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.
Out of the corner of your eye, a sunny, cheerful flash of bright yellow alights upon your bird feeder and almost certainly means one thing: the American Goldfinch!
Almost exclusively seed-eaters, the so-called “wild canaries” of the Americas are late nesters relative to most of our breeding birds here in Massachusetts, giving them access to nutritious native thistle seeds to feed their young. Known for their energetic seed-harvesting acrobatics, look for them plucking thistle seeds this time of year and listen for their sweet, enthusiastic song, a long, fluctuating string of warbles and twitters. They are also known to make contact calls, often mid-flight, the most common of which bears the mnemonic phrase po-ta-to-chip.
Before you know it, the arrival of cooler weather will turn the vibrant yellow males’ plumage a drab brown until the arrival of spring and the return of the breeding season, so enjoy the cheery colors while they last, but the varied sounds and acrobatic antics of these beloved birds can be appreciated year-round in virtually every part of the state.
Here are five photos of fabulous goldfinches to brighten your day. We want to see your nature photos, too! Enter the Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest by September 30
“He may generally be seen sitting on some post or dead branch, near a solitary mill-dam, quietly watching his prey in the element below.”
William Peabody, in his 1839 report to the state legislature on the birds of Massachusetts.
Belted Kingfishers are widespread not only in Massachusetts but across North America. Still, you’d do well to learn to recognize their call, as you are far more like to hear one before you see it: They periodically utter a dry, metallic rattle that’s evocative of either the Predator, for fans of science-fiction/action movies, or one of those spinning, ratcheted noisemakers popular at New Year’s Eve celebrations.
Kingfishers favor lower elevations near waterways of all kinds, where they can dig their burrows to nest in earthen banks and mounds with little vegetation. If you’re looking to spot one on your next walk or hike, aim for trails along calm waters, where they dive to capture fish and crayfish in their long, straight bills. They love a good perch overlooking a wide river or lake, favoring branches or dead tree snags that give them a literal birds-eye view of their prey in the placid waters below.
An interesting point of note: Belted Kingfishers are one of the few bird species in which the female is more brightly colored than the male. Although both sexes sport a rakish-looking, ragged crest, males have a single, grey-blue band across their white breasts, while females have both a blue and a chestnut band.
Enjoy these five photos from the annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest, and remember to submit your own nature photography to the 2020 contest soon—the September 30 deadline is fast-approaching!
This week, we’re speaking up for an invaluable member of the avian class: the Turkey Vulture. Sure, their diet of carrion (dead animals) is pretty unappetizing to us, but they are amazing birds and serve a vital function as a member of nature’s cleanup crew. A wake of Turkey Vultures (yes, even their collective name is a little morbid) can clean a carcass down to the bone in a matter of a few days!
There’s still a lot we don’t know about Turkey Vultures, but we do know they have adaptations that together allow them to take advantage of a food resource that would sicken or kill most other animals:
Their keen sense of smell (the strongest of any bird, in fact) helps them find food.
Their heads are naked so that they can dive right into a carcass without yucking up their feathers.
In order to digest rotting tissue and protect themselves from pathogens like salmonella, botulism, and anthrax, they have specialized gut biomes that contain a potent cocktail of gastric enzymes, acids, and bacteria.
Their primary defense mechanism is to vomit putrid meat onto would-be attackers.
Unrelated to their diet, but still interesting: To keep cool in hot weather, they will defecate on their feet and legs.
And with an average wingspan just under 6 feet, Turkey Vultures are truly awesome birds. On a clear day, look for kettles of Turkey Vultures soaring on rising thermals with barely a flap of their wings, smelling for the faintest whiff of their next meal.
From April to November, you can observe one or more Turkey Vultures at Drumlin Farm’s Bird Hill exhibit, where injured or human-habituated animals that cannot survive in the wild are tended to by the Wildlife Care team—in captivity, Turkey Vultures often have inquisitive personalities and seem to enjoy interacting with different enriching stimuli provided by the caretakers. At the annual Halloween events at Drumlin Farm, one vulture has the important job of sitting on a whale bone “acting scary” and munching on a rat. Here are five photos of magnificent Turkey Vultures from our Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest.
“There is a singer everyone has heard, / Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird, / Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.” —Robert Frost, “The Oven Bird”
An unassuming warbler more often seen than heard, the Ovenbird’s loud “tea-cher tea-cher tea-cher tea-cher” song is prevalent in forests across nearly all of Massachusetts, except for Nantucket. Unlike most warblers, which spend their time flitting about in the canopy, Ovenbirds are more often found foraging on the ground and in leaf litter for insects and other invertebrates, their preferred diet.
The name “Ovenbird” comes from the unique, dome-shaped nests they build on the ground, resembling old-fashioned, outdoor Dutch ovens covered with leaves and other vegetation. Despite the female Ovenbird’s architectural prowess, nesting on the ground can leave her eggs and fledglings more susceptible to predators than above-ground nests. When hungry snakes, Blue Jays, Brown-headed Cowbirds, raccoons, skunks, squirrels, weasels, and even chipmunks approach the nest looking for a meal, the female will perform a “distraction display,” feigning injury to lure the predator away from the nest.
Because they rely on large, uninterrupted tracts of forest to breed successfully, they are quite sensitive to forest fragmentation by human activity (development, logging, agriculture and other activities that divide forested areas into smaller sections), and also to nest parasitism by Brown-headed Cowbirds.
Here are five photos of Ovenbirds from our annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest. Submit your nature photography to the 2020 photo contest today!
Known far and wide for their haunting, eerie calls, Common Loons are true water birds, venturing ashore only to mate and incubate eggs. In monogamous pairs, they raise broods of just 1–2 chicks per year, with a long fledging period of about 12 weeks.
Although loon chicks are capable of diving and swimming within a couple of days of birth, they are easy prey for predators like mink, eagles, snapping turtles, or even other loons. To increase their chances of survival, they often take shelter on their parents’ backs, going for rides around the lake until they are big and strong enough to survive on their own.
Here are five adorable photos from our annual photo contest of loon chicks hitching a “loon-back ride” with one of their parents. The 2020 contest is now open, so submit your beautiful nature photography today!
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.
Spring is a wonderful time of year as we welcome the return of some of our favorite migrant birds from their wintering grounds. One such returning traveler is the Gray Catbird, whose unforgettable feline-like mewing makes it a favorite for beginning birders learning to sharpen their ears.
Catbirds occupy the same family—Mimidae, from the Latin for “mimic”—as mockingbirds and thrashers and, as such, share the ability to imitate the sounds of other bird species and incorporate them into their own songs.
Look for Gray Catbirds in dense shrubs and tangles of vines along forest edges and old fields. From a distance, they may appear to be entirely gray, but actually sport a small black cap on top of their heads and a reddish-brown patch underneath their tails.
Enjoy these five photos of Gray Catbirds from our annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest and let us know if you’ve spotted (or heard) any catbirds in your neighborhood lately!
It’s springtime, which means the parade of cute, fluffy baby animals is about to really take off! This week, we’ve got five adorable photos of Canada Goose babies, or goslings as they’re properly called.
The Canada Goose (not Canadian Goose!) is the only species of goose that breeds in Massachusetts, although a few others may be spotted passing through outside the breeding season. They don’t typically migrate, either, instead moving to areas where the water isn’t frozen as the temperatures drop in winter.
The female Canada Goose selects the nest site, usually a slightly elevated spot near the water. The nest is a shallow depression made with plant material and lined with down. She lays a total of 4–7 eggs—only one per day—and does not begin to incubate full-time until the clutch is complete.
The male stands guard and may show aggression if the nest is threatened, so be sure to maintain a respectful distance. The goslings hatch after 25–28 days and are born precocial, meaning that they are able to walk, swim, and feed themselves almost immediately after hatching. The young stay with their parents through the first year of life.