Arboretum spring bird walks coming up!

As we turn our clocks forward inviting in the spring it’s a good time to plan ahead for a bird walk or more in the Arnold Arboretum.  Here is this year’s schedule, presented with some images of birds likely to be seen and/or heard on each walk as the spring migration proceeds:

Saturday April 20— Meadow Road to Bussey Hill:  A 90-minute walk suitable for beginners as well as more experienced birders. Meeting place: Inside the main gate off the Arborway (parking along the Arborway) .  8:00 a.m.


Eastern Phoebe, an early spring migrant.
Photo: Bob Mayer


Male Red-winged Blackbird announcing its territory over the cattail marsh.
Photo: Bob Mayer



Mourning Dove nest barely holding three young birds. Seen on an early bird walk last season.
Photo: Bob Mayer


Saturday April 27— Peters Hill and Hemlock Hill:  A 90-minute walk suitable for beginners as well as more experienced birders.  Meeting place: Peters Hill gate on Bussey Street (park along the roadway).  8:00 a.m.


A pair of Tree Swallows inspecting a nest box on Peters Hill.
Photo: Bob Mayer


Cooper’s Hawk on Hemlock Hill near a nest site.
Photo: Bob Mayer


Red-bellied Woodpeckers are present throughout the year in the Arboretum but are actively calling in spring.
Photo: Bob Mayer


Saturday May 11—Meadow Road and Valley Road: A 90-minute walk suitable for beginners as well as more experienced birders. Meeting place: Inside the main gate off the Arborway (parking along the Arborway)   8:00 a.m.


Brown Thrashers often establish territory near the top of Bussey Hill.
Photo: Bob Mayer


Yellow Warbler, singing male, in the Bradley Rosaceous Collection where they can be frequently seen in May.
Photo:Bob Mayer


Wood Thrushes are hard to see but their melodious song may be heard on this May walk.
Photo: Bob Mayer


Sunday May 19—Bussey Brook Meadow and Marsh: The Arboretum Park Conservancy and the Brookline Bird Club (BBC) are co-sponsoring this 90-minute walk in the Bussey Brook area of the arboretum. The walk is suitable for beginning birders as well as those more experienced. Meeting place: South Street gate to the Arboretum, on South Street, where there is limited parking. Also accessible from Forest Hills T Station path from Washington Street. 8:00 a.m.


Rose-breasted Grosbeak, male. The breast of this bird almost looks like the red area is dripping!
Photo: Bob Mayer


Male Common Yellowthroat. They are often heard singing from the marsh area.
Photo: Bob Mayer


Gray Catbirds are common in spring and summer throughout the Arboretum. The rufous under-tail is very visible in this image.
Photo: Bob Mayer


For all of these walks the start time is 8:00AM, but note that the last walk is on Sunday not Saturday.  See the arboretum website for directions or to download a checklist of birds.  Andrew Joslin will co-lead many of these walks. They are all listed by the BBC in their spring Blue Book as well. Arboretum members may sign up for the walks on the AA website calendar. A limited number of loaner binoculars will be available.  The walks will take place rain or shine unless the weather is truly miserable. For questions about cancellations or anything else contact:

Bob Mayer, Jamaica Plain  (617) 983-3330

Spring bird walks are being held at other local sites as well.  Get up, get out, enjoy the migration!

Good Birding




How many birds in the whole wide world?

Some time ago I got a question from a six year old about birds.  It’s the kind of question that many people might wonder about, but only a six year old would ask it. “How many birds are there in the whole wide world?”, Harry, who lives in Somerville, MA, asked.  I took a crack at it and this is the result (full disclosure: Harry shares a lot of my DNA).

Dear Harry,
You have asked a hard question and I will give it a try, but it is a LONG answer. The hardest question is the biggest—how many birds in the whole world? We are not even sure how many different kinds of birds there are in the world. The answer to that is about 10 thousand. Several of these kinds, or species, are numbered over 3 billion in the world. Probably the most common, if you don’t count chickens that we raise for eggs and food, is the House Sparrow.

There are lots of kinds of birds that are very common, including some sea birds that spend their whole lives flying around the ocean except when they are having babies on some tiny island. That makes them very hard to count correctly. All together the total number of wild birds in the world is somewhere between 100 billion and 400 billion! The fact that there is such a big difference in those numbers shows how hard it is to count them all.

Even though there are a lot of birds in the world, you should know that there are some birds that are very rare. Scientists call them endangered, which means that if we are not kind and helpful to them they might disappear.  For example one bird that lives in the forests of Brazil in South America, the Stresemann’s Bristlefront, has gotten so endangered that there are only 15 of them in the whole world!

The estimate for the total number of birds in the United States is around 10 billion in the spring but more like 15 billion in the fall after the babies have hatched.

Right here in Boston I can give you the EXACT number of birds that were present (or at least seen) in Boston on Sunday December 16, 2012.  That was the day that a whole bunch of birders spent all day going around places like Jamaica Plain and Somerville counting every pigeon, every sparrow, every goose and every cardinal and writing it down.  Here is a funny little fact about the Boston Christmas Bird Count (BCBC)—which has been going for more than one hundred years—the very center of that circle is the Healy School playground in Somerville!  So some day you can go with your parents and stand in the very center of the BCBC counting circle for birds and see how many birds you can see, That game is called a “Big Sit” among us crazy birders.

Anyway, here is the report of the count of birds reported that day in December, listed by species (the rare ones are CAPITALIZED):

Boston Birders
The 40th Greater Boston Christmas Bird Count (actually the 112th—Belmont, Jamaica Plain and Winchester have been covered since the very first CBC in 1900!) was held yesterday (Sunday, December 16) under some difficult weather especially after the noon hour. That did not damper the 102 observers in the field.  The total number of species recorded was 125 plus SEVEN count week species (listed as CW)

We added TWO new species to the overall count—SORA RAIL and PAINTED BUNTING bringing the historical count to 228 species—AMAZING for an urban count. We had six new high counts (listed as HC) Highlights are capitalized and a brief location is indicated.  Photos of  many of these birds will be sent for documentation to National Audubon Society.

  • Brant  106
  • Canada Goose  7545
  • Mute Swan  56
  • Wood Duck  2
  • Gadwall  1 CW
  • American Wigeon  1
  • American Black Duck  702
  • Mallard  2160
  • Northern Shoveler  7
  • Northern Pintail  2
  • Green-winged Teal  22
  • Green-winged Teal (Eurasian)  1
  • Canvasback  10
  • REDHEAD  5- Hammond Pond
  • Ring-necked Duck  123
  • Greater Scaup  348
  • Lesser Scaup  4
  • KING EIDER 1- Dorchester Bay
  • Common Eider  1046
  • Surf Scoter  257
  • White-winged Scoter  1244
  • Black Scoter  10
  • Long-tailed Duck  32
  • Bufflehead  406
  • Common Goldeneye  111
  • BARROW’S GOLDENEYE  1- JFK Library, S. Boston
  • Hooded Merganser  560  (High Count- HC)
  • Common Merganser  467 (HC)
  • Red-breasted Merganser  411
  • Ruddy Duck  132
  • Wild Turkey  56
  • Red-throated Loon  43
  • Common Loon  31
  • Pied-billed Grebe  15
  • Horned Grebe  71
  • Red-necked Grebe  3  LOW
  • Double-crested Cormorant  11
  • Great Cormorant  7
  • Great Blue Heron  49
  • Turkey Vulture  CW
  • Northern Harrier  2
  • Sharp-shinned Hawk  9
  • Cooper’s Hawk  20
  • BALD EAGLE 1 adult  Chestnut Hill Res
  • Red-tailed Hawk  71
  • VIRGINIA RAIL  1- Oasis, E. Boston
  • SORA  1  NEW TO COUNT- the Oasis, East Boston
  • American Coot  151
  • Greater Yellowlegs  3
  • Sanderling  8
  • Purple Sandpiper  3
  • Dunlin  7
  • Wilson’s Snipe  2
  • Bonaparte’s Gull  13
  • Ring-billed Gull  2070
  • Herring Gull  1451
  • Iceland Gull  1
  • Lesser Black-backed Gull  1
  • Great Black-backed Gull  204
  • THICK-BILLED MURRE 1 Spectacle Island
  • Rock Pigeon  1508
  • Mourning Dove  529
  • Eastern Screech-Owl  51
  • Great Horned Owl  15
  • SNOWY OWL 3  Logan Airport
  • BARRED OWL  12  (HC)
  • Short-eared Owl  CW- Logan Airport
  • NORTHERN SAW-WHET OWL 1  Putterham, Brookline
  • Belted Kingfisher  11
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker  55  (HC)
  • Yellow-bellied Sapsucker  2
  • Downy Woodpecker  310
  • Hairy Woodpecker  23
  • Northern Flicker  41  (HC)
  • PILEATED WOODPECKER 1- Middlesex Fells
  • American Kestrel  3
  • Merlin  7
  • Peregrine Falcon  9 (Tied HC)
  • NORTHERN SHRIKE  1  Deer Island
  • Blue Jay  462
  • American Crow  499
  • Fish Crow  CW  a BIG miss
  • Common Raven  3 (tied HC)
  • Horned Lark  30
  • Black-capped Chickadee  903
  • Tufted Titmouse  280
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch  44
  • White-breasted Nuthatch  276
  • Brown Creeper  17
  • Winter Wren  10  (HC)
  • Marsh Wren  2
  • Carolina Wren  80
  • Golden-crowned Kinglet  36
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet  7
  • Hermit Thrush  7
  • American Robin  2969
  • Gray Catbird  1
  • Northern Mockingbird  127
  • European Starling  10431
  • AMERICAN PIPIT  3  Point of Pines, Revere
  • Cedar Waxwing  37
  • LAPLAND LONGSPUR  2 Bear River, Saugus
  • Snow Bunting  176
  • BLACK AND WHITE WARBLER  1  Olmsted Park
  • Orange-crowned Warbler  1
  • NASHVILLE WARBLER  1  Fenway Victory Garden
  • MACGILLIVRAY’S WARBLER 1  Fenway Victory Garden
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler  8
  • Yellow-breasted Chat  3
  • Eastern Towhee  2
  • American Tree Sparrow  171
  • Clay-colored Sparrow  CW- Busa Farm
  • Field Sparrow  3
  • Savannah Sparrow  9
  • Fox Sparrow  CW
  • Song Sparrow  529
  • Swamp Sparrow  15
  • White-throated Sparrow  419
  • Dark-eyed Junco  1262
  • Northern Cardinal  364
  • PAINTED BUNTING 1- NEW TO COUNT- Thompson Island
  • Red-winged Blackbird  54
  • RUSTY BLACKBIRD  3  Lexington
  • Pine Grosbeak  CW
  • House Finch  211
  • Common Redpoll  65
  • American Goldfinch 496g
  • House Sparrow  3324

You will have to get some help from your mom or dad to add all those numbers up.  Papa is too lazy for that. But you can see that on that day there were over ten thousand starlings counted which was way more than the House Sparrow at only 3,324. Maybe next year you can help us count all the birds, starting from the very center!

I hope you like this very big answer to a very big question

– Papa

Rare Birds & Odd Ducks at Jamaica Pond

In my first Jamaica Pond Ducks post I covered the more common waterfowl likely to be seen on Jamaica Pond.  Here I will discuss less common ducks and other birds attracted to the Pond, especially in the fall and winter.

When we think of loons, we imagine being on a tranquil lake in upper New England and listening to their melancholy call:

Recorded by Recorded by Steven R. Pantle
New York July 1991
Courtesy of Macaulay Library
© Cornell Lab of Ornithology

That is indeed where many nest, but for the rest of the year they move about on both salt water and fresh.  This Common Loon, wearing its winter plumage rather than the classic summer tuxedo, hung out on Jamaica Pond for at least six weeks this winter. As the Pond began to ice up in early January, it departed:


Common Loon in winter plumage. The long bill, size and low carriage are diagnostic.
Photo: Bob Mayer

Just recently, another member of the loon family appeared on the Pond—an immature Red-throated Loon.  It never got close enough to the shore to allow for a photo op.

There have been a number of “vagrant” ducks seen on the Pond over the last decade. This winter we had several spectacular ones:


Northern Shoveler, male.  This was one of three on the pond in late November 2012.
Photo: Bob Mayer

Northern Shovelers are well named for their very wide bill, built for scooping along the water’s surface to pick up small invertebrates or bits of vegetation.  In 2002, one of them ran afoul of urban bad habits in the Muddy River’s North Basin behind the Museum of Fine Arts in the Fenway, probably because of that feeding pattern:

Snared Shoveler #2

Snared Northern Shoveler in the Muddy River behind the MFA in 2002.
Photo: Bob Mayer

This poor duck managed to get a Gatorade cap ring in its bill and up over its head, and couldn’t get it off.  My friend Andrew Joslin and I—equipped with waders and nets—tried several times to capture and free the duck, but it wouldn’t let us get close enough.  The Animal Rescue League attempted to net it from a canoe and also failed.  After being in the area for more than a week it disappeared.  We presumed it died, since the plastic “bit” didn’t allow it to fly more than short distances.  The event is a poignant reminder to dispose of your trash properly.

The avian genus Aythya is represented by six species in Massachusetts and five of them have been recorded on the Pond.  The most commonly seen is the Ring-necked Duck:


Ring-necked Ducks, two males and a female on the right.
Photo: Bob Mayer

These handsome ducks should have been called “ring-billed” due to the white ring around their bill. The bill marking is far more distinctive than the chestnut neck ring, found on males and seen only at close range.  One or more Ring-necks have been seen every year recently on the Pond.  On the other hand, the Canvasback—the largest of the Aythya group—was documented only once before in this century until two males arrived in January, departing less than 48 hours later.


Canvasback, male. This image captures the beauty of the duck when it made a brief appearance on the Pond on January 14, 2013.
Photo: Bob Mayer

As in many duck genera, Aythya females are much less intensely patterned than the males, which makes them harder to identify.


Redhead Aythyra americana, female. The male of this species has a distinct red head (not unlike the Canvasback pictured above).   Aythyra females can be easily confused with one another.
Photo: Bob Mayer

The last of the Aythyra genus which appear on the Pond occasionally in winter are the Scaups, Greater and Lesser, the latter more commonly.


Lesser Scaup, male.
Photo: Bob Mayer

A small diving duck that occasionally visits the Pond is the Bufflehead.  They are never numerous on the Pond—usually appearing singly or as a pair— whereas in salt water settings there may a sizable raft of them.


Bufflehead, male. When these foot long ducks appear on the Pond the males are unmistakable.
Photo: Bob Mayer

Another water bird is common on the Pond much of the year, but is rarely seen in the winter:


Double-Crested Cormorant. These birds often hold this position, thought to be for drying out their feathers which are less waterproof than most waterfowl.
Photo: Bob Mayer

A close-up of this bird seems to hint at the reptilian origin of birds, possibly arising from an ancient bird named Archaeopteryx:


Double-crested Cormorant, immature.
Photo: Bob Mayer

In my view, the most beautiful duck on Jamaica Pond is the Wood Duck.


Wood Duck, male. This species is seen more often on other waterways of the Emerald Necklace than on Jamaica Pond.
Photo: Bob Mayer

Wood Ducks prefer sheltered water closely surrounded by trees; they appear nearby most frequently along the Riverway.  They are cavity nesters and some volunteer stewards of the Emerald Necklace have recently put up nest boxes at Leverett Pond and Ward’s Pond  downstream from Jamaica Pond to try to encourage nesting. So far there have been no takers.

Finally I should mention another bird that everyone recognizes when they arrive— Mute Swans.  Mute Swans were imported from Europe in the late 1800s as decorative waterfowl on city ponds and estates and so are not native.  They have multiplied rapidly in the wild and with a voracious appetite and an aggressive attitude they are now considered an invasive species.  They will chase other waterfowl and even people. Here is one getting in your face:


A male Mute Swan staring me down.
Photo: Bob Mayer



In the past The Boston Parks Department used to bring a pair of swans to the Pond—as they continue to do at the Public Garden— but most recently the Mute Swans seen here are part of the wild population. This winter there were two birds on the Pond most of the time.  In December 2009 at least eleven were recorded.  They can be a haunting sight in the fog of a winters day:


Six of a group of eight Mute Swans on the Pond in January 2011.
Photo: Bob Mayer


Debate continues about how to control these waterfowl—the largest birds in Massachusetts—as they spread throughout the country.  In the meantime enjoy those few that come to our local waterways, but show them some respect.