Wildlife Watch by Marian Harman – May 2020

Baltimore Oriole by Doug Pederson

One of my favorite hobbies is collecting old bird and wildflower guides. Perhaps you have a passion for this type of old book too. Recently, I was fortunate to be given a wonderful old pocket bird guide by a Westford friend. The book is titled Land Birds   Bird Guide: Song and Insectivorous Birds East of the Rockies, 1926 edition. The book was first published in 1906. It was written and beautifully illustrated by Charles K. Reed. Mr. Reed was obviously an accomplished birder and illustrator. It is fascinating to me to read about which birds were common here at that time, but are not common now. Or, which birds are common here now, but were not common in 1926. Mr. Reed presciently noted his concern about the recent importation of the English Sparrow and the European Starling. He notes some species that were declining in numbers, and which are extirpated at this time, as well as the absence of some of our common birds.  Reed points out that in 1926, there were at least 25 million insect-eating birds in Massachusetts, which he calculated ate over two trillion insects a day. He states, “It is the duty, and should be the pleasure of every citizen to do all in his or her power to protect these valuable creatures.” (page 5)

Common in 1926 and extremely uncommon now were black-billed and yellow-billed cuckoos, which consumed up to 400 caterpillars in a day. Some other birds that were common and abundant in Massachusetts in 1926, but are rare now are whip-poor-will, nighthawk, bobolink, meadowlark, purple finch, field sparrow, purple martin, many warbler species, wood thrush and veery. The ivory-billed woodpecker was declining even then, present only in parts of Florida, and thought to be extinct now. Causes of this extirpation are thought to be large-scale clearing of swampland and old growth forest.

Other species of birds are more common in Massachusetts now than they were in 1926. These include many of the “southern” birds that have moved north in response to climate change and the regrowth of forests: Pileated woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker, yellow-shafted flicker (now called northern flicker), raven, northern cardinal, mockingbird, Carolina wren, tufted titmouse, and blue-grey gnatcatcher. Other new residents include alien invasive birds that were introduced here from England. Reed was clearly concerned about their presence. Of the English sparrow (house sparrow), Reed says: “The English Sparrow was introduced in New York City in 1850…. It is now noted with alarm that they are apparently spreading out to the surrounding country.”(page 88) Of the European Starling, Reed says “European Starlings were introduced into New York a few years ago….How they will affect other bird life, in case they become common throughout the country is a matter of conjecture….They are quarrelsome and may drive more of our songbirds from the cities.” (page 61).  It turns out they moved into the countryside too and had the same deleterious effect. Both aggressive species commandeer tree cavities used by bluebirds, titmice, chickadees, and other cavity-nesting birds.

Reed shares the value judgments of many birders of the time, in commenting negatively on some species of native birds. He calls common grackles, “our most destructive birds”, for their predation on grain crops. He calls the northern shrike, “a cruel and rapacious bird”, but does not similarly indict other bird predators such as red-tailed hawks, sharp-shinned hawks and peregrine falcons. Many bird species seem to be holding steady since 1926, in their populations: Baltimore oriole, red-winged blackbird, common grackle, tree sparrow, chipping sparrow, song sparrow, slate-colored junco (now called dark-eyed junco), rufous-sided towhee (now called eastern towhee).

Now I’ll take my daily walk and see how many of these lovely birds I can find. I keep records of all your reports, to add to the citizen science data base of Westford’s birds, other animals and flora.

Many thanks for all flora and fauna reports for the month of May. Please send reports by June 26 for next month’s column. You can call me at 692-3907, write me at 7A Old Colony Drive, or e-mail me at mariancharman@gmail.com

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Late April Reports:

John Piekos, Dunstable Rd. April 24, bobcats caught on the trail camera. Looking at pictures in sequence, I can see a female marking the ground, a bigger one (maybe male) comes through too.

Don Galya, Mark Vincent Drive. April 25, “noticed a grey squirrel running frantically back and forth on our deck…then streaked across our backyard. A fox was right on its heels and unfortunately for the squirrel, just a bit faster. The fox spent the next 20-30 minutes consuming the squirrel, yawned and rested. Then it finally rubbed its muzzle in the moss, picked up the remains of the squirrel and casually walked off into the woods.”

Leslie Thomas, Old Colony Dr. April 28, five male turkeys coming through the back yard at around 3:30 pm each day.

Roy Perry, a walk on Francis Hill Wildlife Sanctuary, April 28, magnolia trees in bloom. The blooms really light up the understory as the hardwoods have not leafed out yet [Roy sent lovely photos of the trees and blossoms-MH]

Debbie Prato, Hayrick Lane. April report: Eastern towhee, red fox.

May Reports:

Barbara Theriault, Tadmuck Lane. May 1, male and female mallard ducks traipsing across the yard, drinking from puddles. Hawk, small and grey, sitting in different trees, flying back and forth. Common: cardinals, robins, blue jays, sparrows, nuthatches

Marian Harman, May 1. Pilgrim Village: Fish crows on Pilgrim Drive, chipping sparrows singing. May 4, at Old Colony Drive: pair of pileated woodpeckers chipping away at a dead tree in our yard. May 6, “Super Moon” seen from Stony Brook School parking lot. Huge, red and beautiful. Also, woodcock displaying in adjoining field–so late in the year! May 9, snow showers blowing through while the sun was shining–was there a snowbow? May 10, 40 degrees, gale force wind. May 11-noticed a tamarack tree in the swamp here–boggy there, I guess. First hummingbird arrived. Rattlesnake plantain in two locations. Banded hairstreak butterflies, dark brown, nectaring on tiny pussy-toes plants at the Wright cemetery. May 13, the warblers are back! Black and white, ovenbird, common yellowthroat, yellow warbler, pair of catbirds. Barn and tree swallows swooping over brook. May 14, A walk at Nashoba Pond: robins, Canada geese, ruby-crowned kinglet, two ovenbirds, song sparrow, cardinal, great-crested flycatcher, phoebe, blue jay, rose-breasted grosbeak, common yellowthroat, four to five orioles, violets, marsh marigold.  May 15, oriole singing. Sounds like ” Hey, whatcha, whatcha, whatcha want?” Toads singing loudly at night now. Indigo bunting sitting quietly on a branch outside bedroom window–gorgeous blue. At about 8:30, thunder, lightning, torrential rain and a microburst. It snapped off the top half of a wide swath of pine trees. A pine fell on our deck and roof. It took out the deck and made holes in the roof. Others here had same sort of damage, but many had none at all. It was really terrifying, but over in about five minutes! May 16, we have a new oriole now. This one sings, “I am so pretty!” Our trails to the beaver dam and beyond are completely blocked by blown down huge pine trees–sad. May 18, the starflowers are blooming–a sign of hope. May 20, at Prospect Hill Wildlife Sanctuary, Hildreth St. Got a call from Steve Koff who was walking with others on the sanctuary. They saw a baby raccoon resting on its dead mother in the stream. We went over with a cat cage and gloves, thinking we could capture it. But it was too smart and kept hiding under the bridge when we approached. We called Animal Control for help and Dan Hurd came over with a net. He caught the baby very quickly and put it in our cage. He was very agile, knowledgeable and compassionate. Good thing we didn’t touch it, because it was screeching, growling and struggling, as is only reasonable. Dan then called around and found only one animal rehabilitator who was willing to take it. So, we drove it up to the Rowley Animal Hospital–a great place run by a husband and wife. She is a veterinarian and he is a rehabber. They will take care of it and release it on their property when it is ready. A very happy ending [Frank Bashore, who was also with the hiking group, sent us a photo he took of the baby and mom-MH] May 22, Canada mayflower blooming, over 30 pink ladies slippers blooming near Wright Cemetery. Rose-breasted grosbeak heard. May 24, a walk at Meadowbrook Farm: heard an oriole, scarlet tanager, ovenbird, several common yellowthroats, catbird. Saw Indian poke plants in swamp–first time I’ve noticed them there. Tiger swallowtail butterfly in our yard.

John Piekos, Dunstable Rd. May 2, Snake about 20 inches long on the west end of Nabnasset Lake, [probably ribbon garter snake-MH], baby snapping turtle. Trail camera picked up four different bobcat sightings over past five days, including a huge porcupine. [John sent great photos-MH]. May 15, bobcat passed through this morning.

Anne Shirley, Tyngsboro Rd. May 4, saw the first two orioles of the season on our bird feeder and apple tree.

Clemens Anklin, Chamberlain Rd. May 4, a porcupine spent the whole day in our trees. A rose-breasted grosbeak paid us a visit. We might have a pair of breeding tree swallows in a nest box.  “On a hike in Acton on the Nashoba Brooks trail we saw a young sharp-shinned hawk, picture attached.”[Many thanks Clemens-MH]

Carol Engel, Lowell Rd. May 5, first hummingbird. May 7, Baltimore oriole, great horned owl heard.

Jeff Diercks, at heron rookery off Rome Drive. May 5, about eleven nests there. Four seemed unoccupied, three had great blue herons and four had ospreys. “Wow, that was a surprise–my first time seeing osprey nests in Westford. A veery hopped in front of me on Burn’s Hill loop.

Len Palmer, May 6. Shadbush blooming. At Hildreth St., Pageant field, two black cherry trees in full bloom. They are tall, 60 ft. with the tops in full bloom. Very unusual for Westford; they are a more northern species. Under the power lines off Buckingham Circle, a brown thrasher singing. Bird of the spring for me!

Rosemarie Koester, Providence Rd. May report: May 6, “We had our first Baltimore oriole in the yard. “It was on top of the hummer feeder and seemed perplexed as to how to get at the sugar water.” It has retuned daily. “An adorable display of a male cardinal feeding his mate.” Also, chickadees, tufted titmouse, doves, some grackles, two pairs of blue jays, two pairs of cardinals, Carolina wren, male rose-breasted grosbeak, sparrows, gray catbird, woodpecker nest, hawk chased by a group of blackbirds, bumble bees, gray squirrels, one black squirrel, many chipmunks, bunny, spring peepers, pair of ducks, two or three female turkeys in yard daily. Lots of skunk cabbage around the creek, several lady’s slippers, false lily of the valley, pipsissewa, starflower, fiddleheads, garlic mustard (I pulled it from my yard), lots of poison ivy.

Debbie Prato, Hayrick Lane. May 8, first hummingbird. May report: Everybody showed up at once, Canada geese, mallards, turkeys, three Baltimore orioles, catbirds, rose-breasted grosbeaks, house finches, white-breasted nuthatches, bluebirds, grackles, mockingbirds, deer, goldfinches, cardinals, tree swallows, cowbirds, kingbirds, small toad, crows, blue jays, house sparrow staying with a robin as it foraged and patiently waiting while it pulled worms out of the ground. [Debbie sent great photos-MH]

Diane Duane, Howard Rd. May 11, pair of rose-breasted grosbeak at feeder. May 13, baltimore oriole in apple tree then at suet feeder.

Bob and Ann Price, Stratton Hill Rd. May 12, fox ran by this am., female turkey came through. Bluebirds are in the bird house. Pair of orioles and one additional male in yard. Pair of grosbeaks here, pair of cardinals and one female hummingbird.

Emily Teller, Texas Rd. May 14, goldfinches, lots of chickadees and cardinals. I hear phoebes nearby too.

Jackson Teller, Texas Rd. (age 9) May 14, a pair of mallards swimming in the vernal pool by us. May 23, took a bike ride and saw a frog or toad on the road. He picked it up and released it in the wetlands in the woods. Resuming the ride, he saw a garter snake crossing the road. Then, back at home, saw a snapping turtle in the vernal pool. It moved away when he looked in the pool. “I think that snapping turtles are not dangerous. They are shy and so move away when they see you.” Thanks for the interesting amphibian and reptile report Jackson!- MH]

Rina Caldwell, Keyes Rd. May 16, young barred owl sitting on a branch next to a downed tree, fully feathered.

Emily Teller, Texas Rd. May 16, rose-breasted grosbeak came to the orange feeder.

Nancy Eberiel, Depot St. May 21, hummingbird at feeder.

Rosemarie Koester, Providence Rd. May report: May 6, “We had our first Baltimore oriole in the yard. “It was on top of the hummer feeder and seemed perplexed as to how to get at the sugar water.” It has retuned daily. “An adorable display of a male cardinal feeding his mate.” Also, chickadees, tufted titmouse, doves, some grackles, two pairs of blue jays, two pairs of cardinals, Carolina wren, male rose-breasted grosbeak, sparrows, gray catbird, woodpecker nest, hawk chased by a group of blackbirds, bumble bees, gray squirrels, one black squirrel, many chipmunks, bunny, spring peepers, pair of ducks, two or three female turkeys in yard daily. Lots of skunk cabbage around the creek, several lady’s slippers, false lily of the valley, pipsissewa, starflower, fiddleheads, garlic mustard (I pulled it from my yard), lots of poison ivy.

 

            Marian Harman is a member of the Westford Conservation Trust, a non-profit conservation organization whose mission is the preservation of Westford’s trails and open spaces. The Trust welcomes new members and volunteers. Check out our website at westfordconservationtrust.org or visit us on Facebook