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!
April in many parts of Massachusetts can feel a bit like nature is holding its breath, so that on any given morning you might wake up to find the world outside transformed from gray to green (or, as last Friday proved, blanketed in white one more time). Never fear, spring wildflower season is upon us! These bright harbingers of spring burst forth from the long-dormant earth in a dazzling variety of colors, shapes, and arrangements.
There’s an advantage to blossoming early—plenty of sunshine to provide energy before the trees fully leaf out and obscure the sun’s rays. The majority of spring wildflowers need to bloom, be pollinated, and store enough food for the following year—all before the leaves on neighboring trees have fully appeared. Some of the earliest species (and those needing the most direct sunlight) are known as spring ephemerals. These are plants that, after flowering, virtually disappear in a few short weeks.
Timing Is Everything
While the exact timing can vary due to variations in elevation or temperature, including the warming temperatures caused by climate change, if you want to catch a glimpse of Dutchman’s breeches and trout lily, make sure you get out by the first week of May; even sooner if you’re looking for bloodroot, which in some regions is already setting seed by the end of April.
You’ll see the greatest diversity of spring wildflowers around the middle of May, including red trillium in deciduous forests and jack-in-the-pulpit in wetlands. You’ll find the bright-red, nodding flowers of wild columbine perched on rocky outcrops. Last to the party in late May are the orchids: pink lady’s slipper is more common than most people realize and grows beneath pines and oaks, but you have to be lucky to stumble across yellow lady’s slipper or showy orchid in pockets of rich woodlands.
Let’s get real for a minute: living through a pandemic can sometimes feel a bit like the classic movie Groundhog Day—reliving the same day over and over, never quite sure when we’ll escape a sort of perpetual limbo. But unlike the anti-hero of that fictional Hollywood reality, we know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and that, while socially distant, we are not alone as we navigate this strange, challenging reality together.
And there’s even better news: Groundhog Day (a popular holiday observed on February 2 in the United States and Canada) traditionally marks the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, meaning warmer days and even more outdoor adventures in nature lie ahead. Whether you consider yourself “superstitious” or not, it may bring you some comfort to know that Drumlin Farm’s own Ms. G—the official state groundhog of Massachusetts—made her annual appearance on February 2 and did NOT see her shadow, thereby predicting an early spring! You can watch a recording of the live event on Facebook, which was held virtually this year due to COVID-19 and the heavy snowstorm the day before.
So while we may need to wait a bit longer for springtime, in the meantime you can enjoy these five photos of our native groundhogs (also known as woodchucks) and look forward to brighter days—both literally and figuratively—in the near future.
If you enjoy watching birds at feeders, there’s a good chance you have a soft spot for these little darlings of the winter bird feeder crowd: Dark-eyed Juncos.
Although there are juncos to be found in Massachusetts year-round, these “snowbirds” are most recognizable hopping around on the ground or in the snow beneath seed feeders, often in small flocks. These ground-feeding sparrows love to snap up fallen seeds in their cone-shaped pink bills, which contrast sharply with their dark grey or brown upper plumage. Their white outer tail feathers will flash into view when they take flight.
Many juncos spend the breeding season to the North of us, across much of Canada, flying south and spreading out across North America the rest of the year, although some will stay year-round and retreat to the woods or higher elevations as the weather warms.
It seems awfully dark around here these days, doesn’t it? The winter solstice—the day when the northern hemisphere experiences the shortest amount of daylight and the longest night—is just a week away. Next Monday also marks the official beginning of winter and although the colder weather tends to keep us indoors a lot more, there is still so much beauty and enjoyment to be found in nature in wintertime.
Many of the entrants to our Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest have found inspiration in one of the most enchanting (but also, often, the most treacherous) hallmarks of winter in New England: ice formations. Here are five of our favorites.
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.
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.
Pumpkins are the quintessential symbol of fall. Native to North America, pumpkins are believed to have been domesticated for at least 7,000 years, originally cultivated by Mesoamerican peoples for food and medicine. Today, they are grown in incredible quantities around the world, in large part to meet the needs of all the autumn-loving pumpkin carvers and pie-eaters who look forward to this time of year.
Want more pumpkin everything? Check to see if there’s a pumpkin carving program at a sanctuary near you or check out our collection of pumpkin-themed activities for Young Explorers, including stencils for pumpkin decorating, instructions for making your own pumpkin bird feeder, and cool experiments for “pumpkin scientists.” That’s a lot of pumpkins!
And while you’re at it, why not swing by a nearby farm to support the local food movement and pick up your decorative gourds and soon-to-be jack-o-lantern subjects? You’ll be glad you did!
After a cool, wet spring and a hot, dry summer (ideal conditions for spectacular fall foliage), nature is coming alive with reds, oranges, and yellows as plants gradually cease photosynthesis, lose their green-colored chlorophyll, and enter a dormant phase for the winter.
Many folks, it seems, have noticed that this annual spectacle can be doubly beautiful when reflected on the surface of water, so here are five “impressionistic” photo contest entries of fall foliage viewed “through the looking glass.”
Check out our fall foliage guide for great hikes and fall activities, the science behind fall foliage, and even fall photography tips for great shots like these. The 2020 Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest is officially closed, but now is a great time to get your landscape shots in for next year’s contest!