Tag Archives: birds

Snowy Owl © Paul Malenfant

Take 5: Superb Snowy Owls

They’re here! Snowy Owls have arrived from their breeding grounds in the Arctic and can be spotted at Plum Island, Duxbury Beach, and other open, treeless areas near the coast through March—if you make the trip to see Snowy Owls this winter, please protect these beautiful raptors by viewing them from a safe and respectful distance at public sites and do not approach them.

Norman Smith, the former director of Mass Audubon’s Blue Hills Trailside Museum, is keeping busy in his retirement by continuing his Snowy Owl rescue and research efforts: The first report of a Snowy Owl at Logan Airport this season came in on November 5, so he hurried down to capture the owl, take some measurements and research notes, and release it at Duxbury Beach.

Norman reports that it was a healthy “hatch-year” bird (meaning it was born this past summer), which suggests there was good breeding this year in the region of the Arctic where this particular owl was born. Historically, since he started with the Snowy Owl Project in 1981, Norman would capture almost all hatch-year birds, but the past several winters saw predominantly adults arriving in Massachusetts, a poor sign for breeding success. Norman says his colleagues in Greenland reported their best breeding year since 1998 this past summer, while others in Barrow, Alaska, reported no breeding at all, so it can vary dramatically by location due to a number of factors, including climate change.

Snowy Owls predominantly feed on rodents called lemmings, so the success of lemming populations affects Snowy Owl populations: when there’s a boom in lemmings, we see a rise in the number of hatch-year owls traveling south. Lemmings are now facing increased pressure from climate change, such as rising temperatures, milder winters, shifting weather patterns, and changes in vegetation, which makes breeding success more difficult. So a decline in hatch-year Snowy Owls can signal climate impacts across entire food chains.

Enjoy these five photos of Snowy Owls from our annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest, then visit our website to learn how you can support our work to monitor and protect these beautiful birds and where and how to observe Snowy Owls yourself.

Snowy Owl © A. Grigorenko
Snowy Owl © A. Grigorenko
Snowy Owl © Jenny Zhao
Snowy Owl © Jenny Zhao
Snowy Owl © Paul Malenfant
Snowy Owl © Paul Malenfant
Snowy Owl © Sara Silverberg
Snowy Owl © Sara Silverberg
Snowy Owl © Karen Walker
Snowy Owl © Karen Walker
Pine Siskin. Photo © Terri Nicker

Siskins and Grosbeaks and Purple Finches, Oh My!

Most bird species overwinter in the same general area from year to year. Not so with some finches. Around eight species of winter finch become nomadic in winter, sometimes crossing the continent in search of food.

One reason these birds don’t stick to an annual pattern is the annually shifting availability of their favorite foods. If conifer seeds and mountain-ash berries are abundant in Canada, winter finches stay put on their northern breeding grounds. In less fruitful years, they head off in search of their next meal.

Biologists and birders in Canada who keep track of seed availability are forecasting that this will be a good year for finch movements. Here’s what to look for this winter.

Purple Finches

Purple Finch
Purple Finches have more extensive color and a different shape than similar House Finches.

Purple Finches had a great breeding season in Canada, in part due to an outbreak of spruce budworm, their go-to summer food. But the new hordes of yearling birds will need more seeds and berries than what’s available this winter in the north, and we’re already seeing a big movement of them in Massachusetts.

At feeders, Purple Finches love to eat safflower seed, but they’ll also stop for black-oil sunflower and thistle seed. Unlike the similar-looking House Finch, Purple Finches have a reddish wash that extends all the way down their wings and back, and a thicker bill.

Pine Siskins

Pine Siskin. Photo © Terri Nicker
Pine Siskin © Terri Nicker

Siskins are the stars of the show so far this year. Pine Siskins have arrived early in Massachusetts in spectacular numbers (with some observers recording overhead movements of more than 2,000!) At feeders, these finches don’t stop for much other than thistle seed, or other seeds small enough for their narrow bills.  

Evening Grosbeaks

Evening Grosbeak © Jim Renault
Evening Grosbeak © Jim Renault

These bold-colored finches last irrupted into Massachusetts in 2018, a bit more recently than the other two finches on this list. Major irruption years were infrequent in the 1980s through 2000s, so it’s a pleasant surprise to see these birds again just two years after their last big movement through the region. At feeders, these thick-billed birds prefer larger seeds, like black-oil sunflower.

Bonus species: Red-breasted Nuthatches

Red-breasted Nuthatch
Red-breasted Nuthatch

While not technically a finch, this species is nearly as nomadic. Red-breasted Nuthatches are year-round residents in high-elevation coniferous forests, and normally, they only visit the rest of the state in winter. But this summer and fall saw several big pushes of Red-breasted Nuthatch into Eastern Mass as well, and it’s a real possibility that they’ll continue through the winter in great numbers.

All of these species have arrived earlier than in most irruption years. That leads to a question of whether or not they’ll persist all winter in Massachusetts. It’s possible that these birds are mostly transients on their way even farther south: feeder-watchers are reporting that flocks of winter finches are showing up for a day and leaving, and grosbeaks and siskins have already been reported as far south as the Gulf Coast.

This is a great winter to hang up some feeders and see what happens!

Golden-crowned Kinglet © Ken Lee

Take 5: The Littlest King

Small but mighty, kinglets are barely bigger than hummingbirds, weighing less than half an ounce, and yet they are still capable of surviving in remarkably cold environments, in some regions overwintering in places where nighttime temperatures can fall below 0°F. Their preference for the upper canopy of thick stands of tall conifers, especially spruce and fir, coupled with their diminutive size, makes them difficult to spot, but fall migration is likely your best chance.

Both Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned kinglets are migrating from northern forests to their wintering grounds and passing through Massachusetts this time of year, but only individuals of the golden variety tend to linger beyond the fall migration period. You’ll need a keen ear to pinpoint the very piercing call of the male Golden-crowned Kinglet, which is so high-pitched that some older birders find that they lose the ability to hear the highest notes as they age.

Here are five photos of “kingly” Golden-crowned Kinglets from our annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest.

Golden-crowned Kinglet © Ken Lee
Golden-crowned Kinglet © Ken Lee
Golden-crowned Kinglet © Claudia Carpinone
Golden-crowned Kinglet © Claudia Carpinone
Golden-crowned Kinglet © Davey Walters
Golden-crowned Kinglet © Davey Walters
Golden-crowned Kinglet © Mary Keleher
Golden-crowned Kinglet © Mary Keleher
Golden-crowned Kinglet © Nathan Goshgarian
Golden-crowned Kinglet © Nathan Goshgarian
Song Sparrow © Thomas Kilian

Take 5: A Song in Your Heart

“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”

Maya Angelou

The Song Sparrow is a welcome visitor to fields, farms, parks, and gardens throughout Massachusetts. One of the first birds that many novice birders learn to identify by sound, the aptly named Song Sparrow may be heard singing its bright and cheery song from sunup to sundown from spring to fall.

The Song Sparrow took home the title of “most widely distributed bird” in Massachusetts in both of our Breeding Bird Atlas surveys. While many sparrow species are struggling to maintain their numbers, the irrepressible Song Sparrow seems to be holding its own. Its massive breeding range, adaptability, and ready use of almost any open or semi-open habitat have helped the species remain practically ubiquitous even in the face of suburbanization and other major landscape changes. Still, despite the stability of its breeding footprint, the Song Sparrow has demonstrated significant declines in overall abundance over the last half-century, suggesting a need for continued monitoring and conservation efforts.

While Song Sparrows can be found in Massachusetts year-round, you may see an uptick in their numbers in the fall as migrants pass through from their northern breeding grounds on their way to warmer places to over-winter. Look for a streaky sparrow perched on low shrubs in open, scrubby, often wet areas, pumping its tail in flight as it flits from bush to bush, and listen for the clear, crisp notes of the colorful repertoire of songs for which it is named.

This is your last chance to enter the 2020 Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest! The deadline for entries is September 30, so enjoy these five submissions from past years and send us your own nature photography today!

Song Sparrow © Amanda Altena
Song Sparrow © Amanda Altena
Song Sparrow at Waseeka Wildlife Sanctuary © Charlene Gaboriault
Song Sparrow at Waseeka Wildlife Sanctuary © Charlene Gaboriault
Song Sparrow © Thomas Kilian
Song Sparrow © Thomas Kilian
Song Sparrow © Lucy Allen
Song Sparrow © Lucy Allen
Song Sparrow © Cristina Hartshorn
Song Sparrow © Cristina Hartshorn
Red-tailed Hawk copyright George Brehm

Fall Hawk Migration is in the Air

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.

Red-tailed Hawk copyright George Brehm
Red-tailed Hawk © George Brehm

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.

If you want to plan a trip to see migrating raptors this season, check out our list of hawkwatching sites as well as resources from the Eastern Massachusetts Hawk Watch club.

American Goldfinch © Mark Uchneat

Take 5: Go For the Goldfinch

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

American Goldfinch © Mike Iwanicki
American Goldfinch © Mike Iwanicki
American Goldfinch © Sarah Keates
American Goldfinch © Sarah Keates
American Goldfinch © Karen Karlberg
American Goldfinch © Karen Karlberg
American Goldfinch © Mark Uchneat
American Goldfinch © Mark Uchneat
American Goldfinch © Anindya Sen
American Goldfinch © Anindya Sen
Belted Kingfisher © Kathy Hale

Take 5: Hail to the Kingfisher

“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!

Belted Kingfisher at Daniel Webster © Edmund Prescottano
Belted Kingfisher at Daniel Webster © Edmund Prescottano
Belted Kingfisher at Wellfleet Bay © Sherri VandenAkker
Belted Kingfisher at Wellfleet Bay © Sherri VandenAkker
Belted Kingfisher at Horn Pond in Woburn © Jim Renault
Belted Kingfisher at Horn Pond in Woburn © Jim Renault
Belted Kingfisher at Wellfleet Bay ©Susan Wellington
Belted Kingfisher at Wellfleet Bay ©Susan Wellington
Belted Kingfisher © Kathy Hale
Belted Kingfisher © Kathy Hale
Turkey Vulture © Beth Finney

Take 5: The Strength to Carrion

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.

Turkey Vulture © Beth Finney
Turkey Vulture © Beth Finney
Turkey Vulture © George Ann Millet
Turkey Vulture © George Ann Millet
Turkey Vulture © Nigel Cunningham
Turkey Vulture © Nigel Cunningham
Turkey Vulture © Dennis Durette
Turkey Vulture © Dennis Durette
Turkey Vulture © Brad Dinerman
Turkey Vulture © Brad Dinerman
Ovenbird © Asli Ertekin

Take 5: One in the Oven

“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!

Ovenbird © Asli Ertekin
Ovenbird © Asli Ertekin
Ovenbird © Joel Eckerson
Ovenbird © Joel Eckerson
Ovenbird © Arav Karighattam
Ovenbird © Arav Karighattam
Ovenbird © Matt Watson
Ovenbird © Matt Watson
Ovenbird © Francis Morello
Ovenbird © Francis Morello
Common Loons © Peter Christoph

Take 5: Loon-back Rides

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!

Common Loons © Peter Christoph
Common Loons © Peter Christoph
Common Loons © Brad Dinerman
Common Loons © Brad Dinerman
Common Loons © Michael Phillips
Common Loons © Michael Phillips
Common Loons © Michael Goodman
Common Loons © Michael Goodman
Common Loons © Michael Goodman
Common Loons © Michael Goodman