Birding an Urban Oasis

I led my first spring bird walk on Friday April 17th at the Boston Nature Center Wildlife Sanctuary in Mattapan.  It was raining when I arrived and I was about to call the walk off but others showed up so we decided to make a go of it until the rain became unpleasant. We headed to the Clark-Cooper Community Gardens hoping to locate the monogamous pair of killdeer that have nested there in recent years, and were not disappointed.  The birds were quite agitated with our approach and one began the “broken wing display” for which these shorebirds are famous.  Killdeers do this to draw predators away from their nests; just when the predator closes for the kill the bird “recovers” and flies away. Because Here is a link to such a display I found on YouTube.  Our bird was more dramatic in her distraction routine than the video.  None of us had witnessed this so clearly before. After a minute or so we withdrew so as to not disrupt the nesting activity.

Against predictions, the rain stopped so we continued our walk.  At the beginning of the Snail Trail we spotted a lovely Hermit Thrush:


Hermit Thrush

This is the only thrush (other than the ubiquitous robin) likely to be seen this early in the spring; it’s rusty tail, contrasting with a brown back, is distinctive.  As we continued we noted that the grounds were full of the sights and sounds of Red-winged Blackbirds.  Most were males which arrive each spring nearly a month ahead of their eventual mates.  We saw only one female, a drab bird looking a bit like a big, dark sparrow.

Most of the other birds we saw were regulars for this time of year.  Seeing a Mourning Dove on nest was a treat; while this is not today’s nest, it gives one a sense of what we saw (no young yet):


Mourning Dove nest with 3 young. This nest was in the Arnold Arboretum last year. The nest of this bird is a flimsy one, built of sticks.

Mass Audubon Boston is especially known for its regular flock of Wild Turkeys, but oddly  we saw none.  On my scouting walk the day before, this guy looked me over:


Wild Turkey. This bird appears to be a young male. Seen just off the boardwalk on the Fox Trail.

Here is the list of birds seen or heard today:

Boston Nature Center Wildlife Sanctuary, Suffolk, US-MA
Apr 17, 2015 7:00 AM – 8:30 AM
Protocol: Traveling
1.5 mile(s)
Comments:     51, overcast, light rain
24 species

Canada Goose  3
Mallard  3
Red-tailed Hawk  1
Killdeer  2
Herring Gull  3
Mourning Dove  2
Northern Flicker  1
Blue Jay  5
Tree Swallow  2
Black-capped Chickadee  2
White-breasted Nuthatch  1
Hermit Thrush  1
American Robin  35
European Starling  4
Chipping Sparrow  1
Song Sparrow  6
White-throated Sparrow  2
Northern Cardinal  3
Red-winged Blackbird  20
Common Grackle  5
Brown-headed Cowbird  1
House Finch  3
American Goldfinch  4
House Sparrow  2

View this checklist online at

This report was generated automatically by eBird v3 (

Mass Audubon’s Boston Nature Center is a special place for experiencing nature close up within the urban environment.  They have many programs focused on kids including a certified pre-school, school vacation and summer day camps, and other activities year around.  They deserve everyone’s support.  One way is to support the Center’s Bird-a-thon team, which will join other Mass Audubon birding groups throughout the Commonwealth, competing to see and hear as many birds as possible beginning at 6PM Friday May 15th for the next 24 hours.  I’ll be part of the Boston team, and if you want to support the wonderful work of the sanctuary, here is a link to my FirstGiving Page for the event.  Thanks.

I’ll be doing a series of spring walks in the Arnold Arboretum, beginning tomorrow, April 18th at 8AM and starting for the Main Gate of the Arboretum on the Arborway.  Hope to see you there!

Good Birding!


Actually NEAR, but I wanted to draw you all in.  This was the view out the window of my house Sunday morning :

P1090438Trying to fight off major SAD, I thought I’d lay out a photo display of what we are all waiting for, beginning in a few weeks and running into April.  I’m focusing on flora, but can’t resist a few birds as well. I took all of these images in the Arnold Arboretum in recent years.

When the snow abates, we will see evidence of spring on the ground and in the trees, even in February.  Here is a very early example:


Skunk Cabbage Symplocarpus foetidus. True to it’s latin name, the flower (seen left below) puts out a fetid odor; attracting ground beetles that act as pollinators while bees are dormant.

Pussy Willows begin to show themselves in February as well. Here is one type:


Rosegold Pussy Willow Salix gracilistyla

And here is a neat black form, also found along Meadow Road in the Arboretum:


Salix gracilistyla var. melanostachys

Even more typical flowering plants can bloom in February.  I took this image on this very date in 2012.  I hope it isn’t in flower today!


Japanese Apricot Prunus mume in the Rose Garden

The landscape can be quite altered in spring.  This is what Faxon Pond looked like on April 1, 2010


Heavy spring rains caused major flooding of the man-made ponds at the Arboretum in 2010. With all this snow we could have a repeat this year.

These next bulbs incorporate snow in their common names, hinting at their early display:

G of Snow  Chionodoxa #2

Glory of the Snow Chionodoxa sps.


Snowdrops Galanthus sps.

Soon some of the lawns below Bussey Hill will look like this:


Crocus sps. on the lawn below Bussey Hill

The earliest migrating birds appear in the cattail marsh along Meadow Road in February.


Male Red-winged Blackbirds establishing territory in the marsh.

But it will take at least another month for this beauty to show itself!


Male Eastern Bluebird, preening

By April, many flowering trees will erupt into bloom.  Maples are not known for their floral display, but up close their early blooms can be spectacular:


Silver Maple Acer saccharinum

Another April bloomer, with tiny but magnificent flowers, can be seen beyond the Tilia collection along Meadow Road:


Japanese Cornel Dogwood Cornus officinalis

This early March flowering shrub was cloned at the Arnold Arboretum in 1928, and was given the name “Arnold Promise:

Arnold Promise Tree #2

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ in bloom on March 2, 2002.

Here is it’s lovely flower close up:

H. x intermedia "Arnold Promise

Another early bloomer, fragrant as is the Witch Hazel above, is the Spicebush:


Japanese Spicebush Lindera obtusiloba, showing it’s handsome bark as well as it’s inflorescence.

Early spring can bring out beauty in emerging leaves as well; here are two examples:


Mountain Ash Sorbus sp. near Dawson Pond


Fragrant Winterhazel Corylopsis glabrescens

At the Rose Garden, April really brings in the color:


Formosan Cherry Prunus‘Okame’


Tokyo Cherry Prunus X yedoensis


Sargent Cherry Prunus Sargentii

All those blossoms bring out the insects:


Honeybee on clethra sps.

Which bring in the birds:


Yellow Warbler, male

Can spring be that far away?  My spring series of bird walks will begin on Saturday April  18th beginning at the main gate at 8AM.  See the AA website for more information.

In the meantime, stay warm!



Birdy, it’s cold outside

Saturday was the annual January Arnold Arboretum bird walk and 30 people signed up on the Arboretum website.  When I awakened and saw the temperature at 12° F, I wondered if anyone would show up.  I got to the main gate at 9AM (Temp 16° F) and was greeted by 19 bundled-up birders, eager and ready to go!  Our first stop was the feeders next to the Hunnewell Building; maintained with funds from the 1912 Edward Whitney Bird Fund (more about that in a future post).  There was little bird activity in the trees and bushes on the grounds, but the feeders were hopping!  Nothing special; but this group of mostly beginning birders were delighted with close-up views of House Finches, American Goldfinches, cardinals and four sparrow species.  I also discussed the “magic halo” I put around the feeders in December; it was doing it’s job.  All the House Sparrows were on the ground waiting for cast-offs from the birds at the feeders.

As we moved on, the birding went from active to nearly absent.  We picked up a Northern Mockingbird in the Leventritt gardens that responded to my pishing:


Northern Mockingbird. This is a year-round species in the Arboretum.                                        Photo: Bob Mayer

We circled down Bussey Hill Road to the ponds which were solid ice.  I showed the group last winter’s roosting hole for an Eastern Screech-owl, but it was vacant.  As we walked past the hole however, a passerby reported there had been an owl in the hole earlier in the morning.  Arboretum birders, keep on the lookout!  We did find some open water farther along on the way back and there were several species in and around that “seep”, including about six of the more than 30 Mourning Doves we admired:


Mourning Dove, another year-round local bird.                                                                                    Photo: Bob Mayer

We finished up the walk studying a group of sparrows working the grass along the roadway.  At first these birds were hard to see even though they were only 20 feet or so from the road; they blended in very well in the spotty snow-covered off-brown grass.  Most of the birds were already on our list, but one “little brown job” stood out; plain gray breast with a single central spot, black tail, prominent rusty cap.  It was our only American Tree Sparrow.


American Tree Sparrow. This is a winter sparrow, departing in the early spring and replaced by a common summer sparrow with a rusty cap- the Chipping Sparrow.                                                      Photo: Bob Mayer

We ended up with exactly the same number of bird species as there were people in our hardy group. Here is the list:

Arnold Arboretum, Suffolk, US-MA
Jan 11, 2015 9:00 AM – 10:30 AM
Protocol: Traveling
2.0 mile(s)
Comments:     16-20, sunny
20 species

Red-tailed Hawk  1
Herring Gull  6
Mourning Dove  30
Downy Woodpecker  1
Northern Flicker  1
Blue Jay  4
Black-capped Chickadee  2
Tufted Titmouse  1
White-breasted Nuthatch  3
American Robin  5
Northern Mockingbird  1
European Starling  8
American Tree Sparrow  1
Song Sparrow  6
White-throated Sparrow  12
Dark-eyed Junco  8
Northern Cardinal  5
House Finch  18
American Goldfinch  6
House Sparrow  4

View this checklist online at

This report was generated automatically by eBird v3 (

As the trip ended I mentioned that there was a very rare bird in a locale less than a mile from the Arboretum.  Some birders already knew about the Black-backed Woodpecker in Forest Hills Cemetery.  First found by Paul Peterson, a famous local birder, he posted the bird on January 6th.  There has been only a dozen reports of this species in the entire state in the last 40 years, and only four since 2000!  Dozens of birders looked for it through the week, without success.  On Friday morning however, another expert birder re-found it.  I headed to the cemetery that afternoon and joined more than 20 birders searching in vain for the bird; several had been there for more than two hours!  I left and went to the Arboretum to fill the feeders in preparation for the Saturday walk.  At about 3:30 PM I returned and found a very excited crowd getting excellent views of the target bird. Here is a photo of the woodpecker, marred by low light as it was taken late in the day:


Black-backed Woodpecker, male.  Note the completely black back and the yellow, rather than red, topknot.                                                                                                                                                          Photo: Bob Mayer

Someone from the Arboretum walk group joined me to try for this bird at the cemetery.  To our delight, when we arrived there were several birders watching the woodpecker.  Experts on this species (seen rarely high in the mountains of New Hampshire, and uncommonly in the boreal and coniferous forests of Canada) predict that this bird may remain for weeks.
He has found a grove of dying hemlocks riddled by insects, just the thing for a hungry woodpecker!  The local list-servers, Massbird and BostonBirds, provide directions to the site in the cemetery, just off Magnolia Avenue.

Good luck, and Good Birding!