Many a novice birder have heard a soft, mournful cooing in their back yard and made a mad dash to their window expecting to see an owl, only to find instead a portly, long-tailed Mourning Dove dressed in shades of soft brown and grey, pecking about for seeds that have fallen from feeders.
On the ground, Mourning Doves often look plump and dainty, walking with mincing steps and bobbing their heads as they look for food. In flight, however, they are entirely different birds. Remarkably swift and agile, they fly straight and fast on whistling wings.
A common sight year-round, Mourning Doves are generally unbothered by humans. When they’re not breeding or nesting, they frequently form large flocks and are often found perching on telephone wires and lamp posts in groups of a dozen or more. They are able to mate throughout the year but typically do so from spring to fall. Breeding pairs are often seen gently preening each other’s necks as a sweet bonding behavior. And while they typically make their nests in bushes and trees, they’ve been known to take advantage of any horizontal surface, such as the back of a wicker patio couch or the upturned head of a push broom left outside!
Here are five fantastic photos of Mourning Doves from our annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest—let us know in the comments if you’ve seen any in your neighborhood, particularly any wacky nesting sites!
“Solemnity is what they express—fit representatives of the night.”
—Henry David Thoreau
The shy but stocky Barred Owl does indeed cut a solemn figure, with its soulful, dark brown, almost black eyes and stripes of mottled brown and white crossing its body.
Many nighttime travelers in the New England woods have been asked, who cooks for you, who cooks for you all? by a Barred Owl. Its deep, resonant voice carries well in the moist, forested woodlands that the species prefers during the breeding season. They prefer natural tree cavities and human-made nest boxes for their nesting sites, preferably high enough up to avoid predators like weasels and raccoons.
Barred Owls are quiet and elusive, but since they don’t migrate at all, they don’t tend to move around all that much, generally adhering to a territory of no more than a few square miles their entire lives. Although their territories may sometimes overlap, Barred Owls do their best to avoid their cousins, Great Horned Owls—their greatest predator.
There is only one bear species that makes its home in Massachusetts: the handsome Black Bear (Ursus americanus). Although they are the largest meat-eating mammal in the state, reaching up to 500 pounds, Black Bears also enjoy berries, nuts, seeds, flowers, fruits, and succulent grasses (including corn), as well as garbage.
After hibernating through the winter, Black Bears are beginning to emerge from their winter sleep around the beginning of March, and they are hungry. You would be too if you’d been living off your stored body fat for months! Birdseed is a delectable and calorie-dense treat for hungry bears and they have excellent memories, so if you live in an area with bears, you might want to take down your bird feeders before the bears find them.
Unfortunately, conflicts between people and bears are becoming more commonplace as land is developed in or near bears’ preferred habitats. As black bears lose their preferred feeding and denning sites to development, they must move greater distances to find food (and often in residential areas). Learn more about bears on our website, including how to keep them away and what to do should you encounter one.
Among the earliest of spring migrants, Killdeer arrive as early as late-February in exceptionally warm years. No, they’re not raptors despite their fierce-sounding name. A member of the plover family, Killdeer are one species of shorebird you don’t need to go to the beach to enjoy; listen for the shrill kill-deer, kill-deer call for which they are named (earlier names included Chattering Plover and Noisy Plover) in fields and pastures, and on playgrounds, lawns, unpaved driveways, beach dunes, and other open areas.
Killdeer have distinctive color markings: tawny-colored on top and white below, with two black bands across the breast (although juveniles only have one), and black and white patches marking the face, including a black streak that runs through their large eyes. The rusty-colored rump is more visible when the bird is in flight or during a distraction display: When a parent Killdeer (either on a nest or herding young) feels threatened, it will fan its tail, exposing the red rump, and lurch around feigning injury to draw the potential predator away from the nest or young. Talk about protective parents!
Although they won’t visit your backyard feeder, keep an eye out for Killdeer in large lawns and fields where they often forage for insects on the ground and may even dig their shallow nests in the bare ground.
February marks the beginning of the breeding season for coyotes in Massachusetts. Coyotes are resourceful, often misunderstood creatures who have successfully adapted to areas altered by people, meaning they are able to survive in the forests and fields of rural Massachusetts as well as the suburbs of Boston. As omnivores and opportunists, they’ll eat just about anything from mammals to insects to nuts to fruit, depending on the season and food availability. They are an important part of the food web, helping to control rodents and other pests as well as mitigating deer overpopulation that can ravage local ecosystems.
Sightings of eastern coyotes in suburbia can create concerns about peoples’ safety in their backyards, but coyotes are wary animals who will avoid people at all costs (except in very rare cases involving rabies infection, which can affect behavior). It’s important to keep things in perspective: Coyote attacks on humans are so rare in Massachusetts that during the last 60 years, there have been fewer than 15 confirmed attacks. A little common sense and a few simple precautions are all it takes to ensure you and your loved ones (including pets) stay safe:
Never, ever approach or attempt to feed a coyote.
Secure your garbage and pet food inside to prevent easy access.
Keep your pets indoors and on a leash when outside.
Should you encounter a coyote, retreat slowly and make lots of noise to scare it away.
Although coyotes are susceptible to the rabies virus, it is still quite rare. If you notice a wild animal behaving strangely, contact your local police department. If you suspect you have been exposed to rabies, seek medical attention immediately.
Except in extremely rare instances, people have nothing to fear from coyotes. In fact, they should be celebrated for the role they play as a top predator in our local web of life. Here are five photos of coyotes from our annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest to honor these handsome native canines.
The Snow Bunting is the quintessential winter songbird visitor: they breed in the Arctic in summer, making their nests in the rocky tundra, and only visit Massachusetts when they “fly south” for the winter. In fact, their breeding range is so far north that it exceeds that of all other North American passerines (“passerine” is a large order of birds that is mostly defined by feet adapted for perching, which includes all songbirds).
This beautiful coastal and grassland bird is a regular migrant and winter visitor in Massachusetts, but individuals can be difficult to spot as they are extremely well camouflaged against the ground and snow. Your best bet for an encounter is to look in wide-open fields with plenty of crop stubble to hide in, among sand dunes along the coast, or along lake or ocean shores where debris piles up along the waterline. Race Point in Provincetown, on Cape Cod, is a popular place for spotting Snow Buntings. And, of course, you should consider joining a naturalist-led birding program for even more opportunities to spot these and other winter visitors throughout Massachusetts.
In addition to having the distinction of being the official emblem of the United States, Bald Eagles are also one of the great conservation success stories. Once considered a rare breeder in the state, reintroduction efforts have been successful enough that Bald Eagles are seen with increasing frequency year-round in Massachusetts and the number of nesting eagles continues to rise each year.
When ice forms on interior lakes, Bald Eagles move to river mouths along the coast where they can fish in the open water. The mouth of the Merrimack often has a number of wintering eagles, which is why the Merrimack River Eagle Festival, co-hosted by Mass Audubon’s Joppa Flats Education Center and Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, takes place in mid-February.
You’ll find ample opportunities to spot Bald Eagles both during the festival and during any number of eagle programs in your area, but until then, here are five photos of eagles in winter from our annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest for you to enjoy.
Northern Cardinals. Blue Jays. American Goldfinches. You expect to see these birds during the winter. But birds like the American Robin and the Hermit Thrush catch many New Englanders off guard this time of year. After all, shouldn’t they be sunning themselves down south?
Not necessarily. According to Joan Walsh, Mass Audubon’s Bertrand Chair of Field Ornithology and Natural History, many traditionally migratory birds are sticking around, possibly due to increasing temperatures and a more readily available food source (i.e., berries)—a trend that’s been increasing over the last 40 years. And, in some cases, we humans have contributed to the number of birds seen this time of year.
Though quiet as a mouse in winter, the Hermit Thrush is full of song in spring. In fact, you’re likely to hear this small, olive-brown-colored forest dweller long before you see him. Considered by many to be the finest songster in North America, the Hermit Thrush utters a song that consists of a series of ethereal flutelike phrases.
It may be a few months before you hear the fabled “American Nightengale” sing its sweet song, but if you’re lucky and attentive, you can hit the trail to spot this bird: Hermit Thrushes prefer secluded woodland habitats, from the damp mixed forests of western Massachusetts to dry pine barrens along the coast. Common characteristics of their nesting areas are a dense understory (think saplings and shrubs) and an abundance of evergreens.
Enjoy these five photos of Hermit Thrushes from our annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest, and if you haven’t yet, check out this year’s photo contest winners!
American Minks are members of the weasel family, averaging between 2 and 3.5 pounds, smaller than some of their cousins, Fishers and River Otters, but larger than others, such as ermine or long-tailed weasels.
They share many traits with otters, including webbed feet and a coating of oil to keep their fur waterproof. They are also semi-aquatic and carnivorous, eating mostly muskrats, fish, frogs, snakes, and small mammals. But unlike the more social otters, minks are loners and typically only meet up to breed and then part ways. They seem to share a bit of the otters’ playfulness, however, and can be spotted pushing through the snow or sliding down snow-covered slopes on their bellies. If you’re lucky enough to spot a mink in wintertime, it will likely be at dawn or dusk, as they are “crepuscular.”
Enjoy these five photos of minks from our annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest and check out the recently announced winners of the 2019 photo contest on our website!
With our first major statewide snowstorm behind us, winter has certainly arrived in Massachusetts. The shoveling, snow blowing, and slippery driving conditions may not be ideal, but there’s nothing like a fresh blanket of snow to bring out the beauty of nature in winter.