Many a novice birder have heard a soft, mournful cooing in their back yard and made a mad dash to their window expecting to see an owl, only to find instead a portly, long-tailed Mourning Dove dressed in shades of soft brown and grey, pecking about for seeds that have fallen from feeders.
On the ground, Mourning Doves often look plump and dainty, walking with mincing steps and bobbing their heads as they look for food. In flight, however, they are entirely different birds. Remarkably swift and agile, they fly straight and fast on whistling wings.
A common sight year-round, Mourning Doves are generally unbothered by humans. When they’re not breeding or nesting, they frequently form large flocks and are often found perching on telephone wires and lamp posts in groups of a dozen or more. They are able to mate throughout the year but typically do so from spring to fall. Breeding pairs are often seen gently preening each other’s necks as a sweet bonding behavior. And while they typically make their nests in bushes and trees, they’ve been known to take advantage of any horizontal surface, such as the back of a wicker patio couch or the upturned head of a push broom left outside!
Here are five fantastic photos of Mourning Doves from our annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest—let us know in the comments if you’ve seen any in your neighborhood, particularly any wacky nesting sites!
“Solemnity is what they express—fit representatives of the night.”
—Henry David Thoreau
The shy but stocky Barred Owl does indeed cut a solemn figure, with its soulful, dark brown, almost black eyes and stripes of mottled brown and white crossing its body.
Many nighttime travelers in the New England woods have been asked, who cooks for you, who cooks for you all? by a Barred Owl. Its deep, resonant voice carries well in the moist, forested woodlands that the species prefers during the breeding season. They prefer natural tree cavities and human-made nest boxes for their nesting sites, preferably high enough up to avoid predators like weasels and raccoons.
Barred Owls are quiet and elusive, but since they don’t migrate at all, they don’t tend to move around all that much, generally adhering to a territory of no more than a few square miles their entire lives. Although their territories may sometimes overlap, Barred Owls do their best to avoid their cousins, Great Horned Owls—their greatest predator.
Among the earliest of spring migrants, Killdeer arrive as early as late-February in exceptionally warm years. No, they’re not raptors despite their fierce-sounding name. A member of the plover family, Killdeer are one species of shorebird you don’t need to go to the beach to enjoy; listen for the shrill kill-deer, kill-deer call for which they are named (earlier names included Chattering Plover and Noisy Plover) in fields and pastures, and on playgrounds, lawns, unpaved driveways, beach dunes, and other open areas.
Killdeer have distinctive color markings: tawny-colored on top and white below, with two black bands across the breast (although juveniles only have one), and black and white patches marking the face, including a black streak that runs through their large eyes. The rusty-colored rump is more visible when the bird is in flight or during a distraction display: When a parent Killdeer (either on a nest or herding young) feels threatened, it will fan its tail, exposing the red rump, and lurch around feigning injury to draw the potential predator away from the nest or young. Talk about protective parents!
Although they won’t visit your backyard feeder, keep an eye out for Killdeer in large lawns and fields where they often forage for insects on the ground and may even dig their shallow nests in the bare ground.
Of the seven woodpeckers found in Massachusetts, the Downy Woodpecker has the distinction of being both the smallest and most common—they can be found almost anywhere there are trees.
With insects making up the bulk of their diet, downies will pick and peck at tree bark in search of tasty insects and will often crawl out to the tips of smaller branches that larger woodpeckers can’t access. They are also eager feeder visitors, enjoying both seeds and suet.
You’re much less likely to spot the Downy’s larger cousin, the Hairy Woodpecker, which prefers mature forests. They may look alike, but the Hairy’s beak is larger than the Downy’s, and it has all-white outer tail feathers. Both species will drum on trees year-round to communicate but the frequency picks up this time of year as they set up territories. You may even be able to spot the difference by sound: Hairy Woodpeckers drum very fast with long pauses—at least 25 taps/ second; 20 seconds between— while Downy Woodpeckers drum more slowly with shorter pauses—15 taps/second; a few seconds between.
The Snow Bunting is the quintessential winter songbird visitor: they breed in the Arctic in summer, making their nests in the rocky tundra, and only visit Massachusetts when they “fly south” for the winter. In fact, their breeding range is so far north that it exceeds that of all other North American passerines (“passerine” is a large order of birds that is mostly defined by feet adapted for perching, which includes all songbirds).
This beautiful coastal and grassland bird is a regular migrant and winter visitor in Massachusetts, but individuals can be difficult to spot as they are extremely well camouflaged against the ground and snow. Your best bet for an encounter is to look in wide-open fields with plenty of crop stubble to hide in, among sand dunes along the coast, or along lake or ocean shores where debris piles up along the waterline. Race Point in Provincetown, on Cape Cod, is a popular place for spotting Snow Buntings. And, of course, you should consider joining a naturalist-led birding program for even more opportunities to spot these and other winter visitors throughout Massachusetts.
Northern Cardinals. Blue Jays. American Goldfinches. You expect to see these birds during the winter. But birds like the American Robin and the Hermit Thrush catch many New Englanders off guard this time of year. After all, shouldn’t they be sunning themselves down south?
Not necessarily. According to Joan Walsh, Mass Audubon’s Bertrand Chair of Field Ornithology and Natural History, many traditionally migratory birds are sticking around, possibly due to increasing temperatures and a more readily available food source (i.e., berries)—a trend that’s been increasing over the last 40 years. And, in some cases, we humans have contributed to the number of birds seen this time of year.
Though quiet as a mouse in winter, the Hermit Thrush is full of song in spring. In fact, you’re likely to hear this small, olive-brown-colored forest dweller long before you see him. Considered by many to be the finest songster in North America, the Hermit Thrush utters a song that consists of a series of ethereal flutelike phrases.
It may be a few months before you hear the fabled “American Nightengale” sing its sweet song, but if you’re lucky and attentive, you can hit the trail to spot this bird: Hermit Thrushes prefer secluded woodland habitats, from the damp mixed forests of western Massachusetts to dry pine barrens along the coast. Common characteristics of their nesting areas are a dense understory (think saplings and shrubs) and an abundance of evergreens.
Enjoy these five photos of Hermit Thrushes from our annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest, and if you haven’t yet, check out this year’s photo contest winners!
As winter closes in, many species of wildlife look to fuel up for the challenging conditions of winter. Fortunately, several plant species take advantage of this in their seed dispersal strategies by producing delicious and nutritious berries that wildlife will eat then excrete, depositing seeds in a new location along with a dose of fertilizer. While many of the fall berries have long since gone by, some varieties last well into winter, providing a larder for the fruit-eating species that are active all winter long.
Clever, pugnacious Blue Jays are well-known for their territorial behavior and raucous Jay! Jay! call, but they are actually capable of an amazing array of vocal sounds, including whistles, toots, and wheedle-wheedle calls. Blue Jays can even mimic the scream of a Red-tailed Hawk in order to scare other birds!
Like all blue birds, Blue Jays are not actually, in fact, blue! Most of the vibrant feather colors found in birds, like yellow and red, come from pigments in their food that absorb certain wavelengths of light, but no birds (and almost no species in the entire animal kingdom) are capable of producing blue pigments. Instead, the blue color is the result of light refracting off of tiny, specialized structures in the bird’s feathers.
Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to talk with your mouth full? Apparently, these birds never got the memo. Here are five photos of birds that may or may not have bitten off more than they can chew, all submitted in the past to our annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest. The 2019 photo contest is closed, but we’ll be announcing the winners soon, so stay tuned!
We all know that haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, but if you take after these finely feathered friends, all you have to do is shake it off! To get your week off on a positive note, here are five birds that really know how to let things roll, like water off a…well, you get the idea.
The photos in this fun collection were all submitted to our annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest. The 2019 photo contest closes on September 30, so submit your own nature photography today!