Saturday, April 28, 2012

Loss of a Great Horned Owl at Forest Grove Reservation

Muscovy Duck (Domestic)
Today I joined the bird walk along the Charles sponsored by the Newton Conservators and the Waltham Land Trust. The walk focused on the Auburndale Park area along the Charles. I was about 30 minutes late when I parked by the old watch factory in Waltham and was walking quickly when I was surprised to find a pure white water fowl. Upon closer inspection it proved to be a Muscovy Duck! The wild Muscovy is native to Central and South America, but this all white duck is a domesticated type. (There is an article here about domestic and hybrid ducks). The only other time I have ever seen a Muscovy was a pretty black and white duck domestic loose in the middle of the Australian bush, go figure. This is also only the 3rd ebird record in MA. I snapped a quick picture and carried on. When I finally caught up to the group they were enjoying great views of a number of Wood Ducks, Mallards, and a pair of Mute Swans with goslings. Just then a large accipiter flew across the river. Because it was so large is was likely a Cooper's though I didn't see it well enough to be sure.

Mute Swan and goslings
We continued into Forest Grove Reservation and the Flowed Meadow wetlands. We heard a few Cowbirds and lots of Red-Winged Blackbirds. Further into the Flowed Meadow I thought I heard the high, thin, wheezy notes of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. I fell behind most of the group to see if my eyes could confirm what my ears had already told me. It took a little bit of work but we finally found it and could see its small build and the white feathers on the edges of his long tail. This little wonder of the forests looks like a small Mockingbird, is shy and quick like a warbler, but has little musical skill. Further along, three Downy Woodpeckers were calling and tussling. Were the two males arguing over territory or a mate? When we finally entered Auburndale Park proper, we found a Yellow-rumped Warbler, a Chipping Sparrow, and a second Gnatcatcher.

On our way back towards the cars, Alison, one of our group leaders, found a dead Great Horned Owl! At first I was quite confused thinking she had found an owl pellet and didn't figure it out until I could see the owl. While in actuality he was a quite large owl, his stiff body and rumpled feathers seemed diminished compared to the Great Horned Owls of Houghton Gardens. While the spark that gave this owl life was gone, up close you could truly appreciate his massive talons and heavy beak. The rumpled feathers revealed his downy under coat to be a rich auburn and the feathers of his ear tufts seemed so wispy and fragile. We all wanted to think that he was an old man of forest and had peacefully died in his sleep and slipped off his White Pine. We quickly tried to alert those who might be interested in a dead owl, but on a Saturday it took a couple of hours to find a home for him at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology who arranged to collect the owl. While it was sad to to think that this powerful predator will no longer grace our forests with his silent flight and haunting calls, I hope that he may yet be able to contribute to science and conservation.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Mark Your Calendars

Spring walks and volunteer opportunities around Newton are under way so mark your calenders and check out the Newton Conservator's website for more details. And while you are there be sure to check out and read the great article about the history of Turkeys in Massachusetts.

April 28, Saturday. Bird Walk in Waltham
April 29, Sunday. NewtonSERVES Projects all around Newton
                            (Nahanton, Saw Mill Brook, Blue Heron Bridge, Dolan Pond)
May 2, Wednesday. Newton Conservators Annual Meeting.
May 6, Sunday. Garlic Mustard Pull at Cold Spring Park.
May 6, Sunday. Newton Aqueducts Hike.
May 12, Saturday. Garlic Mustard Pull (Locations TBD).
May 13, Sunday. Nahanton Park Mother's Day Bird Walk.
May 19, Saturday. Bird Walk at Cold Spring Park (Rain date May 20).
May 20, Sunday. Canoe/Kayak Trip at Nahanton Park.
June 3, Saturday. Fern Walk in West Webster Woods (Rain date June 4).

Monday, April 23, 2012

Breaking News: Long-tailed Ducks at Chestnut Hill Reservoir!

Long-tailed Ducks with Ruddy Ducks
Yesterday Ryan Schain posted on Massbird that he found two Long-tailed Ducks at Chestnut Hill Reservoir. These diving sea ducks tend to stick to the ocean or the Great Lakes. In the arctic they breed in ponds, streams, and marshes, but they mostly winter off shore on the open ocean. So on my way home from work yesterday I stopped by the reservoir and I was able to pick them out from the Ruddy Ducks from across the reservoir with their stockier body and color pattern with white along the waterline and dark back and head. I thought I could even make out the long tail at the distance (on the male, center of the picture). After a lot of walking in the rain was finally able to get much better views (and bad pictures) where I could discern the lighter face patch on the dark head and the long thin tail held up at an angle was quite visible. These ducks are quite unique with three distinct plumages giving them an ever changing appearance through out the year as they frequently molt. The Long-tailed Ducks are also the deepest diving ducks reaching depths of 200 ft. But while I was watching they weren't diving and they seemed mostly preoccupied with getting in a good nap. So if you get the chance get out there and check them out!

As a side note the original post from Ryan also mentioned Baltimore Orioles and Eastern Kingbirds, so keep your eyes out. Also of note, I also found a Palm warbler and a few Yellow-rumps and a Flicker who didn't seem to mind the pouring rain at all.

4/26 Update. I just saw that Ryan has great pictures of the pair on his Flickr stream you can check out here.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Earth Day at Millenium Park

I headed over to Millenium Park on this drizzly Earth Day, hoping the weather might mean the birds would be out longer and there might a be slightly few dogs. As soon as I opened my car door I was assaulted by the commotion of blackbirds. Grackles, Red-wings, and Cowbirds. Then I hear a buzzy song coming from the grassy slopes, a two-parted insect like song with one buzzy trill proceeded by a slightly lower pitched buzzy trill. I knew it had to be a sparrow, so I quickly pulled out my phone and on low volume (so as not to let the real birds hear) I went through the sparrows and quickly found it was a Savannah Sparrow! While I had seen many of them before, this was the first I was able to identify the song.

At the boat ramp I was hoping to find blue-winged teals, snipe, or even a pectoral sandpiper (all recently reported on Massbird) but they were not to be seen. I there were a pair of Killdeer running around the mudflats and a pair of green-winged teals. The teals were feeding next to a mallard and their small size was quite evident. A rapid knocking behind me proved to be a downy and I heard a faint warbley song but I couldn't quite get a handle on it before it stopped. I then follow the path down by the river and when it curved along the Saw Mill Brook, a "sweet-sweet-sweet-little-more-sweet" song came from high up in the trees. I eventually managed to track down the singer to confirm this Yellow Warbler. I hadn't walked two more steps when the saplings in the marsh had more songsters, another Yellow Warbler and a Warbling Vireo!
Mallard Drake

Lots of Mallards filled Saw Mill Brook and the beaver pond and the tree swallows flew low over the marsh. I also was able to get great views of a Swamp Sparrow with his whitish throat, rufous cap and wings. Then he sang a faster song, more like a Chipping Sparrow than the typical Swamp Sparrow song. The lighting was pretty poor for my little camera, but the audio is great as he was just a few meters away and not very shy! Just after the trilled song a Red-winged Blackbird gives his "conkla-ree" call.

Walking back to my car I reflected on how this 12 year old park used to be a landfill and now it is full of people jogging, walking dogs, and watching birds. The grassy slopes are a favorite sparrow habitat and the beavers are working hard to fell the trees for their damns and lodge. The idea of this park as reclaimed wild space made me think it was an extra special place to visit on Earth Day.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Exploring Oakdale Woods

One of my big goals for the year is to explore as many of the parks and conservation land in Newton as possible, whether its birding, hiking, paddling, or biking. For my most recent trip I decided to explore one of Newton's smaller parks, Oakdale Woods. A small 2.5 acre wooded plot just off Rt. 9, Oakdale Woods was lucky to escape development, though the steep grade and large boulders probably helped.

While it was quite enjoyable to find these woods tucked away behind houses, there didn't seem to be too much bird activity compared to our larger parks. Or perhaps I was visiting off hours. Grackles mostly flew over the woods while robins foraged and I occasionally heard song sparrows and house sparrows. Two weeks ago I did manage to find a Hairy Woodpecker at Oakdale Woods. The large trees were quite refreshing and in one section the vines were thicker than my arm. But by far my best find of the day was this quite demanding Carolina Wren. His loud repeated "tea-kettle tea-kettle tea-kettle" song easily dominated the sound-scape and made for a great recording! (At 14s a robin give his whinny call) I look forward to returning later in migration to see if these woods will act as a migrant trap or if most birds will head to the larger parks.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Songs and Calls of Chestnut Hill Reservoir

Blue Jay

Pine Warbler
This morning I stopped off at the Chestnut Hill Reservoir for a little birding. In very short order I heard the loose musical trill that give away a Pine Warbler! My first in the state. I spent a few minutes following him around trying to get some pictures and hoping to snatch a small recording of his song. While I was able to get a few pictures as he flitted among bare branches, he never sang close enough that I'd be able to get a recording over the hustle and bustle of Cleavland Circle. But a pair of Northern Flickers were calling back and forth, a boisterous and repeated "Wick-wick-wick" that clearly cut through the traffic. (At the beginning of the clip, the further Flicker is calling and at 5 seconds, the second closer Flicker joins in. Robins are heard calling throughout and a T train can be heard at 10 seconds)  The Song Sparrows and Chickadees were quite vocal and one Blue Jay took great offense at my presence by flying to a nearby branch and scolding me with his loud calls. By Beacon St. several Goldfinches were singing their song and further along a pack of grackles were just about the noisiest of all.

American Coots
The water level in the reservoir was low without melting snow and without much rain either. Some Coots were standing on shallow points in the water. A raft of Ruddy Ducks didn't seem to mind, a whole mix of birds in different stages of molt slept and I even caught a glimpse of one blue bill when it wasn't tucked up under the owner's wing. By another shallow patch with wood sticking out of the surface, I found a female duck too small to be a mallard. Just as I was beginning to think I was going to have trouble identifying this duck, I saw her mate camouflaged by the wood, a striking male Green-winged Teal. His gray mantle, vertical white shoulder patch, and head with brown and green made him quite distinctive. These Teals would prefer ponds with more vegetation, but perhaps the water is just low enough at Chestnut Hill Reservoir that they thought they'd give it a try. Just as I went for a camera the female gave and alarm call and flashed their green wing patches as they flew to the other side of the reservoir.

Chestnut Hill Reservoir