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!
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!
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!
(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.
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 pesticideswould 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
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.
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.
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.
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% ofthe Massachusetts’ breeding, coastal-nesting species we studiedare highly vulnerable.
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.
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.
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 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”.
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.
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.
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.
Common Grackles are blackbirds that have a striking iridescence to their feathers in the sunlight. Their song sounds like a rusty gate opening.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.