Category Archives: Nature Notes

Banding Peregrines 2017 Edition

Every May, Norman Smith, Director of Mass Audubon’s Blue Hills Trailside Museum, and Tom French, Director of Mass Wildlife’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species program, band peregrine falcon chicks in Boston. You can learn more about why we band falcons here.

Norman Smith with an adult peregrine falcon via Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

Among this year’s banding locations were the Marriott Vacation Club Pulse at Custom House and Christian Science Center Building. At the latter, Smith and French were joined by Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton and President of Mass Audubon Gary Clayton.

Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Director Tom French, Mass Audubon Blue Hills Trailside Museum Director Norman Smith, Mass Audubon President Gary Clayton, Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton via Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

Read some of the local coverage about the banding here, here and here.

5 Tips for Attracting Butterflies

Sure butterflies can be found frolicking in open meadows on warm, breezy summer days, but these exuberant and colorful insects can also be found in your own backyard—if you play your cards right! What does it take to bring the flutter closer to home?

Broad Meadow Brook Wildlife Sanctuary Conservation Coordinator Martha Gach weighs in on the top 5 ways to attract butterflies.

Plant so that your yard has flowers blooming all season long


Why Between March and October, over 100 different butterflies can be found in Massachusetts, but not all at the same time. Mourning cloaks are seen mainly early spring, mid-summer, and fall; swallowtails are present late May to September and monarchs June to October. If you have the right kind of flowers, butterflies will come.

How Nothing blooms all season long, but by choosing plants that flower at different times you can attract a constant stream of butterflies. For spring, think dandelions and chives. Mid-season beauties include milkweeds, butterfly bush, zinnias, verbena, and blazing star. Asters, sunflowers, and Joe-Pye weed attract late-season butterflies.

Did you know? Over 60 different insects, including monarch butterflies, need milkweed to complete their life cycle. These insects not only have adapted to potent chemicals in milkweed, but some use them to repel predators.

Keep caterpillars in mind

Why Baby butterflies are picky eaters. Monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed, fritillaries like violets, spicebush swallowtails eat … well, spicebush (as well as sassafras).

How Your yard should include a variety of host plants and trees to support butterfly caterpillars. In addition to the several kinds of milkweed, consider willow, poplar, cherry, sassafras or spicebush, parsley or dill, and pussytoes to feed and shelter baby butterflies during their growing season.

Did you know? Early instar swallowtail and viceroy caterpillars are camouflaged to look like bird droppings. Late instar swallowtails have big spots that resemble snake eyes. When threatened, these caterpillars will rear up “eyes” first and the “snake” scares the predator away.

Make a “Puddle”

Common wood nymph

Why Dirt contains salts and minerals that butterflies need to supplement their nectar-rich diet. Butterflies sip, so they need mud or small puddles to get their mineral fix.

How A sandy area or one covered with small gravel works well as a “puddling spot.” Just keep it damp and watch for butterflies hanging out, poking in the dirt with their straw-shaped proboscis (kind of like a tongue).

Did you know? Butterflies that gather at puddles are mostly males, which need the additional nutrients for reproduction. Drive slowly down sunny dirt roads and look for butterflies hanging out on the edges. They are probably “puddling”!

Skip Insecticides

Why Many insecticides are general and kill everything, including beneficial insects such as ladybugs (which eat aphids) and butterfly caterpillars. Insecticides can also stay in the environment for many years.

How Learn which bugs are destructive and hand-pick them off your plants ( and are good online ID guides). If you absolutely must, use gentle and effective insecticidal soap.

Did you know? That striped caterpillar chowing down on your parsley will someday become a beautiful black swallowtail butterfly!

Leave the Leaves

Mourning Cloak

Why Unlike monarchs, not every butterfly migrates before cold weather hits. Many spend the winter as caterpillars or chrysalids dormant in leaf litter or just under the soil. If you rake up all your leaves, you could be disposing of the next summer’s butterflies.

How Leaves under your shrubs and along fences are a whole ecosystem unto themselves. Avoid the urge to rake until early June, when caterpillars have woken up and moved out.

Did you know? Mourning cloaks, one of our earliest butterflies, overwinter as adults, hidden under loose bark and under logs (and perhaps in the walls of your home). They emerge before the flowers, nectaring on tree sap.

Want to know more?

For more information on attracting butterflies:

Owling 101: How to Spot an Owl

You may be surprised to learn that owls can be heard in most neighborhoods and backyards, even in Boston and the near suburbs. Since many owl species begin looking for mates in winter and are at their most vocal this time of year, now is the perfect time to go “owling”—looking and listening for owls—either at a wildlife sanctuary or even in your own backyard!

The Secret Is…

…That there is no great secret to owling. The best thing to do, though, is to listen and study calls in advance. There are only a handful of species in Massachusetts in winter, so it is an easy group of birds to learn and listen for. Learn more about the eight owl species commonly found in Massachusetts and listen to recordings of their calls on our website.

Once you’ve got a few calls down pat, just go outside and start listening! Steer clear of windy nights because it can be hard to hear, and it’s best to avoid using a flashlight unless you need to since they can scare off the owls. For this reason, nights with bright moonlight are perfect for owling.

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

What to Listen and Look For

This time of year, you’ll hear great horned owls, found throughout most of the state, calling around dusk. If they duet (two owls calling to one another), they are likely courting. You can tell male from female by the pitch: the females tend to “hoo, hoo” at a higher pitch than the baritone males.

Screech owls will nest in Boston backyards and use nestboxes readily (of course, so do squirrels!). Ounce for ounce, they are among the toughest owls around. Barred owls, found in most of Massachusetts other than the southeast, will call during the day with their famous refrain of “Who cooks for you?

Of course, snowy owls are in a category by themselves; these large owls breed in the Arctic, but can often be seen during their migrations in spring and fall.

Barred Owl ©Rene Laubach/Mass Audubon

Barred Owl © Rene Laubach/Mass Audubon

Once you start to hear owls regularly in the same place, you can look for nests and later for owl “pellets”—regurgitated bones, fur, and feathers from their most recent meal—and eventually downy chicks. If you manage to spot one, you can report the sighting using our online sighting tool. These reports provide valuable information about the owl population in the state.

Find a Program

Not ready to go on your own? You can always join an Owl Prowl program at one of our wildlife sanctuaries to benefit from the expert guidance of one of our naturalists. Happy owling!

Snowy Owl Release in Duxbury Video

Watch Norman Smith of Blue Hills Trailside Museum talk about this snowy owl, which he safely rescued from Logan Airport on Monday, January 23, and released at Duxbury Beach.

Norman has been safely rescuing snowy owls from Logan Airport for more than 30 years. This was the 12th snowy owl that Norman has rescued this season.

Learn more about the Snowy Owl Project and if Norman’s work inspires you, consider making a donation to support his efforts.

Watch the video >

Bird Seed Basics

Want to see birds without ever having to leave home? Look no further than outside your own window. All you need to attract birds is the right type of bird feeder and food.

© Susumu Kishihara

© Susumu Kishihara

And don’t be concerned about creating a hardship for birds should you decide to take a hiatus from bird feeding. Backyard bird feeders account for a relatively small percent of a bird’s overall food supply, which is why when traditional food is available (i.e., worms, insects, seeds, berries, etc), birds will often opt for that instead.

Sunflower Seeds


What: There are 2 types of sunflower seeds usually used to feed birds: black oil sunflower seed and black striped sunflower seed. The black oil sunflower seed has a soft shell and a large oily meat inside, thus making it an energy-rich food source.

Black striped sunflower seed is larger with a tougher shell, and is usually eaten only when black oil sunflower seed is unavailable. Sunflower seed is also commercially available already hulled (with the shell removed). This is often called sunflower hearts.

Which Birds: Songbirds such as chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, finches, and jays universally prefer black oil sunflower seed. Hulled sunflower is favored by smaller species such as chickadees and finches, and is sometimes consumed by species such as juncos that cannot open sunflower seeds.

How: Sunflower seed is best offered in hanging feeders, especially tube feeders such as this one.



What: Beef suet is a hard, white fat that’s rich in heat-producing calories, making it particularly valuable to birds in the winter.

Which Birds: A favorite food of woodpeckers, suet is also well liked by chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, creepers, and the occasional wintering warbler.

How: Suet is best offered raw in specially designed suet holders that allow birds to peck away a small piece at a time. It can also be melted down slowly into liquid and mixed with ingredients such as peanut butter and cornmeal to form cakes. Commercially made suet cakes are available; use the “heat-resistant” formulas in the summer when high temperatures can cause raw, unrendered suet to turn rancid. Check out suet feeder options >

Note: Bird-feeding guides commonly include recipes for various suet cakes. Although often called for in these recipes, whole seeds should not be mixed into suet cakes. Most species that eat suet will not eat whole seeds. The only exception to this is peanut pieces and hulled sunflower pieces.



What: Some of the same types of fresh fruit you enjoy are also loved by birds.

Which Birds: Orioles often have a “sweet beak” for halved apples and oranges. House finches, some woodpeckers, and starlings will also occasionally eat fresh fruit. Raisins and currants sometimes attract mockingbirds and catbirds, as well as a wintering thrasher or hermit thrush, especially if the fruit is water-soaked first.

How: Sections can be impaled on branches or offered in specially designed fruit feeders that have spikes to hold the fruit. Some fruit feeders also have small trays for holding jelly or jam. Moistened raisins and currants are best offered on open platforms or tray feeders.



What: White proso millet is a small, round, yellowish grass seed that is found in most birdseed mixes.

Which Birds: Ground-feeding birds, especially doves, sparrows, juncos, towhees, and cardinals, tend to opt for millet.

How: Seed mixtures containing millet are best offered on low platform feeders and not in hanging feeders. Birds that come to hanging feeders are usually looking for sunflower seed and will often push other seeds to the ground.

Note: Other seeds commonly found in mixes, including milo, wheat, red millet, and hemp, are generally not well accepted by the birds. These seeds exist mostly as fillers in cheaper mixes and should be avoided if possible. Read the label when buying mixed seed to avoid these less popular seeds.

Niger (Nyjer) Seed


What: This small, black, rod-shaped seed in the sunflower family is native to eastern Africa and has been cultivated as a food crop in Ethiopia and India. The trade name “Nyjer” was created to avoid mispronunciation. Currently imported and sold at premium prices, this seed is being tested as a promising cash crop in the United States.

Which Birds: It is extremely popular with finches such as siskins, goldfinches, and house finches, and even with turkeys and mourning doves when it is spread on the ground.

How: This seed is relatively expensive and sometimes goes untouched at feeders where black oil sunflower is available. Offer this seed in a separate, specially designed feeder (often called thistle or finch feeder), which has small holes for dispensing the tiny seed, and periodically check uneaten seeds since they have a tendency to spoil rapidly, especially when moist.

Want to learn more? Check out our bird feeding frequently asked questions >

The Bittersweet Truth

When it comes to holiday decorations, what could be better than an organic woody wreath brimming with red and yellow/orange fruits, right? Well, if you’re using Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), then your decorations could have lasting, not-so-jolly impacts. Keep reading to find out why…

Oriental Bittersweet. Photo by Tom Lautzenheiser

This invasive, non-native vine invades fields, field edges, and forests, forming dense mats that smother or strangle native trees and shrubs. Once it takes root, it’s hard to control. Many of our sanctuaries are in a constant battle with Oriental bittersweet, using mowing, hand-pulling or lopping, or herbicide to protect habitat threatened by bittersweet overgrowth.

Leslie J. Mehrhoff, University of Connecticut,

Do not buy bittersweet! Leslie J. Mehrhoff, University of Connecticut,

If you’re thinking “how harmful can a little clipping be?” all it takes is one bird to carry off one berry, or a seedling sprouting from your post-holiday compost pile, to set off the problem. Vines can grow up to 12 feet per year, overwhelming herbaceous plants and shrubs within a few years following establishment. Bittersweet can also resprout vigorously if cut but not killed.

Along with other invasive plants, the state banned the importation, propagation, and sale of Oriental bittersweet in Massachusetts in 2005.

So, why not head off future headaches, and choose an alternative? Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is a native plant with attractive red berries that can be used as a highlight on any wreath and is generally available as sprigs from your local nursery or florist shop. Or go the faux route and reuse one year after year.

The Truth About Porcupine Projectiles

Pop Quiz: How far can a porcupine shoot its quills?

The Answer: Trick Question!

A rumor has been floating around for centuries that porcupines can fling their quills at enemies. The truth is a different story.


Porcupines are solitary, slow-moving animals that largely keep to themselves unless threatened. The quills usually lie flat against the porcupine’s body until they encounter a threat, at which point they “puff up” and erect their quills, swinging their spiny tails until the threat either leaves them alone or gets a sharp whack and a face, hand, or paw full of quills.

Quills are actually stiff, hollow hairs with microscopic, backward-facing barbs at the tip (kind of like tiny fish hooks), so when they come into contact with flesh—human or animal—they get stuck and pull free from the porcupine’s skin.

So where did this rumor come from? One possible explanation is people saw porcupines molting, or shaking off loose quills, and assumed they could “shoot” their quills like projectile weapons!

Encountering Porcupines

The best thing to do if you encounter a porcupine is to leave it alone. They are solitary creatures and want nothing to do with you.

However, if you or your pet do come in contact and get quilled, seek immediate medical attention. Porcupine quills absorb water and body heat and expand, working their way deeper into the skin. If you can, snip just the ends off the hollow quills to relieve the build-up of pressure inside, and then seek professional medical care to ensure the quills are removed correctly and completely.

Learn more

Get info on porcupine behavior, diet, and predators and check out our Quick Guide to Porcupines.


The 8 Most Difficult Birds to Spot During Bird-a-thon

On May 13 at 6 pm, teams across the state will begin a 24-hour effort to record the most bird species in Massachusetts as part of Bird-a-thon, an annual fundraiser that raises money to support our sanctuaries and programs.

Last year, Team Drumlin Farm squeaked out a win over Team Moose Hill by just one species. Such close competition makes spotting a rare species all that much more enticing. Enter the Elusive 8, eight species, which due to rarity, nesting behavior, preferred location, and/or being difficult to identify, are the most challenging to spot (or hear) during Bird-a-thon.

Northern Goshawk

Northern Goshawk via USFWS

Northern Goshawk via USFWS

Most likely to be found in Western Massachusetts, the northern goshawk is very uncommon and nests in the interior forest. The largest and most seldom-seen accipiter in Massachusetts, it is swift, strong, tenacious, and often aggressive near a nest.

King Rail

King Rail via USFWS

King Rail via USFWS

Massachusetts is near the northern limit of the king rail’s breeding range. These rare and local freshwater marsh breeders are more often heard than seen.

Arctic Tern

Arctic tern via USFWS

Arctic tern via USFWS

Massachusetts represents the southern edge of the breeding range for the Arctic tern, and those few individuals that breed in the Bay State (typically less than 3 nesting pairs annually) are state listed as a Species of Special Concern. Non-breeding Arctic terns are sometimes found adjacent to common tern colonies but are frequently misidentified.

Long-eared Owl

Long-eared owl via Matt Knoth/Flickr

Long-eared owl via Matt Knoth/Flickr

The long-eared owl is a rare breeder in Massachusetts with very few known breeding locations. The species presents a particular challenge by being completely nocturnal and is often much quieter than other owl species. In recent years, the long-eared owl has been the least frequently recorded species during Bird-a-thon.

Olive-sided Flycatcher

Olive-sided Flycatcher via Budgora/Flickr

Olive-sided Flycatcher via Budgora/Flickr

There are only a few places in the Bay State today where the olive-sided flycatcher may be reliably encountered. Plum Island is a good place to look for these late migrants in late May through early June.

Bicknell’s Thrush

Bicknell's Thrush via Aaron Maizlish/Flickr

Bicknell’s Thrush via Aaron Maizlish/Flickr

Due to its close resemblance to the gray-cheeked thrush, Bicknell’s thrush is a difficult species to identify correctly in the field. It’s also a rare migrant to Massachusetts: In recent years, Bicknell’s thrush has been one of the least recorded species during Bird-a-thon.

Golden-winged Warbler

Golden-winged Warbler via Kent McFarland/Flickr

Golden-winged Warbler via Kent McFarland/Flickr

Most likely extirpated as a breeder in Massachusetts and a rare migrant, the Golden-winged Warbler is a hard box to check on the Bird-a-thon species checklist; Try looking for it where Blue-winged Warblers nest. In recent years, the Golden-winged Warbler has been one of the least recorded species during Bird-a-thon.

Cerulean Warbler

Cerulean Warbler via USFWS

Cerulean Warbler via USFWS

This bird’s fondness for the canopy heights, as well as its rarity in the state, makes it one of the most difficult breeding warblers to find and observe.  A local breeder, the cerulean warbler does have several well-known nesting sites and is usually a persistent songster.

A Note on Birding Etiquette

Remember, always bird respectfully, and take special care not to disturb these species! Bird-a-thoners should acquaint themselves with the Bird-a-thon rules, including Bird-a-thon etiquette, prior to the event. Of course, if encountered during your team’s normal birding activity, consider yourselves lucky and proudly check these species off your list!

Join the Flock! Be a part of Bird-a-thon

There’s still time to be part of Bird-a-thon!  You can join a team, fundraise for a team, or donate to the event, team, or team member. Get the details >

Last Month in Birding: February 2016

Here are five incredible bird sightings from last month as suggested by Mass Audubon’s experts.

Yellow-billed Loon (Gavia adamsii)

The largest loon species in the world, this bird breeds on the high Arctic tundra, farther north than our familiar common loon. Scientists still have much to learn about its habits. Outside of certain Arctic and west coast locations, it’s only rarely observed, and sightings from the east coast are almost unheard-of. In fact, it had never before been recorded in Massachusetts—until this February and March, when a yellow-billed loon was found bobbing in the waves off of Provincetown.

Yellow-billed loon at Provincetown © Steve Arena

Yellow-billed loon at Provincetown © Steve Arena

Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana)

One of our most vividly colored bird species is the scarlet tanager; breeding males are cherry-red and black, and females are greenish-yellow. In the west, the scarlet tanager is replaced by the western tanager. Male western tanagers are yellow and black and only have red pigment on their heads; uniquely, this red pigment comes directly from the insects in their diet. In January and February a western tanager visited a private feeder in Rowley.


Western tanager in Rowley (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) nebirdsplus

Yellow-throated Warbler (Setophaga dominica)

This strikingly patterned bird is a common warbler in the southeastern US. It typically builds its nest in Spanish moss that hangs from tree branches in the open southern woodlands where it lives. The yellow-throated warbler normally winters along the Gulf coast and in Central America and the Caribbean islands—but one was spotted in Amesbury.

Amesbury © Amy

Yellow-throated warbler in Amesbury © Amy

Bullock’s Oriole (Icterus bullockii)

This species is similar to the familiar Baltimore oriole, except that the male Bullock’s oriole has a mostly orange face with a striking black eye stripe and a white wing patch. It’s a bird of the western US, but it occasionally interbreeds with the Baltimore oriole on the Great Plains where their ranges overlap. At one time the two species were lumped into one—the northern oriole—before scientists determined that they were genetically distinct. A Bullock’s oriole visited a bird feeder at a private residence in Newburyport.

Western Tanager (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) nebirdsplus

Bullock’s oriole in California (CC BY-ND 2.0) Jan Arendtsz

Mystery Gull

Now and then a bird appears that confounds the experts. Among the gulls standing on the ice last month at Turners Falls, one individual really stood out: a herring gull-sized bird with yellow legs. Experts proposed two possible identities. It could have been a yellow-legged gull (Larus michahellis), a European species that breeds in the Mediterranean and the Azores. If so, the bird had wandered way out of range! The other option was that it was a hybrid—a mix of two species, in this case possibly herring and a lesser black-backed gulls. Either way, it was an unusual sighting and brought some much-needed excitement to sleepy February.

Gull at Turner's Falls © James P. Smith

Gull at Turner’s Falls © James P. Smith

Built to Peck: How Woodpeckers Avoid Brain Injury

Pileated woodpecker © Kim Nagy

Pileated woodpecker © Kim Nagy

We are pleased to share a guest blog post from Lorna Gibson, Mass Audubon Council member, longtime Leadership Friend, and Tern Society member. Lorna is also Matoula S. Salapatas Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and MacVicar Faculty Fellow at MIT.

A couple of years ago, Lorna came to Mass Audubon headquarters to share what she was learning about woodpeckers and how they withstand the impacts of constant pecking. Now, thanks to the incredible videos put together by Lorna, co-producer Caitlin Stier, and a team of others at MITx, MIT’s online education department, everyone can enjoy and learn from her work.

I love birds and I love teaching. And I’ve now combined these two interests in a new, eight-part, short-form video series: Built to Peck: How Woodpeckers Avoid Brain Injury. The series, designed for a general audience, is like an online fusion of “Nature” and “Mythbusters,” weaving together intimate observations of bird behavior and physiology with engineering “explainers.” The project was a collaboration with MITx, MIT’s online education division, and, in particular, with one of their media specialists, Caitlin Stier.

A number of years ago, a colleague told me that woodpeckers have a special foam-like material between their brains and their skulls that protects them from impacts during pecking. Since I study the mechanical behavior of foams and foam-like materials, I had to look into this. Once I sorted out an explanation (there is no special foam-like material involved) I started giving talks on how woodpeckers avoid brain injury to birding groups and audiences interested in natural history. So when the opportunity to make a high production value video with MITx on this topic arose, I was thrilled.

We set about translating my talk into a lively exploration of the engineering, biology, and natural history behind woodpecker pecking. After storyboarding to determine the best mix of on-camera presentation, graphics, historical and new footage, our team began filming in late July and August. We were permitted to shoot in Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, where we peered into drawers containing centuries-old and often rare bird species, well preserved and fully feathered.

Another highlight was shooting at the lush Hall’s Pond Sanctuary in Brookline, near the 19th century home of Mass Audubon co-founder, Minna Hall; the final segment in the series gives a behind-the-scenes look at the founding of the Mass Audubon.

Enjoy the videos!

— Professor Lorna Gibson MacVicar Faculty Fellow and Matoula S. Salapatas Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, MIT. Adapted from Built to Peck: How Woodpeckers Avoid Brain Injury, from the MIT News Office.