Monthly Archives: April 2015


Birdwatching makes us all naturalists again and somehow brings us back to that time in the nineteenth century when amateurs, not professionals, ruled and when science and religion still overlapped.  Jonathan Rosen, THE LIFE OF THE SKIES 
We thought it would never happen. “There will be snow on the ground in June,” we all said. But what a difference a couple of weeks with warmer weather and a little rain makes. The mountain high piles of snow are diminishing. Sidewalks are open. Side streets are now clear for two way traffic. And wildlife observations the past few weeks indicate that they – as well as we – are close to spring. The first look at the Red-winged Blackbirds and Yellow-rumped Warblers, those heralds of spring migration, are only a few weeks away.
This winter was even more difficult for birds and mammals than for us. Getting food was much more difficult than usual. More birds than usual, especially the larger ones, didn’t survive this winter. A sad note was the failed nest of the Great Horned Owl pair at Mount Auburn Cemetery. As is their habit, Great Horned Owls don’t build their own nests. They take over the nests of other birds – or even in some cases squirrel nests. Alexander The Great (Horned Owl) and his mate, Roxane, used a squirrels nest on a honey locust tree in Mount Auburn Cemetery in 2011 to raise their two owlets. This year the Mount Auburn Great Horned Owl pair took over the nest that the Red-tailed Hawks had successfully used to nurture their chicks for the past few years. On one day recently, Al Parker, a keen birder and security guard at Mount Auburn, saw one of the Red-tails fly into the nest with a branch. They were preparing the nest for another brood. Al checked the nest a couple of days later and in the nest was a Great Horned Owl, sitting on eggs. The owls, the top of the food chain at Mount Auburn, had displaced the Red-tailed Hawks. Once Al told me about this, I began checking the nest every hour or so whenever I was at the cemetery. Every time I checked I could see her head, as she sat on the eggs and patiently warmed them. The thought of another Great Horned Owl nest, after the sensation of the 2011 nest, was a joy to contemplate. As I watched her sitting, there was a rim of snow around the top of the nest. And in the time I watched, snow fell a couple of times. But she continued sitting, not seemingly bothered by the snow – and the unusual cold. Then one morning I didn’t see her. I wasn’t worried. She might just be hunkered down deeply in the nest. Then the next day, the same thing. And each day no sign of her. Al also didn’t see her. Finally, Al told me he saw the pair of owls sitting near each other in the Dell. The nest had failed. Did the snow and cold end the nest or was it some other event? We’ll never know. But the promise of that rare thing, a Great Horned Owls nest, was lost to us.
Great Horned Owl sitting on nest, Mount Auburn Cemetery.  Photos by John Harrison
The Red-tailed Hawks, driven from their nest, were not deterred from their need to raise a family. Al quickly found them building another nest at the top of a tall pine in the Birch Gardens area of the cemetery. It’s a good place for them. Once the chicks are born and start branching, it will be a perfect playground for them. After they fledge I can envision the chicks playing in the fountain in that part of the cemetery. Last September I watched one of the adult Red-tails cool off in the fountain. It was a fun encounter. And a few weeks ago, on a cold, snowy Saturday March morning,  an immature Red-tail was enjoying a squirrel on the path near Halcyon Pond and then it flew onto a signpost for a video portrait.  These videos will tell those stories:
Red-tailed Hawks,  Mount Auburn Cemetery.  Photos by John Harrison
When the terrain around Shannon Beach at the Mystic Lakes was safe enough to walk along, I carefully made my way to the tree above the beach where in the past we have sometimes had Screech Owls on hand. It had been reported that a gray morph Screech Owl was back in the tree.  I could see it from the parkway so I wanted a closer look.  I was able to make my way through the foot of snow (it was March 18th) to a good place for a close look.  The owl was there, eyes closed, enjoying the sun.  I took a few photographs, hoping that a dog being walked would bark. The Screech Owls usually open their eyes when a dog barks to check it out.  No dog came by to help me in this quest.  Tomorrow is another day.  But at least it was there so it might hang around for a while.
Screech Owl, Shannon Beach, Mystic Lakes.  Photo by John Harrison
As if this isn’t enough Screech Owl joy, there has been a red morph in a tree at Wildwood Cemetery in Winchester for a while.  It is probably the same one as last year.  It’s seen often and if you are quiet and patient near the tree (this one is a bit skittish) you can get some good looks.
Screech Owl and White-breasted Nuthatch,  Wildwood Cemetery, Winchester.  Photos by John Harrison
And finally, the best Screech Owl of them all.  Mount Auburn’s Al Parker alerted me to a Screech Owl in a tree on the corner of Huron Ave and Larchwood Dr. in Cambridge, only a minute’s drive from the cemetery. The tree is on the sidewalk along Huron Ave. and for the past couple of weeks a magnificent gray-brown morph Screech Owl has been hanging out.
Screech Owl in tree along Huron Ave., Cambridge.  Photo by John Harrison
Screech Owl in tree along Huron Ave., Cambridge.  Photo by John Harrison
Screech Owl in tree along Huron Ave., Cambridge.  Photo by Kim Nagy
Screech Owl in tree along Huron Ave., Cambridge.  Photo by John Harrison
It’s a particularly striking bird. I’ve only seen gray morphs and red morphs, never one with this mixture of the two. This specimen seems to be the offspring of a red and gray pair. The brown highlights on the ears, head and chest soften the gray. It’s a nice mix. Of course, word of this owl has spread quickly.  On my first visit there were several people watching and photographing the owl (it usually appeared in the tree hole at around 2PM). On successive days, there were always a few people or more watching. Parents were bringing their young kids for a look at this phenomenon. It was an amazing opportunity. On Tuesday afternoon, March 24th, I got to the site at 5:30PM. From my earlier experiences I knew that once it started getting dark, after 6PM, the owl opened its eyes more and more as it prepared for its night of hunting. At 6:45PM the owl’s eyes were wide open and it was looking around. At 7PM its eyes were open even wider. I wanted to catch this on video so I started the video cam. The owl was looking around with wide-open eyes and was animated. It was great video catch. Then about a minute and 20 seconds into the filming, the owl seemed to cough. Its head went forward and it opened its beak and a moment later it ejected a pellet. And I had caught this on video! I was ecstatic. Owls eject pellets regularly (these pellets contain bones and other indigestible parts of what they eat. It’s a good way to see what that owl’s diet is) but catching this action is difficult. Owls are nocturnal and very private. To catch this event so clearly was good fortune. I retrieved that pellet as a trophy of this fortunate encounter. That video and a couple of others are below:
Another recent surprise at Mount Auburn was the sight of a Red-bellied Woodpecker below Washington Tower busily clearing a hole in a tree for a nest.  As it clung to the tree next to the hole it would insert its head into the opening slowly enlarging the hole with that strong beak.  As it proceeded with this activity, it would pull its head out of the hole and kind of spit the sawdust into the wind.  You can see the sawdust flying in the image below.
Red-bellied Woodpecker.  Photo by John Harrison
They are very industrious for such small birds.  I watched this activity for several days and then it stopped.  I haven’t seen the woodpecker at that hole since.  I hope it’s because the work is done and the next thing we see will be little Red-bellied Woodpecker heads poking out of the hole and the adults coming in to feed them.
Last time I mentioned that the magnificent Bohemian Waxwings have been seen in the area.  They don’t often come down this far – the last time I saw them was in 2008 – so the possibility of seeing them again was exciting.  In the birding community word travels quickly and the news that some Bohemian Waxwings were sighted within a flock of Cedar Waxwings along the river in Waltham, behind Biagios Restaurant on Moody St.,  brought in quite a few birders.  The birds were quickly decimating the fruit of a few crab apple trees along the path.  Photographer Kim Nagy and I had a few encounters with the solitary remaining Bohemian Waxwing that was still in the company of the Cedars.  But even one Bohemian Waxwing is worth a few visits.
Bohemian Waxwings in Waltham.   Photos by John Harrison
Yes, spring is on the way.  A month from now we’ll be combing Mount Auburn, the Mystic Lakes, Horn Pond, Dunback Meadows, Plum Island and the other usual hot spots for the early arrival warblers.  As we watch them, the thoughts of this historic winter will fade.  That’s the power of these things with feathers.