I am up early this morning and out the door, headed for Sacred Heart Park in Andover. I was here yesterday in mid-morning and saw a Palm Warbler and two Savannah Sparrows, both new species for this location. However, I did not have my camera with me then, so I am coming back today hoping I might still be able to find a warbler or even two!
Yesterday the temperature rose to 92 degrees here in my yard. While it is not suppose to get quite as hot today, it is already warm for April at 71F at 9:45 AM. There is not a cloud in the sky as I pull into the parking lot and mark the time. Already I see a couple of robins hopping about on the green lawn of the soccer field. Though there are a couple cars parked over by the playground area, there is no one on the field. I head counter clockwise around the grass away from the playground and toward the path that will lead me down to the Shawsheen River. As I walk along the treed edge of the field I am on the lookout for birds. My ears and eyes are open and I am scanning, scanning all the time. I hear the chirping of House Sparrows in the bushes where they usually hang out along Burnham Road. Yesterday I found the Savannah Sparrows at this location but they are nowhere to be seen today.
I pass the opening to the road where I usually enter if I walk over here. I am nearing the pathway to the woodland area with the river below. Here the trail cuts between the woods and the houses that rim the street. I pause for a second to scan the brushy area at the edge of the woods where I saw the Palm Warbler yesterday, but there is no sound and no movement in that location. As I turn to head down the path suddenly I see a winged creature coming at me at break neck speed up the path. It is flying low to the ground on powerful wings and coursing straight towards me! I can barely take in what I am seeing before it swoops by at knee level between me and the bushes. It is so close that I could have reached out and touched it as it flew by if I had wanted to, if I was quick enough. But I am not quick enough for this bird!
I spin to follow the path of its flight as it winds its way through the brush and trees. I see a dark back, pointed wings, and a long barred tail. My mind starts to process what I have seen and I am wondering if I just saw a Merlin! I think the small raptor has landed in the trees at the edge of the field, so I head back that way trying to confirm my possible ID. I scan and scan the trees, moving slowly and circling around. I do not see the bird, but it sees me and it flies out of the trees into the open across the field. Now in the bright sunlight, it almost looks white and gray like a Northern Goshawk, but I know it can’t be that bird.
I watch as it swoops upwards where it lands in some tall Eastern White Pines at the edge of the grass. Now I am walking back, trying to be cautious, but excitement urges me on. I walk into the cool green shade of the tall pines and circle around to get the sun at my back. My neck is craned to the extreme as I search the branches of the towering pines and then, bingo! I spot the bird!
To my surprise, it is a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk! I see the long tubular body, the long barred tail and the vertical brown stripes on its breast. I see the capped appearance it has to its head even in this juvenile plumage. I try to focus through the pine tree branches to document what I am seeing and as I look at the bird I realize how important it is that I have taken the time to pursue the bird and be sure of what I saw. This is definitely a Cooper’s Hawk and NOT a Merlin! The dark appearance to its back must have been the shade. The pointed wings were just they way they were bent in flight as the bird swooped along the ground and through the trees. The long tail had given me pause as a Merlin has a shorter tail. I learned a good lesson today, a lesson taught to me in the field and by the birds!
I now retrace my steps and head down the path towards the river once again. Yesterday when I was here a chorus of frogs was singing and the sound was almost deafening. They are singing once again today, but it is not nearly as loud. Though I am here earlier today it seems a bit quieter and I am not seeing quite as many birds. A few robins hop about on the grass and in the woods. I hear the "wicka, wicka, wicka" call of a flicker, then see a pair fly up onto a dead snag near the turtle pond. They cling to the dead wood and move around the trunk seeming to talk to each other. Before I can get close enough for a shot they fly off into the woods again and are lost in the trees. Blue jays are calling today and flying raucously overhead. On a slim branch a male cardinal sings relentlessly.
I walk up into the coved area where I usually like to stand quietly and wait to see what shows up, but it is really quiet here today and I am seeing nothing. Then a little goldfinch starts to twitter and I try to locate it. I am standing on the bank above the pond near the woods. I can hear this bird but cannot seem to find it. I am scanning the treetops, scanning the bushes but I cannot seem to locate it and I know it is right here in front of my eyes! It sounds like it is down low near the water, so I search the muddy edge without luck. I move to one side of the tree and then the other. I scan the trees across the pond hoping it might be up there, but the sound is coming from below me it seems.
I move again and search again and finally I find the bird on the branch of a bush overhanging the water right below where I am standing! He, too, is singing his heart out, but if there is a female nearby watching his performance I do not see her!
The sun is getting warmer and I decide it’s time to move on. I walk back down along the edge of the pond until I am near the Shawsheen River. It is flowing merrily along its way, sparkling in the sunshine. We really need some rain around here! Chickadees are moving through the trees around me and a Tufted Titmouse is calling from a twig in a bush near the river.
As I move up the hill toward the other field in the park I see a small flock of three white-throated sparrows hopping around on the grass. Yesterday I had 25 of them in my yard and I counted a dozen over here, but today there are only three. I think the white-throated sparrow has one of the prettiest bird songs around and I love their black and white striped heads set off with those yellow lores! They are indeed, so handsome!
As I reach my self-imposed boundary line of my eBird Site Survey for this location I stop to look at a red squirrel that has climbed a sapling near the river. We look at each other curiously before I turn back to the path and up into the soccer field again.
I continue my walk counter-clockwise around the field but am disappointed at how quiet the woods are today. Usually there are robins and woodpeckers hanging out in the edge, but there is little movement or sound. I look ahead to the playground where I will male my turn back towards the parking lot. The flowering pear is in full bloom and looks glorious against the bright blue sky.
As I near the pear tree I find yet another chickadee moving through the brush. It is unafraid and pauses briefly to look at me over its shoulder before moving on.
Then, as I near the playground I look up into the flowering pear tree where I see bird movement. A northwest wind is blowing, making it difficult to focus on the birds in the center of the tree,
but when I finally get a clear view I am surprised to find three female Red-winged Blackbirds! They seem to be eating something from the tree but what? Are they eating insects, buds, or blossoms? I do not know.
The sun is getting higher and hotter in the sky. It is time for me to leave. I walk the final section of the soccer field back towards my car and the parking lot. As I do, I pause to check out the edge of the parking lot as yesterday I thought I saw two Chipping Sparrows fly up from here, but they disappeared into the pines before I could positively identify them. Today I am cautious and careful but though I scan the ground along the edge with my bins, I do not see any tiny birds on the ground. However, as I move along, I keep hearing this soft little chip. What is it? Where is it? I stop. I listen. I look. Nothing. This is so frustrating! As I near my car suddenly a little bird flies up over my car and onto the tip of a pine tree twig. Then, it starts to sing! Its song sounds like the staccato song of a chipping sparrow, but I discovered yesterday that Palm Warblers, pine warblers and juncos all sound similar and I am not skilled enough yet to distinguish the difference. As I raise my binoculars to focus, it flies further into the tree. I move under the tree and try to locate the bird. It flies out over my car again and onto a small ornamental tree at the edge of the parking lot. But now the sun is behind the bird and it is little more than a silhouette! I try to focus in. I can see the small shape, and the chestnut cap, but the palm warbler has a chestnut cap too, though I don’t think it would fly out into the open like this.
As I move slowly around trying to get the sun at least perpendicular to my body and shining a bit more on the bird the little winged creature does me a favor and lands on the wooden guard rail in full sun. Now I can see the brown, streaky back, the dark eye-line and the faint wing-bars of a Chipping Sparrow! My First Of The Year (FOTY) for this location.
I am hot, tired and thirsty now. It is time for me to go home. I turn to open my car door and watch as a Red-tailed Hawk rises above the tree line to the west and starts to make its lazy circles in the sky.