A Late Migration Bird Walk


Those of you who are birders know that the spring migration in Boston this year has had its up and downs.  The lingering cold and inauspicious winds kept the migrants back, and to some extent moved them inland. Then this past week there was a sudden weather shift, and the warblers and other migrants fell from the skies!  Today’s walk in the Arnold Arboretum was back to high 50’s temperatures with unfavorable northeast headwinds.  But it was sunny and 43 birders of all ages enjoyed the beauty of the landscape and some nice birds, even though the viewing was less than optimal with trees fully leafed out.

My co-leader Patrick brought his thirteen month old daughter, in carrier, who claimed the prize for youngest.  In keeping with Patrick’s interests, her middle name is Wren!  Next youngest was an energetic five year old who liked to hold hands as we walked; I didn’t complain! We also had a teenager from New Jersey, a solid young birder who helped me locate several birds. Not surprising that he has a passion for birding; his mother’s name is Robin!

As we waited for the 8:00 AM starting gun we ticked off a stunning male cardinal in full song and a couple of Cedar Waxwings in a nearby tree:


Cedar Waxwings always look ready for a grand occasion.

We checked out feeders in two locations and found little, but our first warbler did appear, an American Redstart:


Redstarts are noisy and visually noticeable as they flit through the trees and bushes. It is one of the more common wood warblers in the spring migration, and some stay and nest here.

We heard several other warblers on our walk but got to see only one other, the Yellow Warbler.  They are just beginning to build nests in the Rose Garden section of the Arb; soon there will young to feed:


Female Yellow Warbler at her active nest.

Our only thrush on the walk gave us a bit of a puzzle.  Seen clearly on the path ahead, it had a very faintly spotted breast (not Wood), same color of back and tail (not Hermit), and no distinct eye ring or spectacles (not Swainson’s), so even though it seemed more gray-brown than rusty in low light, we settled on a Veery.


The Veery is in the thrush family and has an incredible, two-toned song.  Veerys winter solely in Brazil.

As we walked along Oak Path up to the top of Bussey Hill the group gained familiarity with the sing song cadence of the Red-eyed Vireo, but we never saw one clearly:


The Red-eyed Vireo can be distinguished from other members of this group by absence of wing-bars and the long white eyebrow and dark eye-line.  It is heard much more often than seen.

The flycatcher family was also evident on the walk. I heard a Great-crested Flycatcher but couldn’t locate it.  Eastern Wood-peewees were calling from several locations, and we finally saw one:


Eastern Wood-peewee, backlit

Sound recording courtesy of Lang Elliott NatureSound Studio

And someone in the crowd located an Eastern Kingbird at the top of a tall deciduous tree:

Eastern Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird. Kingbirds nest in the Arboretum yearly. They can be identified by their solid white breast and white terminal tail band, especially in flight.

Several birders remembered that we saw a Scarlet Tanager last year on a similar walk; they wanted a re-run. I had heard and seen tanagers on Bussey Hill twice this week, but today couldn’t produce one.  Here’s one I captured four days before the walk:


Male Scarlet Tanager. Where was he today??

The Arboretum is first and foremost a tree museum, so I couldn’t resist pointing out a famous tree in Explorers Garden atop Bussey Hill:


Dove Tree, Davidia involucrata. The other common name for this unusual tree is Handkerchief Tree, for obvious reasons when in bloom.

Ned Friedman, the Director of the Arboretum, has just written about this historic tree on his blog, check it out!  As we headed back to the main gate we passed the Black Locust near the ponds where an Eastern Screech-owl  has sunned itself most days for the last four winters.  A few months ago I posted some new information on this owl.  Was she pregnant?  Ten days ago I was coming down Meadow Road from the ponds and checked the roost hole.  I saw an owl in the hole, but when I got my bins on it it seemed different:


Eastern Screech-owlet(s).  If you look closely you can detect another eye behind and to the right of the gray bird.  Possibly the mother- or a  second baby?

About a minute later momma popped into view!


Female red phase Eastern Screech-owl

The size of our group made it hard to stay in touch with everything that was going on.  Patrick had, along with several others, heard the distant sound of a Black-billed Cuckoo.  I missed it, but we added it to our list. When the walk was finished a young couple who bird regularly in the Arboretum told me about a bird they had both studied while on the walk but couldn’t identify.  After a few questions, I showed them a photo of a female Orchard Oriole. Bingo, they both agreed that was their bird!


Orchard Orioles are much less common than Baltimore’s in the AA, but they breed here every year.  As is generally the case in the avian world, the female is much less showy than the male.

I checked off one more species.  The general rule for counting a bird is that at least two persons in the group have to have seen or heard it definitively.

The list:

Arnold Arboretum, Suffolk, Massachusetts

May 20, 2017 8:00 AM – 10:00 AM

1.5 mile(s)

60, sunny,  BBC walk

33 species

  • Canada Goose  1
  • Red-tailed Hawk  2
  • Herring Gull  2
  • Mourning Dove  2
  • Black-billed Cuckoo  1    
  • Chimney Swift  2
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker  2
  • Eastern Wood-Pewee  3
  • Great Crested Flycatcher  1
  • Eastern Kingbird  1
  • Warbling Vireo  4
  • Red-eyed Vireo  2
  • Blue Jay  3
  • Tree Swallow  1
  • Veery  1
  • American Robin  15
  • Gray Catbird  8
  • European Starling  1
  • Cedar Waxwing  3
  • American Redstart  4
  • Yellow Warbler  4
  • Blackpoll Warbler  2
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler  1
  • Chipping Sparrow  3
  • Savannah Sparrow  2
  • Song Sparrow  3
  • Northern Cardinal  3
  • Red-winged Blackbird  5
  • Common Grackle  9
  • Orchard Oriole  1
  • Baltimore Oriole  7
  • American Goldfinch  2
  • House Sparrow  4

View this checklist online at http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37007137

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

Looking over the reports of the five walks this spring, including one at Leverett Pond/Olmsted Park, 57 species were seen overall, by over 150 people, although many of them were repeaters.  Lots of fun for a lot of folks!  I hope to see many of you in the fall when the migrants begin their long journey back to their wintering grounds.

Good Birding!



2017 Bird-a-thon for the Boston Nature Center

On Saturday May 13th I joined two other birders for a full day of birding to support the Boston Nature Center’s Bird-a-thon (BAT) team.  The time frame for Bird-a-thon is 24 hours, and some of our team started at 6 PM Friday night; I was home cooking supper during their local excursion to Millennium Park. It’s good that they went because more than a half dozen of our total recorded birds were Friday night finds that we didn’t see on Saturday.

We left Boston at 6 AM and hit our first stop, Wompatuck State Park, before 7.  This huge park in Hingham is often a great location for migrating warblers in mid May, but the crazy spring weather has thrown the migration off.  Many of the 20 or so warbler species that can be seen there were missing.  We did get some though, including the uncommon Bay-breasted Warbler.  I have never been able to get a good image of this bird- they’re often high in the canopy- so I borrowed one from a friend who is an excellent birder and photographer:

Bay-breasted Warbler- Ted Bradford

A great shot of the striking Bay-breasted Warbler- Photo courtesy of Ted Bradford

We birded sections of this 3200 acre park for more than two hours and picked up more than 40 species, a pretty good haul in spite of the cold and dreary weather.  Some of the birds we ticked off were heard but not seen; this is one of them:


Winter Wren at Ward’s Pond on the Emerald Necklace. This tiny bird is secretive and hard to photograph.

And here is it’s lovely song:

Sound recording courtesy of Lang Elliott NatureSound Studio

We moved on to another great birding locale in southeastern Massachusetts, World’s End.  This peninsula that juts out into Boston Harbor is part of the new Boston Harbor Islands National Park.  It’s tree-lined carriage paths were designed by Emerald Necklace landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted as part of a planned housing development, which thankfully was never built.  It is now owned by the Trustees of Reservations which will preserve it’s biodiversity in perpetuity.  Because of it’s extensive ocean front we looked for water birds, and we found some:


The perspective in this image exaggerates the size difference in the two egrets found in our area. The Great Egret, front right, is a little over a foot taller than the Snowy Egret, but size distinctions are often misleading as long necked birds appear short when crouched down searching for food.  The key to identification is the black bill and yellow “slippers” of the Snowy, compared to the yellow bill and all black legs of the Great Egret.

A species we unexpectedly saw at World’s End was a sea duck:


Male Common Eider. These salt water waterfowl are more common in winter but they have recently begun breeding in Boston Harbor

After picking up another 15 species we moved on to Ferry Hill Thicket in Marshfield, a small spot surrounded by development that was quite productive for us last year.  Not so this year; we got only one new bird there, a House Wren which we heard but never saw.

Our final stop in the south was Mass Audubon’s Daniel Webster Wildlife Sanctuary also in Marshfield.  I love this place!  It has nearly every habitat one can imagine; vast meadows and open fields, woodland, a small pond, a river and a marsh, all maintained  to suit wildlife. There are a number of “target birds” that birders seek here.  The Bobolink, an open field migrant, was abundant and very vocal; their song is accurately described as bubbly.  When seen, they stand out in the open fields:


A male Bobolink, showing his golden crown.

We also got another raptor to add to our list of five for the day, Osprey:


Ospreys arrive from the south around mid-March, and because of the installation of platforms for nest building they have become a common sight along the New England coast.

We were disappointed that the Purple Martins that are attracted to this site because of gourd nest holders had not yet arrived.  Nonetheless we added another 15 species to our growing list, and together with a number of species that we saw at multiple locations, our list had grown to 80!

We had some time left before the official end of the BAT competition when we returned to Boston, so we headed for the summit of Mission Hill.  I described this urban hot spot in last year’s BAT post; it has been very active with “good” birds this spring.  The hour was late and the wind had picked up however, so both sections of this complex were quiet. We did get a common sparrow that somehow we had missed all day, White-throated Sparrow:


Male White-throated Sparrow.  This was one of only four of the 17 possible sparrows we tallied for the BAT.

As we were heading back to the car our youngest member spied something high up in a tree.  Small, like a warbler, but chubbier and with a white eye spectacle. Blue-headed Vireo!


Blue-headed Vireo. This vireo was once lumped with two others as Solitary Vireo, but DNA studies in 199o’s lead to the three types being split into three distinct species.

So we ended up seeing three of the six possible vireos in this region.  It was a fine way to end a long day.

Overall it was a very successful Bird-a-thon. The real point of the day, after all, is to raise money for Audubon, and for the wonderful programs that the Boston Nature Center in Mattapan provides for people of all ages, especially kids.  Our small team raised over eighteen hundred dollars so far, a good share of the funds raised by BAT for the BNC. Thanks to all who contributed; if you you would like to do so now here’s a link to my giving page.

My last walk of the season will be this Saturday May 20th beginning at the Arboretum main gate at 8:00 AM.

Good Birding!

A bright and windy walk in Bussey Brook Meadow

There was a major shift in the weather compared to yesterdays walk on Hemlock Hill and Peter’s Hill, and the turnout reflected that. Nearly 50 folks showed up for this walk, sponsored by the Brookline Bird Club, the Arnold Arboretum and the Arboretum Park Conservancy (APC).  The APC developed and helps to maintain this 28 acre section of the Arboretum where AA researchers study the impact of the urban environment on native and non-native invasive plants. It also provides a pleasant link to the Arboretum from the Orange Line Forest Hills MBTA.  We first walked in the grass along South Street where a coalition of groups is working to build a walk and bike pathway that will connect the Roslindale commuter rail station to the Southwest Corridor at Forest Hills.

There was a lot of familiar bird call as we began the walk; Song Sparrows, jays, cardinals, robins and Baltimore Orioles.  But the birds were hard to locate at first.  When we returned to the main Blackwell Path we spotted the first of only two warbler species we had on the walk; Yellow-rumped Warbler.



You can barely see the yellow patch above the tail on this male bird, giving it the nickname “butterbutt”.

Farther down the path we kept hearing the song of a Yellow Warbler but couldn’t locate it; some hear it saying “sweet,sweet, little more sweet”.  Finally a sharp-eyed birder located the bird:


Male Yellow Warbler

Also heard in the same location was another early migrant, Warbling Vireo:

While we were listening to this melodious song someone noticed a nest high in a tree that appeared to have a bird in it.  My first guess was that we were looking at a partially built oriole nest, but when the bird flew out others saw no yellow on the exiting bird, putting my call in question.  Indeed, the bird, and the nest, was that of the singing vireo!


Warbling Vireo on nest.

I stood corrected!  We saw another nesting species on the walk:


American Robin on nest. Robins build heavy nests often low down in the landscape.

We were never able to locate a Baltimore Oriole at nest (too early I think), but we had lots of great views of this lovely spring migrant.  At one point several orioles were chasing each other about and seemed oblivious to our large group as they buzzed by at eye level!  This was the high point of the walk for many.


Two male Baltimore Orioles in a territorial stand-off.


An oriole captured taking out the trash. If you look closely he has a “fecal sac” in his bill; removing fledgling waste from the nest behind, to deter odors that might give the nest away to predators.

I had done some scouting for the walk earlier in the week and on two occasions I saw an unusual bird for urban Boston, Solitary Sandpiper:


A lovely Solitary Sandpiper in fall plumage in one of the main ponds in the Arboretum. The eye ring is distinctive


This was the Solitary Sandpiper I saw two days before the walk in BBM.

But the bird had apparently moved on. They only migrate through our area, heading for nesting territory in Canada and Alaska.

As we returned to the parking area we again saw and heard a number of the birds we teased out earlier.  Overall the walk produced limited species diversity, but a lot of fun. Here is the total list:

Bussey Brook Meadow, Arnold Arboretum, Suffolk, Mass

May 7, 2017 8:00 AM – 10:00 AM

Comments:     56, sunny, windy

23 species

  • Red-tailed Hawk  1
  • Herring Gull  2
  • Mourning Dove  2
  • Chimney Swift  1
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker  2
  • Downy Woodpecker  2
  • Warbling Vireo  2
  • Blue Jay  4
  • Tree Swallow  2
  • Tufted Titmouse  1
  • White-breasted Nuthatch  1
  • American Robin  15
  • Gray Catbird  3
  • Yellow Warbler  1
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler  4
  • Chipping Sparrow  2
  • Song Sparrow  5
  • Northern Cardinal  4
  • Red-winged Blackbird  6
  • Common Grackle  5
  • Baltimore Oriole  8
  • American Goldfinch  2
  • House Sparrow  3

View this checklist online at http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36617594

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

I will not be leading walks next weekend as that Sunday is the Lilac Sunday festival and I will be doing botanical tours then.  And on Saturday May 13th I will spend the day birding with some friends in the southeastern part of the state for Mass Audubon’s Bird-a-thon. We will try to identify 60 or more species, weather permitting, in support of Boston’s urban sanctuary, the Boston Nature Center in Mattapan.  If you are interested in supporting the programs at the BNC you can go to my fundraising page


My last spring walk in the AA will be on Saturday May 20th beginning at the main gate off the Arborway at 8:00AM

Good Birding!