Sunday, December 16, 2012

Owls, owls, owls. Finally.

This blob, my friends, is a Screech owl, perching on a tree above my head about 6.15 am today, in central Jamaica Plain.

He or she was lured in by a speaker playing screech owl trills repeatedly, which is known to make the owls respond with their own voices, and sometimes to fly in to take a look.

This year I participated in the annual Christmas Bird Count for the first time, and with four other devoted birders (two of them devoted enough to get up at 4 am for the Owl count) we were responsible for our part of town, Jamaica Plain. There were few counters this year, and there were also considerably less birds to count since the day was cold and gray and sort of just waiting for the rain and snow to start, the kind of weather that makes the birds go quiet and just hide in thickets. Jamaica Plain has many large green and wooded areas, so the experts made some decisions based on their experience where it would make most sense to go.

I on the other hand was tremendously excited, although a tiny bit worried that my bad luck in spotting owls would have a negative effect on the whole project. I've followed experienced birders around to places where I was supposedly guaranteed to spot one. A great horned owl once landed in a tree I had climbed down from 5 minutes earlier, and lately Boston has been invaded by Barred owls in downtown public parks and subway station entrances. But I never saw one.

But I shouldn't have worried! Today's Screech owl count was 8, which is a very respectable number. The two first I didn't see, but they both were attracted to the sound from our speaker and vocalized through the dark. The third and fourth ones I eventually got to see - they started tussling with each other up a tree and tumbled down to the ground. Number five we heard from a close distance. Number 6 and 7 were great because they were in my own neighborhood at the end of my street, and I feel confident that I now will be able to hear them and maybe once or twice try to call them in.  You don't want to do it too often, it can stress them.
Number eight we had to wait for - we almost gave up when I first heard the soft sound. Then it came flying in and sat over our heads, as if to say Hello, and perhaps Good Day - it was getting bright and its night was about to end.

Other than that, the Owl count was nothing impressive, the Great Horned ones did not respond to calls and the Barred Owl in Arnold Arboretum that has been around for weeks did not show up for the party either. After owls, my team went back to Franklin park and after that we headed to Forest Hills Cemetery.

Other than Canada Geese which we counted about 1700 of at the Franklin park golf course, the numbers were low, but I had a great time nevertheless. I got a really nice view of the cute Golden crowned kinglet, and four different redtailed hawks were great to see. The woods were sparsely populated with the regular winter foragers like chickadees, Downy woodpeckers, titmice, goldfinches, blue jays, robins and so forth. Red- and white breasted nuthatches, white throated sparrows and song sparrows. And a great Blue Heron stretched his wings by Scarboro Pond.

Lots of long lists to compile.

Now back home, after a hot shower and tea, I will enjoy thinking of that little owl turning its head as if to say Good night to us - gentle, curious, really really cute.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Woods in sunset, moonlight

A day in the woods. The noise from I-95 was never quite gone but we were far enough away from roads and trails to experience real peace. We heard woodpeckers, winter wrens, chickadees, red nuthatches. We heard a deer exhale loudly. When dark fell, we saw hundreds and hundreds of winter moths, and in the light from our flash lights, we caught several deer's eyes around us.

I wish I had taken a picture of the giant pine tree that we ended up climbing, or the enormous red oak that we were considering as well. Rarely trees in the wild get to such dimensions.

The hike went through rolling terrain on not very wellknown paths. Musclewood, Hornbeam tree, was everywhere as well as birches and oaks.

High bush blueberries were old and tall.

Sun was already low at three pm. I was pleased, hoping for a sunset climb.

And I was not disappointed!

My usual tree climbing face: the widest grin possible.

This enormous tree had a view in every direction. Looking East, Boston skyscrapers in a gentle glow.

Last of the oaks still in foliage

The sunset almost had a tropical feel.

Following every change in scenery

Finally the conclusion in pink.

After that dark quickly came. We were prepared for descent with our headlamps in place. To keep our senses in tune with nature, we only turned on the lights when we hooked and unhooked our carabiners.

Safely on the ground, we were guided by the shining moon.

In the glow of our headlamps the woods looked different. Here is a young cherry trunk.

Yellow birch. In the background the lights from the highway.

And the strangest of all, the musclewood again.

And I just had to include this at the end: the prettiest guy, my very own resident house finch in the reddest of red.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Those elusive owls again

There's been so many sightings of barred owls in Boston recently, one was photographed at the entrance to Park Street station on the Red Line in downtown, so you'd think you would get a glimpse of one fairly easy. But despite the best efforts, no owls were spotted today.
That doesn't mean that the day was wasted though. It was still lovely, with soft snow falling gently and a mellow gray light.

Saw Mill Brook runs through West Roxbury and ends in Charles River. Along its shores are several  parks like the Millenium park and Cutler park. Today we headed to Millenium, where a barred owl had been reported recently. Millenium park is a good spot for bird watching and is also full of joggers and dog walkers. Along the brook we followed a narrow path where a nice mix of plants are established. The snow fell in delicate crystals and laid still on branches and remaining leaves.

Phragmites in the water, willows and alders on the shore. On the slope milkweeds were still holding on to their seeds. 

Sweetfern leaves were dried but retained both color and fragrance.
Soft goldenrod 

Queen Anne's lace and a lonely bird watcher.

The Saw Mill Brook is exciting for other reasons as well. For the first time in many many years, beavers have taken up residence in Boston again, right here, and the dams stretched all along the brook. Lots of very recent activity, even though the beavers themselves were as elusive as the owls. Here they have been at work on a young Cottonwood tree, which they seemed to prefer above all others.

 Detail of toothwork!

Their work was really impressive and have quite a strong impact on the environment. We had never heard so many wood peckers, who were attracted to all the dead trees caused by the dams. People might be shocked to see the extent of the activity and even resent the beavers for cutting down trees. But in the longer perspective all in nature has a place and a purpose. Eventually beaver dams fill up again with growing plants, and creates a rich fertile soil for new forest to grow in.

Here are two pictures that show the main dam.

Note how different the water levels are!

Work in progress.

But the Blue jays were calling further into the woods, and that can often mean that they've spotted an owl, so we left the river and headed into a wooded swampy area. A few blueberry bushes still had leaves. I noticed that the stems were red too.

The swamp was great habitat for ducks. We spotted a wood duck but it never stayed for a picture. These are mallards and black ducks.

On this young tree both bittersweet and poison ivy vines were doing their work.

Snowflakes gathered on the Summersweet seed pods.

On the way out we heard a beautiful musical chatter and gentle chirps, and a large flock of Redpolls gathered further into the swamp. We spotted a few of them. This year a lot of birds from the Northern parts of the country have wandered south in search of food, and Redpolls and Crossbills that we normally don't see here are now visible. 

So, no owls in the woods today. But at home my feeder is stocked and I enjoy my visitors every day. Here a mourning dove is puffed up to stay warm and blends in nicely with the branches.

 A resident pair of white breasted nuthatches are frequent guests.

A handsome Junco

Very skittish, the Redbellied woodpecker rarely stays long enough for me to take a picture. This year, I have only seen a male.

Right after he left the Downie came back.

Today's visitor was precious: a Carolina wren.

Chickadees and downies are always around.

And down the street in Franklin park, a couple of Carolina wrens were hopping about in a big patch of Japanese knotweed. I noticed a well made nest that would have been very safe and hidden during spring. I wonder who built it?