Rare Treat

If I were to ask you to name the top five birds that you see most frequently and to make a list of birds that are your favorites, I suspect that only a few, if any, would make both lists. My favorites tend to be reserved for birds that are especially colorful (rose-breasted grosbeak), tuneful (wood thrush, winter wren), beautiful (American avocet), or that I see infrequently because they are associated with unique places or habitats. This weekend, I had the opportunity to enjoy two birds in that last category during a trip to the Massachusetts coast.

Bobolinks and least terns are rare treats not only because I see them only about once a year, but because populations of both have been in a free fall for the last 50 years. The number of least terns in North America has declined by 88% since the 1960s; bobolinks declined by 66% over the same period. For both, the loss of breeding habitat is the main culprit. Least terns nest on sandy beaches where they compete with beachgoers and encroaching development; bobolinks need large grasslands and undisturbed fields, which are also ripe for housing developments or where mowing takes place before young leave the nest. I was fortunate to see both least terns and bobolinks thanks to the work of conservation agencies and organizations who are working to protect nesting grounds and stem the downward spiral.

More rare treats ahead: I’m heading to the Maine Coast at the end of this week to begin my annual trip to the Hog Island Audubon Camp. There, I’ll teach Arts & Birding and see Atlantic puffins, which have been brought back from local extinction by the work of conservation biologists stationed at Hog Island. I plan to immerse myself fully in the program and the place, so you may not see another post for a few weeks. I promise to make up for it upon my return.

 

Winter Birding at Gooseberry

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I had to great fortune to visit family in Westport, Massachusetts, over New Years— which gave me the rare opportunity to visit the ocean in winter. On two consecutive mornings, I headed for Gooseberry Neck Island, a small spit of land jutting out into Buzzards Bay.

Wind roiled waves crashed over the jetty at high tide, sending a spray of surf over the road. Fooled by the low arc of winter light brightening the day, I left the protection of the car to scope the beach for shorebirds. Gulls and sandpipers foraged in the wrack line, unearthing mole crabs and bickering over the scraps. Two resting sandpipers caught my attention, heads turned backward and bills tucked under feathers; they stood motionless for several minutes before returning to the waves. I soon retreated to the car, where it was easier to scan for birds while protected from frigid wind and blowing sand.

It’s hard to fathom how seabirds manage in winter. But there they are: gulls perched on windswept piers; tiny sandpipers dashing at the edge of each retreating wave; bufflehead, eiders, common goldeneyes, and grebes diving into heavy surf.

Though I sketched a bit on site, my down jacket, alas, proved no match for winter birds. So I finished drawing, painting, and research indoors. The map text is copied from a 1707 map and survey of the island.

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