Sunday, December 30, 2012

Red and White-winged Crossbills at the Kennedy Library

Red Crossbill - Female
 This is supposed to be an irruption year for boreal finches as these birds are leaving their normal ranges due to crop failure and are foraging far and wide hoping find better food sources. So far, the best evidence of an irruption that I have witnessed, comes from a great upswing in red-breasted nuthatches, who rely on similar seed crops as the finches. I have tried this month to explore some of the local spots for irruptive finches but so far have been unsuccessful, though I heard that Haynes had some Pine Siskins at his feeders.

So I decided if the finches weren’t coming to Newton, I was going to have to go to them. So I headed to the John F. Kennedy Library where there have been sightings of large numbers of white-winged crossbills and a few red crossbills. Besides, I told myself, even if there aren’t any crossbills, I will at least be able to enjoy the saltwater loving birds in the harbor.

This first thing I found when I arrived at the library was another birder who had been tracking a flock of white-winged crossbills. We started making our way down the row of Japanese black pines by the entrance to the library, when a bird came up behind us with that big unmistakable crossbill! The next thing that jumped out at me was that this drab gray-green bird was much smaller than I expected (crossbills are completely new to me) and secondly, she didn’t have white wing bars. A female red crossbill! We kept following her as she picked over the pine cones until she led us right into a whole flock of white-winged crossbills.

White-winged Crossbill - Male
The female white-winged crossbills looked similar to the red crossbill but the white wing bars were quite obvious and they also had streaking on their flanks that the red crossbill lacked. Just then a bright red male flew down to the ground. He was totally splendid with black wings with white stripes and his torso seeming as though it was brushed in a vibrant pinkish-red powder. I latter learned that when they molt in the fall, the white-winged males have unpigmented barbules on the red feathers that cause them to appear pink. As the feathers wear, the barbules are lost leaving them a bright red in the spring and summer. Unfortunately none of my photos did the male justice.

White-winged Crossbill - Female
The crossbills all seemed to be pretty tame and unconcerned about the two birders that were watching them, allowing us a great opportunity to observe them. They seemed to be always moving, either from perch to pine cone, or actively feeding and never pausing even for a second. One of the favorite feeding positions seemed to be hanging upside down while extracting seeds from the cones. Often times the red crossbill would be feeding on a pine cone adjacent to a white-winged crossbill. Apparently crossbills are very efficient at extracting seeds as the curved beak acts as a lever when twisted under a pine cone scale allowing them to grab the seed. There is an excellent video from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology about white-winged crossbills feeding that I will include below.

Red Crossbill - Female
After about 40 minutes of observing these wonderful crossbills, some of the white-wings started to leave the area. Slowly the crossbills all seemed to fade into the pines. Until at the very end I was left with the female red crossbill sitting and calling goodbye at the top of a pine, before she too flew off to join her flock. Then the snow started to fall.

1/6/2013 Update: See the second post regarding identification of red crossbill types, including this crossbill as a type 3. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Feeder report

A 20 minute feeder watch on Dec 22, here in Newton Center, yielded 15 species:

Mourning Dove  5
Red-bellied Woodpecker  1     m
Downy Woodpecker  2
Blue Jay  2
Black-capped Chickadee  2
Tufted Titmouse  4
Red-breasted Nuthatch  2
White-breasted Nuthatch  3
Carolina Wren  1
White-throated Sparrow  1
Dark-eyed Junco (Slate-colored)  4
Northern Cardinal  1     m
House Finch  1
American Goldfinch  4
House Sparrow  9

This brings together the crew that's been around for about a month. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Flight of the Northern Shovelers

Northern Shovelers
 I really wanted to join the Christmas Bird Count this year (see Suzette's post), but unfortunately knew that I wasn't going to be able to. So I started this weekend thinking there wasn't going to be any birding. But after dropping a sick pet off at the vet early this morning I couldn't resist taking a lap around Chestnut Hill Reservoir to clear my mind.

Upon arriving I quickly noted many gulls, Canada geese, ruddy ducks, common mergansers and hooded mergansers. But before I had even started walking around the pond, a pair of ducks caught my eye, as no one other than the northern shoveler has the green head, white breast, and chestnut sides! I haven't seen any this close to Newton so I was very excited. I made my way around the reservoir also noting mourning doves, golden-crowned kinglets, a downy, a titmouse, a hermit thrush, and even a brown creeper. The creeper has eluded me since moving here, so apparently I had to stop looking for them to find one. I have frequently heard them calling, but this was the first time in years I had gotten to see one!

I worked my way to the shore nearest the shovelers to get good views of them and was able to just make out the large trademark bill. I also tried to take a picture with my phone through my binoculars. At least I think its good enough to identify them! As I carried on around the water, I added goldfinch, white- and red-breasted nuthatches, a lone pied-billed grebe, and a handful of house sparrows to my list before heading out.

I quickly learned that this is the first ebird report of nothern shovelers at Chestnut Hill Reservoir and then a few hours later saw the first ebird report of shovelers at Hammond Pond. I then checked a little more carefully and saw that the shovelers were no longer being seen at the reservoir and so it seems likely that the same pair probably moved over to Hammond Pond! Maybe they were visiting the redheads. I'll be curious to see how long the northern shovelers might stay with us.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Redhead Ducks at Hammond Pond

Redhead Ducks
 While I had already posted about the redhead ducks at Hammond Pond, I wanted to try and find them as well. For my first attempt several weeks ago, I arrived too late at the pond and the light was starting to fail, so even if they were there I wouldn't have been able to see them at the far side of the pond. But my second trip was a success!

At the overlook by the Container Store, I could initially only make out our resident common and hooded mergansers diving at the far end of the pond. The flashing white of the male mergansers probably helped to draw my eye. Soon after, I was able to see between the mergansers and finally spotted four redheads (2 males and 2 females) in the far corner.

Hooded Mergansers
At this point in time, several other birders showed up to view these uncommon ducks and fortunately they had a scope and were kind enough to allow me views of the action. I have always been concerned that it would be difficult to tell canvasbacks and redheads apart, but these weren't that challenging to identify. The back is grayer and the head more rounded than a canvasback. However, the best give away for me was the blue-gray bill and black tip while the canvasback has an all black bill. Redheads primarily breed in the Western US, including the prairie pothole region of the upper Midwest and Canada and while some birds winter along the Eastern seaboard, they tend not travel as far up the coast as Massachusetts. So we are quite lucky that these individuals decided to stop at Hammond Pond. Others have reported up to five redheads, so does that mean that the third female was hiding in the back corner of the pond or did she find another local pond to visit?

As we were watching the redheads, they started to slowly work their way to the west, all the while diving to feed. At this point I headed over to the overview at the DCR parking lot and found a few mallards and ring-billed gulls while a flock of Canada geese passed overhead. From this vantage point, I was able to stand hidden behind a tree to get great views (and pictures) of the redheads and hooded mergansers. Between the redheads and the Eurasian teal, we sure are lucky with our visiting waterfowl.


Monday, December 10, 2012

Recurring Eurasian Green-winged Teals at Newton City Hall

Green-winged Teal (American)
 Yesterday I headed over to Newton City Hall for a little birding of its small habitat. At just under 4 acres, the stream and trees make up probably the most productive small habitat for birding in Newton. In the summer the little mudflats are a really good bet for solitary sandpipers and slightly less frequently spotted sandpipers. In the winter the mudflats are flooded and are popular with waterfowl that love shallow muddy habitats, like hooded mergansers.

This visit though was inspired by ebird reports of an Eurasian green-winged teal and a few of its American cousins. While the Eurasian and the American green-winged teals were once two separate species, they are currently considered subtypes. Even still, the allure of seeing the rare Eurasian counterpart drew me to city hall.

Green-winged Teal (Eurasian)
The first finds were song and white-throated sparrows, then as I crossed one of the little footbridges, I saw a mallard pair that dwarfed a nearby group of teals. This was a strong reminder that the green-winged teal is our smallest dabbling duck. I quickly searched the 8 ducks looking for the vertical or horizontal white stripes that are the best discerning feature for the American and Eurasian subtypes. I was a little disappointed to see that all of the males had the vertical line of the American type. But I was quickly seeing the silver lining with the closest views I've had to date with green-winged teals. The males (and the females) were even showing off for me by flashing their namesake iridescent green wing patches as they swam, fed, and preened.

Red-breasted Nuthatch
Soon I decided I needed to keep searching the area for other residents.  A red-breasted nuthatch was working a tree right by the path, but was so fast I could hardly keep the manual focus of the camera on her. I kept working my way around the ponds keeping an eye out for the Eurasian. In the mean time I found a flock of turkeys, cardinals, house sparrows, house finches, chickadees, a white-breasted nuthatch, a mockingbird, and a red-tail floating lazily overhead.

By the time I made a complete circuit of the area, I saw a lone teal. And this one did not have the vertical white stripe! Finally the Eurasian teal revealed. He must have been hiding my first time around. I snapped some pictures before I realized that this teal did not have a horizontal stripe either. I kept following watching him only to later see that the feathers that make up the white stripe were just hiding, but they were there (second photo). Interestingly, the entire time I watched him, he never associated with the American type teals.

Green-winged Teal (Eurasian)
After getting home I was reading about distinguishing between the American and Eurasian (also known as the common teal in Europe) types from a great article from David Sibley. This Eurasian demonstrated some of these features, having bolder white lines on the face and a grayer less buffy breast. But what really has me stumped is the ebird sightings. Most Eurasian green-winged teals are rare and do not reoccur. Not this bird, or this spot. Between Newton City Hall, Newton Cemetery, and Cold Spring Park, a Eurasian green-winged teal has been seen regularly. Sightings were from Spring 2009 at Cold Spring Park, Winter 2010 at Newton City Hall (There was a blog post from Scott at this time), and now again this Fall 2012 at Newton City Hall. This seems totally strange that Newton should be ground zero for Eurasian green-winged teals. Is this the same bird that is now living here in the US and regularly returns to a favorite spot? Or are we seeing multiple individuals that have all independently decided to grace us with their presence? Most ebird sightings that I see have Eurasian teals that were seen for a month or two in a given spot. And that is it. To have such regular sightings seems the exception, where we are seeing (the?) Eurasian teals for 1-2 months over 3 of the last 4 years. Will he return next year?
Northern Mockingbird

I have no idea, but this is certainly going to make our winters more interesting and make Newton City Hall a definite spot to check out more regularly. Who knows how long this might continue!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Another Barred Owl

After the last post about the Millinium Park Barred Owl and the Hammond Pond Redheads, I kept thinking about all of the barred owl sightings that have been reported on massbird. With all the barred owls showing up all over Boston, I was thinking that I should remind everyone to keep their eyes and ears out for barred owls as there is a good chance we might find some in Newton.

Typically our most common owls are the eastern screech and great horned owls, while barred owls tend to like larger forested spaces and so are less common in urban or suburban environments. (There are a total of 11 owl species that can be found in MA, with 7 species that breed in the state). in fact, the recent barred owl at Millenium is the first record for that park, even though many great birders frequent that spot. Barred owls still show up regularly in Newton with sightings at Nahanton park (check out Suzette's picture) and I might have caught a brief glimpse of the Cold Spring Park owl that was seen this spring.

This morning was a different story though. I did not get enough sleep last night and one of my pre-sunrise walks around the house resulted in my hearing the strangest sound through a window. I only needed to hear the one utterance to nail down the "who cooks for you, who cooks for you all" distinctive song of the barred owl. This was an exciting find, especially as an accidental yard bird. When I am able to muster up the energy I may head out to see if it isn't roosting nearby. This also now makes 4 owl species for me this year including great horned, eastern screech, snowy, and now the barred. And only the snowy owl from Duxbury was from outside Newton. I still have a ways to go if I want to find all the MA owls, and I hear that the long eared owl is notorious difficult to find. But its been a pretty good year considering I started it at Nahanton Park looking for owls.

P.S. As I was writing this post, a Cooper's hawk crash landed with a somersault over some bushes in the yard. I know birds are amazing fliers, but my amazement at their abilities is at its absolute peak when watching an accipiter in break-neck pursuit of some poor bird.  Her prey escaped and they both headed off down the street before I could even grab binoculars.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Breaking News: Barred Owl and Redheads

I was just reading Massbird and several sightings caught my eye that I wanted to share. A barred owl has been seen at Millenium Park over the last few days (I believe it was originally found my Marry Lou) and is reliably located near the foot bridge over the Saw Mill Brook. Click here for a picture. Then at Hammond Pond several individuals have seen redheads (pictures here) Quite exciting finds around Newton.

I would really like to go find both of these, as I have never actually seen a barred owl (I've only heard them) and this would also be my first for MA. And the readheads would be a lifer for me. Maybe I'll have to see if a can't spare a few minutes this weekend to track down one or the other.

This just serves to remind me of all the great birders around Newton and I would like to make it easier for more people to contribute. So I'm creating a new email address that you can use if you want to share your own sightings.  Please use: wildnewtonblog(at)gmail(dot)com

Dec. 15, 2012 Update. I recently got over to Hammond Pond and was able to see and photograph the redheads in this post.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Mergansers Retern to Hammond Pond

Hooded Mergansers
  I birded around Hammond Pond today a little bit after noon. Definitely not prime birding time, but I was mostly interested in the waterfowl especially as the weather has been getting chillier. I was not disappointed. The hooded mergansers are back and I had fun watching them dive for fish between the mudflats. I think that these have to be one of the most visually striking birds in the states. Another surprise was a young double-crested cormorant sleeping on a mud flat. Also present were a single Canada goose and several mallard pairs. In the back corner I thought I could just make out a common merganser too. More to the woods there were blue jays, chickadees, titmice, juncos, robins and a white-breasted nuthatch. I also got a great close-up view of a gorgeous male downy and his red patch. I also thought I might have heard the three noted "tsee-tsee-tsee" of a golden-crowned kinglet. I am certainly going to enjoy seeing what this winter might bring to our ponds and lakes!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Changing of the guard

At Matt's invitation, I'm posting  a Newton bird sighting list. This is what was around my feeder this morning. No photos, sorry! I was admiring the differences in flight style between the two nuthatches, when a Red-bellied Woodpecker appeared on the tree. After a while it flew off, and was immediately replaced with a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker! I haven't see one of these birds in quite a while. 

Mourning Dove  2
Red-bellied Woodpecker  1     m
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker  1     m
Downy Woodpecker  1
Blue Jay  2
Black-capped Chickadee  4
Tufted Titmouse  4
Red-breasted Nuthatch  2
White-breasted Nuthatch  2
Carolina Wren  1
American Robin  2
Song Sparrow  1
White-throated Sparrow  1
Dark-eyed Junco  4
Northern Cardinal  2
House Finch  1
American Goldfinch  6
House Sparrow  9

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Post-Sandy Yard Birds

As hurricane Sandy approached, many birders were thinking about searching for sea birds blown north by the storm. I on the other hand was just busy battening down the hatches. I spent most the day inside and peeked out a few times. Early on, before the winds got too strong, there was an intrepid mockingbird guarding the locust tree and chasing off the few sparrows that ventured out. Later on, I was looking out of the windows and startled a few robins, who were hunkering down in the bushes under the window.

White-throated Sparrow
 The morning after Sandy, I slept in a little before venturing out to check out the damage. We were fortunate enough (this time anyway) not to have a single branch down or shingle out of place. But I was mostly amazed at the tremendous amount of bird activity. They all must have been blown off course or were starving after riding out the storm. I could hear song fragments of white-throated and song sparrows, so I wonder if these were males born this spring practicing their craft. I even caught a glimpse of a beautiful white-throated sparrow specimen with very clean white, crisp black, and a bright yellow lore spot (unfortunately not the one I got a picture of). A family of chickadees and a white-breasted nuthatch worked the cedar trees, while the white pines sported some starlings, and to my surprise, two male red-winged blackbirds, a first in the yard. I was at first skeptical, as they were so high up, but I caught glimpses of colored patches on the wing, so who else could it have been? In the shrubs I found a cardinal, blue jay, and house sparrows, while down in the grass there were a few robins and juncos. Just as I was heading off to work, a mockingbird flew overhead, so I knew that she at least made it safely through the storm.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Small Earthquake

Looks like we just had a small earthquake in New England.
And I thought earthquakes were why I moved to MA instead of the west coast!

Wednesday Update: here is a link to an article from NPR.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Birds, Blogs, and Windows

Since starting this blog I have been searching for more local birding blogs. One of my favorites that I have found is Circling the Smiling Pond. I thought it would be nice to share this blog with you in lieu of my own adventures which have been sorely lacking. This blog frequently explores the Charles River Peninsula and other areas in Needham and further afield as well. Two of the author's recent posts have been about birds and window strikes (a downy, and a pine warbler) and made me remember that NPR recently had some articles on the danger that windows pose for birds and how to mitigate them:

How Glass Kills Birds
How to Make a Bird Friendly Building
Architects Aim for Safer Skies

This particularly makes me thing of the construction at the Hammond Pond shopping area and it makes me shudder to think about how many birds we will loose if these new buildings have lots of glass and don't take into consideration our migrating friends. My only experience so far with window fatalities was a dead cuckoo in the parking garage of my former job. A 12 story glass building was immediately adjacent and must have proffered the offending window.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Praying Mantis

This morning I was walking to work in Newton when something flying caught my eye.  It had the look of a very large but skinny insect. I stepped closer to get get a better look as this fine specimen climbed up a shrub on improbably long and skinny legs.

After getting some pictures I tried to discover more about this preying mantis. While I am certainly no expert on insects a little hunting around online led me to believe that this was a Chinese Mantis. Apparently preying mantis is the common term for all mantids, of which there are several thousand species. The Chinese mantis was introduced to the US in 1895 for pest control and is now established in the northeast as the largest mantid we will find. The mantis has sharp spines on its forelegs that it uses to catch prey. The craziest thing that I learned was that there has even been a documentation of a one of these Chinese mantids catching a hummingbird, though probably rare occurrence.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Plovers, Sandpipers, and Herons at Hammond Pond

White-breasted Nuthatch
 I've already mentioned the spotted sandpipers that frequent Hammond Pond, but I wanted to head back and see if I could find more shorebirds. One of the effects of the eutrophication of Hammond Pond is that there are some very shallow mud banks where silt and run off are beginning to fill in the pond. When the water level is low, has happens frequently in late summer, the mud flats are exposed, making this a great stopping point for migrating shorebirds. While eutrophication may not be good for the health of the pond, it does have a nice side effect for birders.

On my recent visit to Hammond pond I caught a number of Canada geese and a few mallards before I could faintly make out a green heron across the pond. In the parking lot I made out some white breasted nuthatches, chickadees, and a goldfinch.  At the  overlook on the North side of the pond, I could make out no fewer than three green herons and a great blue. On the mudflats to the east there were several killdeer making a ruckus. My pictures of the shorebirds all turned out horrible due to the glaring sun and distance. A few spotted sandpipers were working the lily pads and mud flats and occasionally flew around the pond in search of a new foraging area. But then I noticed maybe five small sandpipers that were dwarfed by the killdeer. I think they were least sandpipers, but I have trouble identifying peeps (and other shorebirds for that matter). In a previous summer I even caught a semipalmated plover which was quite a surprise. For me these shorebirds may be some of the best in Newton (though I haven't fully explored the purgatory cove area much...) making Hammond Pond fun birding spot in the late summer and early fall.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Black-bellied Whistling-duck of Great Meadows

Black-bellied Whistling-duck
 It has been too long since I got out for some serious birding. I decided that my first trip out on Sept 1st should be to Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, Concord Unit. (There is also a really great blog about Great Meadows with useful information.) While not in Newton, Great Meadows is about a 30 minute drive from Newton and is one of the closest major birding spots in our area with lots of waterfowl and other water loving birds.

In July a couple of black-bellied whistling-ducks showed up at great meadows and drew a lot of attention. The northern edge of this whistling-ducks' range is the very southern tip of Texas, so having one show up in MA was quite a treat. I had seen a few weeks ago that the whistling-duck was still hanging around and thought I'd make Great Meadows my destination and see if the whistling-duck wasn't hanging around.

Great Egret in the American Lotus
Upon arriving at at the Great Meadows parking lot, I instantly heard cedar waxwings, catbirds, a Carolina wren, and robins. Then as I made my way down the dike path between the two pools I could start to make out some herons. When I was finally able to see between the cattails I could make out great blue herons, great egrets, a snowy egret, and a whole mess of canada geese. (The snowy egret is rather unusual for this location.) While I was watching the herons another birder said that there was a really rare duck just further up the path, and so I headed that way thinking of the black-bellied whistling-duck. 

Carpenter Bee and Evening Primrose
I was in luck, the whistling-duck was up on a muskrat lodge in easy viewing distance from the trail. I tried to catch some pictures and got some that were good enough to show him off. But I soon realized that the other photographers were getting far better shots with their better equipment (if you would like to see some better pictures check them out at this blog).  I was still excited to take what pictures I could and to have such great views of the bright red-orange bill and white eye-ring. At first he was sleeping, then he stood up for a little while before flying into the water next to a pair of black ducks, probably foraging time. While watching the whistling-duck, I also spotted some wood ducks and mallards. The water was quite low in the pools so there didn't seem to be as much activity as there could have been.

Common Whitetail Dragonfly
Further along the dike, there was a painted turtle sitting on a leaf of an American Lotus and a large variety of dragonflies hovering over the path. I heard a pair of warbling vireos in the trees by the river while there was a large flock of red-wing blackbirds over the cattails of the upper pool. My last two good finds of the day were an osprey flying over the pines to the east and an accipiter who flew about 10 feet away from my head as I stood in wonder watching as she headed into the trees.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Owl and the Nuthatch

These were certainly an odd pair of birds for accidental sightings within 12 hours.

Last night I was relaxing beside an open window enjoying our current cool night air when the insect chorus was joined by a new songster. This was a rolling whistle and it took me a minute to recognize it for the "whinny" song of an Eastern screech owl. His song was soft and blended in with he other nights sounds. Some night I'll have to I find him, if I hear him again. Just as I started to make an audio recording, his song became softer and I'm not sure that it's good enough to share. Earlier in the spring I heard the "bounce" song of a screech owl in Newton as well, they apparently are doing well in our suburban environment. If you would like to listen to the different screech owl songs, Owl Pages has great recordings, though they refer to the whinny as the B-song and the bounce as the A-song.

Then this morning walking Newton Centre, I was startled by the call of a red-breasted nuthatch! My first in Massachusetts. While the song of the more familiar white-breasted nuthatch is similar, the red-breasted sounds more like a kid playing a toy trumpet: "yang-yang-yang."

All in all two great surprises to find, let alone within 12 hours.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Fieldnotes from the Midwest

 While I haven't been exploring locally recently, I thought I'd make up for it by sharing some of my finds from the Midwest.  I find it slightly ironic that many of my new life-birds (and 5 of the 6 species shown here) can also be found in Massachusetts, though with much less frequency.

Upland Sandpiper
One of my target birds was the Upland Sandpiper and now after encountering a few families of these birds, they have become a favorite. I was lucky enough to have a few pose for photographs and was able to hear its distinctive wolf-whistle song. These sandpipers were heavily hunted for game and is still targeted in the West Indies during migration. The past and present hunting combined with decreases in suitable habitat means that the upland is showing alarming population declines. In the northeast, the upland sandpiper lives almost exclusively at airports and in MA they can be found at Hanscom AFB in Concord, Plymouth Airport, and Otis Air Field on the Cape. I am determined now that I will have to search for a upland sandpiper in MA.

The dickcissel's coloration is similar to that of the meadowlark, with a black V across his yellow chest. While quite sparrow-like the dickcissel is actually more related to cardinals. While they prefer extensive grasslands and fields of the midwest, they travel widely and some may be moving East. Dickcissels are also regular vagrants in MA, and there are even two ebird records in Newton (one of which is at Nahanton Park), while they are found more often at Millennium Park in the fall.

Gray Partridge
The when I first spotted a pair of gray partridge, I was hoping to find a bobwhite, grouse, or other native bird, but the partridge was introduced from Eurasia for hunting, much like the ring-necked pheasant. Even though they aren't native, they were an excellent find.

While not found in MA, the closest location to find them is up around Montreal.

Spotted Towhee
This spotted towhee is the western cousin of our more familiar eastern towhee except with white spots on his back. Their songs also share many similarities.

While very rare in MA, just at the beginning of this year one was found in Rockport.

Red-headed Woodpecker
I don't think I am at risk of offending anyone by saying that I think the red-headed woodpecker is the most stunning woodpecker in the states. Apparently a quite aggressive bird in maintaining territory and will also destroy nests of other species.

While the red-headed woodpecker is most common in the south and midwest and uncommon in MA, there is currently an individual that many have seen at New England Biolabs in Ipswich.

Lark Sparrow
The lark sparrow's distinctive facial pattern sets it apart from other sparrows and makes it easily identified.

Along with the dickcissel, the lark sparrow is a rare but regular vagrant in MA, with a number of sightings each fall, with the nearest ebird sightings at Millennium Park.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Spotted Sandpipers at Hammond Pond

I have not found great opportunity recently to get out birding recently. But fortunately I decided to make up for it this morning by spending half and hour at Hammond Pond.

Spotted Sandpiper
When I first stepped out of the car I couldn't help but feel a little disappointment at the lack of obvious avian activity at the pond. I couldn't see any herons or ducks, but I then started to scan the lily pads and was very excited to find a sandpiper with a tell-tale tail bobbing of a spotted sandpiper! In the past I have gotten the spotted and the solitary sandpipers confused as they generally have similar structure and coloring (at least when the spotted sandpiper is in its un-spotted winter molt), but no solitary has ever teetered like the spotted sandpiper. I was just reading about the spotted sandpiper and apparently they have a little gender role reversal with the females defending territory and the males raising the chicks.

A Wood Duck Family
With that sighting buoying my spirits, I headed towards the next overlook and heard a downy and a warbling vireo up in the trees. At the overlook two catbirds and a robin flushed from the brush while several noisy kingbirds flitted through the trees tops. Their electric song was quite thick as they chased each other around, making me think they must be a youngster and parents. I found another spotted sandpiper in quick order and noted a green heron in his silent vigil waiting for prey to pass while red-winged black birds moved around him searching the water lilies for food. Further towards the back of the pond a great blue heron took to wing with her heavy slow wing beats. Just as I was turning away, a family of wood ducks appeared as they were working their way towards open water. Mom moved along serenely while seven little ducklings sputtered around her obviously having much more trouble navigating the aquatic plants.
Hammond Pond

Just as I was reaching for the car door, I heard the high thin "see see see" of a cedar waxwing and a goldfinch calling from the lamp-post. While I may have only found 15 species (Canada geese, grackles, and house sparrows rounding out the count), I was quite contented with my morning.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

A Night-Heron at Boston Public Gardens

Black-crowned Night-Heron
  I was enjoying the cooler weather this afternoon while walking around Boston and the Public Gardens. Initially, a fenced off section of the shore drew in my attention. As it turns out the mute swans had made a nest of twigs and sticks on the banks, but in addition to a preening swan, many mallards were making use of the undisturbed location. I turned to go when a little movement on the island in the pond caught my attention. When I was finally able to get a good look it turned out to be a black-crowned night-heron! I was pleasantly surprised by this accidental find in the middle of the city. So far, I have only had luck finding them in Boston, with this being my third sighting. I know that Haynes and Suzette have seen black-crowned night-herons at the vernal pool in Nahanton (you can see Suzette's picture here) and eBird shows sightings at Hammond Pond, Chestnut Hill Reservoir, and Auburndale Park.  Before too long I'll have to run into a night heron in Newton between the Charles and all our ponds.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Black bear in Chestnut Hill

Black bear
  I opened my Newton Tab this morning expecting the same sleepy news, when I see a picture of a large black bear up in a tree in Chestnut Hill. On Tuesday morning residents on Pine Road off Hammond Street (just to the southeast of Hammond Pond) noticed the black bear running through the yard before climbing a tree. MassWildlife decided due to the bear's location in a highly populated area that they would tranquilize the bear and remove it to western Massachusetts. Fortunately the bear was quite lucky to hit some branches and land in a bush to break his fall. It has been reported that he survived without injury.

They later discovered that this was the same bear that had been captured on Cape Cod and moved to central Massachusetts. Initial sightings of black bears in the area come from the south end of Cutler Park. Then, as Suzette noted, a bear was seen across the Charles from Nahanton Park. If it is the same bear, then it probably crossed into Newton before heading into Brookline. My only encounter with black bears has been deep in the Appalachian Mountains (which is where I took this picture) so it makes this bear in our backyards that much more exciting. While we do not frequently have bears, black bears are known to be residents in northern Middlesex. Hopefully this means that the population of bears is doing well as black bears and people are able to co-exist as they tend not to be violent.

If you are interested here are some links to local news stories that have video and pictures.
Newton Tab - With pictures and video
Boston Globe  - A nice article about what they should have done better to protect the bear.
CBS Local  - With pictures and video
Map of black bear sightings . While we don't know that all these sightings are necessarily the same bear it is fun to speculate about his path nonetheless.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Wildflowers of Millennium Park: Part 1

So I have to admit that my ability to identify my flowers is just a shadow of my knowledge of avian life, so if you have an idea of what this one is, please let me know!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Savannah Sparrows of Millennium Park

Savannah Sparrow
   A few days ago I got in an early morning at Millennium Park and beat our recent heat wave. The first thing I heard were red-wing blackbirds, robins, song sparrows, and savannah sparrows. The introductory notes and two buzzy phrases of their songs compelled me to start up the hillside in search of these grass loving sparrows. While the first group of birds I came across were house sparrows, I quickly found plenty of savannahs, with the males all jockeying for good perches from which to sing. I was actually slightly surprised by the amount of savannah song, I would have thought they would be in chick raising mode, not defending territory and finding mates. During the summer months they primarily eat insects (including spittle bugs), while in the winter they switch to seeds. One male hopped up on a sign post right in front of me (it was the tallest perch around) and started to sing. This allowed me to grab a good recording of a song that is often too faint. I also had some great views of his yellow eyebrow that is his most striking feature. The savannah sparrows song is roughly similar to our more common song sparrows. Both have several introductory notes and end in trills. But while the song sparrow has a highly variable middle portion, the savannah has another trill that is a higher pitch than the trill he ends with.

Red-winged Blackbird
After spending some time amongst the savannah sparrows, I headed back down the hill towards the boat ramp. In the marshy area right by the parking lot red-winged blackbirds were calling and even found a female or juvenile with a good amount of orange on the head the throat. When the water is low, mudflats along the Charles are revealed and provide shorebird habitat. But today, with higher water, only two mallards were working the weeds. Warbling vireos, Baltimore orioles, downys, cardinals and a female red-breasted grosbeak were all found along the path near the river.

Female Yellow Warbler with Caterpiller
Yellow warblers seemed to be everywhere I turned, with males singing brightly and numerous females foraging as well. Tree swallows were likewise ubiquitous, sweeping low over the river or above the grassy hillsides. I kept checking the brook hoping for herons or rails (I once found a sora here). Just as I was thinking it was odd that I hadn't seen a single heron, two great blues flew over head, one after the other.

Cedar Waxwing
On the side of the park opposite the river, I encountered a gregarious flock of cedar waxwings with one individual who almost seemed to pose for me. She was lacking the waxy red tips of her wing feathers which are so endearing to this species. Does this mean she was a younger bird? But the silken smoothness of the rest of her feathers was quite evident. All the while watching the waxwings, a common yellowthroat's song came floating up from the marsh. Even though I spent a fair amount of time looking, yellow warblers were the closest thing I found.

Beyond the birds, there was a small mouse or vole that ran across the trail, but it was so fast I didn't get a chance to check it out. I was able to get three good pictures of the wildflowers being grown on the hillsides that make Millennium Park such a great habitat. I didn't have enough space to share them here, so I'll post a new flower picture every few days so you can see them.

Saturday, June 16, 2012


Female Snapping Turtle
While I started this blog primarily thinking about the avian life around Newton, this snapping turtle compelled me to expand my subject matter.

I was recently walking near a shallow muddy pool and was completely taken aback by seeing this large dug up patch of earth whose center resolved to be this female snapping turtle. I am calling her a female because it appears as though she was digging a nest to lay her eggs. She seemed so out of place, the most dinosaur like turtle I have ever seen. While this particular turtle was not in Newton, I learned that June and July is peak egg laying season for them and they prefer shallow ponds, lakes, and streams, of which Newton has plenty of. So it seemed likely that others might encounter them in Newton. Snapping turtles also have long flexible necks that do not fully retract into their shells, so they have developed a snapping bite for defense. One word of caution is that while they tend to shy from humans, their bite can be quite enough to liberate fingers from hands, so please give them a wide berth.

Painted Turtle
Thinking about this snapping turtle reminded me that last year I also found a painted turtle on the sidewalk a block or so away from Houghton Gardens! So I decided I'd include a picture of our own Newton turtle as well. The painted turtle is one of the most common turtles in our area and easily found sunning themselves on logs.  This one was walking down the sidewalk (Where was he going?) and withdrew into his shell when I approached.

While reading up on these turtles, I remembered another Newton blog, Natural Newton, where the author knows much more about the diversity of our flora and fauna than I do. So check out an article about the turtles of Newton if you are interested in knowing what types of turtles you might find here. Also there is a nice article with pictures of snapping and painted turtles found in Nahanton park.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

American Robin: A Close Encounter

The nice weather recently has led me to open windows at night, which means that the dawn chorus  will occasionally wake me up earlier than I would rather. One morning I snapped awake, instead of the slow return to awareness that the bird song usually brings. The song of what I thought could have been a scarlet tanager (similar to a robin but more burry) cut through my brain bringing me to full alertness. By the time I got dressed and headed outside I no longer heard anything like a tanager, but I decided to grab my binoculars and camera and sit on the back steps.

Brown-headed Cowbird
I heard lots of robins, chickadees, crows, and grackles while sitting in the calm before the human residents were yet awake. A brown-headed cow bird perched at the top of the a nearby cedar tree singing his high-pitched song. After only a couple of minutes a pair of great blue herons flew low over head, which was quite a surprise to me! Soon there after, an American robin caught my attention at the far end of the yard. This was a female robin as her head was gray (not black) and her breast was not the deep burnt orange of a male, but more interestingly she had a worm in her mouth. Now I think the following encounter can be told in pictures alone.

After watching the female robin make several trip to this bush and getting lots of pictures I decided it was time for breakfast. All the while eating, I kept thinking about what was in the bushes that was so interesting to her. I was hoping there might be a robin nest (though the in retrospect I realize that robins like to have their nests a little higher), so I swapped the telephoto lens for the normal kit lens on the camera and head back outside to see what I could find.

Juvenile Robin
I was quite lucky that this young robin was so photogenic and didn't mind my presence. Typically I would largely ignore robins when birding our local parks, but sitting in my own back yard they became great subjects of study. I think robins, with a funny turn of fate, seem much more benign than the otherwise might. American Robins are named by our early European settlers after the European robin, which shares an orange breast, though they are not related. Our American robin is actually a thrush (notice the speckled breast of the juvenile in the picture above) related to the wood thrush, hermit thrush, veery, and bluebird. I've even seen some refer to them as black-headed thrushes, which sounds quite a bit more exciting that the robin of grassy lawns that we think of today. In the spring and summer robins forage grassy areas for worms and insects, which makes them sensitive to pesticide use on lawns. While in the fall and winter robins are voracious fruit eaters, greatly enjoying small berries. Even though robins are frequently overlooked, their song is one of the most recognized (and enjoyed) by birders and non-birders alike.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Re-visiting Newton Cemetery

All of the pictures that I have taken for Wild Newton and Nahanton Park blogs have all been using my camera phone held up to my binoculars. While I have quite enjoyed taking pictures like this, I was starting to feel its limitations and recently got a Nikon DSLR and wanted to take it for a spin. I fortunately have an older 70-200mm telephoto lens from my 35mm SLR which I was able to use with the new camera,  so I headed out to Newton Cemetery hoping to try out this new method of photographing birds.

Red-winged Blackbird
Cedar Waxwing
Mostly we had the same birds as last time with lots of blackbirds, Baltimore Orioles, and kingbirds. While the kingfisher was absent I was able to pick up a female brown-headed blackbird. By the back pond there was a flock of cedar waxwings calling with their soft high pitched songs that I could hardly hear. But as soon as I saw one, I noticed the rest of the flock. I even caught a bird I didn't recognize at first, whose breast was a deeper color than a robin's and had a black back. It took me a minute to realize that this was an orchard oriole!

White-breasted Nuthatch
While I was watching the orioles and waxwings I noticed a white-breasted nuthatch on the trunk of a huge old oak. Though I'm not quite sure why, but he drew in my attention and I watched him traveling around the trunk. This bird was definitely the male as the cap on his head was such a solid dark black (females have a lighter cap).

Then suddenly a second nuthatch appeared in what I had previously assumed was a knot in the tree and launched herself into the air. I was lucky enough to catch the changing of the guard!

As she soared away, the male entered the cavity only to re-appear after a few moment before he too flew off.

They were probably both off for their evening dinner before settling down with their eggs or young. I was quite amazed at my fortune for stumbling upon this nuthatch cavity nest. These white-breasted nuthatches are a common backyard bird in Newton and love to visit feeders in the winter, they prefer insects when they are available.

While I'm sure the new camera was much faster than my phone, many of the pictures were blurry, I almost think I might have done better with my phone and binoculars. Because this is an old lens, it doesn't auto-focus meaning I'm trusting my eye to focus on a small bird in a small view finder.  It also isn't a very high quality lens, but I think there may be more tricks to help coax crisper shots out of it. All in all it was a great evening walk in Newton Cemetery.