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!

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!



End of Year Musings in the Emerald Necklace

2015 was a year of record breaking weather.  The year started off with a series of overwhelming snowstorms that put much of the area in weather lock-down and wreaked havoc in nature.  Vulnerable avian species, especially species that have moved north as the climate warmed, experienced heavier than usual winter die off.  I usually have one or two Carolina Wrens at my feeders in winter; this year none showed after the storms hit, and I didn’t see or hear one throughout the spring and summer anywhere in the area.  Finally one appeared last month:


This disgruntled Carolina Wren had seen enough of cold winter weather.

The unusually cold weather may have brought us the best bird for the year, a Black-backed Woodpecker in Forest Hills Cemetery.  Another rarity was a Grasshopper Sparrow, first found by Paul Peterson in late December 2014, which lingered more than a month into 2015 in an overgrown field near the Boston Nature Center.

Grasshopper Sparrow

This “documentation” shot of a Grasshopper Sparrow barely shows the white eye-ring and streaked upper body of this sparrow, uncommon in Massachusetts.

There were two notable sightings in the waterfowl category in 2015.  Gadwalls appeared on both Leverett and Jamaica Ponds in the Necklace.  I spotted one on Dawson Pond in the Arnold Arboretum as well:


Gadwall, male. The black tail, white wing speculum and chestnut back are distinctive.

Gadwalls are regular inhabitants of coastal marshes like Plum Island in Newburyport, but they are rarely seen in our local ponds.

At least a few Wood Ducks appear nearly every winter on one or more of the waterways in the Emerald Necklace. This year was the first time that breeding was confirmed however;  a family of seven ducklings and their mother was discovered on Leverett Pond (again by the illustrious Paul Peterson) in late July.


Family of Wood Ducks on a dead tree limb on Leverett Pond; the adult female is at far left.

The male of this species may be the most colorful duck in the region:


Male Wood Duck sitting on the snow in February 2015

As 2015 comes to a close, we should note the death of a Great Blue Heron that gave pleasure to many visitors at the Arnold Arboretum this year.


Juvenile Great Blue Heron on Rehder Pond at the Arnold Arboretum, a few weeks before it was killed by two unleashed dogs.

This bird had become accustomed to the many people who stopped to watch it hunt for prey in the pond. That no doubt made it easier for two unleashed dogs to attack and kill it in late July.  This quickly mobilized the Arboretum administration to begin a sustained educational and enforcement program aimed at unleashed dogs and their owners;


Great Blue Herons have been drawn to the easy fishing on the ponds at the AA for years, and I hoped another heron would quickly replace “Baby Blue”, as a group of school children nicknamed the bird this summer.  I did hear a second hand report of one being seen at the ponds, but never saw or confirmed that.  Let’s hope for next spring.

Speaking of spring, unseasonably warm days in December fooled some local trees into early bloom, and even brought out pollinators:


Out of season bloom on a Fugi Cherry in the Rose Garden attracted a hardy honey bee on December 15th!

Finally, the 43rd Boston Christmas Bird Count (BCBC) was conducted this year on Sunday December 20th, in comfortable weather.  I have discussed past BCBC’s in posts in 2014  and in 2013.

This year the Jamaica Plain group of six birders had to hustle to cover all of the Emerald Necklace and adjacent areas of Forest Hills Cemetery and the Boston Nature Center in Mattapan that are traditionally birded for the count.  The early “owlers” heard or saw three Eastern Screech-owls between 4:30 and 7:00 AM, better than last year.  Here is a photo of that species, taken in the Arboretum back in January:


This Rufous Morph Eastern Screech-owl has returned for the third year to the same roost hole where it suns itself on cold winter mornings.

During the day our group found two of the three Red-breasted Nuthatches that were seen in the entire 15 mile diameter Boston circle.  The conifer section of the Arboretum is a good place to find these little relatives of the much more common White-breasted Nuthatch.


Red-breasted Nuthatch atop a spruce in the Arboretum.

Overall, the JP sector group produced 47 species for the count; the BCBC tallied 114 species, about average for a BCBC in recent years.  The only other highlight for our local group was the discovery of a huge flock of at least 2,000 Common Grackles at the Mass Audubon Nature Center. Normally only a few of these birds- common in the warmer months- are found during the BCBC (only four in 2014).  When seen in the sunlight, they are striking birds:

Common Grackle, showing the iridescent sheen of it’s feathers and the yellow iris.

Here is the full list of all the birds tallied this year in the Boston count:

Greater Boston Christmas Bird Count, Dec 20, 2015, Bob Stymeist, compiler

114 species (+3 other taxa) plus nine Count Week (CW) birds

NOTE: The Swainson’s Hawk is the first for a Christmas Count in New England. We had all time high counts for: Red-throated Loon, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Common Raven, Eastern Towhee, and Common Grackle. Carolina Wrens took a big hit with 48 reported down from an all time high of 176 last year before the snows came!

  1. Brant  46
  2. Canada Goose  6857
  3. Mute Swan  66
  4. Wood Duck  34 (30 of these were at Leverett Pond in JP)
  5. American Black Duck  458
  6. Mallard  2167
  7. Northern Shoveler  7
  8. Northern Pintail  4
  9. Green-winged Teal  50
  10. Canvasback  1
  11. Redhead  3
  12. Ring-necked Duck  126
  13. Greater Scaup  130
  14. Common Eider  950
  15. Surf Scoter  303
  16. White-winged Scoter  118
  17. Black Scoter  11
  18. Long-tailed Duck  57
  19. Bufflehead  616
  20. Common Goldeneye  108
  21. Common x Barrow’s Goldeneye (hybrid)  1
  22. Hooded Merganser  310
  23. Common Merganser  202
  24. Red-breasted Merganser  574
  25. Ruddy Duck  100
  26. Wild Turkey  73
  27. Red-throated Loon  66
  28. Common Loon  58
  29. Pied-billed Grebe  5
  30. Horned Grebe  36
  31. Red-necked Grebe  51
  32. Double-crested Cormorant  48
  33. Great Cormorant  1
  34. Great Blue Heron  34
  35. Northern Harrier  7
  36. Sharp-shinned Hawk  6
  37. Cooper’s Hawk  22
  38. Bald Eagle  3 (1 in JP sector)
  39. SWAINSON’S HAWK- juvenile Bear Creek, Saugus  NEW to COUNT
  40. Red-tailed Hawk  96
  41. Rough-legged Hawk  CW Bear Creek
  42. American Coot  73
  43. Sandhill Crane CW flyover on Center St. JP
  44. Killdeer  1
  45. Lesser Yellowlegs  1-only 2nd record- last 1984
  46. Ruddy Turnstone  4
  47. Sanderling  50
  48. Dunlin  213
  49. Purple Sandpiper  5
  50. Thick-billed Murre  CW
  51. Black Guillemot  CW
  52. Ring-billed Gull  1340
  53. Herring Gull  2102
  54. Lesser Black-backed Gull  2
  55. Great Black-backed Gull  158
  56. Great-Black-backed X Herring Gull hybrid 1 photos
  57. Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)  81
  58. Mourning Dove  52
  59. Eastern Screech-Owl  32 (3 in JP sector)
  60. Great Horned Owl  13
  61. Snowy Owl  11- ten at Logan Airport
  62. Barred Owl  3
  63. Belted Kingfisher  14- Tied High Count
  64. Red-bellied Woodpecker  101-New High Count
  65. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 2
  66. Downy Woodpecker  331
  67. Hairy Woodpecker  24
  68. Northern Flicker  20
  69. Pileated Woodpecker  CW- Middlesex Fells
  70. American Kestrel  5
  71. Merlin  2
  72. Peregrine Falcon  9
  73. Blue Jay 689
  74. American Crow  144
  75. Fish Crow  6
  76. Common Raven  11-New High Count
  77. Horned Lark  58
  78. Black-capped Chickadee  1049
  79. Tufted Titmouse  391
  80. Red-breasted Nuthatch  3 (2 in conifers in AA)
  81. White-breasted Nuthatch  424- Tied High Count
  82. Brown Creeper  7
  83. Winter Wren  2
  84. Carolina Wren  48
  85. Golden-crowned Kinglet  18
  86. Ruby-crowned Kinglet  2 (1 in AA)
  87. Hermit Thrush  12
  88. American Robin  1973
  89. Gray Catbird  5
  90. Northern Mockingbird  96
  91. European Starling  3355
  92. American Pipit  1
  93. Bohemian Waxwing  1- Lexington
  94. Cedar Waxwing  18
  95. Lapland Longspur CW
  96. Snow Bunting  32
  97. Orange-crowned Warbler  1
  98. Common Yellowthroat  2
  99. Palm Warbler CW
  100. Pine Warbler  1
  101. Yellow-rumped Warbler  4
  102. Wilson’s Warbler CW Victory Gardens
  103. Yellow-breasted Chat  2
  104. American Tree Sparrow  202
  105. Chipping Sparrow  1
  106. Clay-colored Sparrow  1 Lexington Community Gardens
  107. Dark-eyed Junco  1376
  108. White-crowned Sparrow  1 Amelia Earhart Dam
  109. White-throated Sparrow  556
  110. Savannah Sparrow  7
  111. Savannah Sparrow (Ipswich)  1
  112. Fox sparrow 6
  113. Song Sparrow  599
  114. Swamp Sparrow  15
  115. Eastern Towhee  6 New High Count
  116. Northern Cardinal  432
  117. Dickcissel  1- Allandale Woods
  118. Red-winged Blackbird  32
  119. Rusty Blackbird  6
  120. Common Grackle  2017 (2014 in JP sector)
  121. Brown-headed Cowbird  1
  122. Baltimore Oriole CW
  123. House Finch  409
  124. Pine Siskin  1
  125. American Goldfinch  592
  126. House Sparrow  3940

This report was generated automatically by eBird v3

I will be leading a walk in the Arnold on Sunday January 10th from 9 to 10:30 AM beginning at the main gate off the Arborway, for those anxious to get going on their 2016 year lists!

Happy New Year and Good Birding in 2016!