During early morning walks it has been a joy to observe the many beautiful songbirds breakfasting on the array of autumn foods readily available, truly a smorgasbord of seeds, berries, and fruits.
My wild creature habitat radar has been especially drawn to a wonderful spot, so nicknamed ‘Four Berries Corners.’ Always alive at this time of year with chattering songbirds, there is a lovely crabapple tree, bittersweet, a small tree with black berries, privet I think, and two scraggly, but highly productive, Eastern Red Cedar trees.
In thinking about the about the most successful habitats for songbirds, a combination of seed-producing wildflowers, grasses, and garden flowers are planted along with primarily native flowering and fruiting trees and shrubs. The shrubs and trees also play the important role of providing nesting habitat and protective cover. The photo collection is a small sampling, and meant for design inspiration.
Native Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) and Male House Finches
A male and female House Finch feeding each other in the Crabapples!
Grass seeds, much beloved by many including Song Sparrows, Bobolinks, and even Snow Buntings
Poison Ivy berries – by no means am I suggesting to plant, just mentioning that over 60 species of birds have been documented eating Poison Ivy drupes.
Cattail seed heads for male Red-winged Blackbirds
Sunflower Seeds fo all!
Along with songbirds, come their predators. Look for Merlins, Red-tailed and Cooper’s Hawks
Blue Jay preening after a morning of berry eating
The berries of Spindle Tree are the most beautiful part of the tree, but the tree is not recommended as it reseeds freely and is notorious for pushing out species of native trees and shrubs.
Seed heads make great perches for dragonflies and damselflies
Coyotes getting in on the action– much of their scat at this time of year has plainly visible partially digested fruits and berries.
Recently I asked my friend Paul Wegzyn, owner of School Street Sunflowers, if I could poke around his sunflower field after it had closed for the season. The field had not yet been turned over to prepare for planting a winter cover crop and with all the expiring flowers, I thought perhaps it might be a wonderful place to photograph. He is so kind and said surely, no problem.
Suffice it to say, Paul’s field far exceeded my expectations for dreamy “expiring” beauty. The sunflowers not only provide myriad species of wildlife with seeds, but the tall, sturdy heads and leaves make for an outstanding songbird perch. The Song Sparrows use the sunflower heads to both forage and groom, the warblers for cover as they are hunting insects, and the most ingenious of all is how the Bobolinks make use of the seed heads. The grass that grows in and amongst the sunflowers is nearly as tall as the flower heads. The Bobolink lands on the sunflower and after thoroughly eyeballing the surrounding landscape for danger (hawks, I imagine), she slides a mouthful of grass seeds down the stalk and into her beak.
Over a period of several days I counted between half a dozen to a dozen Bobolinks, all females and immatures, not a single adult male amongst the flock. I wonder if the males migrate earlier than the females and immatures or if this was just a fluke. The males are striking in their crisp coat of black, white, and yellow, while the female’s feathers look nothing like the male’s wing patterning. (Thank you to author John Nelson for the positive bird ID!)
Male and female Bobolink, image courtesy The Bobolink Project
School Street Sunflowers has been providing a fantastic source of fuel for this super long distant migrant. At this time of year Bobolinks eat seeds and grains, switching over to insects during the breeding season.The Bobolink’s journey is an impressive 6,000 mile trek and they can fly 1,100 miles in a single day. Each year Bobolinks fly approximately 12,500 miles round trip and during the course of an average Bobolink’s life span, they will have traveled a distance equal to circumnavigating the earth four to five times.
Bobolinks are, as are many species of grassland birds, in overall decline. In some areas of New England they are recovering, due in large part to the success of The Bobolink Project. Because Bobolinks nest on the ground and because hay fields are typically planted and mowed earlier than in previous decades, the nest, eggs, and nestlings are churned up in plowing. The Bobolink Project is non profit organization that pays farmers to plant and to mow a little later in the season, which allows the birds to mature to fledge.
Note how well hidden is the Bobolink nest
Above photo gallery courtesy The Bobolink Project
Because of habitat loss, the use of neonicotinoids, and global climate change, grassland species need our help. Like other charismatic species of wildlife–Monarchs, Snowy Owls, and Piping Plovers come to mind–perhaps the Bobolink can be that grassland flagship species that people get excited about. Understanding a wild creature’s life story and lending a helping hand also provides habitat conservation for other species of wildlife as well.
As of this morning (the situation is fluid and changes at a moment’s notice), Good Harbor Beach will open to RESIDENTS ONLY on Friday, May 22nd. Typically, the parking lot holds approximately 1,000 cars. Due to Covid-19, that will be restricted to 500 resident’s vehicles.
The Beach Pit, GHB’s snack bar, will reopen Friday, if deliveries come through.
Planned are four portable bathrooms, two on either side of The Beach Pit. The public bathrooms installed at the snack bar will remain closed until a willing cleaning crew can be hired.
Beach Stickers: There is a dedicated beach sticker telephone line at City Hall. Direct all sticker inquiries to 978-281-9708, or e-mail email@example.com. Expired Beach Stickers will be allowed or current registration for two weeks only.
The red lifeguard chairs that serve as lifeguard station are in place. Lifeguards will be on duty beginning Friday.
Although the parking lot will only be open for residents, the Good Harbor Beach area for residents has been sectioned off and the white lines freshly painted.
Song Sparrow songster at GHB this morningMama and Papa Plover this morning – still no signs protecting the Piping Plovers. Once again, there is a simple solution. Greenbelt is able and ready to install signs. Why won’t the City work with Greenbelt?
The sweet Lark Sparrow has been spotted daily at Eastern Point now for over two weeks. I’ve been able to take a longer look on a sunny day and think he is an immature Lark Sparrow because he lacks the rich chestnut color of an adult.
On one fine chilly, chilly morning, he even let me spend more than a few moments watching as he dozed in the sun while puffing his feathers for warmth.
The Lark Sparrow spends a good deal of time foraging on the ground for tiny seeds. When disturbed, he flies up into the trees and at that moment you can catch a glimpse of the white outlined feathers of the bird’s long rounded tail.
Lark Sparrow tail feathers
Unlike Song Sparrows that dart and zoom horizontally across the landscape, when heading to the next location, the Lark Sparrow flies upward in more of a whirring helicopter movement. I love this little bird and if he stays all winter I hope he will find plenty of seeds to eat.
Lark Sparrow foraging for seeds
Compare and contrast the Song Sparrow to the Lark Sparrow. Both species are currently at Eastern Point/Niles Pond area. Both species forage on the ground for tiny seeds. The breast of the Song Sparrow is streaky while the breast of the Lark Sparrow is solid white with a dot of black feathers centered at the upper chest.
Song Sparrow Eastern Point
Don’t you find it fascinating, these avian visitors that are so far off course that find themselves on our shores? Here’s an account from 1905 —
The Lark Sparrow in Massachusetts.– On August 12, 1905, at Ipswich, Massachusetts, I observed at close range a Lark Sparrow (Chondesres grammacus). This makes the sixth record of this species for the State, and the fourth for Essex County. Nearly a year before this, on August 21, 1904, I took at Ipswich an adult male Lark Sparrow (Birds [Auk 104 General Notes. I. Jan. of Essex County, p. 268). It has occurred to me that stragglers in the migrations along our Eastern Coast may not be so very rare, but that they are overlooked, being mistaken for Vesper Sparrows, owing to the ‘white outer tail feathers. In both of the above instances, however, the slightly fan-shaped tail, and the fact that the white was not confined to the two outer feathers, as in the Vesper Sparrow, attracted my eye. The characteristic marking on the side of the head in the Lark Sparrow, seen with a glass within thirty feet, made the diagnosis in the second ca. From the Supplement to the Birds of Essex County by Charles Wendell Townsend.
A very rare-for-these parts Lark Sparrow was spotted by numerous birders today and yesterday at Niles Pond. The beautiful little songster kept either close to the ground foraging on tiny seeds or well camouflaged in the crisscrossing branches of trees and shrubs.
Lark Sparrow Niles Pond Gloucester Massachusetts
Song Sparrows Gloucester and Ipswich
We mostly see Song Sparrows around Niles at this time of year. Compare in the above photos how plain the breast of the Lark Sparrow is to that of the heavily streaked Song Sparrow’s underparts. I write rare-for-these-parts because the Lark Sparrow is entirely out of its range as you can see in the first attached map below.
A second rare bird has been spotted on Eastern Point, a Western Kingbird. It was a rough day for photographing, too overcast, so here is a photo from wikicommons media so that if you are around the Point, you will know what to look for. The Western Kingbird is also far outside its range.
The melodious notes of the Song Sparrow are heard from sunup ’til sundown, spring, summer, and fall. Their beautiful song is most welcome, especially at this time of year when there are fewer songbirds on our shores and many that remain through the winter months don’t sing during the non-breeding season.
Song Sparrows have adapted to a wide variety of habitats. Despite the narrowness of the strip of land that separates freshwater Niles Pond from salty Brace Cove, Song Sparrows find plenty to forage on and excellent cover in the shrubby undergrowth found there.
With early predictions of a Snowy Owl irruption heading our way and several sightings in Gloucester, I have been periodically popping over to Cranes Beach in Ipswich. Thanks to Bill Foley, Cranes Chief of Police (and Kate’s awesome Dad!), who showed me around and provided some great tips on locating the Snowies, I was able to find one second time out. The first day was a bust because a dog owner had allowed his dog off leash. I watched the dog chase the Snowy, who then headed far and away over the dunes. This made me so very sad for myriad reasons, but especially so at Cranes Beach because there is a fabulously huge area that dogs are allowed off leash. Anyhow, seeing the Snowy that first day, and knowing he was there, was all I needed to keep trying.
Dunlins, Sanderlings, Snow Buntings, and Horned Lark
That day, a flock of Dunlins was resting in the sand, with one lone Sanderling, and there was a small flock of Snow Buntings in the parking lot. Feeding amongst the flock was, what I believe to be, a female Horned Lark!
Second day out was wonderfully rewarding. Approaching the stairs to descend to the beach, I inadvertently startled a Snowy and he flew from the area, way, way down the beach, perching on one of the poles that mark the access to the Green Trail. Off I trudged in 15 degree weather, keeping my eyes peeled on where he was resting. He stayed for quite some time while I stood back at a great distance, not wanting to disrupt his hunting. Suddenly, and with what I thought, great bravery, he flew quite close and past me, heading over to the sandy beach. I wasn’t anticipating his flight and didn’t get much of a photo, but it was exquisite to see.
The temperature had climbed to twenty, but I was getting worried about exposed photo fingers and frostbite. After taking a few more photos and some footage of the Snowy in the sand, I very reluctantly headed home.
Today I didn’t see the Snowy Owl, but did find a scattering of Snowy feathers in the sand, in the same area where one had been hunting the previous week. I showed the ranger at the gate, Emily White, the feathers and she confirmed they were from a Snowy. She said that hawks and falcons will attack Snowies. I didn’t see any bones or body parts, so hopefully it wasn’t a fight to the death. Emily was super helpful and shared lots of useful information. This year’s Audubon Christmas Bird Count at Cranes was relatively uneventful, with fewer numbers counted than usual. Many more beautiful birds will be arriving to our shores in the coming weeks, foraging in the dunes and shrubby habitat, and hopefully, there will be lots more Snowy Owl sightings!
There is much to chortle about in this latest Cape Ann Winged Creature Update. Early April marked the arrival of both Snowy and Great Egrets, Black-crowned Night Herons and Great Blue Herons. Osprey pairs and evidence of Osprey nest building can be seen wherever Essex Greenbelt platforms have been installed. Northern Pintail and American Wigeon Ducks are stopping over at our local ponds on their northward migrations while scrub and shrub are alive with the vibrant song of love birds singing their mating calls. Oh Happy Spring!
Ospreys Nest Building
Northern Mockingbirds Singing
Female American Wigeon
Gadwall (center), Male Pintail, Mallards, Male and Female American Wigeons
My grandmother was fond of saying “the early bird catches the worm.” I assumed she said that because I adored getting up early to eat breakfast with my grandfather before he left for work. In a large family with siblings and cousins, I had him all to myself in those day break hours. Having developed a passion and love for wild creatures and wild places, I understand better what she meant. She and my grandfather built a summer home for their family in a beautiful, natural seashore setting and both she and my parents packed our home with books and magazines about nature. Now I see her design…
Day break, beautiful scene, beautiful creatures by the sea’s edge
Song Sparrow breakfast
American Robin fledgling, note its speckled breast feathers
Mockingbird feeding its fledgling
Song Sparrow and Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) flowers and fruit
Through my camera’s lens, I thought this sweet little Song Sparrow was hopping around with a breakfast of leaves until downloading the photos. Rather, his mouth is stuffed with what appears to be the larvae of the Winter Moth, those annoying little green caterpillars that dangle from trees, which pupate into the dreaded adult Winter Moths, which are destroying trees and shrubs throughout the region. So, thank you Song Sparrow!
The Song Sparrow was most likely bringing the caterpillars to its nestlings. Although adult Song Sparrows prefer seeds, to a newly hatched bird a plump juicy green caterpillar is easy to digest and rich in nutrients. As a matter of fact, most songbirds rear their young on insects. The Song Sparrow photo illustrates yet another reason why it is so important not to spray trees with pesticides and herbicides. When a landscape is pesticide free, a natural balance returns. Insects are bird food!
While filming B-roll for several projects I caught the sunrise at Brace Cove several mornings ago. The seals were awakening, as were the swan couple, the cormorants and gulls stretching wide their wings, and the songbirds breaking fast on the abundance of wild berries and seed heads found along the berm at Niles Pond. Click image to see full size.