Category Archives: Nature Notes

Evening Grosbeak © MDF (CC BY-SA 3.0)

An Epic Winter For Nomadic Finches

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!

Species On The Move In 2018:

Evening Grosbeaks

Evening Grosbeak © MDF (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Evening Grosbeak © MDF (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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.

Common Redpolls

Common Redpoll © Simon Pierre Barrette

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.

Red-breasted Nuthatches

Red-breasted Nuthatch © Richard Alvarnaz

While technically not a winter finch, this species is nearly as nomadic, and this year is big for them. Their relative, the White-breasted Nuthatch, is a year-round resident and common backyard bird.

Red-breasted Nuthatches made a very early southward movement this year, with many appearing as early as late summer, heralding a major incursion of wandering finches later in the season.

Pine Siskins

Pine Siskin © Terri Nickerson

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.

Feeders Up!

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.

Rescuing Sea Turtles on Cape Cod

As winter approaches, the water temperature of Cape Cod Bay slowly drops, and sea turtles should make their way south to warmer tropical waters. However, each year since the late 1970s, some juvenile turtles do not make the journey in time. Trapped by the hook of the Cape, the turtles become disoriented. When the water reaches about 50° by mid-November, the turtles are too cold to eat, drink, or swim, and become “cold-stunned.”

Maureen Duffy, a member of the Wellfleet Bay Turtle Team, monitors a rescued Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle.

And every year, staff and volunteers from Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary patrol the beaches, rescuing these turtles. This year is no different. Since the season began earlier this fall, Wellfleet has encountered more than 630 cold stunned sea turtles.

During the Thanksgiving freeze, when temperatures plummeted overnight, more than 220 endangered sea turtles stranded on Cape Cod. Wellfleet Bay’s dedicated team of rescuers patrolled the beaches day and night in search of cold-stunned turtles trapped in the surf, and had to deal with the full force of the weather for more than 48 hours straight.

Of the 220, only approximately 50 were alive when rushed to the wildlife sanctuary’s turtle intake unit for weighing, measuring, and assessment. Volunteer drivers were lined up to transport the turtles to the Animal Care Center in Quincy operated by the New England Aquarium, Mass Audubon’s partner in this important rescue-and-rehabilitation mission.

Typically, cold-stunned turtles rescued in November are still alive with a very good chance of recovery. But the unusual cold-snap produced conditions more common in late December when most of the turtles that strand are dead.

Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary Director Bob Prescott, who has been monitoring sea turtles for more than 35 years, notes climate change is causing more and more strandings. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the water in the Gulf of Maine was too cold for sea turtles. But warming ocean temperatures have allowed sea turtles to enter the Gulf of Maine and some cannot get out before the water temperature drops.

There’s still several months left in the season and the team on the Cape will be hard at work. Be sure to follow Wellfleet Bay on Facebook for the latest information. You can also learn more about sea turtles and how to support the Sea Turtle Rescue Project.

Piping Plovers © Sandy Selesky

Protecting Endangered Species

Recently, the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) has come under unprecedented threat. More than two dozen pieces of legislation and policy proposals designed to weaken the law have surfaced. Mass Audubon has been advocating in support of upholding the ESA, which has been in place for 45 years.

Here are just three species that rely on the Endangered Species Act for protection and what Mass Audubon is doing to ensure that they remain in Massachusetts for generations to come.

Kemps Ridley

Rescuing a Kemps Ridley © Esther Horvath

Federal Status: Endangered

Most sea turtles are ectothermic, meaning that their body temperature is regulated by the temperature of the water around them. As winter approaches, the water temperature of Cape Cod Bay slowly drops, and sea turtles should make their way south to warmer tropical waters.

However, each year some juvenile turtles do not make the journey in time and become disoriented. By mid-November, the turtles are often too cold to eat, drink, or swim, and become “cold-stunned.” The turtles are often then pushed up onto the beach by strong winds, and left behind by the receding tide.

The smallest and most endangered sea turtle in the world, the Kemps Ridley is also the most common turtle to strand on bayside beaches each winter. Several hundred have stranded each winter on Cape Cod in recent years.

Since 1979, Wellfleet Bay staff and hundreds of volunteers have patrolled the beaches of Cape Cod, on the lookout for these cold-stunned turtles. Their efforts have resulted in the recovery of thousands of cold-stunned Kemps Ridleys over the past decade.

Rusty Patched Bumble Bee

Rusty Patched Bumble Bee via Jill Utrup/USFWS

Federal Status: Threatened

As recently as 30 years ago, this bumblebee was commonly found in a variety of habitats including prairies, woodlands, marshes, and residential parks and gardens. Their drastic decline started in the mid-1990s, and today they are very rare. This important pollinator is the first bee species to ever be added to the federal endangered species list.

Mass Audubon is protecting and maintaining old field habitats and installing pollinator gardens to support these bees and many other pollinators that live in the Commonwealth. We’ve also supported proposed state legislation that would help improve pollinator health, along with pollinator-friendly land protection programs.

Piping Plovers

Piping Plovers © Sandy Selesky

Piping Plovers © Sandy Selesky

Federal Status: Threatened

The dynamic coastal habitats of Massachusetts are the perfect fit for determined sparrow-sized, sand-colored Piping Plovers. Likely widespread on our coasts historically, Piping Plovers suffered an extreme decline in the early 20th century.

Thanks to the protection of the state and federal agencies, supportive beach communities, and initiatives like Mass Audubon’s Coastal Waterbird Program (CWP), the population has increased five-fold in Massachusetts since the mid-1980s.

CWP is dedicated to protecting coastal habitat for Piping Plovers and other shoreline-dependent birds. By erecting fencing to protect nesting areas, CWP ensures that Piping Plovers have the space to protect and raise their young. CWP also collects detailed data on nesting success and challenges in order to adapt beach management plans across the state.

By providing shorebird education and training opportunities to partners and students of conservation, CWP hopes to ensure the success of Piping Plovers and the enjoyment of our coastal habitats for generations to come.

How You Can Help

Contact your federal legislators and let them know you support the Endangered Species Act. Urge them to oppose any legislative attempts to weaken it that come before them for a vote.

Urge the federal government to continue protecting “threatened” species in the same way they protect endangered species. Waiting until a species becomes endangered increases the risk of extinction, as well as the level of effort and cost required to achieve species recovery. Submit comments >

Urge decision-makers to continue basing rare species protections on scientific data, not on potential economic impacts. Changing how these decisions are made could give corporations more leeway to develop protected habitats, and may make it easier for roads, pipelines, etc., including projects on public lands, to gain approvals despite impacts to endangered or threatened species. Submit comments >

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.