Postponed Winter Walk- Still Cold!

When I postponed the January winter walk I was hoping for warmer weather and we got it; the thermometer was 20 degrees higher than last Sunday.  But it was still only 15 degrees and despite that over 20 energetic people showed up for the walk in the Arnold Arboretum.  Fortunately I had a co-leader on the walk, Brendan Keegan who in addition to being a good birder is an Arboretum Gardener. On the walk he talked with the group about some of the woody plants in the collection that provide food and shelter for our avian friends.  Here is a pictorial spread of some of the shrubs he discussed during the walk:

Clockwise from upper left; Amur Honeysuckle Lonicera maackii, Harlequin Glorybower Clerodendrum trichotomum, Purple Beautyberry Callicarpa japonica var. luxurians, Common Winterberry Ilex verticillata, Cultivar of Holly Ilex ‘Lidia Morris’, Lindera umbellata.

All of these beautiful shrubs, and many more, provide food for fall migrants in preparation for their long migratory travels, as well as for our winter residents.  Brendan noted the variation in berry maturation time of these plants and how that is good for the birds as well as the plants themselves by fostering seed distribution.  In the Children’s Field Study Program we have a name for that- Eat and Excrete- much fancier than eat and poop!

Far and away the best birding on this cold morning was at the Hunnewell feeding station and we spent time there at the start and finish of the walk.  In fact, every species we encountered were on or near the feeders at one time or another, although several were also seen elsewhere in the landscape.  At the start we had good looks at both common local finches, House Finch and American Goldfinch,  as well as chickadees, and Downy Woodpeckers.

Male House Finch

American Goldfinches in various non-breeding plumages. A Dark-eyed Junco is at bottom left.

Male Downy Woodpecker; the females lack the red crest.

Someone inquired about the nesting habits of chickadees; they are cavity nesters, utilizing old woodpecker holes or man-made houses.

Black-capped Chickadee at nest hole

These young chickadees are almost ready to fledge from their soft and warm nest made of moss and grasses. The house was in the Leventritt Gardens at the AA.

The only bird that wasn’t seen on a feeder, but was nearby, was a Red-tailed Hawk.

This Red-tailed Hawk is closely guarding its prey, a hapless Gray Squirrel

The hawk was studying the grassy slope and wet meadow for prey. They have huge eyes in proportion to their bodies and can see at least five times better that we can, and can magnify their view as well.

As we proceeded on the walk up to the ponds we stopped to look for the Eastern Screech-Owl that has taken up winter residence in a tree hole near the ponds for at least four years.  The owl hasn’t been seen as far as I know for at least a month; here is the last image I got of it, taken on November 8, 2017:

Red-phase Eastern Screech-Owl. Screech owls have an average life span of about eight years; perhaps the owl has expired, or it may just be using a different roost hole.

As we turned around after reaching the frozen over ponds, we stopped to admire one of the first trees in the collection to flower:

Ozark Witchhazel Hamamelis vernalis, in bloom in January 2018 in front of Rehder Pond. This particular native specimen is over 100 years old.

On our return trip Brendan talked about other trees in the collection useful to birds. He pointed out several oaks and spoke to the importance they have providing lots of real estate for nesting well as food for birds and other fauna in the Arboretum.  Acorns of course are well know to almost all of us, but did you ever see one like this:

Sawtooth Oak Quercus acutissima 1130-60   This tree is at the base of Peters Hill near the railroad tracks, and is Asian in origin.  Even acorns can have a bad hair day!

We also discussed the relationship between birds and non-native and invasive plants.  Here is a composite image of a few of them:

Clockwise from left: Oriental Bittersweet, Barberry, Euonymus, Porcelain Berry.

The common view that invasives are universally harmful is too simplistic. True, they sometimes crowd out native, often more nutritious plants, but birds still utilize them for food, especially during drought or harsh weather.  In fact some birds have been able to spread their territories due to the availability of invasives; multiflora rose and mockingbirds are a case in point.

Northern Mockingbird on a native crabapple tree on Peters Hill.

Birds just love fruits and berries, and are as open to ethnic food as most of us!

Cedar Waxwing dining on Tartarian Honeysuckle.

We ended the walk back at the feeders and picked up our best bird of the day, Red-breasted Nuthatch.

Red-breasted Nuthatch.  Smaller than it’s much more common cousin the White-breasted Nuthatch, it is identified by the striking white eyebrow, black eye line and ruddy breast.

One of the reasons I run the January walks is to help people start their Year Lists; what crazy birders do every New Year to list how many species they can see or hear during the year.  Serious listers can amass over 300 species just in Massachusetts (I haven’t even come close to that)!  RB Nut, as we call it, is always a good one to get early on as it is seldom seen in the warmer months.

After the walk a few folks came into the Visitors Center to warm up; from the window you can view the feeders close up, which we did.  A new species, Red-bellied Woodpecker, flew in, grabbed a bite, and was off; but as three of us saw it it made the list!

Male Red-bellied Woodpecker, showing red from crown to nape. The faint rosy color on the breast and belly can barely be seen, giving the bird its odd name. This image was taken in the spring on Cape Cod.

Here is the list for the walk:

Arnold Arboretum, Suffolk, Massachusetts, US

Jan 14, 2018 9:00 AM – 10:15 AM

Comments:     BBC walk, 15 F, sun

  • 17 species
  • Red-tailed Hawk  1
  • Herring Gull  1
  • Mourning Dove  2
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker  1
  • Downy Woodpecker  2
  • Blue Jay  2
  • Black-capped Chickadee  6
  • Tufted Titmouse  3
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch  1
  • White-breasted Nuthatch  1
  • European Starling  6
  • Dark-eyed Junco  35
  • Song Sparrow  3
  • Northern Cardinal  2
  • House Finch  20
  • American Goldfinch  15
  • House Sparrow  2

View this checklist online at

This report was generated automatically by eBird v3 (

Those of you who bird the Arboretum regularly should keep a lookout in the conifer section for both crossbill species in the next few months as a major irruption is predicted this year.

Female, upper left, and male White-winged Crossbills. The female is showing the weird bill, specially adapted for prying seeds out of conifer cones.

A former Arboretum staff member, who now works for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, has just written an excellent article on the expected irruption.

 And we are hoping for another nesting of Great Horned Owls in that area this month as well, here is a shot of the nest in 2016:

Great Horned Owl on nest in 2016. The head of the adult female is seem, with a lighter colored fuzzy owlet in front of her. There were three owlets altogether.

I saw an adult roosting in one of the King Boris Firs on conifer slope just last week, so they may nest somewhere nearby.

And soon we will be seeing and hearing the true harbinger of spring, Red-winded Blackbird.

Male Red-winged Blackbirds displaying in the wet meadow across from the Hunnewell Building.  The males arrive as early as the end of February.

Spring Walks will commence on Saturday April 28th at 8AM at the Main Gate.  See the AA website soon for the whole list.

Good Birding!

Happy and Cold New Year!

The weather folks are claiming that this Saturday will be the coldest day so far this winter.  Sunday morning at 9AM, the scheduled kickoff for the January Winter Bird Walk in the Arboretum, is predicted to be minus 3, with winds at 10-12 mph.  Therefore I’m postponing the walk until Sunday January 14th, same time, same station.  Let’s hope for winter, not arctic, weather.

Even though it has been nasty cold, I have gotten out briefly and seen and photographed a few birds. Yesterday I sought a rarity that has been hanging out in a park near Carson Beach in South Boston since Christmas- Ross’s Goose.  This is the first Suffolk County record ever for this small goose that closely resembles another locally rare goose- Snow Goose. They are differentiated by the Ross’s smaller size, shorter bill, and the absence of a “grin patch” .

Snow Goose, left, showing a black patch on a longer bill, compared to the Ross’s Goose on right with smaller bill and no “grin”.

Who knew geese could grin?  In any case my wife drove as we circled Moakley Park and I quickly spotted the bird, hanging out with a small flock of much larger Canada Geese on the barren field:

Ross’s Goose. A small white goose with black primaries and tiny triangle pink bill. These geese are common in California, but very rare on the Atlantic Coast.

Here is another shot of the bird after it took flight.

In this image you can see the black primary wing feathers and barely see the reddish legs.  The bird was a lifer for me!

I also checked out the local ponds on the Emerald Necklace.  Jamaica Pond is down to a small swimming pool of open water with four swans and a few other winter waterfowl; not clear how much longer they can hold out there.  Leverett Pond, as usual, was partly open at its northern end and held a few very photographable ducks.

Male Northern Pintail, aptly named.

Another image of the pintail, above a common but lovely male Mallard.

And I can never get enough of the spectacular Wood Ducks; there were at least 6 still surviving in the open patch.

Male Wood Duck.

Note the iridescent sheen on the crest and the subtle patterns on the breast and side. And what eyes!

While I have your attention, the annual Boston Christmas Bird Count was held in relatively balmy weather (highs nearing thirty!) on December 17, 2017.  The seven people in the Jamaica Plain sector tallied 48 species.  Here is the list for the entire Boston count (thanks Bob Stymeist):

The 45th Greater Boston Christmas Count was held Sunday December 17th.  124 birders recorded 115 species and an additional five species during the Count Week.  There was one new species, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird added to the overall list which is an amazing 231 species!

Greater Boston Christmas Bird Count- Bob Stymeist, compiler

  • Greater White-fronted Goose 1  Jamaica Pond
  • Snow Goose 2  Bear Creek
  • Brant  17
  • Canada Goose  8702
  • Mute Swan  81
  • Wood Duck  23  22 Leverett Pond
  • Gadwall  3  2 Jamaica Pond
  • American Wigeon  5  1 Jamaica Pond
  • American Black Duck  371
  • Mallard  2266
  • Northern Shoveler  6
  • Northern Pintail  1
  • Green-winged Teal  5
  • Ring-necked Duck  75
  • Greater Scaup  402
  • Lesser Scaup  5  1 Jamaica Pond
  • King Eider  1  Deer Island
  • Common Eider  508
  • Surf Scoter  241
  • White-winged Scoter 193
  • Black Scoter  73
  • Long-tailed Duck  89
  • Bufflehead  305
  • Common Goldeneye  78
  • Barrow’s Goldeneye  1 Orient Heights Beach
  • Hooded Merganser  398
  • Common Merganser  190
  • Red-breasted Merganser  261
  • Ruddy Duck  49
  • Ring-necked Pheasant  1
  • Wild Turkey  119
  • Red-throated Loon  45
  • Common Loon  26
  • Pied-billed Grebe  CW
  • Horned Grebe  35
  • Red-necked Grebe  6
  • Double-crested Cormorant  15
  • Great Cormorant  1
  • Great Blue Heron  55
  • Turkey Vulture  1
  • Northern Harrier  3
  • Sharp-shinned Hawk  6
  • Cooper’s Hawk  26
  • Bald Eagle  3
  • Red-shouldered Hawk  3 New High
  • Red-tailed Hawk  104
  • American Coot  88
  • Killdeer  1
  • Sanderling  1
  • Dunlin  6
  • Ring-billed Gull  1887
  • Herring Gull  3597
  • Iceland Gull  1
  • Greater Black-backed Gull  270
  • Razorbill  2
  • Rock Pigeon  1396
  • Mourning Dove  763
  • Eastern Screech-Owl  49
  • Great Horned Owl  11  1 Forest Hills Cemetery
  • Snowy Owl  12
  • Barred Owl  4
  • Long-eared Owl  CW
  • Short-eared Owl   3
  • Ruby-throated Hummingbird  CW (new to count)
  • Belted Kingfisher  19
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker  78
  • Yellow-bellied Sapsucker  5 1 Arnold Arboretum
  • Downy Woodpecker  240
  • Hairy Woodpecker  15
  • Northern Flicker  21
  • Pileated Woodpecker  1
  • American Kestrel  4
  • Merlin  1
  • Peregrine Falcon  11
  • Blue Jay  796
  • American Crow  311
  • Fish Crow  1
  • Common Raven  11  Tied High Count
  • Horned Lark  194  New High Count
  • Black-capped Chickadee  788
  • Tufted Titmouse  429
  • White-breasted Nuthatch  251
  • Brown Creeper  16
  • Winter Wren  7
  • House Wren  CW
  • Carolina Wren  47
  • Golden-crowned Kinglet  110
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet  11
  • Hermit Thrush  7 1 Arnold Arboretum
  • American Robin  502
  • Gray Catbird  8
  • Brown Thrasher 1
  • Northern Mockingbird  102
  • European Starling  3042
  • American Pipit  14  New High Count
  • Cedar Waxwing  31
  • Lapland Longspur  2
  • Snow Bunting  88
  • Orange-crowned Warbler  2
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler  8
  • Wilson’s Warbler 1
  • Yellow-breasted Chat  1
  • Eastern Towhee  2
  • American Tree Sparrow  136
  • Chipping Sparrow  CW
  • Grasshopper Sparrow  1 Mt Hood
  • Savannah Sparrow  3
  • Fox Sparrow  4
  • Song Sparrow  458
  • Swamp Sparrow  9
  • White-throated Sparrow  316
  • White-crowned Sparrow  1
  • Dark-eyed Junco  1165
  • Northern Cardinal  466
  • Red-winged Blackbird  139
  • Rusty Blackbird  1
  • Common Grackle  102
  • House Finch  278
  • American Goldfinch 414
  • House Sparrow 3043

I hope many of you will join me and my co-leader Brendan Keegan, who will discuss how birds utilize the woody plant collection in the AA as we walk, on Sunday January 14th, beginning at 9 AM from the front gate.

Good Birding!

First Snow begins a Duck Walk on the Emerald Necklace

I always like to lead walks focusing on waterfowl.  The birds are pretty predictable, and often allow for good looks for everyone.  I had scouted for this walk several times in the last week, and all the ducks and other waterfowl I had seen were on full display this morning.  The weather was not as bad as had been predicted but did make for some slow and careful walking for the sixteen of us that spent more than two hours on the walk.

We started by circumnavigating Leverett Pond and by the end had six species of ducks plus a few other birds.  This pond has become a regular home to Wood ducks; recently they have bred here and in the winter months more that 50 have been recorded.  Today we had great looks at a smaller number:

The male Wood Duck is one of the most spectacular ducks in the world.

One in our group asserted that the female was equally lovely, if not more so. She has a point:

Female Wood Duck

Mixed in with the large flotilla of ducks on the pond were several Hooded Mergansers, cavorting with each other:

Hooded Mergansers often display and perform for each other; but their actions are not just for play, mating season is on the way.

The male of this species is stunning when he raises his crest:

Male Hooded Merganser, the smallest of the three mergansers that can be seen locally.

Other ducks of note included Ring-necked Ducks:

The taxonomists who discovered and named this duck in the nineteenth century were working from museum specimens where the brown collar on the bird was visible. Thus they gave it the ring-necked designation rather than ring-billed; a much better name when seen in the field.

The female is less distinctly marked, but still has the telltale bill marking:

A pair of Ring-necked Ducks

We located a few American Black Ducks among the simillarily feathered female Mallards:

American Black Duck; darker and a bit larger than the Mallard female, and with a greenish-yellow bill. Note also the bright blue speculum on the wing without a white lining.

This fuzzy shot of a female Mallard shows the different bill color, the overall lighter appearance and the white lining on the wing speculum.

Finally, one sharp observer noticed a peculiar looking Mallard among the rest:

This male Mallard has a white breast area; indicating that it has some domestic duck genes in it’s pedigree.

At this point the group had milked Leverett Pond for all there was, so we walked the half mile or so to Jamaica Pond, where I had seen some other species on my scouting runs. Before I could point out a bird sitting at the end of the small island in this large kettle pond, a birder called out “cormorant”!  She was right, but instead of the common summer resident on the pond, Double-crested Cormorant, this one had been identified a week ago as a Great Cormorant, rare on the pond.  Here is a “documentation” shot of it (read not very good photo but suitable to identify the bird):

This juvenile bird shows the white belly and a bit of the white and yellow patches beneath the gray bill; all features that separate it from a juvenile Double-crested Cormorant. This species is usually found on salt water along the northern New England coast.

Our next new sighting looked something like this:

I asked the group what was especially notable about these small ducks.  “The pointed tails”, several responded, setting me up to identify them by their colloquial name, “stifftail”. Ruddy Ducks breed in northwestern North America, but some faithfully migrate to Jamaica Pond every fall and stay as long as there is open water.  On closer inspection, they are a well-patterned bird:

A male Ruddy Duck, top, with two females below, in non-breeding plumage. No, they don’t always have their tails in the air.  Note also the blue-gray coloration of the male’s bill.

Last year a single male Ruddy remained on Jamaica Pond until June, and though there were no females present, he converted to breeding plumage (hope springs eternal):

Male Ruddy Duck in breeding plumage, showing why they are called “ruddy” and also displaying it’s “cartoonishly bold, sky-blue bill

The other reliable winter visitor to Jamaica Pond is the American Coot:

Note the lobed toes and sharp white beak on this American Coot, in contrast to the webbed feet and broad bill on duck species.

While coots do walk on land, as seen above, they are most often seen bobbing about in the water:

Coots are common on the pond in winter, but this season they were joined by an uncommon freshwater bird:

This female Gadwall has been hanging out with a raft of coots for at least two weeks. She can be easily dismissed as a female Mallard, but is smaller, and has an orange edge on a slim bill and a patch of white on her secondary feathers.

Gadwall are relatively common in coastal areas like Plum Island, but are rare on the necklace.  In April 2015, a male of this subtle species showed up on one of the small ponds in the Arnold Arboretum:

Male Gadwall, left, next to a female Mallard on Dawson Pond. Note the identifying black tail, not seen on the female of the species.

There was one more type of waterfowl I had located earlier on the pond, and I hoped to show it to the group.  We found it, but it was on the far side from where we were viewing so people had to take it mostly on faith. Here are two shots I got of this Common Loon just the day before, when it was a bit more cooperative:

Common Loon, showing an all white breast and belly

You can barely see the striped pattern and the large bill in this distant image of a Common Loon.

I can’t leave you hanging without a better image of these impressive birds:

Common Loon in winter plumage.

We headed back to our starting place, tired but pleased with a lovely winter walk in the season’s first snow. Here are the eBird lists for out two locations:

Olmsted Park–Leverett Pond, Suffolk, Massachusetts, US

Dec 10, 2017 9:00 AM – 10:00 AM

Comments:     BBC walk, 30, sunny, snow covered

12 species (+1 other taxa)

  • Canada Goose  30
  • Wood Duck  9
  • Mallard  60
  • Mallard (Domestic type)  1
  • American Black Duck  4
  • Ring-necked Duck  10
  • Hooded Merganser  8
  • Red-tailed Hawk  1
  • Herring Gull  2
  • Mourning Dove  1
  • Blue Jay  1
  • Tufted Titmouse  1
  • House Sparrow  6

Jamaica Pond, Suffolk, Massachusetts, US

Dec 10, 2017 10:15 AM – 11:00 AM

Comments:     BBC walk. 30,sunny, snow covered

12 species

  • Mute Swan  3
  • Gadwall  1     continuing female w coots
  • Ring-necked Duck  1
  • Hooded Merganser  1
  • Ruddy Duck  22
  • Common Loon  1
  • Great Cormorant  1
  • Red-tailed Hawk  2
  • American Coot  11
  • Ring-billed Gull  25
  • Herring Gull  5
  • House Sparrow  4

View this checklist online at

This report was generated automatically by eBird v3 (

This was my last walk of the year.  On Sunday January 7th I will be leading a walk in the Arboretum beginning at 9 AM from the man gate on the Arborway, where we can all start our Year List for 2018!  I hope you can join me.

Good Birding!