Bird Watching

Wingin ‘It: The best place for bird watching? Your own backyard | The Harvard Press | Features | Feature Articles

Since this is a special issue of the press, some people may not be familiar with Wingin ‘It. We began writing the column at the urging of our friend and Harvard Post editor, Ann Levison, who shared our interest in birds. We used to walk down the road, have a cup of tea and talk about the birds we had seen in our yards.

A Cooper’s hawk. (Photos by David Durrant)

At Harvard, we are fortunate to have miles of conservation trails, large state and federal conservation areas, and for the most part, properties attractive to birds and other wildlife. We are often asked where is the best place for bird watching, to which we usually respond: “Your own garden”. Bird watching around your home allows you to familiarize yourself with the different common species. Once you know the general impression of the size and shape of common birds, it is easier to recognize the more unusual species. There are many resources to help you identify birds; Cornell’s Merlin Bird ID app is particularly useful. You can find sightings for a specific conservation area in the Cornell eBird app.

With the arrival of spring and the start of migration, bird activity on the farm has intensified. Over the past two weeks, barn swallows, tree swallows, shredding sparrows, hummingbirds, catbirds, mockingbirds, Baltimore orioles and several species of warblers have returned to the farm. In March, red winged robins appeared on the feeding platform, and wood ducks, mergansers, mallards and great blue herons visited our pond. Above our heads we saw red-tailed hawks, turkey vultures, a broad-winged hawk, and a Cooper’s hawk. Sometimes we find bird feathers that Cooper’s hawk caught. This week there were a few gray tail feathers on the lawn which we guessed could have been from a grieving dove. We confirmed the guess the next day when we saw a lucky, tailless, mourning dove eating seeds under our feeder.

Our resident birds enter their breeding plumage. The sight of brilliant yellow goldfinches, brilliant red cardinals and luminous blue robins around the feeders is a truly spectacular sight. Other birds, like the white-throated sparrow with its bright yellow lores and white throat, or the shiny rust-colored crown on the scaly sparrow, are equally beautiful.

In addition to identification, it is interesting to observe the behavior, especially in the springtime, as the birds begin to gather nesting material and, later, food for their young. We watched an American Robin build its nest in a location easily visible (to its viewing pleasure) by our grandson George. Red-winged Robins search around our swampy meadow for a good nesting site and collect marsh grasses and reeds for their nests. Our bluebirds have nested in at least two of our nesting boxes. A nesting box in our vegetable garden already has a brood. We observed both parents actively picking up caterpillars and other insects and returning to the nest box. Barn swallows are busy gathering mud and water from the pond to build their cup-shaped nests in the barn.

A Carolina Wren. (Photos by David Durrant)

Once you begin to observe bird behavior more closely, you will begin to recognize courtship activity. One of our favorites is watching a male cardinal deliver seeds to the female. Recently, while David was sitting on the patio one afternoon, he observed a pair of Canada geese on the pond. The two geese swam in a tight circle and alternately plunged their heads into the water. Thinking it might be some sort of courtship display, he watched for about 20 minutes and, voila, the male mounted the female! Soon after, the couple flew away.

Although we do not keep a life list, we do note the birds seen on the farm and keep a diary of annual arrivals. The past two weeks have been busy, with a total of 47 species sighted.

Once you feel like you know your garden birds, we’ve got some great birding spots a few miles away. One of our favorite areas is the Oxbow National Wildlife Area. Here you will find a mix of habitats along the Nashua River which attract a wide variety of birds. This time of year you can expect to see a number of warblers. On and above the ponds there will be great blue herons and a variety of ducks, including wood ducks. There are tree swallows and barn swallows that dive above the ponds, and usually a belted kingfisher which can also be seen or heard along the river. Red-winged robins are an ongoing noisy presence. Along Tank Road, you can find rose-breasted grosbeaks, American robins, blue-gray midges, and white-throated, song and marsh sparrows.

Bolton Flats is another great place with a similar mix of birds. Lately, there have been sandhill cranes, snipe, a mix of ducks, and you can usually hear an American bittern. In the wet season, you will need good rain boots, as areas tend to get flooded.

There are several groups that lead bird walks in this area. Last week David joined a small group of Boxborough bird watchers for a walk around Horse Meadows Knoll, a Harvard Conservation Trust property. Within hours, 30 species were identified. Joining a walk like this is a great way for novices and more experienced birders to get out and see the birds. Bird watchers will be found to be a pleasant bunch and always eager to share their knowledge and observations.

Pamela and David Durrant live and work at the Micheldever Farm on East Bare Hill Road. Their more than 24 hens provide eggs to local customers, and the Durrants produce most of their vegetables and fruit in their gardens. Tetley, their 16-year-old rescue dog, is usually found lying on the porch, ready to greet passers-by.