Sunday, March 27, 2011

Wood Duck and Fox Sparrow bonanza continues

Wood Ducks, Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA

Over a dozen wood ducks on display on various sections of the Charles River this morning, with one large group hanging out in its normal place at the tip of the peninsula. But the real attraction this morning was fox sparrows.

I saw at least 11 fox sparrows, in four different groups (the largest was 5 birds). One sat out in the relative open (for fox sparrows anyway).

And another, the same one I recorded yesterday, was singing and singing. (This time the recording has less crow and more loud downy woodpecker drumming). This one would occasionally stop to chase a competitor.
[UPDATE: One week later (4/2) fox sparrows still there (and wood ducks). Here's another fox sparrow song sample.]

On the nestbox front: Yesterday morning, a downy flew out of box 5 as I walked by. Today, I saw a bluebird pair chase off a house sparrow from box 8 and then enter it. Here's the male, keeping watch.
[4/2 UPDATE: Beginnings of a nest in box 8]

Friday, March 25, 2011

The bluebird monitoring begins

Lily, not looking particularly enthusiastic, knocks on a nesting box

Lily and I are now official bluebird monitors. Once a week we will tour the CRP and see what's happening in 9 of the 18 nesting boxes on the property. (Lily has given me permission to do this by myself when the weather is bad--I suspect she was including today...)

Only one out of nine boxes we examined exhibited any real nesting activity. I'm sure there are experts who already know whether this is the beginnings of a house sparrow or a bluebird nest. As for me, I'm going to wait and see (apparently there's no point pulling out a house sparrow nest right away anyway).
Very few of the 18 house boxes at the CRP will actually house bluebirds. Here's a candidate (a house wren box last year).
This is mostly tree swallow territory. I predict two bluebird nests, one house wren, and maybe a chickadee. And the rest swallows or sparrows (or mice). We'll see in a month or two! Regrettably the sparrow population seems larger at the CRP than in previous years.

Also of CRP interest: might this be an owl pellet? We found it right under a nesting box (I looked straight up and didn't see any obvious tree perch so I wonder if the owl was sitting right on the box itself when it spit out this mouse bone-filled fur nugget.)

Sunday, March 20, 2011

First Day of Spring, or House Sparrow Day

House Sparrow, Drumlin Farm, Lincoln, MA

In honor of the first day of spring, Lily and I went to Drumlin Farm to check out the baby goats and the caged "ambassadors," which now include three barred owls and a broad-winged hawk, as well as an absolutely stunning silver fox. At Drumlin Farm, bluebirds are feeder birds.

It is, in fact, "World Sparrow Day" today, though I'm betting it won't be celebrated much in the U.S.... The event is sponsored by an organization in India, where the house sparrow is in decline (as it seems to be its Eurasian range generally). We can appreciate them for one day of the year, can't we?

My brisk walk around the CRP this morning (quite a lot of frost and ice for a "spring" day) revealed two great blue herons, one in a tree, where it seemed to be watching the sun rise

and one on the river, partially veiled in the morning mist.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Tree Swallows (already!) and Fox Sparrows

Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA

A quintessential mid-March morning at the Charles River Peninsula. I was on the lookout for tree swallows (already reported in other MA locations) and there they were floating over the field (not checking out house boxes yet). While I was looking up for more swallows, three woodcocks flew by. At least four flybys from wood duck pairs. And I heard a brief snippet of fox sparrow song and there they were scratching in the leaves. Even got a bit of footage:

[UPDATE: Here's a lovely taste of fox sparrow song, partially obscured by a noisy crow]
The great blue herons are thoroughly back, one roosting in a pine tree, another hanging out in the usual place in red-wing bay.
And I saw a lovely red fox at the CRP for the first time in a couple of years.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

What to see at Allen's Pond in Mid-March

Great Cormorants, Buzzard's Bay from Allens Pond, Westport, MA
I don't want to say that mid-March is boring as far as birding at Allens Pond is concerned. That would be ungrateful. If you are really into buffleheads, for example, there is a whole pond full of them to look at. But clearly we are just at the beginning of something much more exciting yet to come.

This may account for alternative entertainment, such as the construction and macro photography of dried sea urchin and crab leg dioramas.

Today I walked the Beach Loop and spent some time in the Woodland Loop off of Allens Neck Road. A couple things of interest about the Woodland Loop. First, the wood frogs are singing, right on schedule. Second, an actual butterfly--a mourning cloak, I do believe.

But the main interest was at the beach. I've been seeing (mostly hearing) killdeer for a while. I saw three today, none too happy to see me.
Check out the background of this photo. The sun was so strong today it was causing distortions.

And (this is the day's highlight) who knew that piping plovers were already back? Yet here it was, not particularly energetic, but clearly finding food (I love the head tilt as it peers for worm holes in the sand).

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

What to do at Plum Island when the beaches are closed and the ponds are iced over

View from Hellcat dike, Plum Island, Newburyport, MA

Second day of spring break. Ah, perhaps today I can get some scholarly work done.
The doorbell rings.
--Hi. We're going to be landscaping your neighbor's yard today. I just wanted to let you know that we'll fix any damage we do to your lawn.
I hear the roar of a bobcat as it grinds up the hill right outside my office window. A day full of construction noise to look forward to or... That's it. I'm gone. (Was I just looking for an excuse?)

I chose Plum Island because it is an effortless script for me now and I hadn't been there since November. I planned to hit Sandy Point first (horned lark opportunities) and then work my way backward to Hellcat.

As I drove down Plum Island Turnpike I noticed that there was still a lot of ice on the water. Uh oh. When I got to the gate I realized my plan was dead. ALL BEACHES CLOSED. There was a major sewage treatment plant malfunction recently and millions of little e. coli coated discs have washed up on the beaches all over the North Shore. The boardwalks to the beaches were roped off (even the observation decks) and the dirt road to Sandy Point gated.
Here's the closest I would get to seeing the ocean today.
So where to find interest on Plum Island when the ocean is inaccessible and the iced-over pools keep the ducks far far away (and me without a scope)? I stopped at Hellcat. Would I make this a Ludlow Griscom-themed day, and visit the Sudbury Valley on my way home? Would I take photos of intriguing lichen?
Should I take photos of interesting boardwalk scat? (Yes, though I'll spare you the actual images.) Record especially fabulous song sparrow tunes? (Yes, though the recordings have too much wind noise.)

As I slowly made my way along the Marsh Trail, I realized that the restrictions today were a blessing in disguise. Instead of furiously moving from place to place on Plum Island, trying to cover it all, here was a chance to hang at Hellcat--for as long as I wanted.

I could spend some quality time with the red-winged blackbirds.
Today's realization: their chattery alarm flight is reminiscent of an orchard oriole or a bobolink, if less musical.

I could offer my farewells to the tree sparrows.
See you in the fall!

I could sit at the "old blind" and watch the distant ducks circle and land, circle and land.
There's nothing quite like pintails in tight formation.

It was so quiet today (most visitors had turned around and left when they discovered the beaches were closed) that I felt I could hear every leaf rustle. That's how I spied my first woodcock of the season (I forget how small they are). And that's how I discovered the twittering redpolls, a few dozen of them. The highlight of the day.
I don't know redpolls very well. The great 2011 influx, reported all over Massachusetts, never reached my corner of Needham. So here was my chance to soak in redpoll, as they gathered on the ground near the trail, bathing in puddles, feeding (and quarreling).
A good day after all.

Below is the video version of the day, featuring red-wing blackbirds, redpolls, pintails in flight, and circling black ducks.

Monday, March 14, 2011

What to do in Natick and Wellesley while your Mazda is in the shop

Ring-necked ducks, Morses Pond, Wellesley, MA
First day of spring break. A broken minivan door handle and a lit "check engine" light have me spending the morning at the Mazda dealership. What to do for a couple of hours? Exploration!

It may seem like Route 9 in Wellesley/Natick has little to offer in respect to nature study--the amount of trash and pollution along the road is rather appalling--but in fact there are several good spots nearby with direct access from the south side. Walking towards Natick, past the McDonald's, you will come to a trailhead for Hunnewell Town Forest.

I walked the trail along Jennings Pond, soaking up song sparrow melodies and red-wing blackbird conk-a-rees. The pond is still iced over in spots. Scared up two pair of wood ducks (it would appear that they are actively recruited to nest there).

One branch of the trail leads to a small parking lot on Oak Street (it really isn't necessary to walk Route 9 at all). Here the pond has more of a brook feel; the bird activity this morning was quite impressive. Here was a neat sighting--an apparent oriole nest made out of colorful string.

And then it was back to the Mazda dealership. Uh-oh. A new battery, number six coil, and oil pan will keep the car in the shop until 3 (not to mention putting a strain on the old bank account...). What to do? Plenty of time to walk to Wellesley center (about 2 miles away)! The "Cross-town Trail" offers a wooded route along Morses Pond. It seems heavily traveled, especially by dog walkers, but all I could think about the whole way was how great it will be during warbler season!

Morses Pond is still half-covered with ice but some interesting ducks have found the open spots. I counted about 30 ring-necked ducks, 8 hooded mergansers, and a pair of green-winged teals. This ring-neck was posing on the ice near "Pickle Point."

The Cross-Town Trail takes you to tiny Hunnewell Park near the Wellesley Town Hall. The old attraction--duck feeding--is now officially discouraged by signage posted near the pond. Judging by the speed with which these ducks came ashore I'm guessing the feeding continues. Check out the crazy mallard hybrid on the left.

It snowed during the walk back, but my mind was elsewhere, in May, dreaming of warblers.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Spring comes rushing toward us

American Robins, Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
Two weeks ago, the fields of the Charles River Peninsula were covered with snow; this morning they were covered with robins. Some of whom were singing (just barely audible in
this recording).

Two weeks ago, the Charles River was covered with ice; this morning it was covered with wood ducks (unpictured). One group featured one female and seven males--she flattened herself against the surface of the water (making what I always assumed was a distress call but which must be an all-purpose attention-getter) while the males jostled each other to get closer to her.

The bluebirds are already paired off and checking out house boxes. Meanwhile the house sparrows are claiming a few for themselves. The inklings of a bit of a struggle this spring...

And the blackbirds, mostly grackles with a smattering of red-winged blackbirds and cowbirds, were in the trees making an unholy racket. Which I love.
Here comes spring!

Annual Pilgrimage to Halibut Point (and the Harlequin Ducks)

Halibut Point State Park, Rockport, MA
When I got to Halibut Point State Park it was raining heavily and foggy. Not great birding conditions, especially when looking at sea birds. But I had brought my rubber boots and my raincoat and an umbrella so I was ready to try. And after trudging through the muddy paths to a good look-out onto the ocean the rain stopped. And wouldn't begin again until I was already on my way back. Gotta have faith.

I came to Halibut Point to see the harlequin ducks. And I wasn't disappointed.

And how nice to see great cormorants again (a steady fly-by presence).

And look at the bill on that surf scoter

But back to the harlequin ducks. They were grouped on the bay side to the left of the lookout.
They were very active.

As I was watching the harlequins, the fog lifted and I could see huge rafts of small ducks in the distance dotting the water (scoters maybe). And the true highlight of the day: a peregrine falcon, which flew up and back along the rocky coast twice while I was there. (I sacrificed getting a blurry photo for letting it fill up my binoculars with its magnificence.)