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!
Backyard bird feeders can be a great source of joy and entertainment, especially in the grey winter months when the pop of red from a cardinal’s plumage can bring some welcome color to the scenery and the chatty antics of a small flock of finches fighting over feeder perches can be surprisingly entertaining.
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.
“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.
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.
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!
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-will’s-widow CC BY-SA 3.0 Dick Daniels (carolinabirds.org)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.