Back-to-back Spring Bird Walks in the Arboretum

This weekend I led walks in two different sectors of the Arnold Arboretum.  On Saturday, 33 people assembled at the Peters Hill Gate on a chilly morning, hoping for some early migrants.  I schedule my walks months ahead, so it is always chance whether the migration will coincide with the walks; the cool weather in the past few weeks combined with unfavorable winds slowed the movement of birds this year.  We had only one warbler on this walk and saw no orioles or other migrants that can arrive by the first of May.  On the other hand I had the pleasant sighting of several good birding friends who were helpful in flushing out the birds we did see.  One was an old friend who used to co-lead walks with me a few years ago when he was a staffer at the Arboretum;  he has gone on to work at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, NY.  What a pleasure it was to see him!

We began the walk by seeing and hearing some common seasonal species, Chipping Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird and Tree Swallow:


Chipping Sparrow


Male Red-winged blackbird, displaying his red and yellow epaulettes


Male Tree Swallow at nest box

It was great to see Tree Swallows on some of the nest boxes at the top of Peters Hill; House Sparrows have been invading them in recent years.

As we proceeded down the hill and along the perimeter walkway we picked up more species, including our only warbler, a Yellow Warbler.


Singing male Yellow Warbler

This was my FOY (first of year) Yellow Warbler.  Soon they will become commonplace, especially in the Bradley Rosaceous Collection  near the ponds in the main section of the Arboretum. Most of the warblers that pass through during the spring will continue north to northern New England, and Canada to breed; the Yellow Warbler is one of the few that actually nests here.


Female Yellow Warbler at nest with several chicks

After crossing Bussey Street we walked a forested path parallel to South Street to the South Street Gate and continued in the woods along Hemlock Hill Road, but saw little avian activity.  As we walked back to the Bussey Street Gate where we began, a keen- eared birder heard a high pitched twittering warble, much too high for my aging ears. A Pine Siskin was calling from the top of a big conifer!


Pine Siskin. Note the very sharp bill and yellow cast to the wings and tail.

Given the date, this was the most unusual bird of the walk. These “winter finches” are usually long gone by now; perhaps the cold winter and spring kept them around.  We later saw a small flock flying among the cone-bearing conifers, their favorite food source.

After the walk ended, several hangers on were lucky to see our only raptors on the walk.  Two Cooper’s Hawks were funnelling overhead.  A minute later they were joined by an adult Red-tailed Hawk…  and then they were all gone.  Nice finish to a pleasant walk.

Here is the list of birds identified on the walk:

Arnold Arboretum, Peters Hill and Hemlock Hill areas
May 2, 2015 8:00 AM – 9:50 AM
Protocol: Traveling
1.5 mile(s)
Comments:     39-45, sun and clouds
26 species

Canada Goose  5
Double-crested Cormorant  6
Cooper’s Hawk  2
Red-tailed Hawk  1
Herring Gull  2
Mourning Dove  5
Downy Woodpecker  1
Northern Flicker  2
Blue Jay  5
Tree Swallow  6
Black-capped Chickadee  2
Tufted Titmouse  1
White-breasted Nuthatch  1
American Robin  20
European Starling  2
Yellow Warbler  1
Chipping Sparrow  15
Song Sparrow  1
White-throated Sparrow  3
Northern Cardinal  3
Red-winged Blackbird  12
Common Grackle  20
Brown-headed Cowbird  4
Pine Siskin  6
American Goldfinch  4
House Sparrow  10

On Sunday morning a group of 26 joined me at the South Street Gate for a casual walk through Bussey Brook Meadow and Marsh.  This walk was co-sponsered by the Brookline Bird Club and the Arboretum Park Conservancy.  I discussed the interesting history of this area in a previous post last spring.

The area is a special place for birds and other fauna- many thickets, brambles, downed trees, and spontaneous wetlands- in contrast to the manicured habitat of the Arboretum proper.  We were hoping that brief southwest winds overnight might have brought in some new migrants; it was not to be.  We saw several  warblers high up in deciduous trees just leafing out, but the distance and back-lighting only allowed us to tease out a Yellow Warbler.

The highlight of the walk turned out to be evidence of nesting by several resident and one migrant species.  The migrants were a pair of Tree Swallows occupying a nest box.


Tree Swallow in nest box

Shortly thereafter we found another cavity nester, Northern Flicker:


Male Northern Flicker at nest hole

I told the group that this nest hole, in an old Catalpa tree, had different tenants last year:


Red-bellied Woodpecker at same nest hole one year earlier

It looks like the flickers gained control before the Red-bellied Woodpeckers did, or else the woodies have gone elsewhere (we did not see or hear one on the walk).

We also found, low down, some regular nests which provided good looks of a female Northern Cardinal on her nest and of two American Robins also sitting on eggs:


American Robin on nest

And yes, the eggs really are robin’s egg blue:

P1310250We ended the walk with a sighting of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. These flitty little birds are hard to see and even harder to photograph; they never sit still!  Here is a shot of one showing the identifiers; broken white eye-ring, white wingbars, and a hint of the crown that gives the bird it’s name (not visible unless the bird is excited);


Ruby-crowned Kinglet

By the time we ended the walk the temperature was above 50; beginning to feel like real spring!  Here is the list from Bussey Brook:

Arnold Arboretum, Bussey Brook Meadow and Wetland
May 3, 2015 8:00 AM – 9:40 AM
Protocol: Traveling
1.0 mile(s)
Comments:     45-50, sun and clouds
21 species (+1 other taxa)

Red-tailed Hawk  1
Herring Gull  1
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)  6
Mourning Dove  3
Downy Woodpecker  2
Northern Flicker  2 one at nest hole
Blue Jay  3
Tree Swallow  2 nest box
Black-capped Chickadee  2
Tufted Titmouse  2
White-breasted Nuthatch  1
Ruby-crowned Kinglet  1
American Robin  15 2 on nests
European Starling  2
Yellow Warbler  1
warbler sp.  3
Chipping Sparrow  3
Song Sparrow  4
Northern Cardinal  2 1 on nest
Red-winged Blackbird  5
Common Grackle  25
House Sparrow  4

View this checklist online at

This report was generated automatically by eBird v3 (

On Saturday May 16, I will be doing the Mass Audubon Bird-a-thon for the Boston Nature Center.  If you wish to contribute to our effort you can do so at:

My next, and last, spring Arboretum walk will be on Saturday May 30, starting from the Main Gate at 8AM.

Good Birding!

In 19

Arboreutm Walks Begin!

Saturday April 18th marked the first of a series of spring bird walks in the Arnold Arboretum.  We got off with a bang, the weather was fine, and after this dreadful winter the birders came out in droves; over forty people joined the group.  After first checking the feeders, where there was only a White-breasted Nuthatch, we moved down Meadow Road and found several Tree Swallows checking out the birdhouses on the grassy slope:


Two male Tree Swallows inspecting a nest box.

This is the earliest swallow species of spring, arriving from Central America and Mexico a little more than a week ago.  We now have 15 nest boxes placed around the grounds and many of them will play host to Tree Swallows this spring.

As we continued the walk we began to grow our list of woodpeckers.  We ended up with four species, although two were only heard and none gave us great views. The best sighting was two Hairy Woodpeckers chasing each other around in a territorial or mating display.  This species is uncommon in the area so it was a nice find.

We headed up the grass slope above the Forsythia Path to the top of Bussey Hill; I was determined to find the first warbler of the year for the group.  We entered a group of White Pines where this early arrival likes to hang out; appropriately called the Pine warbler.


Pine Warbler. These warblers are heard more than seen as they spend much of their time high up in conifers. This one was nice enough to come to ground for a photo op.

As we approached the area another recent arrival, a Chipping Sparrow, posed for us and sang its trill; a call so similar to the Pine Warbler that even seasoned birders can confuse them.


Chipping Sparrow



Chipping Sparrow recording courtesy of Lang Elliott NatureSound Studio

Now ready to seek out our target bird, we looked, listened, and even played a Pine Warbler recording- without response.  We moved on with regret, but within 100 yards one of our group heard what she thought might be the bird; its trill is shorter, slower, and softer than that of the Chippy.  Sure enough, we all heard and then saw our only warbler in this early walk!

Pine Warbler recording courtesy of Lang Elliott NatureSound Studio

As we returned to the main gate we ticked off a number of other resident and early migrant species. Here is our total list for the walk:

Arnold Arboretum, Suffolk, US-MA
Apr 18, 2015 8:00 AM – 9:30 AM
Protocol: Traveling
1.5 mile(s)
Comments:     51, sun and clouds
31 species

Canada Goose  4
Red-tailed Hawk  1
Herring Gull  2
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)  4
Mourning Dove  5
Red-bellied Woodpecker  1 heard
Downy Woodpecker  1
Hairy Woodpecker  2
Northern Flicker  2 heard
Blue Jay  4
American Crow  1
Tree Swallow  5
Black-capped Chickadee  3
Tufted Titmouse  1
White-breasted Nuthatch  1
American Robin  30
Northern Mockingbird  1
European Starling  2
Pine Warbler  1
Chipping Sparrow  4
Savannah Sparrow  1  seen just before the walk
Song Sparrow  2
White-throated Sparrow  1
Dark-eyed Junco  1
Northern Cardinal  4
Red-winged Blackbird  12
Common Grackle  6
Brown-headed Cowbird  8
House Finch  2
American Goldfinch  10
House Sparrow  1

View this checklist online at

This report was generated automatically by eBird v3 (

The next two Arboretum walks will be back- to- back two weeks from now.  On Saturday May 2nd the walk will begin at the Peters Hill Gate at 8 AM. The next morning I’ll lead a walk for the Arboretum Park Conservancy in Bussey Brook Meadow and Marsh beginning at the South Street Gate and also at 8 AM. Both walks are free and birders at all levels are welcome.  The migration should be in full swing by then!

Good Birding!

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!