Category Archives: Nature Notes

Last Month in Birding: December 2015

December brought another month of amazing bird sightings to Massachusetts. Here are a few interesting observations as suggested by our experts.

Mountain Bluebird (Sialia currucoides)

This is a bird of wide open spaces in the west, where it breeds at higher elevations but overwinters on the grasslands and plains. It often forages by hovering above a field and looking down for insect prey. Whereas our familiar eastern bluebird has a rusty breast, the mountain bluebird is blue-grey to powdery blue, almost like a pair of faded old jeans. An individual seen at the Crane Wildlife Management Area in Falmouth was one of only a few records for Massachusetts.

Mountain bluebird in Falmouth © Tom Murray

Mountain bluebird in Falmouth © Tom Murray

Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis)

A relative of the Canada goose, the barnacle goose has silvery-grey wings and a largely white face. It’s found in north-western Europe and Asia. Because this bird “disappears” to remote parts of the Arctic during the warm months, some Europeans developed a folk belief that it spent the summer developing underwater in the form of a barnacle. Various religious groups held that the barnacle goose’s supposed unusual life cycle meant that it wasn’t made of real animal meat—so it was O.K. to eat during fasts. Two barnacle geese (in goose form!) were seen in Agawam among a flock of Canada geese.

Barnacle goose in Longmeadow © Justin Lawson

Barnacle goose in a flock of Canada Geese, Longmeadow © Justin Lawson

Cave Swallow (Petrochelidon fulva)

In recent years, birders have increasingly observed an odd avian phenomenon along our coast. Swallows have been spotted flying over the chilly landscape long after our local swallow species have migrated south. Even more remarkable is the fact that they belong to a species that is normally found as far away as Texas, Mexico, and the Caribbean. These are cave swallows, and it’s not yet clear why they now visit us every year! Cave swallows were spotted last month in Lynn and Salisbury.

Cave swallow in Salisbury back in 2010 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) nebirdsplus

Cave swallow in Salisbury in 2010 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) nebirdsplus

Black-chinned Hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri)

An adaptable species, the black-chinned hummingbird can be found in both remote wild lands and urban areas in the west. Its breeding range encompasses much of the western US, dipping into northern Mexico and north as far as western Canada. Most black-chinned hummingbirds spend the winter in Mexico and along the Gulf Coast. The male has a dark chin with iridescent purple at the base; the female is often difficult to identify in the field, but the task is made is easier when the bird is in handas was the case with an individual that was banded last month in Harwich. There have only been about five recorded occurrences of this species in Massachusetts!

Black-chinned hummingbird © Sean Williams

Black-chinned hummingbird in Harwich © Sean Williams

Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainsoni)

The Swainson’s hawk is a bird of the Great Plains. While it’s raising young, it eats the typical hawk diet of small mammals, birds, and reptiles, but outside of the breeding season this species is mainly an insect eater; it’s adept at catching insects stirred up by agricultural activities. A Swainson’s hawk was seen at Bear Creek Park in Saugus. This was one of very few winter occurrences for this species in our region.

Swainson's hawk © Andrew Hrycyna

Swainson’s hawk in Saugus © Andrew Hrycyna

Last Month in Birding: November 2015

Every month we feature some the past month’s bird sightings as suggested by our experts. Here are five remarkable observations from November.

MacGillivray’s Warbler (Geothlypis tolmiei)

If you’re a fan of warblers, you probably know the mourning warbler, an uncommon bird of the eastern US that looks like it’s wearing a gray and black veil of mourning. There’s a closely related species in the western US: the MacGillivray’s warbler. It has a similar appearance but has bold white crescents above and below its eyes. The ranges of these two species don’t typically overlap; nonetheless, a wandering MacGillivray’s warbler was seen last month in Lexington.

MacGillivray's warbler in Lexington © James P. Smith

MacGillivray’s warbler in Lexington © James P. Smith

American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos)

With a wingspan of nine feet, the American white pelican is one of North America’s largest birds. It breeds in central and western parts of North America and winters in the southern US and Mexico. If you’ve visited to the southern coastal US you’ve probably seen the brown pelican, a species known for making spectacular aerial dives to catch fish. The American white pelican doesn’t take such plunges; instead, it feeds by floating on the surface of the water and scooping up fish into its enormous bill. Last month, at least one white pelican was observed on a pond in Gloucester and later at Plum Island.

American white pelican in Michigan (CC BY 2.0) Andrew C

American white pelican in Michigan (CC BY 2.0) Andrew C

Common Ground-dove (Columbina passerina)

This is a tiny dove—it’s just 1/4 the weight of a mourning dove. Native to southern North America and northern South America, the common ground-dove does not typically migrate, so it’s not clear why a bird made its way to Lexington last month. This species feeds and typically nests in dense vegetation close to the ground, which tends to make it vulnerable to many predators. Fortunately its feather pattern keeps it well-camouflaged against the dusty ground. When startled into flight, it flashes bright chestnut wing patches and its wings make a soft whirring sound.

Common ground-dove in Lexington © Ryan Schain

Common ground-dove in Lexington © Ryan Schain

Pink-footed Goose (Anser brachyrhynchus)

A true northern bird and a rarity in North America, the pink-footed goose breeds in chilly places: Greenland, Iceland, and Svalbard. It overwinters in northwestern Europe. Pink-footed goose populations are increasing, partly because of greater protection from hunting in areas where they breed. Accordingly, it seems, individuals are showing up on the eastern coast of North America with increased frequency. The species is gregarious, and in Massachusetts it’s usually seen in the company of Canada geese. A single pink-footed goose was observed last month in a flock of Canada geese at Turner’s Falls along the Connecticut River.

Pink-footed goose © James Smith

Pink-footed goose (left) at Turner’s Falls © James Smith

Townsend’s Solitaire (Myadestes townsendi)

This uncommonly seen species nests in western mountain forests and usually winters at lower elevations. In winter, this bird eats berries, especially juniper berries, and fiercely defends food-rich territories. The Townsend’s solitaire looks a little like a miniature mockingbird, though it has a striking white eye ring and it’s actually a member of the thrush family. A Townsend’s solitaire seen last month at Halibut Point State park in Rockport was actually one of several reported this fall.

Townsend's solitaire at Halibut Point State Park © Ted Bardford

Townsend’s solitaire at Halibut Point State Park © Ted Bardford

Last Month in Birding: October 2015

Every month we feature a few the past month’s bird sightings as suggested by our experts. Here are five notable observations from October.

Purple Gallinule (Porphyrio martinicus)

A living rainbow, this bird has enormous feet that enable it to walk across floating wetland plants such as lily pads. It can also swim. The purple gallinule is essentially a tropical species, and in the US it is typically found only in the far south and southeast. However, individuals regularly wander and turn up in odd places during migration—such as this one found at the Westborough WMA in Worcester County.

Purple gallinule at Westborough WMA © Justin Lawson

Purple gallinule at Westborough WMA © Justin Lawson

Bell’s Vireo (Vireo bellii)

Another southern species, the Bell’s vireo breeds in the central and western US and parts of Mexico, and winters in Mexico. A small, fairly plain-looking songbird, it has a remarkably loud song. Researchers at the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences banded a Bell’s vireo last month. It was the third such occurrence since 2005.

Bell's vireo in Manomet © Lauren diBiccari, Manomet Staff

Bell’s vireo in Manomet © Lauren diBiccari, Manomet Staff

Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus)

Native to the western US, the rufous hummingbird breeds as far north as Alaska. It is a speedy, vibrant species, and makes up for its small size with tenacity and aggression. The male’s throat is orange but the female only shows a spot of orange. Last month a rufous hummingbird was seen in Great Barrington. The Allen’s hummingbird, a very similar species, can be very hard to distinguish from the rufous. Fortunately, the bird in Great Barrington was an adult male with a distinctive, completely rufous-colored back.

Rufous hummingbird in Seattle (CC BY-NC 2.0) Minette Layne

Rufous hummingbird in Seattle (CC BY-NC 2.0) Minette Layne

Say’s Phoebe (Sayornis saya)

Last month we shared a report of a Say’s phoebe on Nantucket. In October, another individual was spotted in Eastham. This western flycatcher is at home on ranches, and in badlands, desert edges, and other open arid habitats. It breeds all the way to northern Alaska and winters in parts of the southwestern US and Mexico. Individuals sometimes wander East during fall migration, and when they do, they inevitably make an eastern birder’s day.

Say's phoebe in Eastham © Ben Lagasse

Say’s phoebe in Eastham © Ben Lagasse

Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

This songbird is master traveler. It nests in Europe and Asia—with some birds entering North America in the high north from both the east and west—and winters in sub-Saharan Africa. Researchers have found that Alaskan northern wheatears travel an average of over 9000 miles to reach their wintering grounds! Stragglers sometimes find their way south to Massachusetts, where one was spotted at the Wachusett Reservoir in Worcester County last month.

Northern wheatear at Wachusett Reservoir © Justin Lawson

Northern wheatear at Wachusett Reservoir © Justin Lawson

Bats: Legions of the Night

As Halloween approaches, bat-themed decorations swarm store windows and homes, often in the company of black cats and other creatures synonymous with mystery and dread. Though bats have become symbolic of our spookiest holiday, they are benevolent, diverse, and fascinating throughout the year.

© David McChesney

© David McChesney

One out of every five mammal species on earth is a bat. They may look like flying mice, but bats are more closely related to the carnivores and hoofed animals. They are the only mammals capable of true flight, and their wings consist of four elongated fingers with skin stretched between them.

Nine species live in Massachusetts. All eat insects and hunt mainly from dusk to dawn. To find prey in low light, they make high-pitched sounds that bounce off their surroundings and return to their ears. By analyzing the way these sounds echo off of insects, they can discover their target’s size, location, and direction of travel. A single bat can eat 600 moths and other insects in an hour.

Since prey is scarce in the winter, Massachusetts bats migrate south or hibernate. Four species overwinter in cold wet caves. In recent years these habitats have hosted a fungus—probably introduced from Europe—that causes a deadly illness called white-nose syndrome. As a result, these four cave-dwelling bats are listed as endangered in Massachusetts.

In May 2015, scientists at Georgia State University and the US Forest Service announced that some bats had been successfully treated for the disease. But there’s much more work to do. Help protect bats by making sure that you don’t disturb their summer and winter roosts. Also, support the conservation of natural areas that keep insect populations in balance, allowing bats to continue flying our skies during the witching hour and beyond.

Learn more about bats at massaudubon.org/bats.

Last Month in Birding: September 2015

Every month we feature five of the past month’s bird sightings as suggested by our experts. Here are a few remarkable observations from September.

White-faced Storm-petrel (Pelagodroma marina)

This small seabird bird often hovers low over the surface of the water, searching for food by gliding back and forth and bouncing along on its feet (see an amazing video). It nests on small islands in parts of the Atlantic, Indian, and South Pacific oceans, but otherwise spends all its time far out at sea. Several birds were seen at sea far off of Martha’s Vineyard this past month.

White-faced storm petrel © Lanny McDowell

White-faced storm-petrel off Martha’s Vineyard © Lanny McDowell

Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis)

Here’s a truly odd sighting: a young brown pelican was found under a truck in Southboro. It was malnourished and unfortunately passed away at Tufts Wildlife Clinic. These birds are typically found farther south, and are very rarely seen so far inland; perhaps a storm or illness caused this individual to become disoriented. Though the pelican’s death is a sad event, its appearance is intriguing. Brown pelicans were once almost eliminated from North America due to the pesticide DDT. However, they’ve made an incredible comeback. They are still an unusual sight in Massachusetts, although they have become increasingly common in recent years as far north as New Jersey.

Juvenile brown pelican in Mexico

Juvenile brown pelican in Mexico (CC BY-SA 2.0) Kurt Bauschardt

Bell’s Vireo (Vireo bellii)

John James Audubon named the Bell’s vireo after the gifted taxidermist John Graham Bell who accompanied him on his trip up the Missouri River. In the US, this olive-gray songbird is typically found in the central and southeastern parts of the country. Interestingly, individuals tend to be more yellow in the eastern parts of the species’ range and grayer in the west. A bird observed and photographed in Newbury was one of very few records for Massachusetts.

Bell's vireo (CC BY 2.0) Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren

Bell’s vireo in MIssouri (CC BY 2.0) Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren

Brown Booby (Sula leucogaster)

Related to the northern gannet, this large bird is found in many tropical oceans where one of its preferred foods is flying fish. It currently does not breed on the US mainland. Nonetheless, there were several sightings off of Provincetown this late summer and right up through the month of September. Brown boobies have long, pointed beaks for capturing fish, and adults have bright yellow feet that play a key role in their their courtship display.

Brown booby off Provincetown © Steve Arena

Brown booby off Provincetown © Steve Arena

Say’s Phoebe (Sayornis saya)

The Say’s phoebe inhabits open, arid regions and is seldom found in deep forest. It is a true bird of the west, where it breeds all the way from Alaska south to the Mexican border. During fall migration, however, a few birds often go astray and wander east as far as Massachusetts. Last month an individual was spotted on the island of Nantucket.

Say's phoebe © Lee H. Dunn

Say’s phoebe on Nantucket © Lee H. Dunn

Five Golden Truths about Goldenrods

Nothing says it’s late summer/early fall in Massachusetts like fields full of blooming goldenrods. Here are five fascinating facts about these under-appreciated flowers.

Goldenrod © Robin Young

© Robin Young

1. Goldenrods Aren’t Making You Sneeze

Got allergies? Don’t blame goldenrods! Those big yellow flower heads may look like allergen factories, but their pollen is heavy and sticky and can’t fly through the air. Instead, you’re probably sneezing because of ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia), a much less striking plant with green flowers. Ragweed releases its irritating pollen freely into the wind—and right into your nose.

Ragweed

Ragweed

2. Silverrod, the Silver Goldenrod

There are about 25 species of goldenrod in Massachusetts, and all of them are golden… except one. Silverrod (Solidago bicolor) produces tall clusters of white flowers.

silverrod

Silverrod

3. Colonial Bostonians Drank Goldenrod Tea

After the Boston Tea Party took place, the colonists searched for local plants that could be used as tea substitutes. Goldenrod became an important part of many so-called “liberty tea” concoctions, along with red clover, chamomile, and other plants.

4. Insect Nurseries

Some insects treat goldenrods as their very own dream homes, forcing the plants to create “rooms” for them. One of these insects is the goldenrod gall fly (Eurosta solidaginis). The adult female fly injects her eggs into a goldenrod stem. As the larvae grow and eat, a chemical in their saliva makes the stem form a spherical structure around them. Called a gall, this living nursery can reach the size of a golf ball!

Goldenrod gall

Goldenrod gall (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) John Beetham

5. Thomas Edison and Goldenrod Rubber

At one time, Thomas Edison dreamed of driving America’s roads on goldenrod tires. The leaves of these plants contain some latex, and Edison experimented with them as a rubber source. Henry Ford even gave Edison a Model T with goldenrod-rubber tires. Unfortunately, the quality of the rubber wasn’t good enough for it to be commercially extracted.

A Gelatinous Invasion

Our beaches are teeming with tiny gooey blobs. Though they look like jellyfish, they’re called salps. Here are the basics on this remarkable invasion.

Salp © Cindy Bortee

Salp © Cindy Bortee

About Salps

Salps are stingless, barrel-shaped creatures that travel by jet propulsion, squeezing water through their bodies. During different parts of their life cycle they may live individually or in chain-like colonies.

Don’t be deceived by our beach visitors’ almost featureless appearance—when salps are young, they have a rudimentary “spine” called a notochord. This puts them in the same scientific phylum as vertebrate animals like us.

Salps on the beach © Cindy Bortee

Salps on the beach © Cindy Bortee

Efficient Ocean Filters

As they jet along, salps filter the water for ocean microorganisms called phytoplankton, which become their food. Scientists have found that they’re adept at extracting even the tiniest organisms from the water.

What salps don’t use, they pack into dense, carbon-rich pellets of poop that sink to the seafloor. Because they remove carbon from the surface waters, they help to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—and combat climate change.

Booming Blobs

A number of factors can lead to a population explosion of salps. One is a boom in phytoplankton. When this prey is depleted, salp numbers will also decline. Another factor: ocean currents and winds that bring the salps to shore. While it lasts, this phenomenon may bring an unexpected benefit: bizarre-looking ocean sunfish, which are popular with whale-watchers, have been common in the waters off Massachusetts. These giants often eat gelatinous creatures such as jellyfish and salps.

Ocean sunfish © Chris Leahy / Mass Audubon

Ocean sunfish © Chris Leahy / Mass Audubon

Have you experienced this phenomenon? Let us know in the comments!

Last Month in Birding: August 2015

Here we feature five of the past month’s exciting bird sightings as suggested by our experts. This time we’re highlighting offshore wonders: pelagic birds, including four species spotted on an incredible Brookline Bird Club pelagic trip to the continental shelf edge that took place on August 22-23. (For those who are new to birding, pelagic trips take participants far out to sea to observe species that don’t tend to come near the shore.)

White-tailed Tropicbird (Phaethon lepturus)

Tropicbirds are elegant, long-winged, slender-tailed birds of tropical oceans. A remarkable two species were seen on this trip: white-tailed and red-billed. Like terns, white-tailed tropicbirds plunge into the water to grab fish, and in warm seas they frequently consume flying fish. During the breeding season they perform elegant courtship flights during which one member of the pair reaches out to touch the other’s tail.

White-tailed tropicbird © Jeremiah Trimble

White-tailed tropicbird on the pelagic trip © Jeremiah Trimble

Red-billed Tropicbird (Phaethon aethereus)

The second tropicbird species observed on this trip was named for the mature adult’s red bill; first-year birds have cream-colored bills. Red-billed tropicbirds are larger than their white-tailed relatives. They can be common in the Caribbean and only very rarely wander north as far as New England.

Red-billed tropicbird © Peter Flood

Red-billed tropicbird on the pelagic trip © Peter Flood

Band-rumped Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma castro)

Storm-petrels are among the smallest seabirds. They’re often seen hovering low over the water, pattering at the surface with their feet as they pick tiny planktonic crustaceans and other prey from the surface. Band-rumped storm-petrels breed on tropical islands in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and spend the rest of their time at sea. Subtle field marks such as tail shape, white rump pattern, and flight behavior are useful in distinguishing this cryptic species at sea.

Band-rumped storm petrel ©

Band-rumped storm petrel on the pelagic trip © Peter Flood

Audubon’s Shearwater (Phaethon aethereus)

Common in many tropical oceans, they are among our smallest shearwaters. Audubon’s shearwaters tend to wander north in late summer and fall, especially when surface water temperatures are high. They have two feeding methods: sitting on the surface and grabbing prey, and diving to “fly” under water with powerful wingbeats.

Audubon's shearwater © Jeremiah Trimble

Audubon’s shearwater on the pelagic trip © Jeremiah Trimble

Yellow-nosed Albatross (Thalassarche chlororhynchos)

Albatrosses don’t typically inhabit the North Atlantic, so these enormous wanderers are always cause for excitement. The yellow-nosed albatross has a wingspan of over 6.5 feet and a bright yellow-orange stripe at the top of its dark beak. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists this species as endangered. Like many albatrosses, its population is declining, mostly because of longline fishing entanglement. Remarkably, a yellow-nosed albatross was photographed on Stellwagen Bank on August 10.

Yellow-nosed albatross (Atlantic) © François Grenon

Yellow-nosed albatross (Atlantic) off Provincetown © François Grenon

Last Month in Birding: July 2015

In July, Massachusetts birders enjoyed another month of unusual sightings. Here are five of the most exciting of these observations as suggested by our experts.

Bridled tern (Onychoprion anaethetus)

A bird of tropical and subtropical oceans, the bridled tern is similar in size to our common tern, but is stouter and has striking black and white facial markings. Outside of the breeding period it spends most of its time over the open ocean, hovering over the surface and dipping its beak into the water to snag fish and other small sea creatures. A bridled tern was sighted in Nantucket in July.

Bridled tern © Lee H. Dunn

Bridled tern in Nantucket © Lee H. Dunn

Ruff (Philomachus pugnax)

A ruff observed on Plum Island last month was a long way from home: the species is native to parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa, breeding in the north and overwintering in the south. Though female and non-breeding male ruffs have an unremarkable appearance, during the breeding season the males display large feathery “ruffs” and battle vigorously for dominance on special display areas called leks. The species’ scientific name means “pugnacious lover of battle”.

Ruff © Steve Arena

Ruff at Plum Island © Steve Arena

White-winged dove (Zenaida asiatica)

This species looks somewhat like a mourning dove, but it has a chunkier body and a tail that is square rather than pointed. Though primarily a species of southern deserts, it is equally comfortable in suburban areas and frequently wanders quite far. Through the years its range has been gradually expanding northward; it often takes advantage of backyard feeders. One bird was briefly observed in Newburyport.

White-winged dove in Florida (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) Kenneth Cole Schneider

White-winged dove in Florida (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) Kenneth Cole Schneider

Fea’s petrel (Pterodroma feae)

This relatively rare seabird was named for Italian artist and zoologist Leonardo Fea, and its name is pronounced FAY-ah. It is a member of the tubenose order of birds (Procellariformes), and like other members of this group has the ability to excrete excess salt through tubes on its bill from special salt glands located above of its eyes. This petrel breeds on just a few islands in the Eastern Atlantic. When not nesting, it spends all of its time at sea. One bird was spotted over Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary—only the second record ever in Massachusetts and one of very few for North America!

Fea's Petrel © Steve Arena

Fea’s Petrel off Truro © Steve Arena

Sandwich tern (Thalasseus sandvicensis)

It’s easy to remember what a sandwich tern looks like: its beak has a yellow tip, which gives it the appearance of having been dipped in mustard. Juveniles may lack the yellow marking—perhaps they haven’t yet developed a taste for Dijon? The species is native to the southeastern US and the coasts of Central and South America. However, one wandered north to Nauset Marsh in Eastham this past month.

Sandwich Tern in Mexico  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)  Sergey Yeliseev

Sandwich Tern in Mexico (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) Sergey Yeliseev