead. Most nights, you might just hear one ever few minutes, but on nights with heavy migration, it’s possible to hear a flight call every second.

These birds prefer to migrate on nights with southwest winds, which speed them on their journey north. In fact, Tuesday’s southwest winds combined with recent bird reports from New York were the key tip-offs that migrants would arrive today.

These birds journey north over several nights, with most stopping to feed along the way and flying with a southwest wind at their backs. In fact, after staying put during last week’s steady northerly winds, this first push of birds flew into Massachusetts as soon as the winds shifted southwest.

Read the Radar

The scale of bird migration is astounding. So huge, in fact, that you can watch it unfold across entire regions on radar. Doppler radar, normally used to detect weather patterns like thunderstorms, regularly picks up “clouds” of migrating birds, allowing scientists to study migration patterns on a continental scale. To learn how to predict bird migration with radar, check out our introduction to the topic and specific instructions on how to read radar signals.

Canada Warbler. Photo © Will Freedberg

Tips For Watching Warblers

One of the joys of spring migration is that surprising birds can show up just about anywhere. While migratory species rely on undisturbed forests and shrublands to breed, many also pass through urban and suburban parks on their way north. Any grove of trees, whether in the Boston Public Garden or a suburban backyard, is a great place to check for warblers, orioles, grosbeaks, and other goodies.

Look for these colorful visitors in the highest parts of trees, but also around dense cover like thickets. But the real key is waking up early. Most migrants are active just after dawn, and turn quiet by mid-morning.

Good luck! If you see anything good out there, let us know on our Facebook page.

8 Ways to Watch Woodcocks

American Woodcocks are back! Even when spring arrives late, woodcocks still perform their remarkable sky dances. In March and early April, these fascinating, awkward-looking birds put on a mating display at dusk.

The best part: it’s easy to view this display in any large brushy field, including some city parks.

American Woodcock by Will Freedberg

Keep an ear out for a woodcock’s sharp, nasal “peent!” from sunset to half an hour afterwards. The woodcock will take off after a few calls, wheeling and diving in the sky as their wings produce their signature twitter. Then, the bird dives steeply, its wings continuing to whistle as it falls to the ground to start over.

To help you track down these enigmatic birds, here’s a list of Mass Audubon’s upcoming guided woodcock walks, plus some sites in greater Boston to look for them by yourself.

Mass Audubon Woodcock Programs

Join a walk if you want some help finding woodcocks or just enjoy the company of a group of nature lovers. Experienced naturalists will make sure you don’t miss a peent!

1. In Greater Boston: March 30 and April 6 at Broadmoor (Natick); March 31 and April 14 at the Blue Hills Trailside Museum (Milton); April 3 for adults and April 7 for teens at Drumlin Farm; April 8 at the Boston Nature Center (Mattapan).

2. On the South Shore: March 28 and April 4 at Birchwold Farm (Wrentham) with Stony Brook; April 7 at North River (Marshfield).

3. In Central and Western Massachusetts: April 4 at Broad Meadow Brook (Worcester); April 5 at Wachusett Meadow for families (Princeton); April 7 at Arcadia (Easthampton/Northampton); April 11 at Pleasant Valley (Lenox).

4. On Cape Cod: March 30 and April 14 at Long Pasture (Barnstable); March 30 and April 7 at Wellfleet Bay (Wellfleet).

See the entire list of woodcock programs!

4 Parks to Seek Woodcocks in Greater Boston on Your Own

5. West Roxbury: Millennium Park
This former landfill became a great birding site after it was covered with soil from the Big Dig and reclaimed by native grassland. Search for woodcocks along the northwest and southwest edges of the park and by the canoe launch.

6. Boston: Franklin Park
Park off of Circuit Drive. The best area is through the open area towards a softball field.  Sometimes, woodcocks display in the sports fields off of Pierpoint Drive to the north.

7. Cambridge: Alewife Reservation
Most woodcocks are found by walking the path between Bullfinch Parking Lot (off of Acorn Park Drive) and the T station.

8. Belmont: Rock Meadow
Rock Meadow is best accessed from a small parking lot on the West side of Mill St. south of its intersection with Concord Ave. Walk the path into the adjacent field about 400 feet, passing the community gardens on your left. The woodcocks will be displaying on your right, but can be found further into the meadows as well.

Post by William Freedberg, Bird Conservation Associate

Releasing Snowy Owl no. 26

On Monday, January 29, Norman Smith (director at Blue Hills Trailside Museum) carefully captured a snowy owl at Logan Airport (for the safety of the owl and the planes). The next day, he released it on Duxbury Beach.

Norman Smith with Snowy Owl

Snowy owls are attracted to Logan because the landscape resembles the Arctic tundra and there are plenty of rodents and waterfowl to eat. This was the 26th snowy owl he has relocated from Logan this winter.

After safely capturing it, he brought it back to Trailside to measure, weigh, and band it. The following day, he fed the owl then safely puts it in the car and heads to Duxbury Beach to release it.

To drive on Duxbury Beach you need a permit. If you do come, please read the signs and stay off the dunes for the safety of the beach and wildlife.

Duxbury Beach

Once at a good spot, Norman retrieves the owl. He has been doing this for more than 25 years and knows the best way to handle the owl. Before letting him go, Norman shared a few words about the owl, including that it’s a second year bird (probably born in June 2017). You can tell by its uniform feathers and no sign of molt.

Once released the owl doesn’t go far. Can you see him? He’s in the center at the edge of the beach just before the water.

Snowy Owl on Beach

You don’t have to brave the wind and cold to see a snowy owl up close. At Blue Hills Trailside Museum in Milton, there are 2 snowy owls in the wildlife exhibit—they have been injured and wouldn’t survive in the wild.

Snowy owls at Trailside

How You Can Help

You can help support Norman’s work protecting and studying snowy owls by making a donation to the Snowy Owl Project.

Can Squirrels Fly?

You happen to be watching your bird feeder at night. You see something that looks like it flew on it but was definitely not a bird. What could it be? Most likely, you have a flying squirrel visitor. These charismatic seed thieves are common in Massachusetts but are not usually seen because of their nocturnal habits.

Southern Flying Squirrel © Nadine Ronan

Don’t let their name fool you—flying squirrels don’t actually fly. Rather they have a built-in “paraglider,” a membrane that stretches between the legs and lets them soar as far as 150 feet. Like other cavity nesters, they will sometimes use birdhouses for nesting or protection.

Watch Flying Squirrels in Action

A Butterfly Boom

Bees swarm. Locusts swarm. Butterflies, not so much. But at the moment, many thousands of painted lady butterflies are filling gardens and roadside stands of fall wildflowers at the end of a long flight from Southwestern deserts.

Painted Lady © Gillian Henry

There are two species of very similar “Lady butterflies” that occur in Massachusetts. The American lady is a common resident species that flies throughout the warm seasons and overwinters in the pupal stage or as an adult butterfly. The life cycle of the painted lady is considerably more dramatic.

The butterflies involved in the present “irruption” presumably originated in the deserts of northern Mexico. Triggered by poorly understood conditions on the wintering grounds, Painted Ladies emerge in enormous numbers (think locusts) and disperse northward occasionally reaching as far as New England.

If, as sometimes happens, the irruption occurs in spring or summer the species can reproduce here, but cannot overwinter at this latitude. So unless there is another mass migration next year, you may see no painted ladies at all in Massachusetts next year.

A sense of the enormity and drama of the largest of the Lady irruptions is given in this 1869 account by S. B. J. Skertchl from the Sudanese desert:

Three painted ladies © Lucy Merrill-Hills

“Our caravan had started for the coast, leaving the mountains shrouded in heavy clouds, soon after daybreak. At the foot of the high country is a stretch of wiry grass, beyond which lies the rainless desert as far as the sea. From my camel I noticed that the whole mass of the grass seemed violently agitated, although there was no wind. On dismounting I found that the motion was caused by the contortions of pupae of V. cardui, which were so numerous that almost every blade of grass seemed to bear one…Presently the pupae began to burst and the red fluid that escaped sprinkled the ground like a rain of blood. Myriads of butterflies, limp and helpless, sprinkled the ground. Presently the sun shone forth and the insects began to dry their wings, and about half an hour after the birth of the first the whole swarm rose as a dense cloud and flew away eastwards towards the sea. I do not know how long the swarm was, but it was certainly more than a mile, and its breadth exceeded a quarter of a mile.”

Want to witness this butterfly irruption?

You may have to travel no farther than your garden. Like many butterflies, the painted lady isn’t especially picky about which flowers to nectar on. Or head for coastal areas where they tend to concentrate and seek out patches of late-blooming wildflowers such as goldenrods and asters.

For more information on this fascinating butterfly, check out Mass Audubon’s Butterfly Atlas, which includes data collected between 1986 and 1990.

 

A Good Year for Monarchs?

During the last week of August, Regional Scientist Robert Buchsbaum and several Mass Audubon naturalists and scientists took a field trip to Conway Hills Wildlife Sanctuary just west of the Connecticut River in Conway, MA. While there, they were pleasantly surprised by what they saw. Here’s Robert’s report:

The initial goal of our exploration was to document the odonates (dragonflies and damselflies) that are present at this sanctuary. Conway Hills is a relatively new sanctuary for Mass Audubon so our records of species that occur there is still a work in progress.

While rambling through a big field in the center of the sanctuary, we couldn’t help but notice the large number of monarch butterfly caterpillars that were feasting on the milkweed plants in the field. Just about every one of the milkweed plants (the common milkweed—Asclepias syriaca) had a monarch caterpillar on it, busily chewing on leaves.

Monarch caterpillar at Conway Hills

This was very heartening to all of us, given how scarce monarch butterflies were last summer and the overall concern about the future of this stunning butterfly.

Have you noticed more monarchs this year?

Let us know in the comments!

Protecting Pollinators

Mass Audubon has made it a priority to protect and promote pollinators’ health.

A rapid decline in pollinators like beesbirdsbutterflies, and bats is threatening biodiversity both globally and here at home.  The thousands of plant-pollinator interactions that sustain our food supply and natural environment are under threat by multiple, interacting factors including habitat loss, pesticide use, invasive species, disease, and climate change.

This is why our Advocacy department identified An Act to Protect Pollinators as a legislative priority. This Act, sponsored by Representative Mary Keefe (D-Worcester) and Senator Jason Lewis (D-Winchester), establishes a commission to investigate methods and solutions to protect and promote pollinators’ health. The bill would require the commission to include individuals with expertise in the protection of pollinators, wildlife protection and expertise in native plants.

In addition, Mass Audubon provided extensive input that helped shape the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources’ (MDAR) recently released Pollinator Protection Plan, which includes Best Management Practices for groups from beekeepers to farmers to homeowners and gardeners, all of whom can take steps to minimize impacts to pollinators and encourage their populations to thrive.

MDAR is also updating its Apiary Program, which provides supports to honey beekeepers, pesticide applicators, farmers, land managers, educators, regulators and government officials.

Most recently, Mass Audubon’s President Gary Clayton (pictured) was on hand to celebrate the opening of the second state apiary at Essex Technical High School, a collection of beehives, which will be used for education and academic research. This state-funded new apiary will consist of six honey bee hives located within a 30 foot by 100 foot plot on the campus of Essex Technical High School.

Learn more about the MDAR Apiary Program and what you can do to protect pollinators.

Why Did the Turtle Cross the Road?

To get to the other side…to lay her eggs!

Turtle Crossing sign at Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary

Turtle Crossing sign at Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary

In late spring and early summer, adult female turtles cross roads in search of nest sites. Each species has a different habitat requirement, but when searching for a nest site they usually choose sandy or loose soil in lawns, tilled or mowed fields, roadsides, and occasionally backyard compost piles.

Many people assume that something is wrong when a turtle is crossing the road. People, with best intentions, mistakenly attempt to return it to water, take it home, or, take it somewhere that seems safer and release it. But the best thing to do is leave it alone. The turtle knows where it wants to go and may have been nesting in the same spot for many years—or even decades.

Small Turtles

If you spot a small turtle that is in danger of being hit by cars, you can protect it by temporarily blocking traffic if it is safe to do so. You can also speed things along by carefully picking it up by its carapace (the top half of its shell) and moving it to the other side of the road, in the direction it was already headed.

Snapping Turtles

Snapping turtles, however, can be dangerous and should not be handled. They are surprisingly fast for their size and can extend their necks the length of their carapace. Never pick up a snapping turtle by the tail because you could seriously injure it.

Snapping Turtle at Drumlin Farm © Mass Audubon

Snapping Turtle at Drumlin Farm © Mass Audubon

Learn all about turtles on our website and check out our Turtles By the Numbers.

A Quick Guide to Hummingbirds

Have you spotted hummingbirds in your garden yet?

Ruby-throated Hummingbird © Phil Sorrentino

Ruby-throated Hummingbird © Phil Sorrentino

These tiny, buzzing birds are a welcome sight in gardens across Massachusetts every spring, returning from their spring migration in late April and early May. With plenty of nectar-bearing flowers about now, they’re definitely back—and they are HUNGRY. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says that hummingbirds have to consume their own weight in nectar and insects every day to survive!

Easy to Identify

The ruby-throated hummingbird is the only species of hummingbird that breeds in Massachusetts. The males are unmistakable with their bright red throats, while females and juveniles are just as stunning with their glossy, green plumage.

Learn More

Check out the Quick Guide below, read hummingbird faqs, and report a hummingbird sighting. Looking for a new feeder? We’ve got plenty of options for you in the Audubon Shop.

Hummingbird Quick Guide

Invasion of the Fuzzy Black Caterpillar

If you’ve noticed a bunch small, fuzzy black caterpillars with a red stripe you’re not alone.

This invasive insect, which typically hatches in May, will spin long silken threads on which it travels up and down to find foliage. Once the caterpillars find a suitable tree (oak, birch, and apple trees are favorites), they begin eating the leaves, growing rapidly, and molting their skins to accommodate their increasing size.

The Problem

During a boom, or outbreak, gypsy moth caterpillars can cause massive defoliation most likely in uniform stands of tree species, particularly oaks.

While a disheartening sight, the long-term effect is not as disastrous as some commonly assume and may in some ways be beneficial. Thinning of forests by gypsy moths may produce a healthier, more diverse, and perhaps a more gypsy-moth resistant stand of trees. Moderate defoliation benefits forest wildlife by stimulating understory growth of shrubs and berry-producing thickets.

Plus, they are a food source for native birds such as cuckoos, downy woodpeckers, gray catbirds, and common grackles.

What You Can Do

That being said, there are efforts taken to minimize the damage.

  • When the caterpillars are still small, contact a reputable pest management firm or arborist for advice. 
  • If spraying of pesticides is recommended, make sure the treatment uses B.t. kurtstaki (Bacillus thuringiensis kurtstaki), a bacterial pesticide that has proven effective in killing young caterpillars of a number of pest species.

What Not To Do

As tempting as it may be, do not use chemical pesticides. Although these substances do kill the larvae and thereby protect the foliage in the year of application, the insects are never totally eliminated. Also targeted by these pesticides are natural predators of the gypsy moth. And some chemical pesticides may actually prolong or exacerbate outbreaks.

And don’t bother gathering and destroying the caterpillars by hand. It’s a waste of time and effort. And many people experience allergic reactions.

Learn More

Find out more about the life stages of a gypsy moth caterpillar and management strategies >