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!

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

This report was generated automatically by eBird v3 (

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!