Tag Archives: birds

Scarlet Tanager © Kate Finn

Take 5: A Study in Scarlet

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!

Scarlet Tanager © Jeff Carpenter
Scarlet Tanager © Jeff Carpenter
Scarlet Tanager © Lauren Sullivan
Scarlet Tanager © Lauren Sullivan
Scarlet Tanager © Matt Sabourin
Scarlet Tanager © Matt Sabourin
Scarlet Tanager © Kate Finn
Scarlet Tanager © Kate Finn
Scarlet Tanager © Elizabeth Watson
Scarlet Tanager © Elizabeth Watson
Great Horned Owl © John Harrison

Take 5: Great Horned Owlets

Great Horned Owls are one of the earliest birds to breed in Massachusetts, with courtship beginning as early as December. They are not cavity nesters, but use old Red-tailed Hawk or Great Blue Heron nests, often at the top of dead tree snags. With a little luck, you may be able to spot the still-downy heads of fledglings sticking up over the edges of these large nests.

Around six weeks of age, baby Great Horned Owls begin to venture out of the nest onto nearby branches, a behavior called (appropriately) “branching.” Because their wings are not yet fully developed, they use their talons to grip branches and move around.

After another week or so, their wings and confidence have strengthened enough to try out a few awkward test flights, but they usually bungle it more often than they succeed in the beginning. This can lead to some comical situations with confused, panicky youngsters finding themselves hanging upside down from tree branches or even on the ground, sharply clacking their bills and wearing a bewildered expression. Appearances to the contrary, they are perfectly fine and will return to the safety of their nests after a brief period of recovery.

So if you come across a fluffy fledgling looking a bit disgruntled on the ground, there’s no need to worry—the parents are almost certainly nearby keeping a watchful, stoic eye while their little ones blunder their way through adolescence. Keep a respectful distance to ensure you don’t inadvertently cause them further stress, and enjoy a quiet chuckle of commiseration—after all, who hasn’t been through an awkward growth spurt or two?

Enjoy these five photos of Great Horned Owlets from our annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest. The 2021 contest will be opening in early June, so get your cameras ready and get outdoors!

Great Horned Owl © Jason Goldstein
Great Horned Owl © Jason Goldstein
Great Horned Owl © John Harrison
Great Horned Owl © John Harrison
Great Horned Owls © Rick Olick
Great Horned Owls © Rick Olick
Great Horned Owls © Jim Renault
Great Horned Owls © Jim Renault
Great Horned Owl © Scott Creamer
Great Horned Owl © Scott Creamer
Magnolia Warbler © Joe Howell

Take 5: A Wealth of Warblers

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!

Yellow Warbler © Jason Gilbody
Yellow Warbler © Jason Gilbody
Magnolia Warbler © Joe Howell
Magnolia Warbler © Joe Howell
Cape May Warbler © Andy Eckerson
Cape May Warbler © Andy Eckerson
Prothonotary Warbler © Jeff Carpenter
Prothonotary Warbler © Jeff Carpenter
Palm Warbler © Mary Dineen
Palm Warbler © Mary Dineen
Bald Eagle flying

When Pest Control Poisons Wildlife: Why It Happens and How to Help

(Disclaimer: the post below includes a photo of a dead bald eagle)

This week, Massachusetts passed a sad benchmark–the first documented case of a bald eagle death in the state from second-generation anticoagulant rodenticide (SGAR) poisoning.  

Or, in clearer terms: rat poison. 

Anticoagulant rodenticides kill rodents by preventing blood from clotting normally. But these poisons can have unintended victims when wildlife, like birds of prey, ingest them or eat prey that has consumed the bait. 

Second-generation anticoagulant rodenticides (SGARs) can be especially problematic since they don’t kill rodents immediately. Poisoned rodents can still live for a few days and consume more poisoned bait during that time, and the delay means they can ingest enough poison to kill a much larger animal. 

Photo: James B. Condon

Aren’t These Poisons Regulated?

Second-generation anticoagulants have been banned by the EPA from the consumer market, but licensed exterminators are still allowed to deploy them. Other rodenticides, called first-generation anticoagulant rodenticides and non-anticoagulant rodenticides, are still approved for residential consumer use if enclosed within a bait station. 

While this was the first confirmed case of an eagle death in the state as a result of SGARs, the issue of birds of prey becoming the unintended victims of these poisons is a growing problem. Nearly every raptor species is vulnerable to rodenticide poisoning. For example, one recent study found that 100% of tested red-tailed hawks at Tufts Wildlife Clinic had been exposed to anticoagulant rodenticides. Secondary poisoning has also been documented in species like foxes, bobcats, and coyotes.

What’s the Solution?

With rat populations on the rise, pest control measures continue to be necessary. But many poison-free options for preventing rodent problems exist. In addition to non-chemical traps, these include exclusion methods, like sealing up access points to buildings, and sanitation methods, like securing trash bins to reduce food sources.  

If the situation necessitates hiring a pest control company, choosing one that uses Integrated Pest Management (IPM) can also make a big impact in reducing widespread pesticide use. IPM relies on a series of pest management evaluations, and its strategies can include trapping, sealing up entry holes in foundations, walls, and roofs, and removing or trimming vegetation that obscures the ground.  

We also need laws to regulate the pesticides that do continue to be used. In California, legislation has passed prohibiting the use of SGARs until state agencies can reevaluate what long-term restrictions are needed to avoid impacts to nontarget wildlife.  

Here in Massachusetts, An Act relative to pesticides would better regulate the use of SGARs, in turn reducing their impacts on birds of prey and other wildlife. The bill would: 

  • Increase use of IPM strategies in Massachusetts 
  • Educate consumers about the benefits of IPM and impacts of SGARs 
  • Require digitization of pesticide use forms, making them more accessible and searchable 

You Can Help Stop Wildlife from Being Poisoned

Ask your state legislators to co-sponsor An Act relative to pesticides today! The more co-sponsors a bill has, the more support it has behind it and the better chance it has of passing. 

By improving our approaches to pest management, we can reduce the need for rodenticides at their source and help our wildlife thrive. 

Bald Eagle Flying © David Morris
Bald Eagle © David Morris

Protect Birds by Addressing Climate Change

When Harriet Lawrence Hemenway and Minna B. Hall founded Mass Audubon in 1896, they were committed to ending the cruel practice of killing birds for fashion. Since then, Mass Audubon has continued its dedication to protecting birds through the threats they’ve faced over the decades – and now that means addressing climate change

North, North, and Away 

Both plants and animals live in predictable environments, and one of the most important parts in defining these environments is their temperatures. But climate change is causing temperatures to increase world-wide. As Massachusetts gets warmer, the plants and insects that comprise these environments are shifting northward – and we’re seeing birds follow them away from the Commonwealth. 

Higher temperatures also provide a suitable environment for the spread of invasive pest and plant species – both of which reduce healthy Northern hardwoods forested habitat.  

49% of the Massachusetts’ breeding forest bird species we studied are highly vulnerable. 

Black-throated Blue Warbler © Terri Nickerson

The Commonwealth’s Black-throated Blue Warbler and Yellow-rumped Warbler are expected to decline as the Northern hardwood trees they call home are overtaken by more heat tolerant species. Ruffed Grouse, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, and Wood Thrushes are also expected to be vulnerable to the reduction of Northern hardwoods forested habitats as a result of this shift in dominant tree species. 

Changing Seasons 

Our seasons are changing, impacting bird food sources and nesting behaviors. With milder, shorter winters and earlier springs (among other shifts) – the environmental cues that typically trigger breeding or nesting behavior and the emergence of food are thrown out of whack. 

66% of the Massachusetts breeding, long-distance migrants we studied are highly or likely vulnerable.  

Tree Swallow in nest box.

Migratory species, like Tree Swallows, can only make minor modifications to their migration schedules to coincide with the shifting peak abundance of their food. The dissonance between migration and breeding schedules and shifting seasons can adversely affect breeding birds— especially if available food sources are insufficient to raise their young. 

Rising Sea Levels 

With tides creeping farther up our shores, sea level rise is swallowing important marsh and beach-nesting habitat of coastal bird species. 

56% of the Massachusetts’ breeding, coastal-nesting species we studied are highly vulnerable. 

Piping Plover and chicks © Lia Vito

These, often already threatened, species now contend with the effects of sea level rise. Least Terns, Piping Plovers, and Saltmarsh Sparrows nest in habitats that are slowly being overtaken by this climate impact in addition to the increasing frequency and severity of storms. 

We Can Make a Difference 

Let’s come together to protect birds by working to solve climate change in two ways: by adapting to climate change (withstanding its current impacts) and mitigating climate change (reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and removing them from the atmosphere). Visit massaudubon.org/climate for how you can start doing both. 

Eastern Phoebe copyright Anthony Lischio

10 Common Bird Sounds

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.

Northern Cardinal

Female Northern Cardinal

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 Phoebe

© Anthony Lischio

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”.

Black-capped Chickadee

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.

Northern Flicker

© Christopher Peterson

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.

Mourning Dove

© Brian Hunter

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.

Wings:

Common Grackle

© Matt Sabourin

Common Grackles are blackbirds that have a striking iridescence to their feathers in the sunlight. Their song sounds like a rusty gate opening.

House Wren

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.

Baltimore Oriole

© Sarah Keates

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.

Grey Catbird

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.

Mew:

Chipping Sparrow

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.

— Margo Servison

Standing by the edge of a forest

125 Ways to Celebrate Nature

Essex, MA © Davey Walters

In honor of 125 years of Mass Audubon, we’ve compiled 125 nature ideas for you to enjoy and celebrate the amazing world around you! Share how you celebrate nature with us by tagging @massaudubon in your adventures online.

  1. Sign up for a CSA
  2. Walk, bike, or take public transport
  3. Buy local syrup or honey
  4. Sign up for Shave the Peak
  5. Compost your food scraps
  6. Choose meat-free Mondays
  7. Go for a walk outdoors
  8. Look for shapes in the clouds
  9. Walk barefoot in the grass
  10. Visit a farmer’s market
  11. Close your eyes and listen to the birds
  12. Source your energy renewably
  13. Play nature bingo
  14. Smell the flowers
  15. Follow tracks
  16. Play in the mud
  17. Wear your Mass Audubon swag
  18. Look for wildflowers
  19. Paddle a canoe
  20. Sketch your favorite nature scene
  21. Check out the full moon
  22. Meditate on a boardwalk
  23. Walk on the beach
  24. Watch birds at feeders
  25. Go for a night hike
  26. Play in the rain
  27. Stargaze
  28. Blow a dandelion
  29. Make a sandcastle
  30. Listen to a rainstorm
  31. Go hiking
  32. Talk to friends or family about climate change
  33. Eat a plant-based meal
  34. Listen to the howling wind
  35. Go for a bike ride
  36. Read a book outside
  37. Learn about local land history
  38. Support pesticide-free growers
  39. Participate in a community science project
  40. Make a donation to Mass Audubon
  41. Recycle cans and bottles
  42. Reduce your household water use
  43. Feel the sand in between your toes
  44. Search for fiddleheads
  45. Learn how to forage
  46. Make pine needle tea
  47. Plant milkweed to support monarch butterflies
  48. Learn how to identify frog calls
  49. Take a Mass Audubon program
  50. Look for fireflies
  51. Go on a lunchtime walk
  52. Protect a local vernal pool
  53. Skip chemical fertilizers in your garden
  54. Plant native plants
  55. Remove invasive plant species
  56. Climb a tree
  57. Play outside
  58. Pick up litter
  59. Watch the sunrise
  60. Watch the sunset
  61. Swim in the ocean
  62. Identify mushrooms and fungi
  63. Start an herb garden
  64. Visit a wildlife sanctuary
  65. Practice mindfulness outdoors
  66. Post a picture of your favorite spot outdoors
  67. Ditch single-use plastic bottles
  68. Volunteer with Mass Audubon
  69. Make a biodegradable bird feeder
  70. Visit Mass Audubon’s Advocacy Action Center
  71. Drink sustainably-farmed coffee
  72. Learn about the sheep-to-sweater process
  73. Join a community garden
  74. Take a deep breath of fresh air
  75. Hike to the top of a hill, drumlin, or mountain
  76. Learn how to mimic bird calls
  77. Use low flow settings on your home water use
  78. Go birdwatching
  79. Utilize natural light instead of electricity
  80. Go camping and leave no trace
  81. Hold off on fallen leaf removal, and learn about critters that make their homes there
  82. Try going zero-waste for a day
  83. Collect rainwater for reuse
  84. Re-sell, donate, or recycle old clothing
  85. Go on an outdoor scavenger hunt
  86. Paint outdoors
  87. Make a magical home in the woods
  88. Try geocaching
  89. Take your yoga flow outdoors
  90. Splash in puddles
  91. Catch raindrops on your tongue
  92. Open or roll down your windows for fresh air
  93. Learn why bees are so important
  94. Repurpose old fabrics into dish towels
  95. Dry your clothes outside
  96. Learn to identify trees by their buds
  97. Press a wildflower in the pages of a book
  98. Listen to nature sounds while falling asleep
  99. Watch some ants going about their business
  100. Draw a picture in the dirt with a stick
  101. Turn off the engine instead of idling your car
  102. Dip your toes in a local brook, stream, or river
  103. Rollover logs to look for salamanders (and put back the log where you found it)
  104. Learn about Indigenous land management
  105. Shop for clothes secondhand
  106. Have a picnic outdoors (and leave no trace)
  107. Opt-out of junk mail to reduce paper waste
  108. Use the iNaturalist app to identify wildlife
  109. Gift a native plant to someone you love
  110. Plant a tree
  111. Visit an aquarium
  112. Fly a kite
  113. Climb rocks
  114. Hug a tree
  115. Watch a nature documentary
  116. Dance outdoors
  117. Build a shelter (and leave no trace)
  118. Practice nature photography
  119. Explore a new trail
  120. Visit a sanctuary nature play area
  121. Put out a hummingbird feeder
  122. Howl at the moon
  123. Look for sunbathing turtles
  124. Make a water wall
  125. Build a compost creature

Black-capped Chickadee © Sue Feldberg

Take 5: Chick-a-Dee-Dee-Delightful

Spring at last! Our early migrant birds are returning in ever-greater numbers, but many of the year-round residents have already been preparing for nesting season for weeks, including our beloved Massachusetts state bird, the Black-capped Chickadee.

Year-round, chickadees make their namesake call, chickadee-dee-dee, using an increasing number of dees the more alarmed or threatened they feel—an early-warning alarm that even other species of birds will respond to. But as early as mid-January, males begin singing their high, sweet fee-bee song to attract mates and prepare for nesting season.

It’s easy to confuse the chickadee’s sweet whistle with the more emphatic, raspy fee-BEE sung by Eastern Phoebes, which we should also start hearing around this time of year, but play them side-by-side a few times and you’ll quickly learn to recognize the difference:

Plenty of small migratory songbirds will associate with flocks of chickadees during spring and fall migration, so if you hear a flock of chickadees in your neighborhood, grab your binoculars—there may be an interesting migrant nearby, as well.

Enjoy these five photos of Black-capped Chickadees from our annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest, and listen for these sweet songbirds on your next nature walk.

Black-capped Chickadee © Jonathan Elcock
Black-capped Chickadee © Jonathan Elcock
Black-capped Chickadee © Sue Feldberg
Black-capped Chickadee © Sue Feldberg
Black-capped Chickadee © Timothy Hayes
Black-capped Chickadee © Timothy Hayes
Black-capped Chickadee © Bob Durling
Black-capped Chickadee © Bob Durling
Black-capped Chickadee © Craig Blanchette
Black-capped Chickadee © Craig Blanchette

Skyline copyright Michael Mondville

One Way Light Pollution Impacts Birds

Skyline copyright Michael Mondville
Boston’s bright lights create a hazy glow on the horizon that can be seen for miles. Photo © Michael Mondville

Migrating birds are attracted to artificial light at night, and ornithologists are just beginning to understand how that affects their survival.

Recent studies show that the diffuse glow of entire cities can draw migrating birds towards them—and away from more suitable habitat.

There are already hundreds of records of mesmerized birds fluttering around single, isolated sources of bright light— from thousands of migrants trapped in the beams of mile-high searchlights in New York City, to dozens of warblers gathering at the windows of lighthouses.

But until recently, there was limited evidence for how light pollution across an entire region affects where migrants rest and feed.

Radar studies show “clouds” of birds near cities 

To test if birds gather disproportionately in brightly-lit cities, migration ecologists looked to doppler radar data. This is the same radar used to create weather forecasts across the country. Doppler radar reveals the density of particles in the air, whether it’s rain, birds, or aircraft, so it’s useful for remotely observing which areas migrating birds are using the most.

Naturalists might expect that migratory birds gravitate towards undeveloped areas, just as most do when they aren’t migrating. But this isn’t necessarily true, according to a team led by scientists from the University of Delaware.

In fact, radar signals consistently show more migrants pausing within a couple of miles of brightly-lit areas than anywhere else within around 30 miles. Migrant density peaks again 50-60 miles away, where the glow of lights on the horizon is dimmer or invisible.

These graphs show the density of migrating birds relative to major sources of light pollution like cities in spring (left) and fall (right) migration. Source: Cohen et al. (2020) (axis labels added).

This suggests that artificial light from cities is drawing in birds from greater distances than once believed. The authors of the study write that this pattern risks “impeding [birds’] selection for extensive forest habitat.” 

They go on to caution that “high‐quality stopover habitat is critical to successful migration, and hindrances during migration can decrease fitness.”

Prioritizing Urban Greenspaces for Birds

Migratory birds’ attraction to artificial light may be one reason behind the surprisingly excellent birding at greenspaces in cities—something birders have known about for a long time, but struggled to fully explain.

A canopy of trees meets Boston’s skyline, as seen from Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Watertown. Source: Wikimedia commons

Take Mount Auburn Cemetery, for example: it’s arguably the most famous site in the Northeast to see big numbers of warblers in spring. New York City’s Central Park, too, offers excellent birding that can rival—or outmatch—spring migration in intact forests.

But despite their attraction to the bright glow of cities, birds face increased hazards in urban environments. Most migratory birds feed exclusively on insects, which are harder to come by in cities, and urban ecosystems host more predators per square mile than other habitats.

Modifications as simple as planting native species, reducing insecticides, adding understory and mid-story habitat, or controlling predators could give migrants a much-needed boost at these sites. As long as light pollution continues to be an issue, improving urban habitat and reducing hazards remains important work.

A Harlequin Duck in Western Mass: Out of Place, or Right at Home?

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.  

The rocky Millers River was apparently good enough habitat for this young male Harlequin Duck. Photo © James Smith
The rocky Millers River was apparently good enough habitat for this young male Harlequin Duck. Photo © James Smith

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.

Stay in the Know

If you’re interested in following along with the latest unusual sightings, check out our weekly rare bird reports!