Monday, April 26, 2010

Birding at the DeCordova Sculpture Park

On Saturday, April 24th, we led our first (of two) spring bird walks at the DeCordova Sculpture Park in Lincoln. If you've never been to this museum, it is a totally wonderful place. Since we met at 7 a.m. the actual museum wasn't open, but the sculpture park is open and that, of course, it where we were leading the trip.As we assembled in the parking lot waiting for everyone to show up we met Karen Moffitt (our museum docent) and talked with her about a new sculpture we hadn't seen before -- Male Baseball#1 by Yoram Wolberger. It was fun to see basically an enlarged top of a Little League trophy in this context. Even the seam that's so annoying on the trophy was replicated here. Karen told us the artist also does those little plastic toy soldiers too.
Waiting for a few missing folks to show up we started to check out the myriad of calls. We heard Downy, Hairy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers as we wandered around the edge of the parking lot. Watching birders pass by what could have been Thor's hammer ( it's actually Man by Michael Dennis) was really funny. The piece seemed to be just laying in the parking lot as if some giant dropped it there.
Definitely the most numerous bird of the morning was Chipping Sparrow -- they were calling everywhere.
They were even darting under Nam June Paik's Requiem to the 20th Century. (BTW did you know if was Paik who coined the term "information superhighway"?)
If you read my blog from last October's trip to the DeCordova you'll recognize some of the same pieces of art. I have a tendency to focus on the ones that I really enjoy....and seeing them in the spring with different lighting seemed like looking at new pieces in some instances.

This is Boaz Vaadia's Ammi'el which stands in the courtyard across from a companion piece, Ba'al. I'm totally fascinated by these pieces.
One of the installations which we didn't visit last fall was Bartow + Metzgar's Morphology Field Station for Sensing Place. It's actually a functioning field station that's part of a year-long project and is actually shaped like the sculpture park's 35-acre footprint.
Over the next year the artists will lead trips to collect specimens and visitors will actually be part of the project. You can visit their blog for updates on the project.
One of Mark's favorite pieces is Jim Dine's Two Big Black Hearts. Since the museum does take sculptures down and install new ones, it's always a reassuring sight to find these hearts still in place.
Now last year when we led the trip I never got up close to the piece, so this year I made sure that I did. From farther away it looks like an interestingly-textured sculpture....
but up close, you realize it's really a very carefully constructed piece containing casts of tools from everyday, as well as the artists hand prints and other images pressed into the bronze.
Another installation I failed to see last year was Steven Siegel's Big, with rift, an environmental structure built out of newspapers that will eventually decompose and be consumed by the surrounding vegetation. Two interesting things I realized looking at this piece: the artist was born in White Plains, NY, where I was born and the newspapers are an overrun of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from July 2, 2009.
This edge habitat also provided great views of nearby Eastern Bluebirds who kept flying back and forth over a nearby neighbor's fence.
Wouldn't it be great if the bluebirds took pieces of the newpaper structure to use in their nest box?
Another of my favorite pieces is Joseph Wheelwright's Listening Stone.
As we proceeded out onto the main lawn we could hear Northern Flickers calling. I spotted one sitting on Ilan Averbuch's Skirts and Pants (after Duchamp) but by the time the rest of the class arrived, the bird had flown off.
We did come across the Flicker again feeding on the ground under the same sculpture and everyone got good looks this time around.
It's always fun to watch the wildlife use the artwork for their own purposes. We had a Robin singing persistently from atop a piece call ence pence by Ursula von Rydingsvard. The artist build her structure free form and they tend to evolve as she's building them, After she completed the piece she then hand-rubbed the cedar with graphite to give it the slating gray tones.
I don't think the Robin could have cared less about the artists background....only that it was a good place to perch and the pop down for a nice worm in the lush lawn.
Albert Paley's Apollo looked fantastic as the morning sunlight just poked through the trees. One of the great things about this sculpture park is visiting in the different seasons, since the sculpture truly takes on a different look when it's against bare trees and snow vs. leaves just starting to come out.
Another signature piece of the DeCordova (in my mind) is Douglas Kornfeld's Ozymandias. I don't think the piece has been there for many years, but it's sited so perfectly, it's like it's always been there.
And judging by this chipmunk, it has become a fixture of the park. Just check out the number of chipmunk runs around the base of the sculpture.
So in addition to Chipping Sparrow and Robin as the two most abundant species of the morning, we also had very good numbers of call Pine Warblers. This female was being guarded by a male as she pulled out spiderwebs for the nest. We watched them both disappear back into the white pines once she got enough material.
Now one of the pieces that we learned from the docent that is going to be taken down soon is Kitty Wales' Pine Sharks which was designed for this specific site back in 1997. Kitty is a very interesting artist with a great environmental sensibility (she's a friend of Mark's and he's interviewed her on his radio show several times.) In fact we even have one of her pieces -- a life-sized Lammergier made out of cutlery -- sitting in our living room. You really should visit her website and check out some of her other work.
As we headed up the hill behind the museum we were hoping to find some waterfowl out on Sandy Pond.
But it really wasn't a strong migration day...not for landbirds and certainly not for waterfowl. We had exactly one pair of Canada Geese on the pond, and two Double-crested Cormorant and one Ring-billed Gull as flyovers.
Boston artist, John Wilson, did this head as a study for his Eternal Presence which is a 7-foot high sculpture standing outside the National Center for Afro-American Artists in Boston.
And finally another piece which I found totally fascinating was Richard Rosenblum's Venusvine. I've been to this museum a fair number of times and I think I must have overlooked this piece. I think it's because depending on the angle from which you looked at this sculpture, it disappeared into the background of the surrounding trees.
In the two hours we took to complete a birding circuit of the sculpture park we managed to get 32 species....clearly not a hot migration day, but an enjoyable and two hours nonetheless!
The Chipping Sparrows were totally entertaining....
And the 10 or so people on the trip seemed to enjoy themselves.
We spent the last 15 or so minutes of the trip standing in the parking lot looking for the first hawks to go up. We had 4 Red-tails (probably local breeders), 2 Broadwings and a Sharpie. However, the best bird of the trip was the Pileated Woodpecker that flew over the parking lot just as we were about to end the trip -- a great 11th hour bird!

We're hoping that when we do the birdwalk again (in May) we'll definitely have some better migrants. But if not, it certainly won't be a waste of time, since the DeCordova Sculpture Park is a truly wonderful place to hang out whether you're there to bird or just enjoy the art. And doing it at 7 in the morning, without lots of other people, makes it even better.


Monday, April 19, 2010

Class Trip #3 -- The Brookfields

Since the weather was iffy this past weekend, we weren't sure that this past Sunday's class trip to "The Brookfields" was even going to come off -- and I'm so glad it did. Remember, this is a migration class, so we were hoping to get lots of early migrants like Palms (4) and Ruby-crowned Kinglets (2). And while they were certainly migrants, we were pleasantly surprised with the raptor show we had. We had 7 species, including Osprey, Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier (3), Sharp-shinned, Cooper's, Broad-winged and Red-tailed. We started the morning out at Quabog where we had a pair of adult Bald Eagles. Unfortunately, since neither were sitting on a nest we're a little concerned that their nest (if they had one) might have failed due to all the bad weather in March. We also had a nice male Northern Harrier flying up the Quabog River. But since there wasn't much in the way of ducks, we made our way down to Quacumquasit (aka South Pond) -- again not much waterfowl. But we did walk a bit in the cornfields both right at the parking lot opposite the pond and in the WMA entrance along Lake Road.
The goldfinch were singing and starting to develop their color, although they are such a late nester that I probably don't pay much attention to them until June when I'm looking for breeding behavior for the atlas. We did have a pair of Canada Geese acting very strange at the edge of one of the cornfields. Both birds were laying as flat as they could and trying not to be seen. When I approached a little closer one of the birds got up and came over next to the other one. I thought maybe they were on a nest since there was a pond nearby, but it could also be that one of the birds was hurt and the other was standing guard. After all we were in a WMA where hunting is allowed. We backed right off and both birds seemed to relax. I'm hopeful that when we're next in the area, I'll see 6 or 7 little goslings zipping around.
White-throats were everywhere, all singing their spring song (or at least parts of it). And their spring plumage was really sharp.
Red-tails seemed to be everywhere as well. I think we ended the day with 14-15....and none that I would say were definite migrants. When I got home and looked at photographs I thought this one was an Osprey just based on a quick look at the wing shape. We also had another Northern Harrier moving up from the south -- another male. We were excited since we don't get big numbers of harrier in this area; not that 2 is a big number!
Also it seemed that Pine Warblers were back in full force. Everywhere there was a stand of pines, you could hear them calling. I was lucky enough to get this female come in to my spishing so I could get a quick shot.
And there were Bluets blooming in many parts of the cornfield....another good early spring sign.
From South Pond we headed northwest to visit Wickabog with a stop along the river crossing on Rt. 148 and a check for early Virginia Rails. But the water is still quite high and we didn't hear any. However, we did have our third Northern Harrier -- this time a female.
And she put on quite a nice show hunting over the marsh. We all got great looks. Right at the pull off by the bridge we also had Broad-wings and Turkey Vultures starting to go up along the far hills as thermals started to form. I was torn knowing that it would likely be a good day for hawk-watching and we weren't really close to any good hawk-watch spots.
As we continued onto Wickabog we made a quick stop at the Brookfield Cemetery along Rt. 9 to check again for rails. We didn't have any, but did spot a handful of Green-winged Teal in the marsh. We followed Foster Hill Rd. to West Brookfield so we could stop at Coy's Brook before going on to Wickabog. We had a couple of Great Blue Herons, but no signs yet of American Bittern. This is an area where we've often had sightings of that bird, but not today.
We had an accipiter come in over us and there was a lot of discussion in the class as to whether it was a Sharpie or a Coop. After studying the photos blown up at home, Mark made the call that the bird was a large female Sharp-shinned.
While the tail looks a little longish, the head really doesn't seem to protrude enough. When I've seen classic Cooper's Hawks in flight they often remind me of a pheasant with the tail so long. This bird overall seemed fairly compact.
Besides getting our first phoebes nest-building under the bridge, we also had these two male Tree Swallows checking out natural cavity nest holes.
Besides poking it's head into check out the hole.....
this bird almost totally disappeared several times. We watched for about 15 minutes and it will be interesting to go back in a few weeks when the females arrive and see if there's any nesting activity at this particular site.
When we stopped at the beach entrance to Wickabog off Lakeview Ave., we had more phoebes. This view of the lake often produces lingering Common Mergs, but other than one Double-crested Cormorant, there wasn't much around. We did have several Painted Turtle out catching the early spring rays.
And another Great Blue Heron looking for Sunday brunch. So we headed up Wickabog Valley Rd. to the north end of the pond where there's often ducks and gulls. We were hoping for a Caspian Tern, since one had been reported the day before from Suasco in Westboro and this area seemed just as likely.
But there were a small number of Ring-billed Gulls at the north end; it really was pretty quiet. We did have two Osprey fishing in the lake. We wondered if they might be a pair and would actually set up territory in the area.
After a few minutes, though, one of the birds left and the other stayed to continue to fish. He made a couple of unsuccessful attempts to catch something.....
and then he settle down on the water and began to bathe. After about 15 minutes we decided it was time to move on and so Mark acquiesced to my usual request to lead the class trip for a side stop to see the miniature horses. This always proves a highlight for me, especially in spring when the new foals are romping in the pastures. But Sunday proved to be exceptionally special!
As we pulled up to the pasture where 4 or 5 new foals were with the mares, we noticed the owner and his daughter come through the fence at the far end of one of the pastures and some folks in the class thought they might ask us to leave. Actually, they were focused on something totally different. I asked the class to back off just in case, and then I noticed one of the pregnant mares down on the ground in the pasture right next to us.

Literally within 5 minutes the owners were helping the mare give birth right in front of the entire class!
Everyone was stunned and while I did discreetly take photos from a respectable distance I was totally awestruck by what I was seeing.
Literally the week before when we stopped by I had mentioned to Mark that I've always wanted to see a horse born, and if it could be a miniature horse I'd be ecstatic. Now here it was happening right in front of me.

Within minutes the whole thing was over. The mare was back up on her legs, checking that the baby was okay and the class started to come back to life. Kevin was concerned that Rebecca (who couldn't make the trip) would be totally jealous that he witnessed this. They're expecting their first child in June and while this wasn't really a good preview of a live human birth, Debbie Berard (who's a nurse) assured Kevin he'd get through that as well.
The new foal was wrapped in a blanket and carried up to the barn (with her mom following closely). I'm hoping to get out there this week to see this week-old foal running around the pasture with the other 4- and 5-week olds.

Mark's only concern (other than that the class not disturb the animal as she was giving birth) was that there's really no way to top this on a class birding trip in the future.
As for me, it was so special that I still can't quite believe I saw it happen.....and I do get a little misty-eyed even now as I write about it.