End of Year Musings in the Emerald Necklace

2015 was a year of record breaking weather.  The year started off with a series of overwhelming snowstorms that put much of the area in weather lock-down and wreaked havoc in nature.  Vulnerable avian species, especially species that have moved north as the climate warmed, experienced heavier than usual winter die off.  I usually have one or two Carolina Wrens at my feeders in winter; this year none showed after the storms hit, and I didn’t see or hear one throughout the spring and summer anywhere in the area.  Finally one appeared last month:


This disgruntled Carolina Wren had seen enough of cold winter weather.

The unusually cold weather may have brought us the best bird for the year, a Black-backed Woodpecker in Forest Hills Cemetery.  Another rarity was a Grasshopper Sparrow, first found by Paul Peterson in late December 2014, which lingered more than a month into 2015 in an overgrown field near the Boston Nature Center.

Grasshopper Sparrow

This “documentation” shot of a Grasshopper Sparrow barely shows the white eye-ring and streaked upper body of this sparrow, uncommon in Massachusetts.

There were two notable sightings in the waterfowl category in 2015.  Gadwalls appeared on both Leverett and Jamaica Ponds in the Necklace.  I spotted one on Dawson Pond in the Arnold Arboretum as well:


Gadwall, male. The black tail, white wing speculum and chestnut back are distinctive.

Gadwalls are regular inhabitants of coastal marshes like Plum Island in Newburyport, but they are rarely seen in our local ponds.

At least a few Wood Ducks appear nearly every winter on one or more of the waterways in the Emerald Necklace. This year was the first time that breeding was confirmed however;  a family of seven ducklings and their mother was discovered on Leverett Pond (again by the illustrious Paul Peterson) in late July.


Family of Wood Ducks on a dead tree limb on Leverett Pond; the adult female is at far left.

The male of this species may be the most colorful duck in the region:


Male Wood Duck sitting on the snow in February 2015

As 2015 comes to a close, we should note the death of a Great Blue Heron that gave pleasure to many visitors at the Arnold Arboretum this year.


Juvenile Great Blue Heron on Rehder Pond at the Arnold Arboretum, a few weeks before it was killed by two unleashed dogs.

This bird had become accustomed to the many people who stopped to watch it hunt for prey in the pond. That no doubt made it easier for two unleashed dogs to attack and kill it in late July.  This quickly mobilized the Arboretum administration to begin a sustained educational and enforcement program aimed at unleashed dogs and their owners;


Great Blue Herons have been drawn to the easy fishing on the ponds at the AA for years, and I hoped another heron would quickly replace “Baby Blue”, as a group of school children nicknamed the bird this summer.  I did hear a second hand report of one being seen at the ponds, but never saw or confirmed that.  Let’s hope for next spring.

Speaking of spring, unseasonably warm days in December fooled some local trees into early bloom, and even brought out pollinators:


Out of season bloom on a Fugi Cherry in the Rose Garden attracted a hardy honey bee on December 15th!

Finally, the 43rd Boston Christmas Bird Count (BCBC) was conducted this year on Sunday December 20th, in comfortable weather.  I have discussed past BCBC’s in posts in 2014  and in 2013.

This year the Jamaica Plain group of six birders had to hustle to cover all of the Emerald Necklace and adjacent areas of Forest Hills Cemetery and the Boston Nature Center in Mattapan that are traditionally birded for the count.  The early “owlers” heard or saw three Eastern Screech-owls between 4:30 and 7:00 AM, better than last year.  Here is a photo of that species, taken in the Arboretum back in January:


This Rufous Morph Eastern Screech-owl has returned for the third year to the same roost hole where it suns itself on cold winter mornings.

During the day our group found two of the three Red-breasted Nuthatches that were seen in the entire 15 mile diameter Boston circle.  The conifer section of the Arboretum is a good place to find these little relatives of the much more common White-breasted Nuthatch.


Red-breasted Nuthatch atop a spruce in the Arboretum.

Overall, the JP sector group produced 47 species for the count; the BCBC tallied 114 species, about average for a BCBC in recent years.  The only other highlight for our local group was the discovery of a huge flock of at least 2,000 Common Grackles at the Mass Audubon Nature Center. Normally only a few of these birds- common in the warmer months- are found during the BCBC (only four in 2014).  When seen in the sunlight, they are striking birds:

Common Grackle, showing the iridescent sheen of it’s feathers and the yellow iris.

Here is the full list of all the birds tallied this year in the Boston count:

Greater Boston Christmas Bird Count, Dec 20, 2015, Bob Stymeist, compiler

114 species (+3 other taxa) plus nine Count Week (CW) birds

NOTE: The Swainson’s Hawk is the first for a Christmas Count in New England. We had all time high counts for: Red-throated Loon, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Common Raven, Eastern Towhee, and Common Grackle. Carolina Wrens took a big hit with 48 reported down from an all time high of 176 last year before the snows came!

  1. Brant  46
  2. Canada Goose  6857
  3. Mute Swan  66
  4. Wood Duck  34 (30 of these were at Leverett Pond in JP)
  5. American Black Duck  458
  6. Mallard  2167
  7. Northern Shoveler  7
  8. Northern Pintail  4
  9. Green-winged Teal  50
  10. Canvasback  1
  11. Redhead  3
  12. Ring-necked Duck  126
  13. Greater Scaup  130
  14. Common Eider  950
  15. Surf Scoter  303
  16. White-winged Scoter  118
  17. Black Scoter  11
  18. Long-tailed Duck  57
  19. Bufflehead  616
  20. Common Goldeneye  108
  21. Common x Barrow’s Goldeneye (hybrid)  1
  22. Hooded Merganser  310
  23. Common Merganser  202
  24. Red-breasted Merganser  574
  25. Ruddy Duck  100
  26. Wild Turkey  73
  27. Red-throated Loon  66
  28. Common Loon  58
  29. Pied-billed Grebe  5
  30. Horned Grebe  36
  31. Red-necked Grebe  51
  32. Double-crested Cormorant  48
  33. Great Cormorant  1
  34. Great Blue Heron  34
  35. Northern Harrier  7
  36. Sharp-shinned Hawk  6
  37. Cooper’s Hawk  22
  38. Bald Eagle  3 (1 in JP sector)
  39. SWAINSON’S HAWK- juvenile Bear Creek, Saugus  NEW to COUNT
  40. Red-tailed Hawk  96
  41. Rough-legged Hawk  CW Bear Creek
  42. American Coot  73
  43. Sandhill Crane CW flyover on Center St. JP
  44. Killdeer  1
  45. Lesser Yellowlegs  1-only 2nd record- last 1984
  46. Ruddy Turnstone  4
  47. Sanderling  50
  48. Dunlin  213
  49. Purple Sandpiper  5
  50. Thick-billed Murre  CW
  51. Black Guillemot  CW
  52. Ring-billed Gull  1340
  53. Herring Gull  2102
  54. Lesser Black-backed Gull  2
  55. Great Black-backed Gull  158
  56. Great-Black-backed X Herring Gull hybrid 1 photos
  57. Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)  81
  58. Mourning Dove  52
  59. Eastern Screech-Owl  32 (3 in JP sector)
  60. Great Horned Owl  13
  61. Snowy Owl  11- ten at Logan Airport
  62. Barred Owl  3
  63. Belted Kingfisher  14- Tied High Count
  64. Red-bellied Woodpecker  101-New High Count
  65. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 2
  66. Downy Woodpecker  331
  67. Hairy Woodpecker  24
  68. Northern Flicker  20
  69. Pileated Woodpecker  CW- Middlesex Fells
  70. American Kestrel  5
  71. Merlin  2
  72. Peregrine Falcon  9
  73. Blue Jay 689
  74. American Crow  144
  75. Fish Crow  6
  76. Common Raven  11-New High Count
  77. Horned Lark  58
  78. Black-capped Chickadee  1049
  79. Tufted Titmouse  391
  80. Red-breasted Nuthatch  3 (2 in conifers in AA)
  81. White-breasted Nuthatch  424- Tied High Count
  82. Brown Creeper  7
  83. Winter Wren  2
  84. Carolina Wren  48
  85. Golden-crowned Kinglet  18
  86. Ruby-crowned Kinglet  2 (1 in AA)
  87. Hermit Thrush  12
  88. American Robin  1973
  89. Gray Catbird  5
  90. Northern Mockingbird  96
  91. European Starling  3355
  92. American Pipit  1
  93. Bohemian Waxwing  1- Lexington
  94. Cedar Waxwing  18
  95. Lapland Longspur CW
  96. Snow Bunting  32
  97. Orange-crowned Warbler  1
  98. Common Yellowthroat  2
  99. Palm Warbler CW
  100. Pine Warbler  1
  101. Yellow-rumped Warbler  4
  102. Wilson’s Warbler CW Victory Gardens
  103. Yellow-breasted Chat  2
  104. American Tree Sparrow  202
  105. Chipping Sparrow  1
  106. Clay-colored Sparrow  1 Lexington Community Gardens
  107. Dark-eyed Junco  1376
  108. White-crowned Sparrow  1 Amelia Earhart Dam
  109. White-throated Sparrow  556
  110. Savannah Sparrow  7
  111. Savannah Sparrow (Ipswich)  1
  112. Fox sparrow 6
  113. Song Sparrow  599
  114. Swamp Sparrow  15
  115. Eastern Towhee  6 New High Count
  116. Northern Cardinal  432
  117. Dickcissel  1- Allandale Woods
  118. Red-winged Blackbird  32
  119. Rusty Blackbird  6
  120. Common Grackle  2017 (2014 in JP sector)
  121. Brown-headed Cowbird  1
  122. Baltimore Oriole CW
  123. House Finch  409
  124. Pine Siskin  1
  125. American Goldfinch  592
  126. House Sparrow  3940

This report was generated automatically by eBird v3

I will be leading a walk in the Arnold on Sunday January 10th from 9 to 10:30 AM beginning at the main gate off the Arborway, for those anxious to get going on their 2016 year lists!

Happy New Year and Good Birding in 2016!

Late Fall Walk in the Arnold Arboretum

Seven birders joined me on this lovely but chilly morning for a walk to the ponds and back through the Leventritt Shrub and Vine Garden, searching for late migrants and resident bird species.  Not many migrants spotted, but we did see a couple of nice birds and fully enjoyed the great weather.

One of our group, using a 600mm long lens as both camera and spotting scope,  located a woodpecker he couldn’t identify.  After some study we determined it to be a young Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (YBSA).  Toward the end of the walk this same man found and photographed yet another juvenile YBSA; as it was more than a half mile from our first sighting it was likely a different bird (sibling?)  This was our only woodpecker on the walk, but a nice one!  Here are images of a young, not so fancy sapsucker, and the beautiful adult of the species:


Juvenile Yellow-bellied Sapsucker on a snag. The white band on the wing is distinctive, although the bright red patterning on the adult has not yet developed.


Adult Yellow-bellied Sapsucker on a yew branch, showing the pattern of bark penetration unique to this species.

We continued along Meadow Road, picking up some fairly common birds for the Arboretum.  American Robins were everywhere, feasting on the abundant fruits of the season, especially the juicy berries of the Asian Corktrees.


American Robin. The ubiquity of this bird can cause us to miss how handsome they are up close.

We spent some time searching for birds near the three man-made ponds landscaped into the property by Fredrick Law Olmsted at the end of the nineteenth century.  During the drought of late summer two of the ponds nearly dried up, leaving only Dawson Pond as habitat for local aquatic life. Today all the ponds were back after the recent rains.  There were no waterfowl,  but as we rounded a pond we heard a distinctive call:

Recording courtesy of Lang Elliott NatureSound Studio

Flying back and forth over Dawson Pond we saw the bird, a Belted Kingfisher!  Kingfishers are never far from open water, and they usually seek greater bodies than the Arboretum has to offer.  Perhaps the concentration of fish brought on by the dry summer brought this one in. In less than a minute, it flew off to the north. They are striking birds:


This distant image of a Belted Kingfisher shows it to be a female, from the brown belly band.

The remainder of the walk turned up some other familiar birds.  We ended up with five sparrow species, including the photo of a Swamp Sparrow taken by another photographer in the group. He spotted the bird just before the walk began, and shared it with all of us.   It is quite colorful for a little brown job:


Swamp Sparrow. The rusty-brown cap, gray face with black malar stripe, and rust spot on the wing help to identify this uncommon sparrow.

Here is our final list:

Arnold Arboretum, Suffolk, Massachusetts, US
Oct 10, 2015 8:00 AM – 9:40 AM
Protocol: Traveling
2.0 mile(s)
Comments:     55, sunny
18 species

Mourning Dove  6
Belted Kingfisher  1
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker  2
Blue Jay  4
Black-capped Chickadee  3
Tufted Titmouse  2
White-breasted Nuthatch  3
American Robin  50
Northern Mockingbird  1
European Starling  6
Chipping Sparrow  5
White-throated Sparrow  2
Song Sparrow  3
Swamp Sparrow  1
Northern Cardinal  3
Common Grackle  15
American Goldfinch  8
House Sparrow  15

View this checklist online at http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S25362753

This report was generated automatically by eBird v3 (http://ebird.org)

My next scheduled bird walk will be on Sunday December 6th, beginning at 9:00AM at the MBTA Longwood Green Line parking lot on Chapel Street in Brookline.  We will look for resident land birds and waterfowl along the Riverway area of the Emerald Necklace.  I hope the current construction in the area won’t be too much of a distraction.

Good Birding!

Spring Series Finale at the Arnold

On Saturday morning I led the last of five spring bird walks at the Arnold Arboretum; 46 people showed up to get a glimpse of the tail end of the migration and enjoy the beautiful weather and some spectacular trees.  I began the walk with my docent hat on; discussing the Tuliptree in full bloom in front of the main gate. What a lovely flower this Asian x American cross was displaying:


Tuliptree Liriodendron tulipifera x L. chinense 584-81-A

By then we had heard or seen several birds, including a flyover Great Blue Heron.  As we did the circle up to the Leventritt Shrub and Vine Garden, past the lilacs and down to the ponds and back, we ticked off many of the resident birds and nesting migrants to be seen late in the spring.  I had been seeing and hearing lots of Baltimore Orioles since the first of May, and several sharp-eyed birders were able to locate three active nests.  Such lovely birds; and so talented in their nest-building skills:


Male Baltimore Oriole at hanging nest


Baltimore Oriole, male

Orioles were the bird of the day. We tried to find the other, much less common, oriole found in the Arboretum, but didn’t succeed.  If we had it would have looked like this:


Male Orchard Oriole. Note the chestnut color replacing the vivid orange of it’s cousin the Baltimore Oriole above.

Early in the walk several small flocks of Cedar Waxwings flew by; a couple of them stopped for a distant look. Here’s a close-up:


Cedar Waxwing

We heard two vireo species in the fully leafed out trees– Red-eyed and Warbling – but never saw one.  The song of the Warbling Vireo is frequently heard in the Arboretum, where they nest every year. Here is a recording of it:

Warbling Vireo recording courtesy of Lang Elliott NatureSound Studio

Red-bellied Woodpeckers were also heard in several locations.  It is a bird worth searching for:


Male Red-bellied Woodpecker

We also inspected several of the fifteen nest boxes that are scattered about on the AA grounds.  In one of the boxes in Leventritt Garden we caught a House Wren peering out of the hole before it flew.


House Wren on a Honey Locust tree

We didn’t disturb the nest, but here is what we might have seen if we had:


House Wren nestlings. The stick nest is typical of the species. This image was taken in 2006 during a survey of nest boxes. No birds were harmed during this survey!

Here is today’s eBird list:

Arnold Arboretum, Suffolk, Massachusetts, US
May 30, 2015 8:00 AM – 10:20 AM
Protocol: Traveling
1.5 mile(s)
Comments:     BBC Walk. 58-70 sun and clouds
31 species,  all species not seen by all

Canada Goose  2
Great Blue Heron  1
Red-tailed Hawk  1
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)  1
Mourning Dove  5
Chimney Swift  2
Ruby-throated Hummingbird  1
Red-bellied Woodpecker  2
Northern Flicker  1
Warbling Vireo  4
Red-eyed Vireo  1
Blue Jay  1
Tree Swallow  3
Black-capped Chickadee  1
Tufted Titmouse  2
White-breasted Nuthatch  1
House Wren  1
American Robin  25
Gray Catbird  5
Northern Mockingbird  2
European Starling  5
Cedar Waxwing  16
Yellow Warbler  4
Chipping Sparrow  3
Song Sparrow  3
Northern Cardinal  2
Red-winged Blackbird  10
Common Grackle  20
Baltimore Oriole  10
American Goldfinch  2
House Sparrow  9

View this checklist online at http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S23704600

This report was generated automatically by eBird v3 (http://ebird.org)

Those who joined the walk, and who scan this list carefully, will note the absence of a bird we thought we identified. High up in a tree I spotted a small bird which I initially thought was a flycatcher in the Empid. group.  As some of us zeroed in on the distant bird we thought it showed a yellow rump before it flew, and declared it a Yellow-rumped Warbler.  I commented that this was unusual since this warbler, common during the migration, should be long gone farther north by now.  When I put the bird in the eBird system it brought me up short; “details please”, as this would be a rare sighting in Suffolk County at the end of May.  They wanted a full description of the sighting, or a photograph.  I  reflected on the sighting and decided that in fact we had not seen this bird well enough for a certain identification, and deleted the bird from our list.  Birding operates mostly on the honor system and most birders are honest.  Like the cruiser sitting at the traffic light, eBird helps to keep us that way.

At the start of the walk, to whet the group’s appetite, I mentioned a Scarlet Tanager had been sighted close to our start just two days earlier.  We didn’t see it, but here is an image I took two weeks ago in nearby Franklin Park:


Male Scarlet Tanager in Franklin Park

Maybe next year!

This was the last spring walk for the season.  Check the Arboretum website later in the summer for the fall schedule of walks.

Good birding!

P.S –  For Bird-a thon 2015 I went out with two other birders and tried to find as many species as possible in several locations south of Boston. Out final tally was 77 species; not great, but not bad for a hard days birding. Thanks to all of you who contributed to my First Giving page for the Boston Nature Center.  Many kids will thank you too, as they enjoy nature in the city at their summer camps this year!