Sunday, May 15, 2016

Spring Warblers at Hall's Pond

Black-and-white Warbler
 After learning that Haynes found a Cape May Warbler, along with many others, I decided to finally explore Hall's Pond and Amory Woods in Brookline. The fact that I often go right by the park on my way to work and a Cape May Warbler would be a life bird, made this stop earlier this week a no-brainer.

Before I even left the parking lot I spotted a Common Yellowthroat, Ovenbird, White-crowned Sparrow, and of course some of the obligate residents like robins. I quickly discovered that this small strip of woods and pond is a fantastic migrant trap, which of course plenty of others already knew.

Slowly over the course of the morning my foggy bird-song memory started to come back as I was able to become reacquainted with warbler songs and their local dialects. Eventually I was able to add to my warbler list with: N. Waterthrush, N. Parula, Magnolia, Yellow, Black-throated Greens, Black-throated Blues, and Yellow-rumps.

Despite all the colors and songs, my favorite warbler of the morning was this little Black-and-White male. I initially identified him from his repetitive, squeaky, two-noted "wheeza-wheeza-wheeza" song. But he was singing beyond the fence and in someone's backyard. With some patience and lucky, he eventually took an interest in me and he spent about a minute flying around me trying to figure me out. At one point he stopped on this branch and held stock still allowing for some decent photos even in the shaded undergrowth.

As he flew off and began singing again, I ran into another birder who had just seen the Cape May. Following directions I headed back to where the bird was seen. I searched in vain for another 30 minutes as no hint of the bird appeared. My conciliatory finding was a ghostly Veery silently skulking in deep shadows, always just out of direct line of view. I will have to wait for another day to find a Cape May Warbler.

A noon-time stroll in Newton Cemetery today was short on warblers but full of singing Baltimore Orioles. Given the lateness of the walk most of the birds were the usual suspects, though a E. Kingbird was a pleasant find as was a tree with an entire flock of Cedar Waxwings!

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Elusive Snowy Owl and the Unexpected Grasshopper Sparrow

Grasshopper Sparrow
 On Saturday night I saw an email from the Boston Birds group about a sighting of a Snowy Owl at Millennium Park! So I thought it would be fun to try and find it Sunday morning and was able to convince the little one, who kept saying "maybe snowy owl", to join me for the walk. While we were unsuccessful at finding a Snowy Owl (the park is likely too heavily used for a Snowy to stick around. We did however run into Matt Garvey who mentioned that he had just spotted a Grasshopper Sparrow in with the flock of American Tree Sparrows in front of us. We looked and couldn't find it, but on our way back to the car we passed the same spot and this time were able to find the Grasshopper Sparrow!

I was pretty excited to add this to my Massachusetts list! I've heard lots of them out in the midwest before and even caught a very short glimpse of one, but here at Millennium Park this bird was feeding out in the open and giving ample opportunity to observe it. I even snapped a picture, but due to the low light and wiggle child on my back, non of the images came out very crisp, but at least its a record shot.

I hope you all have a great holiday season and a happy New Years!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Nighthawks Over Newton

Common Nighthawk
 Things have been busy this summer and I haven't had much opportunity to get out for some birding. But so far this summer has been a great one for Common Nighthawks. Last year I don't think I found any, but this year has been a different story as I've often heard their "pent" calls from a open window or while walking. In the last month though I've seen quite a few as they fly over the yard (and numerous other Newton locations) at dusk. I'm not sure why, but these Nighthawks always make me really happy. Maybe its because I'm rarely birding when I find them, so they are just an unexpected bonus.

I took a walk at Mass Audubon's Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary today, much too late for serious birding (but blue jays were the biggest hit with my hiking companion). The weather was perfect and the scenery was fantastic. Back in the woods I caught a loose warbled song that was likely a Pine Warbler, a not so subtle reminder that Fall migration is here and I aught to get out birding more!

Friday, August 1, 2014

Osprey Over Hammond Pond

Hammond Pond

Eastern Kingbird
 Last weekend while running errands in Chestnut Hill, I decided to check out Hammond Pond (without my main camera) and see if there were any shorebirds around the pond. I was not disappointed as I quickly found some very vocal and active Spotted Sandpipers chasing each other around. They were the only shorebirds, but it is probably early yet for the handful of others that frequent the pond. Additional highlights included a number of Green Herons that could be seen in the shallows around the pond. Up in the trees an Eastern Kingbird was so busy bringing a fledgling food, that they didn't mind me and I received some great views. And as I was leaving an Osprey made an appearance over the pond. This was only my 2nd sighting of an Osprey at Hammond Pond and 4th record in eBird, so it is always nice to see one. I actually just realized while putting this post together that the Osprey is visible as a small dark speck in the picture of the pond.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Photographing Piping Plovers and Least Terns at Dawn

Piping Plover
 I know its been a while since the last post and this isn't Newton birding, but I hope the images will make up for it. I had a photography class with Michael Milicia back in the spring on camera operation and exposure settings and our second class was supposed to be a field session photographing Piping Plover chicks and Least Terns in early June. But instead we spent all of June getting this trip up to the North Shore rained out and rescheduled, so I was excited when we finally caught a break in weather and schedules on July 2nd when it looked to be a great day for weather. But before I go into the details on the trip, I first wanted to offer a little information on the conservation status of these two species.

Both species are protected in Massachusetts and the Piping Plover is listed as threatened at the federal level. In addition to nesting on the sandy beaches of the East Coast, both birds also nest along sand bars and beaches of the major rivers and great lakes. And these interior population of both birds are listed as endangered. So how did these birds get into such dire straits? Both species are beautiful and their feathers were highly prized in the 19th century as fashion accessories in lady's hats. So we killed them, and lots of them. In Massachusetts, the Least Terns bottomed out at only 250 pairs at the turn of the 20 century. After this both birds ran into the same trouble, their breeding habitat on sandy beaches is also highly prized for development and recreational use. A trip to the beach is the quintessential summer vacation regardless of whether it is a day trip, hotel, or vacation house. This all led to the 1980's when the Piping Plovers hit a low of only 800 breeding pairs for the Atlantic Coast.

Least Tern Chick and Adult
Fortunately, due to the tireless efforts of conservationists and conscientious beach-goers, their populations have rebounded. Here in Massachusetts, we have some of the largest populations of Piping Plovers on the Atlantic Coast, with almost 500 breeding pairs as of 2005. And the Least Terns in the state are back up to 2,500 breeding pairs. But there is still lots of work to do as development and people further encroach upon their habitat and predators (like crows and gulls) decimate eggs and chicks. (Numbers from Wikipedia and

My first encounter with a Piping Plover was actually recounted in this blog, where I found a couple early in the season after they had just migrated. Though Least Tern are often found at Belle Isle Marsh, I've always thought they were much more fun to watch than the Common Terns. So when Michael suggesting these two species as photography subjects I was thrilled.

Sunrise over the Atlantic

Though I was less thrilled at 3am when my alarm went off. The goal was to be down on the beach and set up for sunrise, which offers a warmer gentler light that photographers crave. But standing on the beach at 5am with the smell of salt and the sun just creeping up over the ocean was a sight to behold. And to top it off, we were surrounded by plovers, terns, and Willets! The plovers were harder to see, being so well camouflaged, while the terns were easy to spot as they were flying all over the place.

In the back of my mind I kept thinking about whether or not my actions were disturbing the birds, or not. Because even before the photography, we wanted to make sure that we didn't cause harm or distress to the birds. One thing I was amazed about was how small and aggressive Least Terns can be. I've always seen them at a distance on their hunting grounds, not near a nesting location. Even when we were walking well away form the roped-off areas with the chicks and nests, they would dive-bomb our heads (I never knew they had partially webbed feet before!). But as soon as we would lay down, they stopped being alarmed and ignored us instead. Adults would even land just a few yards away. Later we saw one of the researchers checking on nests in the roped off area, he was carrying a tall pole to prevent the terns from attacking him. Apparently they attack the tallest point (e.g. you head or pole) and are quite able to draw blood if they think you are too close. But in addition to our own skin, it was important to prevent the parents from being so stressed that they abandon their nest or chicks.

Least Tern
The other thing that helped in not stressing the birds was a lens rental. For this event I decided to make the most of the trip by abandoning my 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 zoom lens and renting a 300mm f4 and 1.4x teleconverter for the day from Lens Pro To Go. Which had the added benefit of increased focal length (magnification) at 420mm (630mm equivalent due to my 1.5x crop factor sensor) and better image sharpness. So we could stay further away, and get better images.

I had a blast crawling around in the sand and having a front row seat to the lives of the Piping Plovers and Least Terns. Add to that the challenge of trying to capture all that beauty in the single press of the shutter definitely made it lots of fun, though may have made me less aware of the moment itself focusing on the camera so much.

Piping Plover Chick
The Piping Plovers hunt visually for food, scurrying up and down the sand, looking for small invertebrates to eat as their short beaks aren't good for probing far into the sand. The parents don't even feed their chicks as they are able to forage within hours of hatching. Instead, after hatching the parent's primary role is to protect the chicks from the elements and from predators. The former is easily accomplished by brooding, where all the chicks run up to the parent and get tucked under-wing, helps keep a chick warm and dry. For a great example of brooding, check out the second picture on Michael Milicia's website. And for predators, the parents act as a decoy to draw the attention away from the chicks, who's first line defense is actually amazing camouflage against the sand.

Piping Plover Chick
We actually saw both defense mechanisms at work, with parents drawing our attention away from the chicks and we never had a prayer of finding a chick until it moved. My Piping Plovers pictures turned out much better for the adults, as the chicks are challenging, especially when they aren't brooding and have the safety of a parent nearby. The young chicks look like cotton balls on toothpicks and once we found them, they were busy feeding and never stopped. We found chicks that varied in age from just a few days old, to almost fledged, so it was interesting to see the transition all in one morning.

After first focusing on the plovers, we turned our attention to the terns. Least Tern chicks share the camouflage against the sand as a defense mechanism. I even saw a couple of chicks "flop" onto their chins and they immediately disappeared against the sand, just another wind swept mound of sand. Once or twice an adult would give a warning note and the chicks would scamper as fast as they could back up the beach towards the nests. Unlike the plovers, the Least Terns need to actively feed their chicks, as they won't be able to fish until they can fly. So several times we witnessed adults flying in with small fish that were passed off to the chicks, who swallowed them whole, even when the fish was the same length as the chick!

Least Tern Feeding a Chick
While the plovers were spread out, with each pair having staked out an area, the terns are more colony nesters, meaning we got to witness much more interaction between them as the adults would also squabble amongst themselves.

As the sun rose in the sky making the light harsher, more people began to appear at the beach, though fortunately those walking near the plovers gave the families a wide birth, careful not to disturb them. Eventually, we decided to call it a day around 9am, after more than 4 wonderful hours photographing and watching the birds. In reflection, when birding I often hunt around for more species, but on this day, the goal was to capture a few moments from the lives of the Piping Plovers and Least Terns. So I spent more time with them than I ever would have birding, not to mention laying down on the sand, to see the world from their perspective. And I have some fun photographs to help remember the day.

Area of beach with nesting Piping Plovers and Least Terns

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Shorebirds and a Surprise at Belle Isle Marsh

Black-bellied Plover
 I headed out to Belle Isle Marsh in Boston for Memorial Day morning birding. It had been a while since I had been birding away from Newton and Belle Isle Marsh offered a change of scenery and habitat with the bonus of shorebirds and terns that don't frequent our parks. The sky was gray and overcast with a light drizzle, but I figured the shorebirds wouldn’t be too deterred by a little rain. (Sorry about the pictures, these birds were way out there.

One of the first finds was a female American Redstart who was singing, which I wasn't expecting. When I got out towards the marsh, the bright white Snowy Egrets were easy to pick out, but then more movement became evident and revealed Black-bellied Plovers, Semipalmated Plovers and some peeps. When planes flew over Belle Isle for their approach to Logan, the shorebirds would startle and fly around before resettling. During one of these games of musical chairs, I was able to find a few Short-billed Dowitchers. Their burgundy breasts and long bills made them stick out from the Black-bellied Plovers (notice the black "armpit" on the plovers in flight). Another airplane and subsequent round of musical chairs revealed a couple of Willets, with large amounts of white in their wings.

One of my major reasons for coming were the terns, and both Common and Least Terns
Black-bellied Plovers and Short-billed Dowitchers
put on quite a show, hovering and plunge diving into the salt pans to catch fish. The tide was actually quite high and provided ample water near the paths so they were relatively close to watch. Unfortunately their small size and fast flight made a mockery of my photographic attempts. The terns were also joined in their fishing endeavor by an Osprey. I usually think of terns as much more elegant when fishing with their tucked-wing plunge-dives, while Ospreys are the awkward uncoordinated cousin just haphazardly splashing I to the water. But yesterday I got to see some elegant fishing from the Osprey who swooped low over the pans and snatched a fish in flight. 

While I was out on the main platform watching the march, it decided to rain in earnest, so I tucked my camera under my rain jacket and thought it might be time to head out. As I left the platform an American Kestrel tore off over my head, she was carrying prey and being mobbed by song birds, but I was still excited to have my 2nd Kestrel in MA.

Short-billed Dowitchers
I thought I’d check one last pool on my way back to the parking lot. As I went down the little path to the small cement overlook, a small bird lifted off from the reeds. All at once a couple of visual cues impinged upon my brain. Really small heron shape, buffy / caramel colored body and wings, patches of greenish-blue on back and wings. Before I had even processed all the individual pieces, the ID came to the front of my mind. Least Bittern! What kind of crazy luck was that!

The first time I had visited Belle Isle March, I had been informed that it was a good place to find Least Bitterns. But slowly through subsequent visits I’d all but given up hope of ever finding one. While they may be relatively common in suitable habitat, they are notorious for their secretive habits and are hard to find, let alone actually see. Fortunately we here in Boston have several good locations for Least Bittern with Belle Isle Marsh, Great Meadows in Concord, and of course Plum Island. But you never know, in January of 2012 there was a sighting of a Least Bittern in Newton just south of Nahanton Park.

After the Least Bittern I decided birding in the rain wasn’t so bad and tacked on a Willow Flycatcher, but my day was already made.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Houghton Gardens: The Warbler Rest Stop

Female Northern Parula
Sorry for this late post, things have been busy.

At the end of last week, I stopped by Houghton Gardens and Hammond Pond. I have always though that Houghton Gardens would be a great place for warblers, so when I read a report from Marygrace that included a Prairie Warbler, I figure this was be a great time to see Houghton Garden’s Potential.

It really was a good day for warblers. Singing Blackpolls, Black-throated Greens, and Black-throated Blues, and Black-and-whites greeted me. A Northern Parula was spotted working a spider web. I couldn't decide if she was looking for bugs caught in the web,
American Bullfrog
or if she was gathering it for nesting material, though the later seems unlikely. If you look closely in the picture you should be able to see the spider webs. High in the canopy I eventually tracked down two songsters to reveal Magnolia and Chestnut-sided Warblers. I thought I might hear a Blackburnian song, but had trouble tracking it down. If an American Redstart wasn't nearby, I would have been more confident of a heard only identification. Though while searching for the singer I startled an Ovenbird. Through in a Pine Warbler, a Yellow-rumped Warbler, and a Yellow Warbler and you get quite  a good density of warblers in the tiny Houghton Gardens.

Common Yellowthroat
The diversity of plants and dense brush must make Houghton an ideal road-side rest stop on their northward migration. Just across the tracks into Webster Woods behind Hammond Pond and the spacing between trees is great, the understory is more open, and a veritable desert to the warblers. They all seem to have decided that Houghton Gardens was the place to be. Though I was able to add Cedar Waxwing, Common Yellowthroat, and a Wilson's Warbler to the morning, just so that Hammond Pond could redeem itself.