March Madness Birding

Birding in the Arnold Arboretum in mid March is an exercise in unchecked optimism, weather denial or just plain madness.  Only a few migratory birds have arrived in Massachusetts by then and most of those are not common at any time in our landscape.  Nonetheless I led a walk this chilly but dry morning and thirteen equally mad people showed up.  We actually had a nice walk and saw most of what is available at this time of year in the Arboretum.  We could have encountered a woodcock or even a killdeer–  but we didn’t.  We walked “the pipe” through the wet meadow looking for snipe– but came up empty.  I did have one in the conifer section of the AA three weeks ago though; a great looking bird with a fantastic bill:


Wilson’s Snipe  looking for worms in the seep at the top of Conifer Hill
Photo: Bob Mayer

In my promo for today’s walk I promised we would see the avian harbinger of spring, and that proved true.  Here is a shot of one of them:


Male Red-winged Blackbird displaying and calling to assert/establish territory. A second one is visible in the background.
Photo: Bob Mayer

Only the males arrive early and they have been here since March 1st.  After territory has been established, the females will arrive and sort out who gets who and what.

We of course looked for the Eastern Screech-Owl that I discussed in my last post but it seems to have moved on to another location; perhaps it is seeking a mate elsewhere in the Arboretum.

Although we had no unusual birds, everyone in the group got good looks at the birds we saw. The list included:

Arnold Arboretum, Suffolk, US-MA
Mar 22, 2014 8:00 AM – 9:40 AM
Red-tailed Hawk  1
Herring Gull  1
Mourning Dove  8
Red-bellied Woodpecker  1- heard only
Downy Woodpecker  1- feeder
Blue Jay  3
Black-capped Chickadee  2
Tufted Titmouse  3
American Robin  20
Northern Mockingbird  1
European Starling  5
Song Sparrow  4
White-throated Sparrow  4
Dark-eyed Junco  10
Northern Cardinal  4
Red-winged Blackbird  8
Common Grackle  12
House Finch  2
American Goldfinch  2 – feeder
House Sparrow  4

View this checklist online at

This report was generated automatically by eBird v3 (

My next Arboretum bird walk will be Saturday April 26th beginning at 8 AM at the Main Gate off the Arborway.  Further directions, a map and a downloadable check list can be found on the website.

Good Birding

What about Birdfeeders?

In the winter I probably get more questions from casual birding friends about bird feeders than anything else. Should I or shouldn’t I? What kind of seed should I buy? Should I splurge on pre-shelled seed? How do I get rid of those hungry squirrels? Those damn House Sparrows are eating me out of house and home!  Why don’t the birds come to my wonderful feeder?

Our basic instinct — as we sit comfortably inside, watching those tiny creatures out in the cold and snow — is to feed them.  And for the same winter weather reasons, wouldn’t it be nice to stay inside and still enjoy the birds?

Off and on over the years a debate over whether feeding birds is good for them has persisted.  Some say feeding birds will make them dependent and lazy, like the “hand up not hand out” position on public welfare.  I was only able to find one reference to support that claim, a Swiss study that found that fed males of a common European bird started to “sleep in” — beginning their mating calls later in the morning — a practice that might be nice for the individual bird but isn’t good for natural selection to advance the species.

There are lots of other arguments expounded: here is a fact or fiction review of some of them. My position is that if the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, the American Birding Association and Massachusetts Audubon all promote bird feeding at least in the harsh winter months, it can’t be all that bad for birds.

There are some important ground rules however. Use fresh seed each year and keep feeders clean; washing with a 10% bleach solution will work. Think about how many animals are eating from the same feeder – if one of them was ill, the disease could travel to the species who visited your feeder, who then go bring it to your neighbor’s feeders…and so on, and so on…

In particular, there is an avian conjunctivitis that can spread in the feeder crowd. House Finches have high sensitivity to this illness that can lead to blindness. Their susceptibility is thought to be due to the fact that the eastern House Finch population originated entirely from a small number of pet birds released in the 1940s; they are highly inbred, exhibit low genetic diversity and have lower immunity to disease.

So if we’ve decided that it’s all right to provide food for birds, what should be laid at table?  The most popular food used by birders is sunflower seeds.  Many of the less expensive mixed seeds sold in grocery stores include types less attractive to most seed eating birds — red millet and cracked corn for example. Some bird seed suppliers sell pre-shelled, or “no waste” seed.  This avoids the mess of hulls piling up under the feeder, and killing grass or other vegetation, but it is expensive.  I far as I know the birds are happy to shell their own if esthetics aren’t an issue.  If you are especially interested in attracting woodpeckers put out some suet cakes…that should work:


A male Northern Flicker. Flickers do not come to suet as often as other woodpecker species.
Photo: Bob Mayer

There is a group of feeder prone birds referred to as “winter finches” and there are irruptions of some of those species in some years (not so in 2014 though).  Last winter was a good year for this perky little bird:


Pine Siskin.  When the northern cone crop is poor these birds head south and often end up at feeders providing niger or thistle seed as seen in the image.
Photo: Bob Mayer

Those who get into attracting unusual birds in winter will put out meal worms or fruits like blueberries and orange sections.  I’ve tried to pull in bluebirds with such offerings without success. Last winter though, I posted about a Baltimore Oriole that came to my feeders for seed and was encouraged to stay with orange halves:


Female Baltimore Oriole eyeing orange half with House Sparrow eating hulled sunflower seeds above.
Photo: Bob Mayer

In the last thirteen years I have been lucky enough to see over thirty species of birds at my winter only feeders.  At first I lost a lot of seed to Gray Squirrels that frequent my yard.  Since installing a guard on the feeder post I’ve saved a lot of money.  Squirrels will climb the pole, but can’t seem to get past it.


The black guard is an upside-down can that sits on a ring so that it moves if a squirrel tries to climb over it.

For those whose feeders can’t be protected in this way there are other options.  Several online bird feeding sites offer seed that has been treated with capsaicin, the active ingredient in red pepper. Birds are not effected by it, but squirrels won’t eat it. For those of you with a bit of a sadistic streak, there are fancy bird feeders that have a built in spring mechanism that spins then a heavy squirrel gets on the feeder, tossing it away like water off lettuce in a spinner. Who knows, maybe the squirrels like it; although I doubt it.

If you’ve put up a feeder in an urban setting you no doubt have come to curse another seed eater, the non-native House or English Sparrow.  This introduced species, apply named Passer domesticus for their fondness for human dwellings, tends to move in flocks and will eat you out of bird seed as fast as a couple of hungry squirrels Once they have found your treasure trove they will keep on coming. This fall I was invaded by 20 or more “limeys” and I decided to try a technique I’d heard about from another urban birder– a so called “magic halo”.

This device consists of a large wire wheel from which lines of string or fishing line are suspended every eighteen inches or so, forming a frail barrier around the suspended feeders.  Here is an image of the makeshift rig I created from wire coat hangers:


A home made magic halo designed to keep House Sparrows away from bird feeders.

It is no wonder that commercial makers of these devices call them Magic Halos. They indeed “magically” keep non-native House Sparrows away from seed and suet while allowing native seed eating birds in.  The House Sparrows will fly toward the feeders but shy away at the last minute, ending up sitting forlornly beneath the feeding station:


Male House Sparrow
Photo: Bob Mayer

In the four months that I had this device in place I saw no more than two or three House Sparrows get past it.  I have no idea how it works, nor have I read any satisfactory explanation.  Apparently these birds, members of a group called Old World Sparrows, have a aversion to dangling strings that our native species do not.

Regrettably, after saving me lots of money in bird seed and requiring only minor maintenance, my rig was destroyed by a marauding Red-tailed Hawk who “took it out” while trying to snatch a bird at the feeder.

Before I got to the task of trying to put my halo back together I ran into a new feeder dilemma. For the first time in memory I attracted a Northern Mockingbird to my feeders.  As “mockers”  were one of the least reported feeder birds in Massachusetts in this year’s Focus on Feeders (only 75 reports, versus over 700 for chickadees, juncos and cardinals) I was delighted to see this feisty and flashy bird.

But no longer.

This mockingbird has established ‘territory” over my feeders,  chasing every other bird that comes in or even gets close to the feeding station:


Northern Mockingbird on top of my feeding station
Photo: Bob Mayer

What started out as interesting has now became infuriating!  For the last month no bird has been able to come to the feeders longer than a few seconds before he swoops in and chases it.  I am saving a whole lot on feed. The mocker is the only one eating, and he doesn’t eat much.  Most of the time he just sits on or near the feeders looking like he is king of the rock. And he is!


Northern Mockingbird
Photo: Bob Mayer

I tried taking the feeders down for a week. He was back within an hour of re-posting them.  I put out a near life size photo of the neighborhood hawk.


Immature Red-tailed Hawk after a catch and feed; note the tell-tale blood spots on the breast.
Photo: Bob Mayer

He comes up and stares at it!  I guess I just have to wait out the season, unless of course the real Red-tail decides to solve my problem.  Maybe I’ll try to put out a contract!

Good Bird Feeding!

Arboretum Owls Update 2014

I began this blog with a post on Owls in the Arnold Arboretum just over a year ago, so it seems time for an update on these very popular birds of prey.  The winter of 2012-13 was the year of the Barred Owl; an irruption of this species from northern forests produced many sightings in our neighborhood and throughout Massachusetts.  Here is one seen back in December of 2012:


Barred Owl in the conifer section of the Arboretum.
Photo: Bob Mayer

This winter there have been only two sightings of Barred Owl in all of Suffolk County.  Rather than suggesting a decline in the species, this is likely a variation based on such things as weather, breeding sudccess and food supply.

This year’s “owl of the year”, as many of you have probably heard, is the Snowy Owl.  Speculation is that this erratic migration into southern climes as far down as Bermuda, was due to a highly successful breeding season in 2013 in the arctic tundra, followed by an insufficient lemming population as the year progressed.  In any case sightings of this owl, the largest by weight of all North American owls, have been greater than in a half century of records in Massachusetts.  An Audubon owl expert who traps snowies  at Logan Airport, and moves them to areas safer for both birds and airplanes, has trapped a record ninety owls this season.

So far there has only been one report of a Snowy Owl in the Emerald Necklace in 2014 – on the first of the year at Jamaica Pond.  I saw one at Castle Island in late December 2013, when I scoped the Logan runways and found one in the distance.  As I continued my walk along the Pleasant Bay causeway someone put me onto a much better sighting; this beauty sitting on a corner of Fort Independence:


Snowy Owl, probably a female given the amount of black markings.
Photo: Bob Mayer

Closer to home there have been other developments in the owl world over the past year.  As I reported in a post in April, the locally famous one-eyed female Great Horned Owl successfully raised a pair of owlets in Forest Hills Cemetery last spring.  There is an early report that she is sitting on eggs again this year, but the location of the nest is being closely held so as not to disturb the pair at this critical time. Great Horned Owls are the earliest bird species to nest in Massachusetts.

Another occurrence of nesting Great Horned Owls this year did not turn out as well.  Back in May I was told by an Arboretum staffer that a fledgling owl was found injured beneath a nest in a White Pine atop Bussey Hill.  It was taken to a rehab center where it had to be euthanized due to a badly broken wing.  As a second owlet was said to be at the nest I went there right away.  I was too late; I found the nest but no owls. Not far away I spotted this grisly scene:


Dead Great-horned Owlet. This bird looked to be fully fledged. It had been decapitated by some predator- perhaps another owl, a crow, hawk or four-footed predator while on the ground.
Photo: Bob Mayer

This winter I went back to the site to see if there might be a new nesting attempt in the old nest (common with Great Horned Owls) but discovered no owls and also no tree!  The specimen had been deemed unhealthy and had been cut down.

I end this post on a happier note.  About two weeks ago the same staff member that had put me on to the Great-horned Owl nest in the Arboretum emailed me about an Eastern Screech Owl that was sunbathing in a hole in a tree along Meadow Road near the ponds.  This time I was not disappointed:


Eastern Screech-Owl, red phase. This species also has a gray coloration. The colors are not gender specific.
Photo: Bob Mayer

The bird has been seen in this roost hole on most days since it was initially found so it may stick around for a while.  To find it (or at least the hole) follow these directions:

The roost hole is an accessioned tree with a black tag, Robinia pseudo acacia 23173-C, and is on the right of the road coming in from the main entrance; it is just at the end of a wooden fence as you reach the legume section and about 100 yards before the ponds. The tree leans heavily toward the road and the hole is about 30 feet up. The owl is best seen from the pond side looking back.

Screech owls don’t lay eggs until mid to late March so this is not a nest.  Nesting owls are given special attention by the birding community to try to avoid disturbance that might cause the female to abandon the nest.  Perhaps this owl will pair and mate and nest somewhere in the Arboretum; they have done so in the past. If I find the nest site, I’ll never tell!

I’m leading a winter bird walk on Saturday March 22nd beginning at 8:00 AM and starting from the main gate off the Arborway.  Perhaps the owl will still be there. We also should see the real harbingers of spring by that date.  Spoiler alert – it isn’t a robin!  Join me.

Good Birding.