Tag Archives: birding


In the middle of the afternoon, I took a break and slipped off the Baylands Nature Preserve. A light breeze, gusting to a moderate breeze, came from a little west of north, and brought the smell of salt water of the bay with it. I felt a little cold, and thought about going back to the car to get my fleece vest, but decided to keep walking. The tide was just beginning to come in, and there were so many shore birds all over the mudflats — American Avocets, Marbled Godwits, Willets, Western Sandpipers — that I spent most of my time looking down at the mud, not up at the sky.

Then a huge something flew overhead. I looked up in time to see a big white bird with black wing tips gliding low over the salt marsh. I didn’t even need to look at its head to know that it was an American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos). I’ve seen plenty of Brown Pelicans, but somehow I had never seen a White Pelican before today. And I didn’t just see the one; as I got farther out the dike trail, I saw half a dozen more gliding overhead, and after I had walked about a mile I saw more than twenty more sitting in the marsh about two tenths of a mile away from the dike.

The American White Pelican was the three hundredth species of bird that I’ve positively identified. I’m not a very good birder, and the main reason that I’ve managed to see that many species of birds is that I’ve lived on the east coast, on the west coast, and in the midwest. And I have to admit that it has taken me more than forty years to see that many species — I can positively remember seeing a Rufous-sided Towhee for the first time in July, 1967, when I was six years old, so I can date the beginning of my birding career no later than then. Nevertheless, I certainly felt a little thrill go through me this afternoon when I realized that I was indeed seeing an American White Pelican, a bird I had never seen before.

I spent a good ten minutes watching one White Pelican feeding at the edge of one of the sloughs in the Baylands Preserve: sticking out its neck as it floated along and running its long peach-colored bill through the water, then putting its head back so I could see its somewhat distended throat sac. And I spent a fair amount of time watching three or four of them flying together: these huge birds with a wingspan of up to 120 inches in close formation, gliding along and barely flapping their wings. It was certainly a dramatic way to reach the three hundred species milestone.

Piping Plover photos

Ferry Beach Conference Center, Saco, Maine

This evening, I managed to take some photos of the Piping Plover nesting up the beach from the conference center. I know some regular readers of this blog might be interested, so I uploaded the photos to Flickr.

View six photos as a slide show.

View thumbnails of the photos, better for slow connections.

I’ve placed these photos in the public domain, use as you see fit.

Wood Thrush

Ferry Beach, Saco, Maine

The afternoon showers drove most everyone off the beach. I walked down to Ferry Beach State Park, and walked under Route 9 through their underpass, and into the woodlands and swamps of the park. There weren’t any cars in the parking lot, but one of the rangers was still there. He saw my binoculars, and we started talking about birds. I asked him if he had heard any Veeries, and he said no, but there were a few Wood Thrushes in the woods.

Wood Thrushes and Veeries can produce more than one note simultaneously — birds have syrinxes, not larynxes like us mammals do, and many birds can produce more than one note at a time — so they can actually sing in harmony with themselves. A Veery sings a song that sounds like it’s descending in a sort of swooping spiral. I’m not good at describing sounds, so I won’t try to describe the sound a Wood Thrush makes, but it’s a series of notes that I find hauntingly beautiful.

A few steps out of the parking lot and into the woods, I heard a Wood Thrush calling. The quality of the sound is such that it can be hard to tell exactly where the sound is coming from. I walked down the path towards the sound of the Wood Thrush, and it seemed as if the bird was slowly moving away from me, flying from tree to tree — but maybe it was two different birds, and one started singing while the other stopped singing as I got close to it.

Eventually, the Wood Thrush stopped singing. It was getting dark. I headed back to the campsite.

On retreat: Autumn watch

Wareham, Mass. I was sitting at the breakfast table talking to some ministers whom I hadn’t seen in a while, when Rachel, the program chair for this retreat, came around and said the morning’s program was about to begin. The other ministers filed in to hear the rest of the presentation by Connie Barlow and Michael Dowd. Even though I strongly disagreed with Dowd’s presentation last night, where he described an eco-theology grounded in a grand narrative of the universe, I felt that I should keep an open mind and go hear more. Then I thought to myself:– Would I rather sit indoors and listen to someone talk theology, or would I rather go outdoors to take a long walk? I went quietly upstairs to get my coat and binoculars, and slipped out the back door of the retreat center.

Cloudy and cold this morning, a real mid-autumn day. Birds filled the bushes along the edge of the retreat center’s lawn: Gold-crowned Kinglets, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Song Sparrows, catbirds, cardinals, and even a Hermit Thrush. I bushwhacked to the edge of the little estuary. As I came down to the edge of the salt marsh, a Great Blue Heron squawked, crouched, and leapt into the air, tucking his neck back and slowly pulling his long legs up against his body. Some of the trees surrounding the salt marsh were already bare of leaves; one or two maples still covered in brilliant red leaves; the white oaks shone dull gold in the subdued light; a few trees were still green. The tide was quite high, and I skirted the high water through the salt marsh hay. One high bush blueberry, a bush about five feet high growing right at the edge of the marsh, was covered in deep, glowing red leaves; I only noticed that small bush because the trees around it were already bare and grey.

After a long walk, I wound up on the Wareham town beach. A fisherman stood at the far end of the beach, where the sand ends in a little spit sticking out into an estuary winding up through extensive salt marshes.

“Catching anything?” I said.

“Not today,” he said. “Caught a little striper yesterday.”

I said that was pretty good; it’s late to catch a striper this far north.

He was feeling talkative, and we chatted idly for a few minutes. “What are you looking for?” he said, noticing the binoculars hanging around my neck.

“Ducks,” I said. “The ducks should be here by now. But I’m not really seeing any. Maybe because it’s been so warm, and they’re just not moving down onto their wintering grounds yet.”

“Yeah, that’s what they’re saying about the stripers this year,” he said. “They should be gone by now, but it’s still warm so they’re staying up here.”

Every year, the story is a little different. The fall migrants generally move on at about the same time, but a Hermit Thrush might stay a little later than usual. The striped bass run south, but one year that might leave a little earlier or later than another year. Some years a few maple trees hold their leaves a little longer, or a blueberry bush turns a particularly bright red. The same story is told year after year, and it’s always the same but always different. That’s the only grand narrative I care about, a grand narrative that’s not told in words.

Three unrelated conversations

The drive up from New Bedford north towards Boston took me through the flat south coastal plain of Massachusetts. Along the highway through the plain, red maples seem to be the dominant trees where the ground is a little lower than the surrounding terrain; white and red oaks, and white and red pines, where the ground is a little higher. The red maples were bright with reds and yellows and oranges; in the lowest ground where I could see there was a swamp many of the trees were already bare. The oaks were still mostly green, although here and there a branch with brilliant red leaves stuck out of the dark green of the oak and pine woods; and here and there I saw a white oak fringed with brownish gold leaves.

I had lunch with dad, and we talked mostly about photography. Dad, who is an avid photographer, has been using digital cameras for the past three or four years. But recently, he said, he’s turned back to using his old single lens reflex film camera, a classic Pentax K-1000. He stood in the window of his condo in West Concord and used four different cameras to shoot the same picture of a sugar maple in full autumn color: three different digital cameras, and the K-1000. He got the film processed commerically, and he printed the shots from the digital camera using the same paper and printer. Then he compared the images all four sources. His conclusion: the images from the film camera had better color saturation and richer reds than any of the digital images.

Photo buffs would probably say that images from a professional-quality digital camera printed on a top-notch printer could surpass the images from commercially-processed film. But that’s not the point; dad was comparing images from cameras he had access to and that he could afford. Forget the photography buffs; dad and I agreed that film cameras are superior. We got into a satisfying discussion of which color film is best, and how both of us would kind of like to get back into a darkroom to print black-and-white film.

Dad had to go off to teach a computer class, so I went birding at Great Meadows. I worked my way down the central dike, stopping now and then to scan the water for ducks. Another birder, a man carrying a high-end telescope, was making his way down the dike at roughly the same pace as I. Somewhere in the middle of the dike, I said to him that I had got some sparrows, and he came down to see. We wound up talking while we waited for sparrows to break cover and come out where we could see them.

He asked where I lived, and I said New Bedford, and he told me about a house that his grandparents had had on Hawthorne Street in New Bedford. I said I hadn’t seen any ducks yet this year on New Bedford harbor, and he said that the wintering ducks had already started moving in to the Barnstable area. He lived down on the Cape during the warm months, and had just moved back up to his house in Weston on Tuesday. He asked how it happened that I was in Concord that day, and I said I grew up in town, and it turned out that his daughter had married a man who was best friends with Steve S—- who had lived down the street from us when I was young.

We finally saw Swamp Sparrows and Savannah Sparrows (and I was pretty sure I had also seen an immature White Throated Sparrow). But most of the ducks we saw were Mallards. “It’s so quiet out here,” he said. “Listen to those geese. I can even hear that tika-tika-tika sound they make when they’re feeding.” He scanned the ducks with his binoculars. “Twenty years ago, you’d see ninety percent Black Ducks and only a few Mallards. Now it’s the other way around. I used to shoot ducks,” he continued. “What I liked was using the calls to bring the ducks, and working with dogs, and being outdoors. I ate everything I shot. But I stopped in 1982, and haven’t been duck-hunting since.” He put his binoculars up to his eyes for one last scan of the lower pool, hoping to see the Pintails he had thought he had seen earlier; and then he headed back to Weston.

I spent another two hours at Great Meadows. I walked way around to the other end of the lower pool, where I did see eight or a dozen Pintails half obscured in the middle of some wild rice. An hour later, up at the sewage treatment plant, I did see a flock of White-Throated Sparrows, along with a Palm Warbler bobbing its tail, and some other sparrows that I couldn’t be sure of because it was getting dark by then.

It was still too early to brave the traffic on the drive into Cambridge. I decided to stop at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. They had moved Sophia Peabody Hawthorne’s body back to Concord, to rest beside her husband Nathaniel Hawthorne, from where she had been buried in England, and I wanted to visit the new grave. Across the path, a man was crouched down, taking a picture of Henry David Thoreau’s grave in the dim light; a woman stood next to him watching. I asked if he was a fan of Thoreau, and he allowed that he was. I told them why I was there. The man asked where Louisa May Alcott’s grave was, and I pointed it out.

They said they had driven ten hours to get here today, and I asked where they were from. “London, Ontario,” said the man. And now as I listened for it I could hear the faint accent of central and prairie Canada: the slight differences in the vowels, especially “o” sounds, and the more precise consonants. “We already have snow on the ground up there,” said the woman. “What’s the climate like here?” I said that we used to have snow on the ground for most of three months, but it was definitely getting warmer. “What with global climate change, you’re probably living in the right place,” I said. “Soon your climate will be temperate.”

As we walked back towards town, we wound up talking about North American politics, particularly the way that both Steven Harper and George Bush have strong ties to the religious right. “But it’s a minority government,” said the man. “Canada is still pretty much liberal,” he continued in his soft Canadian accent. “Harper’s going to have to moderate his views or he could wind up facing an election.” The woman added, in what was not quite a non sequitur: “After all, Elton John came to Canada to get married.” I told them I was counting on the Canadians to hold out against the influence from the south. What I didn’t say was that as a religious liberal, I actually do worry about the United States turning into a theocracy of the religious right, and it would be nice to have a place to flee to.

Day trip: Concord River from Carlisle to Old North Bridge

It was one thirty when I parked the car where the old bridge stretched across the Concord River from Bedford to Carlisle. The Bedford has been turned into a broad boat ramp suitable for larger boats on trailers, but I parked on the Carlisle side, which consists of a rutted road surrounded by poison ivy, a bit of a scramble down to the water, and quite a few of the old stone from the old bridge abutment. I put the fishing tackle in the canoe, the binoculars around my neck, and I started paddling upstream.

You could see little or no current along the Carlisle Reach, a broad straight stretch of the river just up from the bridge. But when the southwest breeze caught me, I had to paddle pretty hard to keep heading upstream. I concentrated on hugging the lee shore to keep out of the wind. Not that there was much to look at or any particular reason to linger:– the trees are low and scrubby, the surrounding land mostly flat and boring. It was hot in the sun, and I didn’t do much more than just paddle.

Half a mile upstream, the river begins to narrow, and wind around eskers and other harder, glacially-deposited soils. The land on the left bank of the river is mostly protected as a national wildlife refuge; on the right bank, you see a few huge houses but mostly just trees. In a few of the narrower stretches, I could really feel the effects of the current; but the river was narrow enough that I rarely felt the wind. I paddled on, moving through sun and shade.

Through a line of trees on my left, I could see I was passing a large open area, the lower impoundment of the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. The Dike Trail between the two impoundments comes right down to the river, and just as I was passing that point, four people with binoculars and telescopes strolled down to the river. I called over to them: “Still a lot of shorebirds out?” “Yes,” said one woman, “but the Glossy Ibis isn’t around today.” I beached the canoe and spent twenty minutes walking the dike between the two impoundments looking at herons, egrets, sandpipers, and plovers.

Still paddling upstream, I passed a small sandy beach, perhaps thirty feet wide, where a tiny brook trickled down over rocks and sand into the river. I stopped there to eat some carrots, drink from my canteen, and listen to the sound of the brook. Further upstream, I saw a man fishing from the bank, but he was gone by the time I got that far, so I couldn’t ask him what luck he’d been having. I decided to go upstream as far as the Old North Bridge, where was fired “the shot heard ’round the world,” some four miles from where I started. Tourists walked back and forth over the bridge, taking pictures, some of them wearing little tri-con hats, looking at the markers and monuments. Just beyond the Old North Bridge, you used to be able to paddle up into Saw Mill Brook. Now beavers have have put a dam there, and they have built two new outlets for the brook, spaced far apart. You can hear the water rolling and babbling from the beaver pond, through the brush, and into the river.

The sun was getting lower than I liked; it sets so much earlier now that it’s mid-August. I turned around, letting the wind and current push me when I could. I saw a man fishing from a john-boat. “Any luck” I asked. “Just a couple of small ones,” he said. “But they’ll be coming out soon. Get their snack just before bedtime.” I paddled around a bend in the river, then let the canoe drift and tried a few casts under the trees at the side of the river. Nothing. I drifted some more, switched to fishing off the bottom. Nothing. I looked at my watch, decide that if I wanted to be off the river before dark I had better keep paddling.

The last stretch, the Carlisle Reach, was monotonous. But by now the sun was low enough to send long slanting shadows across the river. It lit up the trees on the far side with its golden light. The sun made everything look beautiful, warm, welcoming, and even the leaves on the silver maples that are already turning yellow and pale pink with the coming of autumn lost their sad poignancy. I was growing tired from paddling. My arms and shoulders weren’t tired, it was my thighs that were starting to tremble.

The sun was below the trees by the time I beached the canoe, picked it up, and tied it on the car.

Eight miles of paddling.

No better day

It got cold enough this morning for me to awaken and pull a blanket up over me. The night was just changing from dark to gray. I couldn’t get back to sleep, so I got up, ate breakfast, and decided to go walk at Great Meadows. It was five forty-five; I kissed Carol and left.

The moon, a couple of days past full, hung bright in the blue sky. It was higher than the sun. I stood on the dike in between the mud flats and cattails and pools of water looking at the swarms of sandpipers and plovers. Everything — mud, plants, birds, trees in the distance, one small puffy cloud, moon — could be seen with utmost clarity in the early sunlight and the cool dry air. Nothing seemed far away, not even the moon, which faded and sank towards the horizon as the sun rose higher. I turned my attention only to what was there, no stray thoughts or nagging memories of things I had to do, nothing existed but for marsh and birds and sky above and trees in the distance.

By nine, other people appeared, some with binoculars and some with cameras. Two men carried big cameras mounted on tripods, with huge lenses mounted on the cameras. They stopped to photograph a snipe that was less than a hundred feet from the path, poking its long bill into the mud. I talked idly with another birder. He said he wished he had worn long pants. I said it had been downright cold when I first arrived, even when I was standing in the sun, and there had been a chilly breeze from the north-northwest.

I walked along the old railroad embankment through the woods, and heard a the plaintive whistle of a Wood-Peewee: pee-ah-wheee. Back in the sun along the mud flats and cattails, the land had warmed up enough that anything seen through binoculars at a long distance shimmered from rising heat. But it was still chilly in the shade. Birds started up and flew madly in all directions, a dark shape twisted and turned just above the tops of the cattails: a Northern Harrier cruised over the marsh, hunting for breakfast.

On the way out, I ran into Dad. We went and got sandwiches and sat outside on a bench overlooking the river to eat them. The shadows moved around us, and finally I said I had to stand up. We had been sitting and talking for the better part of two hours, not conscious of the time going by. There can be no better kind of day than that.

Day hike: Lughnasa at Great Meadows

Dad and I decided to take a walk in Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge this afternoon. We didn’t walk very far or very fast, though. The recent cold front brought a big wave of fall migrants to Massachusetts, and we spent less time walking than we did looking at sandpipers, plovers, egrets, and heron.

We strolled slowly down to the Concord River along the dike between the upper impoundment and the lower impoundment. I’m sure the slanting light of a perfect, golden summer day made the marshlands look especially beautiful, but I was too busy looking at the birds. While Dad was busy taking a photo of a Solitary Sandpiper feeding in the mud close to the trail, I watched a Spotted Sandpiper bobbing and pulling loose molting feathers out of its breast.

On the way back up the dike, a pleasant woman asked us if we would stand behind that camera over there because they were filming a segment for the Nova public television program (I had thought the two men were just another pair of wildlife photographers), or if we wanted to be in the shot when the joggers came along she’d ask us to sign releases. We stood where she told us. Dad found another bird to try to photograph. I got into an animated conversation with a woman about shorebird identification and migration. After ten minutes, all three of us forgot about the cameramen, and the nice woman from public television had to ask us again to step back, which we did. Apparently one of the joggers they were filming was some famous woman marathoner, but I never did get a firm identification on her.

Someone had a Wilson’s Snipe in his telescope, and Dad and I got a good look at it. The light was absolutely perfect, but Dad and I were getting hungry so we strolled on back to the car and went to dinner. I dropped Dad off at his condo, and as I was driving home I realized today is Lughnasa, halfway between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox, the time of year when you really start to notice that the sun is setting earlier in the evening. The excitement of watching the first big surge of the fall migration makes the loss of daylight a little easier for me to accept.

Less than a mile in two and a half hours.


Yesterday, I arranged to meet my dad at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge for some birding. While I was waiting for dad to show up, I walked out the trail over the low dike that separates the two impoundments. Because of the late flooding this year, many of the cattails are still quite short, less than four feet tall. I was looking at some of the short cattails when I heard a familiar sound, a loud abrupt “kick-it, kick-it.” It was a Virginia Rail hiding somewhere in the cattails not far from the trail. Then another one started calling on the other side of the trail.

I stopped to listen, when suddenly one of the rails walked right up on the dike about fifty feet away, looked at me, and scuttled back into the cattails. Virginia Rails are small secretive birds and they can be hard to see, but every once in a while one will pop out into the open and let you have a look at it. I was thinking how lucky I was to see a Virginia Rail in the middle of the afternoon, when I realized the other Virginia Rail I had heard calling was coming out into the open practically at my feet.

As it moved closer and closer, I trained my binoculars on it. They’re odd-looking birds: drab brown, strangely thin from side to side so they can slip through the cattails, somewhat elongated, legs placed well back on their bodies, with very long toes. But when you look closely you realize they’re quite beautiful: their reddish-orange down-curved bill contrasts well with their gray cheeks and warm brown bodies. This particular rail got so close I could see individual feathers through the binoculars, and I could make out a neat subtle pattern on its back and wings. It fluffed up its feathers, uttered a loud “kak!”, turned and kept walking towards me.

The rail got so close I could not focus the binoculars on it. I looked down at it, not six feet away, moving across the trail and out in the open now but still moving furtively: a small brown bird, a fellow living thing, looking up at me. It moved quickly across the trail, and lost itself in the weeds and cattails.

“Wow,” I said out loud, to no one in particular, for there were no other human beings in sight. I felt a little light-headed: I had just been amazingly close to an amazing animal. The light-headedness lasted for a good half hour.