Monday, February 15, 2016

Winter Birding at the Cumberland Farm Fields - 2/6/2016

 Winter Birding at the Cumberland Farms Fields - 2/6/16

Four intrepid birders joined me for a walk at the Cumberland Farms fields this morning. The area received seven inches of snow last night and the high temperature on this calm day was in the mid 30s. The White Pines and Red Maples on the perimeter roads were laden with clumps of wet snow. Every weed and shrub was a lesson in fractal self-similarity since hoar frost had developed overnight on every surface of this landscape. The scenery alone was worth the early morning exploration of this vast area.

At the outset of our trip, it wasn’t clear if we would be able to access key locations in the fields since the snowfall precluded parking in the usual spots. So we decided to walk the main road to the manure pit area and immediately noticed a portion of the continuing enormous flock of blackbirds present since this past fall. American Tree Sparrows worked the weedy edges of the road emitting their tweedle-dee call notes. Song and Savannah sparrows teed up for momentary views only to be upstaged by a lone Vesper Sparrow (presumably one of seven birds previously reported from this location). Everyone in the group had decent views of this uncommon breeder in Massachusetts. The sighting of the Vesper Sparrow was particularly noteworthy since this species is rare anywhere in the state in winter.

Continuing, we walked to the elevated section of the manure pit area that affords one of the most expansive views of the fields. A dark morph Rough-legged Hawk was perched precariously at the top of a distant tree and a single Northern Harrier teetered and stalled at the south end of this extensive grassland habitat. Our group paused to watch several Savannah Sparrows seek out exposed patches in the nearby manure piles. Birds became more active as the sun got higher in the sky.

Subsequently, we decided to return to River Street to investigate other sections of the fields. We stopped on the return trip along the main road to observe the same mixed flocks of sparrows. This time, however, we were fortunate to hear and observe an American Tree Sparrow singing its dulcet song. A bit farther up the road, we encountered more blackbirds as they flew in sinuous “rivers” and occasionally landed – en masse – on the road before us. Incredible numbers of Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles swirled and coalesced against the cloudless sky. They seemed completely out of place as they alighted in droves on the snow covered trees growing in the hedgerows and at the edges of the road. We estimated there were several thousand blackbirds present at the fields this morning.

On the Route 105 side of the fields, we sighted more Savannah and Song sparrows and loose flocks of American Robins in flight. We also had a small group of cooperative Eastern Bluebirds pose for our cameras as we blazed a trail through the snowy furrows of a corn field. On the opposite side of the road, we glimpsed an accipiter as it flew directly away from us. Identification eluded us as is often the case with the two likely representatives of this genus. A stop on Wood Street produced a light morph Rough-legged Hawk perched on top of a shrub in the eastern half of the fields. Shortly thereafter, a flock of sixty Horned Larks wended its way over the stubble poking through the snowpack.

Raptor activity was picking up in the warming hours of mid morning. An American Kestrel perched briefly at the top of an isolated tree directly in front of us. A few minutes later, both Rough-legged Hawks perched at opposite ends of the tree where the kestrel had just been observed. We had both morphs in a single scope view and took the opportunity to study the birds until the dark morph departed and flew low across the fields. For many years this stop has provided one of the best views of the fields and invariably yields sightings of raptors in the fall and winter seasons.

Our next stop was the Raven Brook section of the fields. We walked out to the large dirt mounds where we watched several Northern Flickers and had great looks at an adult Cooper’s Hawk. As the temperature climbed, snow slid from nearby branches and fell to the ground resulting in a series of rapid thuds. The wire pluck call of a Northern Mockingbird was immediately followed by the husky notes of House Finches. All around us the bird song hinted at the arrival of spring. A quick scan of the surrounding area produced several Red-tailed Hawks perched at various locations on this unique expanse.

We finished the day on Fuller Street, but could not find birds to add to the already impressive winter landscape. It was a fine morning to hike the Cumberland Farms fields in search of birds. The post storm pressure of buried sources of food seemed to stimulate bird activity and hence made them more conspicuous. Our walk through snowy fields produced more than avian sightings and the observation of interesting bird behavior. We were the first to leave our footprints on this wintry scene, but our impact on this place could not compare to the impressions that this complex of fields, and its natural splendor, had indelibly left on us.

Jim Sweeney