A bird as brilliantly colored as the Scarlet Tanager might seem at first to be impossible to overlook. But as it happens, this vibrant forest bird is improbably gifted at evading the birder’s eye, even as it moves sluggishly about the forest canopy, singing its hoarse song as it searches for caterpillars to eat.
During spring migration and summer, look for a flash of red up high in the canopy of mature deciduous forests for a chance to spy a male Scarlet Tanager. The females will be even trickier to spot—this species is sexually dimorphic, so the yellowish-green females are significantly less vibrant than breeding-season males, although the males’ brilliant plumage fades to yellowish-green in the fall and winter.
To somewhat more easily identify both males and females, listen for the loud, distinctive chick-burrr call given by both sexes. Their song is similar to a robin’s, but with a raspier tone.
Enjoy these five photos of Scarlet Tanagers from our annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest and let us know in the comments if you’ve been lucky enough to spot a Tanager in your area. The 2021 photo contest opens in early June, so keep an eye out for the announcement!
Bird-a-thon is a wrap! How did you and your team fair? Spot any cool warblers?
For those new to the tradition, Bird-a-thon is Mass Audubon’s big annual fundraiser and birding competition, in which teams compete head-to-head by earning points from birding and nature activities and by birding in strategic sub-groups in an effort to identify the greatest number of bird species in 24 hours. The event takes place in mid-May, in large part because it’s peak migration season in Massachusetts for many of our migratory bird species.
One group that gets a lion’s share of the attention? Warblers. Each spring, thousands of warblers fly north from their southern winter homes to breed and raise their young, delighting us with their bright colors and distinctive markings.
With more than 30 species of warblers annually occurring in Massachusetts, these colorful avian sprites are consistently among the favorites of birdwatchers everywhere. They consistently both challenge and seduce birders with their animated but sometimes elusive behavior, preference for sheltered forest canopy, and frequently difficult-to-distinguish songs.
Below are five photos of beautiful, bright warblers from our annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest to celebrate the end of another successful Bird-a-thon. And check out the hundreds of birding programs happening at Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuaries across the state this spring and summer. May you be blessed with a wealth of warblers!
Do you wonder what you’re hearing outside? Is it the Northern Cardinal you see flitting about? Or maybe it’s something more cryptic?
We’ve pulled together 10 sounds and songs of birds that you may commonly hear when you are out and about in your yard or neighborhood, particularly in the spring. Listen to them enough times and you’ll be able to identify some of what you are hearing when you go outside.
Both male and female Northern Cardinals sing a loud, whistling song. Northern Cardinals used to be a species more commonly found south of New England and rarely seen in Massachusetts, but they began to expand their range northward in the 1950s. Now they are a very common species in New England.
Eastern Phoebes are cute flycatchers that often nest in manmade structures, like under the eave of a house. Their song gave them their name because it sounds like “fee-bee”.
The Black-capped Chickadee is the official state bird of Massachusetts. While its chickadee-dee-dee call is perhaps the most identifiable, the chickadee’s song is a clear two- or three- note whistle similar to the Eastern Phoebe’s song. Play them both back-to-back to hear their differences.
The Northern Flicker is a flashy member of the woodpecker family with a spotted breast and bright yellow feather shafts that you may glimpse when they fly. Their song sounds a lot like they are laughing and can be confused with the song of the Pileated Woodpecker, though the Northern Flicker’s song is more even-toned.
The soft coo-ing song of the Mourning Dove is often mistakenly thought to be the sound of an owl. Another sound you may hear them make is the loud whistling their wings make when they take off and land.
Common Grackles are blackbirds that have a striking iridescence to their feathers in the sunlight. Their song sounds like a rusty gate opening.
For such a tiny bird, the House Wren certainly has a lot to say—and loudly! Their bubbly song is fast-paced and often made up of over 12 syllables per bout of singing. They also have large repertoires of songs and will sing around 600 times an hour during the spring.
The striking Baltimore Oriole is often considered a sign of spring in Massachusetts with its flute-like song. Baltimore Orioles build intricate hanging nests that cradle their young.
The Gray Catbird is another bird whose song inspired its name. Though they make a lot of different sounds, including gurgles, squeaks, and whistles, their cat-like mew is very distinctive.
Unsurprisingly, given its name, the Chipping Sparrow’s song is a series of metallic sounding chips. If you look closely at this small sparrow, you’ll spot its rusty hat.
Harlequin Ducks may not be the rarest ocean-going duck in Massachusetts, but they require a more specific habitat than any other kind of waterfowl: rocky, jagged coastlines with rough surf and abundant shellfish.
In fact, according to eBird, nobody had ever documented Harlequin Ducks more than a couple of miles inland in Massachusetts—until New Year’s Day 2021 when a local birder found a first-year male Harlequin on the fast-flowing Millers River in Turner’s Falls, MA, more than 120 miles away from the coast.
Powerful Rivers are Western Harlequins’ Summer Home
While it’s surprising to see this duck inland in Massachusetts, Harlequins in other parts of the country actually spend half of their lives on fresh water. In the Rocky Mountains and the Cascades of the West, these patchily-distributed ducks breed in fast flowing, whitewater rivers.
The Millers River is well-known among paddlers for its fast current and rough stretches. Not many rivers in Massachusetts have the wide expanses of rapids that Harlequins prefer, making the Millers a likely candidate for our first inland record of this species.
Even Wandering Birds Follow Habitat Guidelines
This sighting is a great example of how rigidly habitat preferences govern where birds are found, even in cases when birds show up in unusual geographic regions.
Most vagrant birds (that is, birds outside of their normal range) also stick to their usual habitats, or the closest thing they can find. Massachusetts’ last sighting of a Tropical Kingbird, for example, showed up in the brushy fields of Rock Meadow in Belmont—a fair local approximation of the low plains a prefers in the extreme Southwest.
And, true to its name, a Barn Owl that strayed farther north than normal was spotted taking shelter in the rafters of a high-ceilinged wooden garage in Lexington.
Hawks, falcons, and vultures are among the few groups of birds that migrate during the day.
Unlike songbirds and waterfowl, which migrate under cover of night, raptors are actually visible as they make their long journeys across continents.
Although hawks pass by some sites by the hundreds or thousands, that doesn’t necessarily mean you can see them from any site on any day of the season. To find your best day and destination, you have to think like a hawk.
Riding the Airwaves
Raptors have one goal when migrating: use as little energy as possible to make it to their destination. So, they seek out rising air currents to help them gain altitude without flapping.
Air rises as it is heated by the warmth of the ground (a “thermal”), or pushed upwards by passing over a hill or mountain (an “updraft”). Raptors circle inside these columns of rising air as it carries them upwards. As the air cools and stops rising, raptors exit and glide for miles, slowly losing altitude until they find another column (or start flapping).
Hawks often end up riding the same air current together, forming a rising spiral of birds, or a “kettle.” Kettling isn’t actually a social behavior, even if it looks like the hawks are flying together. Thermal-surfing raptors are simply taking advantage of the most efficient route, like drivers on a highway.
Cool Weather, Hot Hawkwatching
Thermals are strongest when the ground is much warmer than the air. Hawkwatching can be excellent when a cold front moves through, bringing cold air over the (temporarily) much warmer ground and sending thermals spiraling upwards.
Cold fronts are often accompanied by winds from the north, which are conducive to southbound raptors in the fall. When clear, cold air moves in from the north after many days of poor migration conditions (either rain or strong winds from the south), unusually high numbers of restless raptors can be seen migrating at once.
Timing is Everything
Mid-September is prime season for viewing Massachusetts’ most numerous and conspicuous raptors, like Broad-winged Hawks and Ospreys, as well as less common species like American Kestrels and Sharp-shinned Hawks. As the season cools, the mix shifts a little, but the hawkwatching often stays good until late October and tapers off into November.
One of the earliest migrant warblers to arrive in Massachusetts (beginning around mid-April), the Yellow-rumped Warbler is also typically the most abundant warbler species seen during migration. It will occasionally overwinter in Massachusetts, but primarily in Barnstable County and the Islands.
There are two subspecies of the Yellow-rumped Warbler, which used to be considered two separate species. The one we see here in Massachusetts is the “Myrtle” warbler. The other subspecies, “Audubon’s” warbler is a western species, which has a yellow throat instead of white, among other subtle differences.
In summer, look for these handsome birds in open coniferous forests, darting about catching insects in midair. Their summer plumage is a striking mix of gray, black, and white, with bright yellow patches on the face, sides, and rump, although the females’ coloring will often appear more muted.
While this year’s Bird-a-thon has shifted focus to birding closer to home and around your neighborhood, you can still find tons of exciting birds. Some birds are common in many habitats, like Northern Cardinals and American Robins, but here is a list of other feathered friends you are likely to see (or hear!) in habitats across Massachusetts along with some fun facts.
Carolina Wrens (6) are also known to nest in odd places when living in suburban areas, like in an old boot, or in a mailbox.
White-breasted Nuthatches (7), like other nuthatches, can move head-first down tree trunks and are frequently seen in that upside-down pose.
The Gray Catbird’s (8) song may last up to 10 minutes.
Sometimes, Red-bellied Woodpeckers (9) wedge large nuts into bark crevices, then whack them into smaller pieces using their beaks. They also use cracks in trees and fence posts to store food for later in the year.
In 1929, Edward Forbush (MA ornithologist) described the Chipping Sparrow (10) as “the little brown-capped pensioner of the dooryard and lawn, that comes about farmhouse doors to glean crumbs shaken from the tablecloth by thrifty housewives.”
Although they can climb trees and hammer like other woodpeckers, Northern Flickers (11) prefer to find food, like ants, on the ground.
The Eastern Towhee’s (12) song sounds like they are saying “drink-your-tea.”
Wood Thrush (13) can sing two parts at once. In the final trilling phrase of their three-part song, they sing pairs of notes simultaneously, one in each branch of its y-shaped voicebox. The two parts harmonize to produce a haunting, ventriloquial sound.
The scientific name for Black-and-white Warblers (14) is Mniotilta varia meaning “moss-plucking,” after their habit of probing bark and moss for insects.
The yellow patch just above the Yellow-rumped Warbler‘s (15) tail gives them the nickname “butter butts.”
Tree Swallows (16) are one of the best-studied bird species in North America, helping researchers make major advances in several branches of ecology. Despite this, we still know little about their lives during migration and winter.
Eastern Bluebirds (17) typically have more than one successful brood per year. Young born in early nests usually leave their parents in summer, but young from later nests frequently stay with their parents over winter.
American Kestrels (18) can see ultraviolet light, which allows them to see the urine trails that voles leave as they run along the ground. These bright paths help kestrels find prey.
Bobolink (19) songs sound like R2D2’s voice from Star Wars.
Male Eastern Meadowlarks (20) can sing several variations of its song. Scientists analyzed one male meadowlark and found he sang more than 100 different song patterns.
Fossils of Belted Kingfishers (21) dated to 600,000 years old have been found in Florida, Virginia, Tennessee, and Texas.
Wood Ducks (22) nest in trees ranging from directly over water to over a mile away. After hatching, the ducklings jump down from the nest tree and make their way to water. The mother calls them to her but does not help them in any way. Ducklings may jump over 50 feet without injury.
Green Herons (23) are one of the world’s few bird species who use tools. They often create fishing lures with bread crusts, insects, and feathers, dropping them on the surface of the water to attract small fish.
Unlike most birds, Spotted Sandpiper (24) females establish and defend the territory, arriving to the breeding grounds before males. Males then take the primary role in parental care, incubating the eggs and caring for chicks.
Hooded Mergansers (25) find their prey underwater by sight. They can actually change the refraction properties of their eyes to improve their underwater vision. Plus, birds have an extra eyelid called a “nictitating membrane,” which is transparent and helps protect their eyes while swimming, like a pair of goggles.
Piping Plovers (26) will sometime use a foraging method called foot-trembling where they extend one foot out into wet sand and vibrate it to scare up food like marine worms, insects, and crustaceans.
Unlike most shorebirds, American Oystercatcher (27) chicks depend on their parents for food for at least 60 days after hatching.
Double-crested Cormorants (28) often stand in the sun with their wings outstretched to dry. Cormorants have less oil on their feathers so their feathers can get soaked rather than shedding water like a duck. Having wet feathers probably make it easier for cormorant to hunt underwater.
Common Eider (29) mothers and chicks form groups called “creches” that can include over 150 chicks and include non-breeding hens as protection.
During the Great Egrets (30) breeding season, a patch of skin on its face turns neon green and long feathers called aigrettes grow from its back. These feathers were prized for ladies’ hats in the 19th century and inspired Harriet Lawrence Hemenway and Minna B. Hall to form Mass Audubon to protect them.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 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
Although great horned owls are year-round residents of Massachusetts, December through February is a particularly good time to go “owling” for this iconic species.
The earliest owl to begin mating season, great horned owls often “duet” in courting pairs, a hauntingly beautiful, stuttering “hoo-hoo-HOO-hoo-hoo” sound. And while males are typically smaller than females, they have larger voice boxes, so you can identify the male voice in a duet by its distinctively lower pitch.
CORRECTION: This blog post originally featured a photo that was misidentified as a Great Horned Owl but is actually a Eurasian Eagle-Owl (Bubo bubo). Thank you to all the careful readers who pointed out our mistake!