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!



After the Storm

I always like to do a bird walk in January to help fill out everyone’s Year List.  Then every sparrow, jay or robin counts for the new year.  This morning was a challenge though, with an overnight moderate nor’easter and dawn temperatures at 9 degrees.  With a lot of help from the Arboretum staff- clearing the roadways and providing warming refreshments at the end of the walk- I think all of the eight hardy folks that came to the walk thought it worth their effort.  Some birds even decided to joint us as well.

We started off viewing the feeding station next to the Visitors Center where there were only a few birds.  The best sighting, albeit briefly, was a lovely Carolina Wren:


Carolina Wren, showing it’s distinct white eyebrow.

As we were watching the feeders someone spotted a Red-tailed Hawk coming in for a landing on the building roof.  It was a juvenile and not showing the rusty-red tail of the adult bird:


Adult Red-tailed Hawk

As we moved up the road we stopped near some shrubs where some pishing exposed nearly 20 House Finches.


House Finches, a drab female on the left

At the end of the walk we saw more of these pretty birds at the feeders:


Male House finch, showing a brown cap, streaked sides and noticeable wing-bars, all of which distinguish them from their much rarer cousins, the Purple Finch.

At the ponds we spotted a bevy of Mourning Doves; what lovely creatures:


Mourning Dove close up

I mentioned to the group that there currently were two White-winged Doves that have been seen by many birders in the Victory Gardens in the Fenway. They are rare in New England.


Two White-winged Doves beside a Mourning Dove on left. Note the distinct white wing edge , the square tail, the red iris and the darker color of the White-winged birds. Fenway Victory Gardens

Birds were few and far between for much of the walk. We stopped at the now almost famous roost hole in a Black Locust near the ponds on our return, hoping to see the red-phase Eastern Screech-owl that has frequented the hole for the last several winters.


Eastern Screech-owl, red color morph.

Alas it was not present!  I played the eerie call of this owl from an app on my iPhone, hoping one might respond.  I heard nothing, so we continued down the road.  But several more patient birders hesitated- and were rewarded:

A screech was responding to the tape from somewhere in the woods.  Very cool!

Here is today’s complete list:

Arnold Arboretum, Suffolk, Massachusetts

Jan 8, 2017 9:00 AM – 10:30 AM

Comments:     18 F, sunny. BBC walk

15 species

  • Red-tailed Hawk  1
  • Herring Gull  2
  • Mourning Dove  9
  • Eastern Screech-Owl  1     heard calling in response to tape near roost hole
  • Blue Jay  3
  • Black-capped Chickadee  2
  • Carolina Wren  1
  • American Robin  4
  • Northern Mockingbird  1
  • Dark-eyed Junco  4
  • Song Sparrow  2
  • Northern Cardinal  5
  • House Finch  20
  • American Goldfinch  2
  • House Sparrow  1

View this checklist online at http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S33533078

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

Notably missing from the list were any woodpecker species (although a good birder in the group saw a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker following the walk), nuthatches, titmouses or other winter sparrows.

Good birding, and stay warm!

Birding Peters Hill and the Conifer Collection in the Arnold Arboretum

The weather remained cool and damp all week and today was more of the same, but 24 birders turned out nonetheless for a two and a half hour walk on the far side of the Arboretum.  The birding was about average for this time of year, but we did manage to find a few birds that pleased the group.

Early on we had Palm Warblers and Yellow-rumped Warblers; the only warbler species we had until the end of the walk when we managed to turn up (with a little help from my iPhone) a Pine Warbler singing and flitting about on the top of Hemlock Hill.


Pine Warbler. This early migrant has nested on Hemlock Hill regularly for many years.

In between these scarce warblers we found a few other migrants.  A brief but noisy call was at first identified as a Red-bellied Woodpecker; when we found the bird the identification changed:


Great-crested Flycatcher. This large flycatcher usually doesn’t arrive from the south until later in the migration.

The calls of the two species are quite different and distinguishable when heard clearly.  We never heard a Red-bellied today, although they commonly nest on Peters Hill.  We eventually climbed to the top of this, the highest point in the AA, but it was too foggy to provide much of a view. Here it is on a better day:


Downtown Boston Skyline from Peters Hill

In past years I aways led birders to the top of the hill to view the Tree Swallows, and occasional Bluebirds, utilizing the nestboxes we have maintained up there since 2006.


Male Tree Swallow on nestbox in 2007.  Some continued to nest last year, but this year they have been forced out of almost all the nestboxes in the Arboretum.


Male Eastern Bluebird on nestbox in 2007. Bluebirds haven’t nested in the boxes since 2009

This year we have no successful nesting of either species.  Invasive and non-native House Sparrows have tied up all the boxes, and I have yet to discover a solution to the problem.

The group descended the hill and proceeded to Conifer Path across Bussey Street.  We were on a quest for a Great Horned Owl.  Those of you who have been following my blog this spring know about the nest discovered in early April, and the efforts of many to help the parents keep their large brood alive.  There had been one remaining owlet in the nest as recently as four days before the walk:


The last of three Great Horned owlets, still on the nest.

But when I checked the nest yesterday it had left!  I decided it was worth a try to locate it, or it’s sibling, or maybe even a parent.  Recently fledged owls usually hang around the nest area for several months, begging for food from their parents and learning the ropes of being a grownup. We arrived quietly and the nest was empty.  I led the disappointed group down the slope a bit to several large conifers where owls sometimes roost.  A keen birder spotted an owl!  After more searching we located an adult within ten feet of the owlet.  We took some time to make sure everyone had seen the birds; then suddenly the adult flew off to another tree 50 feet away.  Everyone was struck by how quiet and graceful the flight of this big bird was- just over our heads.

We could have found more species, and had a bit of sunshine, but this was a perfect ending to a nice walk!  Here’s the list:

Arnold Arboretum, Suffolk, Massachusetts, US

May 7, 2016 8:00 AM – 10:30 AM

Comments:     BBC walk, overcast, 48

24 species

  • Mallard  2 flyover
  • Herring Gull  1 flyover
  • Mourning Dove  4
  • Great Horned Owl  2 adult and young
  • Downy Woodpecker  1
  • Great Crested Flycatcher  1
  • Blue Jay  2
  • Black-capped Chickadee  4
  • Tufted Titmouse  1
  • American Robin  30
  • European Starling  3
  • Palm Warbler  2
  • Pine Warbler  1
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler  5
  • Chipping Sparrow  8
  • White-throated Sparrow  2
  • Song Sparrow  1
  • Northern Cardinal  2
  • Red-winged Blackbird  9
  • Common Grackle  4
  • Brown-headed Cowbird  1
  • Baltimore Oriole  1
  • American Goldfinch  2
  • House Sparrow  4
  • View this checklist online at http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S29458222

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

Next weekend I’ll be doing the Bird-a-thon for MA Audubon’s Boston Nature Center.  My next Arboretum bird walk will be Sunday May 15th starting from the South Street Gate at 8AM.  We should be well into the migration and I hope to get some nice birds.

Good Birding!