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!
“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”
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!
“To gild refined gold, to paint the lily…is wasteful and ridiculous excess.”
William Shakespeare, King John Act 4, Scene 2
The quote above seems fitting for this week’s featured creature: the lovely Painted Lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui). As if the vibrant flowers they grace in search of nectar were not gorgeous enough, Painted Ladies seem to adorn them even further with a near-excessive beauty.
Found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica, Painted Ladies were once known as Cosmopolitan butterflies for their wide distribution, the widest of any butterfly in the world. What’s more, they are extremely adaptable and can be found in a variety of settings from the suburbs to the mountains and everywhere in between. More than 100 host plants have been identified for them, but they love thistle in particular.
You may have spotted iconic Monarch butterflies passing through Massachusetts on their way south, but they’re not the only orange migrating butterfly: Painted Ladies are also heading southward, following the seasonal availability of food sources. They breed year-round, and many successive generations are spawned along their migratory routes, but they don’t overwinter in cold climates—adults must migrate to warmer, more agreeable breeding conditions through the winter or will perish when freezing temperatures set it.
Here are five photos of beautiful Painted Ladies form our annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest. Only two more weeks to enter the 2020 photo contest, so submit your beautiful nature photography today!
While they do belong to the order Rodentia), muskrats are not, in fact, rats at all (i.e. members of the genus Rattus). Plus, they’re actually more closely related to lemmings than they are to their look-a-like cousins, beavers. The latter is a case of what is known as “convergent evolution”—two distinct species that evolve with a similar set of characteristics that just happen to work really well for the environment in which they live, kind of like two people coming up with the same idea at the same time in different locations.
From a distance, it can be difficult to tell muskrats and beavers apart. They are both semi-aquatic rodents with similar body shapes and colors; have bare, fleshy tails; and build lodges for their families. Side-by-side, though, it would be difficult to mistake them. Muskrats average 3–4 pounds each, one-tenth the size of beavers who clock in at a whopping 30–40 pounds, and their tails are long and narrow, not broad and paddle-shaped like a beaver’s. Additionally, beavers are strictly vegetarian while muskrats have a wider, more versatile, omnivorous diet of mostly aquatic plants (such as cattails and yellow water lilies) supplemented with small animals like frogs, crayfish, and fish.
Muskrats are prolific breeders, producing 2–3 litters per year of 6–8 kits each, but each individual only lives about 3–4 years in the wild. This rapid rate of regeneration is a key part of their survival strategy, since muskrats are a popular menu item for many predators, including coyotes and foxes, snapping turtles, weasels and otters, bobcats, owls, and especially minks and raccoons. Young muskrats may even fall prey to larger species of fish such as largemouth bass. As a result of their survival-by-numbers strategy, they occupy a very important role in the native food web.
Your best bet to spot a muskrat in the wild is along water edges and in wetlands at dawn or dusk, as they are crepuscular. Here are five photos of native muskrats from our Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest. The deadline to enter the 2020 contest is September 30, so be sure to submit your own amazing nature photography soon!
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.
The coastal towns of Massachusetts are an artist’s dream: historic fishing villages, picturesque lighthouses, sandy beaches, rocky coastlines, and harbors brimming with boats of all shapes and sizes make for postcard-perfect scenes, accompanied by the vibrant culture and deep history of the region.
Unfortunately, climate change is threatening our coastal communities. Rising ocean temperatures cause water to expand, and with global glaciers and land ice melting (adding more water to our ocean), we’re experiencing a phenomenon called sea level rise.
These five photos of coastal scenes from our annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest show just what’s at stake. Take one of our climate pledges to commit to reducing your greenhouse gas emissions and help share what makes the nature of Massachusetts so important by entering your photos in the 2020 contest today!