May Virtual Birding Walk
For birders, the month of May means migration. From late April into late May, some of Massachusetts’ most exciting birds arrive from wintering grounds in Central and South America to establish breeding territory or to fuel up for continued migration extending into northern New England and Canada. These birds include species of songbirds such as flycatchers, vireos, and birder’s favorite, the wood-warblers. For Wareham Land Trust’s Birding Series for the month of May, I had intended to lead a walk at Horseshoe Mill in search for these migrants. Since COVID-19 has prevented programming from happening in person, we have taken this monthly series online by filming a birding walk on a property and discussing the monthly topic. Horseshoe Mill is closed due to construction, so I changed the location of the walk to Great Neck Conservation Area, owned and managed by the Wildlands Trust. Since we are replicating our Virtual Birding Series to reflect our in-person Birding Series, we filmed the video over a period of two hours (though, admittedly, I did scout out some areas for birds before filming).
When looking for a wide diversity of migrant songbirds, it is always best to look in an area with a variety of habitat. Since birds have habitat preferences, poking around multiple habitat types will provide greater diversity in species composition that might be setting up breeding grounds or having a snack. Birds passing through will often stop in familiar habitats. For example, I know that Ovenbirds breed in contiguous stands of dense forest, so I predict that we will hear their bustling song ringing through the white pine forest. A variety of habitat, especially edgy habitat, also attracts greater bird diversity due to the availability of different food, ranging from berries to bugs. The Great Neck Conservation Area provides a wonderful arrangement of habitats including red maple swamp, large white pine stands, fields, and ponds. Extending further onto the preserve, you can explore salt marshes along Mink Cove for looks at shorebirds and waterbirds.
In and out of migration season, most bird species are best seen early in the morning foraging for insects in the rising sun, so we started filming at our original starting time of 8:00am. Birds are also more likely to sing in the morning because their songs carry further with the decreased winds and lack of humidity, though there is evidence that birds might sing in the morning to show their dominance by singing loudly without first having breakfast. Insects pack a punch of protein and fat, and since birds are flying such long distances, these protein-rich meals allow them to regain energy for breeding or continued migration. These bugs are also easy to catch and digest. Insects, like caterpillars and flies, occupy the forest canopy and the abundance of understory thickets in Plymouth County. With this in mind, we headed out on our birding excursion.
Like many great birding outings, our birding began in the parking lot. The lot is sandwiched between two conservation areas, Great Neck Conservation Area and Minot Forest. As mentioned above, many birds are attracted to edge habitat, so Crooked River Road and the abutting backyards create bird-y conditions. I was immediately greeted by a loud Northern Cardinal whooping from the oak and pines on the outskirts of Minot Forest. I always remember the cardinal’s song because it sounds like a siren or fire truck, which matches the bright red plumage of the bird. Continuing to paint the edgy forest with colors, a Baltimore Oriole flew across the road to join the cardinal. Baltimore Orioles are named after their black and bright orange plumage, resembling the colors of the family crest of England’s Baltimore family. Orioles, Baltimore and the less vibrant but equally as exciting Orchard Oriole, arrived in the past two weeks and can be attracted to homes by placing sliced oranges in the backyard to provide energy in the form of sugar.
The parking lot also provided our first two warblers of the day, the Northern Parula and the Blackpoll Warbler. The Northern Parula is a warbler species without “warbler” in the name. It has a blue head, blue wings and back, white wing bars, yellow throat and chest, white belly, and broken eye ring. These field markings may seem very specific and detail-oriented, and that is because they are! Warblers are a great challenge. Many of them are small, hard to see, and look very similar to each other, so birders study their minute field markings to be able to identify the species with only a quick, few second look. The Blackpoll Warbler is less showy than the parula. This warbler has a black cap and white cheek like a chickadee, white underparts with black striping, and black wings with white wingbars and yellow highlights. Both of these warblers were flitting between the canopies of oaks and pines lining the road, and both were new county birds for me!
While walking the start of the trail along the neighboring backyards, we heard a few common backyard birds like American Goldfinch and American Robin. A solo Wild Turkey was gleaning for bugs, seeds, or whatever other food it could find; turkeys are not picky. As we approached Swan Pond, we had another two warblers singing from the marsh and wet forest. One I expected, the Common Yellowthroat, and one as a surprise, the Yellow-rumped Warbler. The Common Yellowthroat can be heard in fields and in wetlands and are best identified by their quick, frequent song “witch-it-tah, witch-it-tah, witch-it-ah, witch-it.” The Common Yellowthroat has a namesake yellow throat, yellow underparts, olive back and wings, and a black face mask that resembles a skulking bandit. Yellow-rumped Warblers will arrive very early during migration, and some even brave the tough Massachusetts’ winter. Their song is a complex, ever-changing mess of warbles. Black and white all over with yellow patches below the wings makes for nice plumage. Their namesake yellow rump patch has granted them one of my favorite nicknames for any bird species, the butterbutt.
On the pond, I expected to see more activity than what was present. We found no swans on Swan Pond, and the only birds on the pond were a pair of Mallards. Luckily, the swallows feeding on bugs buzzing above the pond made up for the lack of ducks. Since the pond borders the farm field, swallows have two areas to forage, bringing mixed species flocks of Barn Swallows, Northern Rough-winged Swallows, and Tree Swallows. On either side of the trail, these wonderfully playful birds seemed to dance above the water and fields with such grace it has moved and inspired artists for centuries. Barn Swallows can be distinguished by their long, forked tails and orange underside. Rough-winged swallows, or “roughies,” can be told apart by their white undersides and drab gray-ish brown back and wings, and Tree Swallows are overall more shiny blue than the other swallows.
Also in the field were Canada Goose, Chipping Sparrows, and Eastern Kingbirds. Chipping Sparrows occupied the lawn with Song Sparrows. Chipping Sparrows are overall more white and have an acorn-colored cap, while Song Sparrows have a white belly with brown streaking leading to a darker brown patch on the chest. A pair of kingbirds perched on either side of a large brush pile sang their song that sounds like electrical wires touching together. Eastern Kingbirds are a large flycatcher species with a slender appearance, white belly, dark gray hood, and dark gray tail that looks like the end was perfectly dipped into white paint. While scanning the field, we had an Osprey, a Great Blue Heron, and a few Double-crested Cormorants fly over. Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles occupying the area made listening for other birds especially difficult.
As we approached the pine-dominated forests, I encountered my final two warblers, totaling 8 warbler species for the morning. Singing from along the field was a Yellow Warbler belting its song. The mnemonic is a personal favorite because it seems so fitting: “sweet, sweet, I’m so sweet!”. The Yellow Warbler is yellow overall with orange striping on the breast, and their curiosity and bubbly personalities do make for a sweet bird to encounter, even if it lacks modesty. Next was the Ovenbird, the warbler species I expected to see in this area. The song from multiple Ovenbirds, even three at once, boomed through the forest. Likely establishing breeding grounds and advertising territory, I am happy to know that these warblers will stick out the summer in Wareham. As I was admiring the Ovenbirds, another uncommon bird sang, the Brown Creeper. These birds are more abundant in pine forests in the winter, so the twinkling trill to start their song immediately pulled my attention away from the funny Ovenbirds. These small creepers creep up and down while foraging for bugs with their long slender bill. Creepers are difficult to see because their brown mottled plumage camouflages them with the trees. Though migrants bring great excitement every May, seeing this Brown Creeper was certainly a highlight of the morning.
As we got deeper into the forest, we came across a stand of standing dead red pines. This allowed for more sunlight to reach the forest, creating more understory thickets. These thickets attract Eastern Towhees and Gray Catbirds. While the Great Crested Flycatchers yell “REAP” and the Ovenbirds sing high in the trees, the towhees and catbirds are singing low in the thickets. Towhees have a raspy song “Drink-your-teaaa!” and catbirds meow, whine, and mimic other songs. The opening also allows for an opportunity to skywatch. Two Red-shouldered Hawks flew over, calling as they soared. This light colored buteo, or soaring hawk, has a tail with multiple bands and window patches in the wings, which appear like you can see through. While looking for small, illusive warblers, it was nice to see some large raptors.
On my way out, we came across similar birds mentioned before. Just as we were about to exit the property, we had the birdiest moment of the morning: Five warbler species and two hawk species. As expected, Pine Warbler, Ovenbird, and Common Yellowthroat sang overhead, but unexpectedly, so did Northern Parula and Blackpoll Warbler. In these situations, it is easy to get overwhelmed by song. My advice in these situations is to develop a sense of baseline noises in your environment. In this case near the swamp, Northern Cardinals, Gray Catbird, and Common Yellowthroat sing loudly here, and since I have these as baseline songs, I can detect unusual vocalizations like the singing from the parula, which is an ascending trill with a “pop!” at the end. The Red-shouldered Hawk sang and disrupted the baseline, so peering up through the trees, I was surprised to see a Broad-winged Hawk along with the red-shouldered. A Baltimore Oriole sang in a frantic and alarmed tone. Broad-winged Hawks have one wide band across the tail, while red-shouldered have multiple bands. This all happened in a matter of minutes, then it slowed down, showing the importance of taking one’s time during a birding walk.
Ending the day with 51 species, I walked away feeling accomplished and grateful for the opportunity to observe the birds in such beautiful habitat in Wareham. When looking for migrants, remember to explore a diversity of habitats, keep your eyes and ears open, and take things slow! The various habitat types found at Great Neck Conservation Area can be found all around this region of Massachusetts, so check out your backyard, neighborhood, and local trails to look for these species!
I complied an eBird species checklist from the mornings walk, which you can view here.
Thank you for virtually birding with me! I wish you all well and suggest finding peace in birds in these difficult times. Happy May and Happy Birding!