Newburyport Birders’ Update – April & May – 2018

Newburyport Birders’ Update – April & May – 2018

Seasonal Sightings

Observe the Baltimore Oriole. This slender bodied, black and orange blackbird is often seen in the leafy canopy. Its song is of varying length ~ rich, loud, clear whistles and warbles. Look for the pendulous, skillfully sewn, suspended nest crafted by its sharply pointed bill!

Appreciate the nocturnal habits of the Whip-poor-will. Equipped with a large, gaped mouth, tiny bill and large eyes, it consumes insects. The rictal bristles located near the bill aid in the “funneling” of prey. Listen for the distinctive voice echoing its name!

Identify the Piping Plover. You’ll find this compact shorebird along our beaches during the nesting season. Watch for its characteristic run-stop-look motion as it forages for small invertebrates in the intertidal zones!

Bird Identification in 12 steps

There have been many fine efforts to introduce new birders to the varied skills of our pastime, but there have been few contributions that the newcomer as well as the experienced birder can profit from in some fashion. However, this new book in the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt “Peterson Field Guide” series might very well fit into this unique category.

Bird Identification in 12 Steps by Steve N.G. Howell and Brian Sullivan presents a dozen ways in which every birder can learn something about honing their skills. The categories are taxonomy, location, habitat, season, lighting, distance, behavior, sound, structure, plumage, variation and note-taking.

This book is friendly, non-intimidating and even humorous. New birders can acquire some basics from this book, and experienced birders can pick up some vital pointers especially useful when helping the uninitiated. The last point cannot be trivialized. There are many skilled birders who simply fail at being able to explain the essentials, and Howell’s and Sullivan’s little book looks at learning these elements through fresh eyes.

The photos in the book present some real opportunities for learning experiences with some wise advice and lurking traps. Basically, there’s something for every birder in this 152 page gem…


In February, we learned some disturbing news regarding of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA).

The Department of the Interior had indicated that it would reinterpret the enforcement of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (MBTA) as “covering only the intentional taking of a bird”. In other words, this new interpretation would claim that “incidental take” is not covered under the Act. This means that the US Fish and Wildlife Service would no longer have jurisdiction to prosecute individuals or entities (for example, logging efforts, energy companies or developers) that “take” migratory birds as part of their operations.

The implications are beginning to filter down to such cases as interstate gas pipeline projects whose construction schedules can be impacted by seasonal tree-and-brush-clearing restrictions.

At least two companies in the East, DTE Midstream Appalachia and Dominion Energy, have been given allowances for projects in Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina to extend vegetative-clearing to mid or late April as opposed to the previous deadline of March 31.

Is this relatively harmless, or is it an indication of more MBTA concessions in the wings?

Silent Spring & Rachel Carson
Rachel Carson was the motivating force behind the serious campaign against DDT and other harmful chemicals after World War II. Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring was published in the fall of 1962, and it documented the adverse effects of the indiscriminate use of pesticides.

Birds that have benefited from her environmental efforts include the American Robin, Bald Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Brown Pelican and Osprey.


Wild Turkeys are opportunistically omnivorous, meaning they sample a wide range of foods, both animal and vegetable. They forage frequently and will eat many different things, including:

– Acorns, hickory nuts & beech nuts
– Seeds and grain, including corn & wheat
– Berries, wild grapes, crab apples & other fruit
– Small reptiles & snakes
– Fleshy plant parts such as buds, roots, bulbs & cacti
– Plant foliage, grass & tender, young leaves
– Amphibians such as frogs & salamanders
– Large insects, including grasshoppers & caterpillars
– Snails, slugs & worms
– Sand & small gravel for grit

Wild turkeys forage constantly, always seeking out a new meal. They are most frequently found feeding for several hours in early morning just after sunrise and will also feed more actively several hours before darkness, but if food is scarce, they will forage at any time of day. While foraging, a wild turkey will scratch with both feet, alternating to use each foot one at a time. Then they will peck at the ground to find whatever has been unearthed. They will occasionally pluck fruit or other foods directly off plants but only rarely actually forage while perched in trees. A turkey swallows its food whole, and the material is stored in the bird’s crop to be digested slowly with the help of the gizzard.

The Accomplished Massachusetts Ornithologist – Edward Howe Forbush

Edward Howe Forbush lived from April 28, 1858 to March 7, 1929. He was a well-known Massachusetts ornithologist and a prolific writer, best known for his book Birds of New England.

When he was 7 years old, his family moved from Quincy to West Roxbury. As he matured, he conducted field studies of area wildlife and also studied taxidermy. His family moved to Worcester, and then he became a member of the Worcester Natural History Society and began to publish the results of his studies. At the age of 16, he was appointed Curator of Ornithology of the Society’s museum.

Before he was 20 years old, he traveled to Florida, the first of his many, bird study trips around the United States.

In 1893, Forbush was appointed Ornithologist to the Massachusetts State Board of Agriculture with many responsibilities. He focused on “economic ornithology”, determining whether a given species of bird was beneficial or detrimental to agriculture practices.

Forbush became the Massachusetts State Ornithologist in 1908 and was a founder of the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

Enjoy these Forbush words on wood warblers:

Blackburnian Warbler: “When the low morning sun shines full upon its gorgeous frontlet, backed by the dark recesses of the pines, it flashes out like a burning flame as the bird turns its breast suddenly to the light.” Edward Howe Forbush, 1929

The Blackburnian Warbler’s face, throat and breast in the breeding season are like a flaming torch. It’s a boreal forest warbler, breeding in northern New England and eastern Canada where there are large areas of mature forest.

Black-and-White Warbler: “In the last days of April or in early May, when the buds on deciduous trees are swelling and when tiny, light green leaflets appear on the shrubbery, in sheltered sunny spots, we may find a little black and white striped bird hopping along the lower limbs in the woodlands, turning this way and that, searching over the branches from one side to the other, often head downward, closely scanning the bark, silently gleaning the insect enemies of the trees. This is the Black and White Warbler.” – Edward Howe Forbush, 1929

The Black-and-White Warbler prefers an open mature or second-growth forest. It forages by creeping along the bark and larger branches of trees, acting much like a nuthatch. The biggest threat to Black-and-white Warblers is fragmented forest patches which drive the chance of predation, brood parasitism by the brown-headed cowbird and an increase in disturbance. “As nocturnal migrants, Black-and-white Warblers are a frequent victim of collisions with glass, towers and wind turbines; as insectivores, they are vulnerable to pesticide poisoning.” – American Bird Conservancy

Prairie Warbler: “The handsome little Prairie Warbler is remarkable only for its song. Dr. Elliot Coues likens this to the ‘plaint of a mouse with a toothache’ because of its thin wiry quality.” – Edward Howe Forbush, 1929

The Prairie Warbler’s Song is a rapid series of ascending buzzes. They tend to avoid forests and breed in shrubby areas and only the most open woodlands. The Prairie Warbler is comfortable along power lines & nests in the eastern region of the USA in early successional habitats.

Ovenbird: “Among them all, the most common and conspicuous was the Oven-bird. Its Staccato song with its crescendo ending rang through the woods, seemingly the loudest of them all, and when I saw the pretty bird walking with its alert air along a log, putting its little head forward at each dainty step in a manner ff a diminutive chicken, I was utterly captivated.” – Edward Howe Forbush, 1929

Though it looks and sometimes acts like a spotted thrush, the Ovenbird is a warbler. Its loud and oft-repeated call is a familiar backdrop in the spring woods, and where many males all sing in close proximity, the din can be impressive. Like other birds of mature mixed forest, Ovenbirds were likely plentiful in the time before European ships landed on the shores of the “New World”.

As the forests began to fall before the fire and axes, the majority of Ovenbirds retreated to the remaining forests of the western part of the state until the widespread agricultural period was over. As large areas of contiguous mature forest have gradually returned, Ovenbirds have been quick to recolonize them.

Ovenbirds build their oven-shaped nests in mature forests. Ovenbirds are often vocal with their neighbors. “Teacher, teacher, teacher” one male will sing, followed shortly after by another singing male with no overlap between the two.

Magnolia Warbler: “The Magnolia Warbler is to my mind the most strikingly beautiful warbler that makes its home in New England. The Blackburnian with its orange front may be preferred by many, but that bright front is its chief glory, while the Magnolia Warbler’s beauties are distributed to every part of its graceful little form.” – Edward Howe Forbush, 1929

The Magnolia Warbler winters on Central America’s shade-grown coffee farms. Affectionately called “Maggie”, it’s found in coniferous woods. As a boreal breeder, it prefers cedar, fir, hemlock and spruce. Why is the bird named for a southern plant? Alexander Wilson named many common North American birds, and he’s behind the Magnolia Warbler’s name because he first collected this migrant in Mississippi in the 1800’s in a Magnolia tree.


Spring is a prime season for bird watching. Many birds are easier to identify in their brightly colored breeding plumage. Males sing with increasing frequency as they approach their breeding grounds. And bird flocks become quite concentrated during migration, with large numbers of each species passing through in the brief space of a few weeks.

But that doesn’t mean bird watching is easy in spring. Most migrants don’t visit backyard bird feeders. Finding those jewels of migration, such as Blackburnian Warblers, Cape May Warblers, and Townsend’s Warblers, usually requires getting out and birding in the field. There are several ways to improve your chances of striking warbler gold this spring.

Study habitat clues: During migration, many songbirds aren’t as finicky about their habitat preferences as they are when they’re breeding. For some birds, any place with available food and shelter will do for a pit stop during spring migration. Take the Blackpoll Warbler, which breeds strictly in spruce-fir forests but during migration can be found in a cluster of willows or in a small patch of cottonwoods. Other birds stick to their favorite habitats. Common Yellowthroats always prefer low wet areas, and Cape May Warblers maintain their strong preference for spruces.

Think big and small: When plotting your spring bird watching, consider both broad habitats and micro-habitats. Broad swaths of forested of land, such as those found in the mountains or in river valleys, can be fantastic during migration, because they provide large areas of great habitat to support many hungry migrants. On the other hand, a micro-habitat is an anomaly on the landscape that will suck in migrating birds crossing a big area devoid of safe places to stop, rest, and eat. It could be an isolated patch of trees on the plains of Colorado or a tree-studded island in Lake Superior. City parks can be incredible spots for finding warblers, because they may only have a small patch of trees where the birds can land.

Head for the hills: Elevated areas often draw large concentrations of birds, because they’re closer to the cruising altitude of migratory birds, and they tend to be the first sites warblers land when they drop down from nighttime migration. A park at the top of a hill in a city can be a fantastic place to find warblers.

Watch the weather: Picking the right day, with the right weather conditions, can make all the difference in what you see. In the spring, warblers move on winds blowing from the south. South winds help push migrants toward their northern breeding grounds, which allows the birds to expend less energy. But for a bird watcher, sustained south winds may cause birds to fly right over without stopping in your neighborhood. Watch your local forecasts for storms that force migrating birds out of the air and down to patches of habitat. The largest concentrations of birds and fallouts generally occur when south winds are met by some change in the weather—rain, snow, or a quick shift in wind direction. Even a passing line of local thunderstorms can leave an astonishing array of avian gems in your local park. Check quickly, though, because the birds will often depart the next night.

Use your ears: As warblers push north on their mad dash to their breeding grounds, the frequency of their singing and level of intensity increases. Listening for bird songs and short call notes can be a great way to find an unexpected bird. You don’t need to be an expert at birding by ear. Simply listen and try to track down any songster uttering an unusual vocalization. You might just find that what you thought was a variation of a Black-and-white Warbler’s squeaky-wheel song is actually a Bay-breasted Warbler.