Saturday, April 30, 2016

Late April in Needham

Charles River, Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
It is almost May, time for the main event, but this last week in April has been pretty nice around these parts.
Palm Warbler, Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
Birds and blossoms.
Orchard Oriole, Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
Blossoms and birds.
American Kestrel, Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
And a poor kestrel bothered relentlessly by blue jays.
Great Egret, Rosemary "Lake," Needham, MA
Meanwhile, Rosemary Lake is a mud flat for what might be the very last time. 
Yellowlegs and Mallard, Rosemary "Lake," Needham, MA
The DEP may not let the town drain it again and if it does there will be a dredging operation instead of a feeding zone for yellowlegs, herons and egrets.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Bluebirds! Season 6. Episode 4. Too much Bluebirds!

Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
A perfect spring day--sunny, green, and cool--highlighted by newly arrived yellow warblers, a kestrel hovering over the field, and the croaks of a pair of ravens flying overhead.
Box 2 Eastern Bluebird
Box 2 bluebirds are now up to five eggs. Box 11 bluebirds are now up to--actually I don't know because the female refused to leave the nest.
Box 4
We now have a bona fide chickadee nest (unless the swallows decide build over the top of it).
Box 5 House Sparrow
The house sparrows are still in control of some key boxes but they are losing ground. The full nest I spotted last week in box 5 is now a handful of grass. (I do believe someone else is "helping" me manage nest boxes).
Box 8
The first sign of trouble was box 8. When I opened the door I saw a dark form, unmoving. I gave the side of the box a few whacks. No response. I pulled out the nest. And although the tree swallow was dead, it was completely intact. No apparent sign of violence. I wonder if it froze or starved to death during the recent chill. Or whether the killing blow was so quick and efficient the bird never knew what hit it.
Box 9
I'm not going to point fingers, but it does appear we have a pair of troublemakers next door. Last week, there was a beautiful feather-topped tree swallow nest in box 9. Today it was all bluebird. I watched as the male slipped into the box and flew out with something in its beak. Binoculars confirmed it was a white feather.
Box 9 nest
Inside the box, a single white egg smashed and soaking into the feathers and grass. It appears that our third pair of bluebirds have overthrown the tree swallows. I pulled the nest, lest the smashed egg soil the new nest the bluebirds evidently have planned for the spot.

[8/29 UPDATE: Just in case you are doubting the ruthlessness of the bluebird... I found a bluebird nest today at Ridge Hill that was built on top of a deceased tree swallow. Meanwhile, at the CRP the tree swallows are battling furiously to retain box 9]

Monday, April 25, 2016

Bulgaria Epilogue

Hooded Crow and Rook. What's going to happen?
I had a little time on the morning before I had to leave for the airport so I took one last stroll through the grassier section of South Park. I immediately heard the mystery concealed-in-the-vegetation long-winded mimic. Binoculars up. I finally caught sight. And was immediately embarrassed.

Crow attack!
A nightingale. The bird that one rarely sees. The bird that strings together phrase after disconnected phrase in seemingly endless variation. It is famous for these things. I had wanted to encounter it so badly that I seem to have discounted the possibility of actually encountering it. Was I guarding myself against disappointment? Oh missed opportunity. I stood and soaked in as much of it is as I could that final morning. Here's a video (regrettably it doesn't capture the nightingale's most interesting phrases).

Epilogue's Epilogues.
As I waited for my plane to Munich in the Sofia airport, I noticed an expansive nature area right outside the gate's windows. No binoculars (what was that swimming across the pond?) and mostly magpies, but a one moment a sparrowhawk flew by the window--my only raptor the whole visit.

On the plane ride home I read Nine Rabbits by Bulgarian author, Virginia Zaharieva. In one scene she walks the trail to Boyana Falls recording nature sounds.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Bulgaria Day 2: Mt. Vitosha

View of Sofia from Mt. Vitosha
I had a full day to explore Mt. Vitosha. I packed a couple bottles of water, a few energy bars, and arranged a cab to the medieval landmark, Boyana Church, which is near a popular trailhead.
Birdsong in the surrounding residential neighborhood was strong and the little guy in the photo above popped down and peeped for a moment or two. Once in the woods I was able to solve one of my birdsong mysteries. The woodland bird with the explosive phrase (like a more melodic ovenbird) is the chaffinch.
Mt. Vitosha trail
There are two trails to Boyana Falls. One goes straight up the mountain and supposedly takes about an hour. The other runs past Boyana Lake and takes an hour and a half. Eager to see the lake, I chose the slower, easier route.
Boyana Lake
Boyana Lake was lovely and the frogsong was intense. I paused for a bit to watch for kingfishers (no luck) and then made my way back up the mountain.
Scenic Vista
The trails were mostly well-marked but I highly recommend bringing a GPS device. Throughout Sofia park trails are reliably mapped which makes it easy to figure out which way to turn at the rare unmarked intersection.
Birding spot
My favorite moment of the day occurred about halfway from the lake to the falls. I found a comfortable rocky seat overlooking the mountainside and sat for some time scanning the scene. Woodland birds galore, including song thrush, nuthatch, treecreeper, pied (or collared?) flycatcher, and a wren that popped up about three feet from where I was sitting.
Boyana Falls
Boyana Falls is not exactly spectacular (particularly after Iceland), but rather extremely picturesque.
Gray Wagtail at Boyana Falls
Particularly if there is a gray wagtail displaying its beautiful long tail while flycatching above the water.
I decided to descend using the path straight down the mountain. This turned out to be a horrible decision for a person of my girth, knee age, and declining eyesight. The trail was wet and crumbling and was marked by signs detailing the number to call if you fell off the side of the mountain. It was less a walk down than a climb down. Obviously I made it down safely but arrived back at the hotel a filthy mess.

Here is a video of the nicer parts of the day!

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Bulgaria Day 1

Lush spring vegetation in South Park, Sofia, Bulgaria
When my wife asked me if I wanted to come with her to Bulgaria for a weekend I jumped at the chance, despite the brevity of the stay and the long travel time (10 plus hours each way). This would be my first time in continental Europe--the first time in the midst of spring European birdsong.
Сива врана, the ubiquitous trash fiend, the Hooded Crow
It turns out that Sofia is in many ways an ideal destination for someone with my interests. The city offers a variety of large, relatively undeveloped woodland parks, one of which, South Park, is literally out the back door of the Sofia Hilton. Sofia also sits at the foot of a mountain, Mt. Vitosha, a short cab ride from the center of town.
сврака, the ubiquitous noisy Magpie
April was a very good time to visit. It was warm, migration was on, and the parks resounded with all sorts of birdsong.
кос, the ubiquitous Blackbird
I was already familiar with blackbird song from recordings, though I was thrilled to sample it live. Forgive me American robins, but blackbirds sing better than you.
Here's a taste:

Червеногръдка, the European robin
And I was quickly able to put together European robins and their thin thrushy song. But there were some intriguing songs I couldn't place--the most splendid of which was an endless mockingbird-like chain of disconnected phrases. No matter what I did, binoculars failed to reveal who that particular singer was [if you know what it was, keep it to yourself. No spoilers].
Here's a taste:
голям пъстър кълвау, the Great Spotted Woodpecker
Some birds I had seen and heard before, such as the Great Spotted Woodpecker (Japan's akagera) and the Long-tailed Tit. Others, such as the Eurasian Jay and the Blue Tit were thrillingly new (even if very common locally). The park was full of dog walkers, bike riders and children in strollers but no one seemed to mind a foreigner with binoculars.
големият синигер, the "greatest" tit
I like to think this was because of the active efforts of the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds, which took a grant a few years ago from the American for Bulgaria Foundation to promote birds as "ambassadors of nature" to local and international tourists. One part of the promotion--an election to choose a bird to symbolize Sofia--resulted in the Great Tit statue above. The grant also paid for a series of signs identifying birds that could be seen in the park.
на среща с птиците в нжния парк, "A meeting with birds in South Park"
Unfortunately, a number of these signs have been vandalized.
сойка, Jay rock
Nevertheless, it was nice to see explicit efforts designed to draw attention to the park's bird life. Anyone visiting Sofia should check out the BSPB's guide to finding birds in South Park.

Owl box? in Borisov Gradina
Later in the day I took a walk to the east of the Hilton to equally crowded Borisov Gradina, and then south to an extensive woodland, criss-crossed with bike trails.
Red Admiral tried to attack me
The habitats aren't as diverse as in South Park, but woodland bird song was astounding. Every once in a while, amidst the great tits, blue tits, blackcaps, and blackbirds, there would be a burst of unfamiliar song. Here's a taste:

I would have to wait until the following day to figure out what it was. (You may already know...)

Finally, here's a video compilation of some of the day's scenes.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Bluebirds! Season 6. Episode 3. What!

Eastern Bluebird, Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
It is the wonderfully jumbled nesting period right now.
Box 1
What's going on in this box, for example? Moss, sticks, grass. Tree swallows in and on the box. Appears the chickadees got there first but then got booted. Luckily no additional murders. Yet.
Bluebird eggs, Box 2.
On the other hand, the unmistakable eggs of a bluebird. Three so far. More to come?
Box 11
And then in impossibly tilted Box 11...
Eastern Bluebird eggs, Box 11
Three more bluebird eggs! We have (at least) two breeding pairs this spring. The tree swallows and house sparrows are also active right now but so far no eggs.

In other news: swarming june bugs this morning. I may be wrong, but it appeared that both bluejays and cardinals were FLYCATCHING them. That's fun to see. Also, palm warblers. 

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Bluebirds! Season 6. Episode 2. Action.

Eastern Bluebirds, Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
The snow earlier in the week does not seem to have disrupted activity at the Charles River Peninsula (except for a strange deficit of red-winged blackbirds).
Tree Swallow, Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
Tree swallows are abundant, perched on just about every box in sight.
Tree Swallow, Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
As always, not thrilled to see me.
Tree Swallows, Box 5, Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
But I was thrilled to see that they seemed to be controlling boxes that I thought were house sparrow lost causes. We will see what conflict develops.
Tree Swallow nest, Box 7, Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
Meanwhile, tell-tale white feathers top at least one nest.
Tree Swallow, Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
Way to go, tree swallows!

Eastern Bluebird courtship flap, Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
Our title characters have not yet been as successful. Courtship continues around box 17 but house sparrows have begun nests in that box and box 16 (the old favorite). I may start pulling house sparrow nests if the bluebirds haven't moved in themselves next week.
Eastern Bluebirds, Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
What do you say bluebirds? Ready for a fight?