Monday, July 26, 2010

Rambling Around Inside Quabbin

One of the advantages of four years of working on the Breeding Bird Atlas has been the opportunity to bird the east side of Quabbin in-depth. We've had a number of the blocks from Ware to Petersham and that has allowed us to obtain keys for the gates and cover a lot of area in a morning. Of course sometimes we're dealing with hordes of black flies, deer flies and noisy boaters -- but other times it's so quiet and peaceful it feels like we're in some remote part of Maine. We often start at Gate 35 since it's one of the quickest routes to the "big water" which is especially important later in summer when there's a chance for unusual gulls, terns and shorebirds. Even though they don't count for more than "observed" in the atlas, spending time in the area allows us to turn up other birds missed on previous trips. Just this past weekend we found probable Yellow-billed Cuckoo in the area.
There's always song as you start through the gate -- thrushes, warblers and Scarlet Tanagers.
One of our blocks (Shutesbury 10) actually starts at the power lines, and this is a great area for Prairie Warbler, Field Sparrow and Rufous-sided Towhee.
A recent stop in this area found this juvenile towhee responding to spishing -- you can definitely see the relationship to sparrows when you're looking at a juvenile.

And the different plumages of young Common Yellowthroat are always a good study as well!
Within about 1/2 mile you hit the major part of Quabbin, and it can be totally gorgeous.
Even with the mist rising first thing in the morning, you can usually find loons and eagles along the old railroad bed road.
With the low water, you can wander in and out of the tree-lined shore and find something of interest. I have to admit, I was totally enchanted with the patterns in this large piece of driftwood.
On one of our recent trips we came across this adult loon which clearly had spent several years at the Quabbin (notice the multiple leg bands).
Turns out this bird was one of a pair and they stayed very close to the shore. We looked for chicks and were glad these birds were close -- otherwise we might have mistaken the leg of the bird on the left as a chick.
One of the birds appeared to have a lump under it's right wing so there may have been a chick being kept warm. Since we never saw either bird dive for food or move off (we watched for over an hour) we had to leave the sighting inconclusive.
Getting about 2-2.5 miles in we come across what we call the "phragmites" island. This is usually a great place for the more uncommon birds to hang out. This past Sunday we had 3 Great Egrets fly in and work the shore of the island where we left them after about an hour. (Returning past this same area a few hours later, the birds were gone.)
Also a good area for gulls to congregate, this Ring-billed Gull put in a close appearance as he was out hunting for breakfast.
And we've been fortunate have had several Bonaparte's Gulls for the past two weekends. They are small and stay pretty far out, so unfortunately I couldn't get shots like the gull above. But since some of the birds were still in their summer plumage (with black head) it was pretty easy to pick out based on the small size and summer plumage.
This area has also provided us with sightings of Caspian, Common and Black Tern over the last 3-4 weeks as well!
This sandy-soil area is also home to lots of other "wildlife" -- normally I don't get close enough to photograph White-faced Hornets, but this one had a damaged wing and all she could do was walk along the road foraging. If you enlarge the photo you'll see the damaged wing.
This first-year Bald Eagle also flew right down the road (well actually the shoreline). I hoped it would put on a show and dive for a fish right in front of us, but also he just kept moving through the area.
Just as the road turn left and heads off into the forest, there's a path that goes straight and ends in the water. Early in the season the road is flooded at this point, but later in the year all these little yellow flowers appear at the edges of the phrags in the sandy soil. I haven't definitively identified the plant, but I think it might be a species of Yellow Saxifrage.

This is also a great area for this Bluet....
and these Calico Pennants.
This teneral Calico Pennant was one of 100's in this area in mid-June.
And this Viceroy was flying just about 10 days ago.
Turkey Vultures breed out on some of the more rugged islands, and they seem to like this end of the road just before it turns into the woods.
As we move inland, we've find breeding Broad-wings, lots of wood warblers and Ruffed Grouse families.
This Black-throated Blue Warbler had what looks like a partial "necklace" and we wondered whether there have been records of this species hybridizing with Cerulean Warbler. We've certainly heard the BTBlue give a Cerulean call.......
It's always strange to come across Mourning Doves deep in the forests at Quabbin. I'm so used to seeing them under my feeders or sitting on a phone line somewhere -- they seem almost out-of-place in the woods (although this was near an area that had been logged several years ago.)
And as the morning slips away, we start to explore some of the marshes and brooks that also hold Quabbin Treasures. We've cruised down to Grave's Landing in another block to upgrade species and gone over to Gate 22 to check the water from the west side. All this in the name of upgrading or adding new species to the atlas. But sometimes the birds get quiet and we have to enjoy whatever we can find. This crossing of the East Branch Fever has been the sight of breeding Wood Duck and Hooded Mergs, along with Barred Owl sightings. One of the rangers recently told us he had a bear at this exact spot within the past month.
We, of course, have lots of photos of Mark helping turtles back into the water after egg laying.
This American Lady seemed a little worse for wear too.
Breeding Pearl Crescents near Grave's landing.
Along the shore on the Gate 22 side of our block we found fish in some of the quieter pools near shore -- Bluegills and young bass maybe?
And this absolutely gorgeous young Northern Banded Water Snake.
One of Mark's most exciting non-bird finds over the past few weeks was this Stinkpot turtle hiding in the murky waters waiting for a fish to come poking along. You can just see his head at the end of a rotting log.
After much patience (and a little prodding) he started to show more of his body. This is not a turtle we've seen a lot....and judging by his behavior of laying in wait in some murky water at the bottom I can understand why.
I guess for me the lesson learned is that no matter what there's always something interesting to see. And Quabbin has provided a great opportunity to sample the different habitats we have right here in Central Massachusetts.

Frankly, I'm torn about doing a blog like this....and by that I mean writing about some of the places in Central Mass, Quabbin or even the Berkshires. You see, I want people to appreciate the wildness and diversity of a place like Quabbin....but then secretly (if I'm being honest) I hope most of you will head off to Plum Island or some place like that!



  1. Sheila,
    As always, an excellent post and photographs of your Quabbin adventures. Nice shot of the two fish, not to mention the bugs and bird! I have some banding data on central Mass. Loons, to my eye the banded bird in your photo (above) looks to be orange top and metal below. I am not sure if you were able to get a view of the left leg , but the data I got from the BioDiversity Research Institute, has the following data which would appear to fit "your" bird:

    Quabbin - Boat Area 2 Adult Female (left leg) white / green (right leg) orange / silver (year banded) 2001".

    I would be happy to email you that spreadsheet, if you would like.


  2. Sheila,

    This is a wonderful photo journal of your adventures of late in Quabbin...this is inticing me to want to plan that next reunion with yawl!


  3. Sheila,

    I always enjoy your reports.

    "I hope most of you will head off to Plum Island or some place like that!"

    I come out from near Boston regularly to hike around Central Mass., so I might one of the people you're referring to. My concern is generally the opposite. I almost never encounter anyone else enjoying the natural beauties of the area. So my fear is that the State will sell off some of its properties to make up for falling revenues, or the people who live there will decide to sell their land to developers.