Jamaica Pond Ducks

Since 2000, there have been at least 28 species of waterfowl recorded on the waters of Jamaica Pond.  At 68 acres, this 50 feet deep spring-fed glacial kettle pond is the largest fresh water pond in Boston.  While ducks can be found here year-round, fall and winter are peak times to see a greater variety of species.  As lakes and ponds farther north begin to freeze over, waterfowl that depend on open water for food and protection move south.

Probably the most common bird on the Pond is the Canada Goose.  Their numbers are greatest at night when they rest here, protected from predators like coyotes.  Each morning hundreds leave, heading to grassy areas like the William J Devine Golf Course at Franklin Park.  Everyone recognizes these birds, although they are not universally loved as they foul grass and paths with their excrement and can get a bit aggressive during the breeding season.


Canada Goose
Photo: Bob Mayer

Mallard ducks are also common in all seasons on the Pond.  They are in the group of ducks called “dabblers”, which describes their style of feeding on the surface or “tipping- up” to reach down for vegetation in shallow water.


A pair of Mallards, bottom-up, as they reach for vegetation below the surface.
Photo: Bob Mayer


Feeding the waterfowl at the Pond is discouraged; a bread diet is no healthier for them than it is for us, and it encourages the ducks to hang around and foul the ground.  However, as birds stream in from all over the pond for free eats, it is too tempting for children and loving grandparents to resist feeding them and so the practice persists.  Here’s a shot of a male Mallard looking like a toy as he carefully negotiates his way across the ice:

Mallard decoy

Mallard, male
Photo : Bob Mayer

The females in most avian species are less colorful than their male counterparts.  Males are generally the instigators in the mating season and have more need for fancy looks to gain attention and promote their gene pool. More importantly, the females usually manage the brooding and infant care and do that best if they blend into their surroundings.  A favorite of mine on the Pond for many years was a female Mallard who was a partial albino (leucistic) and in addition had a very fancy “do”:


My wife and I nicknamed this leucistic female Mallard  “Blondie.” Her head ornament appeared to be made of feathers rather than being a growth of some sort.   She was very popular with the local boys on the Pond, but I have not seen her recently.   Ducks may live more than 20 years.

Mallards and Canada Geese are year-round residents of Jamaica Pond.  In the fall several other species of waterfowl arrive almost every year. The most abundant are American Coots.

American Coot – The blackish head, bulbous gray body, stark white bill (not at all like a duck), and lobed (rather than webbed) feet are diagnostic features of this bird.
Photo: Bob Mayer

Coots are not true ducks; notice the absence of web feet in the image.  They arrive in early November and a few may remain into April, but a cover (the collective name for a group of coots) of forty or more is usually present on the Pond in the dead of winter. Here are some coots that underestimated how cold it was getting in January of 2007:


American Coots on a cakewalk as the pond ices over, a dangerous time for them, as they are vulnerable to attack from Great Black-backed Gulls.
Photo: Bob Mayer

The Ruddy Duck is another winter visitor to the Pond. These small “diving” ducks have a white cheek patch, most prominent in males. The nickname for the Ruddy Duck is “stiff-tail” because of their tendency to carry their tails erect when swimming:


These two images capture the essence of Ruddy Ducks in winter.
Left photo – Pair of Ruddies showing the erect stiff-tail and the male (right) developing its ruddy breast
Right photo- Two female Ruddies and a male (back) showing the more prominent white cheek patch and the bill beginning to develop the intense blue of a breeding duck.
Photos: Bob Mayer

Almost all ducks have two plumages each year.  In most species the alternate or “breeding” plumage is displayed in the colder months and the basic plumage—often much less fancy in males—is worn in the fall. Ruddy Ducks are the reverse, so we don’t get to see the male Ruddy Duck with his rusty body and shocking bill color when breeding:


Male Ruddy Duck in breeding plumage showing a turquoise colored bill.  May 2012, Plum Island, MA
Photo: Bob Mayer

Even so these little ducks, which can number more than one hundred in some winters, are fun to watch as they disappear to forage for plants or small fresh water creatures below.

Another duck that appears every winter on Jamaica Pond is arguably its most beautiful visitor, the Hooded Merganser:


Hooded Merganser pair (female at top) swimming in concert with two coots
Photo: Bob Mayer

Hooded Mergs are the smallest members of the merganser family, the others being Common Merganser (seen occasionally on the Pond) and Red-breasted Merganser, a primarily salt-water species.  The patterning in the male is stunning, but the subtlety of the female plumage is equally arresting. They are seldom numerous on the pond but always stand out with their brilliant finery. These diving ducks are strictly carnivores, disappearing for half a minute or more as they hunt for fish or crustaceans.  Their bills are specially adapted for their diet—long, thin and with serrated edges for grabbing slippery fish.


A female Hooded Merganser with a successful catch. Both sexes have a ridge or crest of feathers on the head that they can erect.
Photo: Bob Mayer

Finally the smallest water bird that usually visits Jamaica Pond each fall and winter is, like the coot, not really a duck:


Pied-billed Grebe.  At less than a foot in length, this is the smallest waterfowl on the pond.  Some members of the Grebe family perform elaborate dances at their breeding grounds in Western North America.
Photo: Bob Mayer

Pied-Billed Grebes have small heads and long necks and spend all of their lives on water except during nesting.  They are voracious fish eaters:


Pied-billed Grebe. At first glance the fish seems too big for the bird, but it was eventually swallowed.
Photo: Bob Mayer

As stated above, there are many species of waterfowl that have been seen on the pond in recent years.  My next post on Jamaica Pond ducks will discuss some of its less frequent visitors.

Enjoy the winter ducks before they depart to their breeding areas in a few months!

Winter Bird Walk – January 13, 2013

This morning my birding colleague Andrew Joslin and I led a bird walk along Meadow Road in the Arnold Arboretum for about two hours.  We were joined by more than 25 enthusiastic birders, many of whom were just testing their wings in the wonderful avocation of birding.  Although the weather was a bit damp, neither the birds nor the birders were discouraged and we had some nice sightings.  A Red-breasted Nuthatch at the feeders near the Administration Building was a “life bird” for several in the group. A Red-tailed Hawk posed in the giant Silver Maple farther down the road for all to admire. A Carolina Wren began to call loudly from the wetland.  Most of us never saw this tiny wren but it’s call is unmistakable.  How such a small bird can emit this intense call always amazes me!

Recorded by Carnes Weeks; Geoffrey A. Keller
Courtesy of Macaulay Library
© Cornell Lab of Ornithology

As we continued down to the cork trees and the buckeyes we added to our list of woodpecker species with a Red-bellied Woodpecker, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and a Northern Flicker.  The sapsucker disappeared after a brief stop and was not seen by all,  which was too bad as it is a stunning bird – here is an image of one I took last spring in my side yard:


Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker (male) showing the diagnostic white bar on the wings and subtle yellow cast to the breast. The lines of small holes in the branch are typical of this birds feeding habit.
Photo Bob Mayer

A member of the group located a lovely Golden-crowned Kinglet, a bird seen much more often in the winter than at any other time.  Everyone had good looks at this diminutive beauty as it flitted about on a low shrub.  Overall we saw 26 species. Here is the list, with approximate counts for each:

Arnold Arboretum, Suffolk, US-MA
Jan 13, 2013 8:30 AM – 10:30 AM
Protocol: Traveling
1.5 mile(s)
Comments: BBC walk, Bob Mayer and Andrew Joslin plus 26 other birders. Overcast & misty, 44°F, calm
26 species

  • Canada Goose  8 flyover
  • Red-tailed Hawk  2
  • Herring Gull  2 flyovers
  • Rock Pigeon  4
  • Mourning Dove  5
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker  1
  • Yellow-bellied Sapsucker  1     medium sized woodpecker with white wing panel seen clearly, but by only a few in the group
  • Downy Woodpecker  5
  • Northern Flicker  2
  • Blue Jay  10
  • Black-capped Chickadee  8
  • Tufted Titmouse  4
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch  1
  • White-breasted Nuthatch  2
  • Carolina Wren  1 heard only
  • Golden-crowned Kinglet  1
  • American Robin  12
  • Northern Mockingbird  1
  • European Starling  4
  • Song Sparrow  1
  • White-throated Sparrow  15
  • Dark-eyed Junco  5
  • Northern Cardinal  10
  • House Finch  5
  • American Goldfinch  3
  • House Sparrow  10

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

You will note that the list was compiled using eBird, an innovative online checklist program that is free for registered users.  It provides a convenient way to both record your sightings and share them with the birding community.  Check it out!

There will be a series of bird walks in the Arb this spring and again in the fall. Stay tuned for the details either on the Arnold Arboretum website or here on this blog.

Good birding!


Arnold Arboretum Owls

As a City of Boston park, the Arnold Arboretum is officially closed from dusk to dawn, prime time for owls. They can also be found in the daylight hours – often revealed by crows or Blue Jays mobbing (harassing) them in their daytime roost, or by hearing their distinctive calls. The commonest owl in the Arboretum is the Eastern Screech-owl, a diminutive species (about 8 inches tall) that often holes up in tree cavities where they may be seen sunning themselves.  They are known to nest in the Arboretum and young birds have been reported there in the Spring.

Eastern Screech-owl
Photo Bob Mayer

This is a red morph screech; others are gray.  On the Christmas Bird Count in 2012  night-owl birders found four screech owls in the Arb by playing a recording of their calls before dawn.

This year there has been an irruption of Barred Owls in Massachusetts, and at least one has taken a liking to the conifer section of the Arb. Irruptions of birds usually occur due to compromises in the food supply for that species; in this case the supposition is that a poor acorn crop in 2011 led to a marked reduction in the small rodent population-the Barred Owl’s main food source. This has brought hungry owls into very urban locations; the Boston Common, the Public Garden, the Fenway and the Arboretum. I caught sight of this beauty in early December just off Hemlock Hill Road:

Barred Owl
Photo Bob Mayer

A careful look shows that she/he has some blood on the bill indicating a forceful connection with some rodent recently.

Next up on the size scale, but less frequently seen, is the Great Horned Owl:

Great Horned OwlPhoto Eudardo DelSolar

Great Horned Owl
Photo: Eudardo DelSolar

Just a bit larger than Barred Owls (22 versus 21 inches) Great Horned Owls are very adept at staying hidden during the day.  Sometimes “whitewash” (owl excrement) or pellets of hair and bones disgorged by owls after a meal will mark a favorite roosting site:

Opened Owl Pellet Photo Bob Mayer

Opened Owl Pellet showing gray squirrel bones including a jaw bone on the right
Photo Bob Mayer

Back in the mid-nineties, a pair of Great Horned Owls nested on Hemlock Hill. Many visitors watched the family grow and the young fledge from the nest. Since then there has not been a confirmed breeding of this species on the grounds; most of the local nests have been in nearby Franklin Park.  In recent years however, breeding there seems to have stopped. The reason is thought to be due to the loss of an alpha male bird (nicknamed “Ben Franklin” by a local naturalist) who had successfully paired with several local female Great Horned Owls.  The Arboretum played a role in that sad tale.

On the day after Christmas in 2008, I got an email from a birding friend reporting that a Great Horned Owl was sitting out in the open in a large oak near the beech collection off Valley Road. It was being attacked by several crows but refused to move; my friend suspected it was injured. I went to the site and found the birds:

Great Horned Owl (red circle) with American Crows Photo: Bob Mayer

A friend who is both a birder and a tree climber responded to a phone call and joined my vigil. He proceeded to don climbing gear and ascend the eighty foot oak where the owl rested (we assumed a first responder status and broke the ban on tree climbing in the arboretum).  In a relatively short time the bird was in hand, further evidence that he was significantly impaired. The sequence of the catch is shown below, clockwise from the upper left:


Capturing a Great Horned Owl. Clockwise from upper left: The tree with owl followed by the capture
Photos: Bob Mayer


The bird was taken to Tufts Veterinary School but died shortly after arrival. Necropsy indicated it had suffered severe blunt trauma, likely from a vehicle strike. As the females in Franklin Park departed not long thereafter we presume the lost bird was Ben. Hopefully another robust male will soon claim the territory and we will continue to hear the mournful call of the Great Horned Owl in the neighborhood.

Of the nine species of owl documented in Suffolk County since 1900, only the three species discussed above are likely to be seen in the Arnold Arboretum. But keep your eyes and ears at the ready for them or possibly even a Snowy, Saw-whet or Boreal Owl that may appear or be heard hidden somewhere in the dense canopy of Olmsted’s forests.