Tag Archives: birding

Last Month in Birding: May 2015

Each month we take a look at a few of the previous month’s bird sightings as suggested by our experts. Here are five of May’s most exciting observations.

Little gull (Hydrocoloeus minutes)

True to its name, this bird is the world’s smallest gull. It is common across much of Europe and Asia. In North America, a few little gulls have been breeding on the east coast since at least 1960, but this bird is still a rare sight. Last month, Massachusetts birders were amazed to note this species at three locations, including at least 10 birds at Hatches Harbor in Provincetown.

Little gulls (and one Bonaparte's gull), Hatches Harbor, Race Point, Provincetown © Ryan Merrill

Little gulls (and one larger Bonaparte’s gull), Hatches Harbor, Provincetown © Ryan Merrill

“Lawrence’s warbler” (Vermivora pinus x chrysoptera)

This fascinating bird is a hybrid, the result of a pairing between a blue-winged warbler (Vermivora pinus) and a golden-winged warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera). The offspring of these closely-related birds are usually fertile, and they generally fall within two broad color categories: the grey and white “Brewster’s warbler” and the golden “Lawrence’s warbler”. The Lawrence’s is the rarest possible outcome, since its traits are recessive. Two of these stunning birds were seen in May—one in Petersham and one in West Newbury.

Lawrence's warbler in West Newbury © Margo and Steve, webirdtoo

Lawrence’s warbler in West Newbury © Margo and Steve, webirdtoo

Mississippi kite (Ictinia mississippiensis)

A graceful raptor, the Mississippi kite eats insects. It is most commonly found in the Great Plains and the US southeast, but its range has been expanding by leaps and bounds, and it is now spotted almost every year in Massachusetts. In fact, this species has even been found nesting in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire in recent years. The reasons for its spread are probably numerous, but here is one contributing factor: Mississippi kites like open areas with scattered trees, a landscape pattern that people frequently create. Last month, several birds were seen on the Outer Cape, and individuals were also seen in Westboro and Amesbury.

Mississippi kite, Westboro © Steve Arena

Mississippi kite, Westboro © Steve Arena

Brown booby (Sula leucogaster)

This sleek seabird lives in many tropical oceans throughout much of the world, where it executes dramatic plunge dives for its prey, especially flying fish. It is related to the famous blue-footed booby, but its feet are yellowish. It does not currently breed in the US mainland. Last month during our annual Bird-a-thon fundraiser, two participants on a whale watch trip were thrilled to spot a brown booby off of Gloucester. No doubt it was a prized addition to their lists, as well as to the whole Bird-a-thon!

Brown booby in a more tropical locale, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Mark Yokoyama

Brown booby in a more tropical locale, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Mark Yokoyama

Chuck-will’s-widow (Antrostomus carolinensis)

Perhaps you’ve heard the night call of this species’ better-known relative, the whip-poor-will. The chuck-will’s-widow breeds mostly in the southeastern US, and it is the largest North American member of the group of aerial insect-eaters known as nightjars. Despite its size, this bird is hard to spot. Its feathers match the pattern of bark and leaves. However, its namesake nocturnal “chuck-will’s-widow” call is loud and incessant. One was heard calling in East Orleans during Mass Audubon’s Bird-a-thon fundraiser.

"Chuck-wills-widow RWD7" CC BY-SA 3.0 Dick Daniels (http://carolinabirds.org/) - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chuck-wills-widow_RWD7.jpg#/media/File:Chuck-wills-widow_RWD7.jpg

Chuck-will’s-widow CC BY-SA 3.0 Dick Daniels (carolinabirds.org)

Last Month in Birding: March 2015

We take a look back at five of March’s most interesting bird sightings as suggested by our experts.

Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus)

This fast and powerful bird is the largest falcon in the world. It breeds in the arctic and irregularly winters farther south, but is rarely seen as far south as Massachusetts. The gyrfalcon comes in three variable color morphs: dark, intermediate gray, and white. A juvenile dark morph individual has been seen off and on at Salisbury and at several locations between New Hampshire and southern Maine for much of the winter.

Gyrfalcon in Salisbury © Margo & Steve, Flickr user webirdtoo

Gyrfalcon in Salisbury © Margo & Steve, Flickr user webirdtoo

Yellow-headed blackbird (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus)

This large blackbird is typically found in wetlands in the central and western parts of the country. During the winter it may mix with other blackbird species as it searches for food in grain fields and wetlands. Males sport a brilliant yellow head and chest, and a male of this species was spotted in the Cumberland Farms fields off Route 105 in Middleboro.

Yellow-headed blackbird in Plymouth County © Justin Lawson

Yellow-headed blackbird, Cumberland Farms, Plymouth County © Justin Lawson

Greater white-fronted goose (Anser albifrons)

Though this species has a broad distribution across the Northern Hemisphere, it is not common east of the Mississippi River in the United States. In winter and during migration it may occasionally be seen foraging in fields and marshes in the company of other geese. Greater white-fronted geese tend to pair for life, and will often even migrate with their mate. This one was seen at Ellisville Harbor in South Plymouth.

Greater white-fronted goose in Plymouth © Stefanie Paventy

Greater white-fronted goose in Plymouth © Stefanie Paventy

Tufted duck (Aythya fuligula)

This duck derives its name from the ponytail-like tuft on the back of its head. An Old World species, it is common in Europe and Asia where it occupies a niche similar to the ring-necked duck in North America. Though sightings are still rare, they are becoming increasingly frequent winter wanders into North America on both the east and west coasts. This beautiful male was seen on the Merrimac River in Lowell and Newburyport.

Tufted duck in Lowell © Christine Sheridan

Tufted duck in Lowell © Christine Sheridan

Mew gull (Larus canus)

To add to the interesting mix of unusual gulls along our shores this winter, at least two mew gulls were spotted on the Lynn/Swampscott line at King’s Beach for several weeks this winter. This species is similar in many respects to the abundant North American ring-billed gull. Remarkably, two different mew gull subspecies from different geographic regions were present in Lynn. One was the western European race, and the other belonged to a population from northeastern Asia.

Mew gull at King's Beach  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0Phil Brown

Mew gull (right) at King’s Beach CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Phil Brown

 

Last Month in Birding: February 2015

We’re excited to announce a new blog feature that highlights some of the previous month’s most interesting bird sightings as suggested by our experts. Here are five discoveries from February.

Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) x Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) Hybrid

A hybrid of these two species appeared in the Annisquam River in Gloucester. Bearing a mix of characteristics, it is an intriguing and very unusual duck; not only do its parents belong to different species, but they also belong to two different scientific genera. Previously suspected hybrids of these birds have occasionally appeared in other parts of the country, including New York and Minnesota.

Common goldeneye x hooded merganser hybrid © Richard S. Heil

Common goldeneye x hooded merganser hybrid © Richard S. Heil

Male common goldeneye (left) and male hooded merganser (right). Credits NPS and R Mosco

Male common goldeneye (left) and male hooded merganser (right). Credits NPS and R Mosco

Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides)

This pale gull with white wingtips breeds in the high Arctic and typically winters in small numbers along the Atlantic Coast of the United States as far south as the mid-Atlantic states. Birdwatchers noted a major influx of these birds following the severe cold spell in February. Frostier temperatures further north may have pushed somewhat greater numbers than usual into southern New England. For example, over 130 were tallied in one day in East Gloucester alone.

Iceland gull © Ryan Schain

Iceland gull in Winthrop © Ryan Schain

Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena)

This medium-sized waterbird has a sharp, slender, yellowish beak and a white chin. It is seldom spotted inland during this season; recently, however, one was seen at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord. Cold temperatures are likely to blame for its presence here: the hapless bird was likely frozen out of a large inland water body such as one of the Great Lakes or Lake Champlain.

Red-necked grebe CC BY 2.0 by Fyn Kynd

Red-necked grebe (photo taken in Maine) CC BY 2.0 by Fyn Kynd

Pacific Loon (Gavia pacifica)

This bird is smaller than our more familiar common loon, and in winter often displays a dark chinstrap, a more rounded head, and a sharper contrast between the dark sides of its neck and the white of its throat. This species breeds in the Arctic, and, true to its name, it is mostly seen on the Pacific Ocean. It is an unusual but not unheard-of visitor to the Massachusetts coast. This winter, one was spotted and photographed at Cathedral Ledge in Rockport.

Pacific loon in Rockport © Got Birds?

Pacific loon in Rockport © Flickr user Got Birds?

Bohemian Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulous)

Two waxwing species can be seen in the northeast: the smaller and more common cedar waxwing, which breeds in Massachusetts, and the larger Bohemian waxwing, which breeds in Canada and the northwestern US. The Bohemian waxwing is an erratic winter visitor that only rarely appears in the Commonwealth. A small influx of Bohemian waxwings began taking place early in the month. Keep an eye out for a larger and grayer waxwing with rusty feathers under the tail amid flocks of the more common cedar waxwings.

Bohemian waxwing in Quincy © Steven Whitebread

Bohemian waxwing in Quincy © Steven Whitebread

Great Bird Migration Spots

Yellow WarblerIt’s the event that bird watchers around the state have been waiting for: spring migration, the time of year when birds leave their winter grounds and head north. Typically, spring migration in Massachusetts lasts from early March to early June, with the peak usually falling sometime around Mother’s Day for many species.

So where do in-the-know birders go to best enjoy this annual occurrence? In addition to our many and varied sanctuaries statewide, listed below are a few of Mass Audubon’s favorite birding spots.

Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge and Watertown

Why Mt. Auburn, on the border of Cambridge and Watertown, is a “migrant trap” – a sizable area of greenery within a highly-developed urbanized area. The many trees, water features, and ornamental shrubs in the cemetery offers a safe place for birds to rest, find food, and prepare for  the next leg of their migratory journey.

What Songbirds, especially vireos, warblers, thrushes, and sparrows.

How This is such a popular spot that many Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuaries offer walks through Mt. Auburn during spring migration.

Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, Newbury and Newburyport

Why The extensive and varied habitats of this strategically located barrier island offer ideal stopover conditions for migrants along the coast, a pathway that many migrating birds follow in both spring and fall. The combination of salt, brackish, and freshwater wetlands as well as extensive coastal thickets attracts a wide variety of species. Birders like the area because many species are relatively easy to observe on the refuge.

What Parker River National Wildlife Refuge is attractive to a wide variety of species, but especially waterfowl, raptors, shorebirds, and warblers in late spring and early fall.

How Mass Audubon’s Joppa Flats Education Center in Newburyport runs Wednesday and Saturday morning birding programs through Parker River National Wildlife Refuge as well as other great area locations.

Daniel Webster Wildlife Sanctuary, Marshfield

Why In a state where forests grow up so quickly, and developments grow quicker still, areas of extensive grassland habitat are fairly rare especially in eastern Massachusetts. This makes Daniel Webster an important place for many grassland birds to stop during migration and also nest. It’s one of the largest regularly-maintained open grasslands in Mass Audubon’s habitat portfolio and is a popular birding destination at all times of year.

What Daniel Webster offers a fine chance to see various wetland species including waterfowl, herons, shorebirds, and swallows. Mixed flocks of blackbirds (i.e., grackles, cowbirds, red-winged blackbirds, and even the occasional rusty blackbird) as well as grassland specialties like bobolinks and eastern meadowlarks are possibilities. It’s also a favorite spot for raptors, especially open-country species like northern harriers and American kestrels.

How Explore the wildlife sanctuary on your own, or join a program offered through Mass Audubon’s North River Wildlife Sanctuary, also in Marshfield.

Scusset Beach State Reservation, Sandwich

Why The Cape Cod shoreline is often one of the first land masses that migratory birds encounter as they are moving north over the open ocean. These birds often follow the Cape Cod Bay shoreline directly to Scusset Beach State Reservation (a Department of Conservation and Recreation property), where they sometimes pause in the thickets there before turning north and continuing their migration.

What In addition to the songbirds that sometimes collect in the shrubby thickets behind the beach, seabirds like northern gannets, and sea ducks including scoters, eiders, and long-tailed ducks are regularly seen from the jetty near the mouth of the Cape Cod Canal.

How Stop by on your way to or from the Cape. Afterwards, hop back on Route 6 toward Barnstable to visit Mass Audubon’s Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary.

Canoe Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary, Pittsfield

Why Canoe Meadows borders the Housatonic River, a natural migration pathway, and it’s part of the Upper Housatonic Important Bird Area (IBA). The wildlife sanctuary includes a variety of habitat types including hayfields, beaver wetlands, riparian woodland, old field, and mixed woodland. Three miles of marked trails traverse these habitats.

What A wide variety of birds from waterfowl and raptors to flycatchers, warblers, and sparrows can be seen. Be on the lookout for red-breasted nuthatches, blue-gray gnatcatchers, blackburnian warblers, northern waterthrushes, and bobolinks.

How Join one of the regular Friday bird walks during April and May at Canoe Meadows, run by Mass Audubon’s Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary.

And do share in the comments: What’s your favorite spots to go birding during spring migration?

A Seasonal Change of Clothes

American Goldfinch Winter Valerie Reneé via flickrWith the hard work of raising young behind them, many birds shed their tired, worn-out feathers (a process called molting) in winter and replace them with new ones. But not all birds make a simple one-for-one swap.

Some species turn dull, while others nearly completely flip their plumages. Here are a few to keep an eye out for:

American Goldfinch
Adult male goldfinches in breeding plumage might be described as the color of a ripe lemon, and as they are among the latest nesters in our state, we get to enjoy it all summer long. When they turn, they go from lemon to olive shades, retaining some yellow around the face to remind us just who they are. Sibley Guides offers an excellent illustration of this transformation.

Common and Red-throated Loons
Had the latter been named by a Massachusetts ornithologist, it would have carried a much more boring name. We don’t get the pleasure of seeing the red throats; instead we see gray. With common loons, we watch the change from sharply-defined black and white features on the head and back to thoroughly drab plumage making them easily confused with “red throats.”

Black Guillemot
Even with a good bird guide, one has to step back from the scope and consider the date. If it’s December in Massachusetts, look for an all-white bird with black markings. If it’s July in Maine, keep an eye out for an all-black bird with a white wing patch.

Dunlin
We only have a handful of nesting shorebirds in Massachusetts. Many more pass through on the way to the Arctic in the spring and summer. When we get them on the way back, many of them retain their breeding plumage for a while, some even losing it altogether. For instance, we can see dunlins with their black breeding patches on their bellies, before they fade for the winter.

Learn more about birds in winter by joining us for an upcoming bird walk.

Photo of American Goldfinch in winter via Valerie Reneé/flickr

Birding After Migration

We have turned the seasonal corner. The swallows are gone, the egrets have fled, and  shorebirds and warblers have pushed their way south. You may well ask, “What do we do we look for now?”

In many ways, Massachusetts is perfectly suited for winter birding, thanks in part to our remarkable landscape. We have sandy beaches, mountains, ponds, lakes, rivers, swamps, marshes, bogs, forests of different kinds, moorlands, grasslands, urban parks, and so much more.

We are primed to attract—and provide food and shelter for—dozens of species of birds. Here are just a few to look for.

Fall and Winter Birding Checklist

  • Ducks. Look for greater and lesser scaups, buffleheads, and ring-necked ducks. Western prairie pothole ducks like redheads and canvasbacks can be found on ponds. The ocean is home to three species of scoter (surf, white-winged, and black) as well as horned and red-necked grebes, long-tailed ducks, and common goldeneyes.
  • Purple sandpiper. The first of November usually heralds their arrival on the jetties and breakwaters.
  • Snow buntings and horned larks. While seeking these out on the beach, look closely at their flocks: a Lapland longspur may be in the mix.
  • Birds of prey. Recently cut grasslands exposes mice and voles, which attract northern harriers, rough-legged hawks, and even short-eared owls.
  • Feeder area birds. You just never know when your house finches and tufted titmice are going to be joined by a red-breasted nuthatch or, better yet, a fox sparrow.
  • Dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows. These species come at us from two directions. Many of them slide down the map from the north, but others descend from breeding habitat in the western part of the state, up high on the mountains.
  • Snowy owls. If you’re within striking distance of the beaches of the North Shore, South Shore, and Cape Cod, keep an eye out for the avian kings and queens of a Massachusetts winter. The species is irruptive, meaning it shows up seemingly randomly, in great numbers in some years, not at all in others.
  • Alcids. And if you are at one of those beaches, don’t forget to look seaward for potential black guillemots, dovekies, murres, razorbills, and (if you’re extremely lucky) Atlantic puffins.
  • Winter finches. Speaking of irruptions, nothing is as unpredictable as a “winter finch” invasion. This year, to date, we’ve seen crossbills, evening grosbeaks, and pine siskins in big flocks. Are the bohemian waxwings and common and hoary redpolls far behind?

Join us on an upcoming bird walk. You never know what you will see, but that’s half the fun! And do tell: What’s your favorite fall/winter bird?

Photo:  purple sandpiper © Richard Johnson