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.