The forest floor was dominated by swaths of Canada Mayflower during this month’s Forest Exploration – a sure sign of spring. This low-growing understory perennial has yet to flower at the Fells, but others including Bloodroot, Wood anemone, and (somewhat regrettably) the highly invasive Garlic mustard are now in bloom. As it is currently a peak migratory time, we used the walk as an opportunity to look and listen for birds. American goldfinches, Tufted titmice, Chimney swifts, and Chipping sparrows chattered overhead, and we were even lucky enough to spot a Great Blue heron passing above.
“Seeing the Fells through a naturalistic lens instead of a purely recreational one fundamentally changed my perception of the space. I began to pay attention to places differently, noting not only individual species but also the relationships between these species and their environments and interspecies interactions. Observing and recording these kinds of details over time can show us the effects of climate change on biodiversity and inform how we protect that biodiversity.”
Mina’s interest in natural history took root during a New England field studies course at Lesley. This course involved learning about ecology and plant identification at local parks and urban wilds. One of these sites was the Middlesex Fells...
Once a month, EwA leads a biodiversity walk in the Fells. It’s a free-form activity of ours which only purpose is to explore what Nature wonders are in season: what is flowering, fruiting, passing by, living here?
We invite our guests to write about the walk. Here are highlights of what Mina and we enjoyed this time!
A Quick Refresher on Birding Etiquette
Before we embarked, Claire took a moment to remind attendees of some protocols to keep in mind while bird-watching. As is always the case, one should stay on designated trails. All animals have a corridor of influence or the distance from a trail at which they notice and respond to human activity. For birds, this distance is around 150 feet. The goal when bird-watching (and with wildlife observation in general) is to disturb the subject of your attention as little as possible. On an obvious level, this means keeping quiet and avoiding shining lights at birds (especially at night). It also means you should not bait birds with food, as it reroutes them from their normal activities. Lastly, if you see a baby bird on the ground, you should leave it there unless you have experience with wildlife rescue. More often than not it will make its way back to the nest, or its parents may feed it on the ground. To help us all be stellar birders, EwA encourages its audience to get familiar with its Birding Etiquette.
We saw and heard quite a few different birds on our walk, but for the sake of brevity, I’ve chosen to focus on two of my personal favorites: Gray Catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis) and Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus).
The Gray Catbird’s monochromatic coloration could be fairly described as drab, but what the bird lacks in vibrancy it certainly makes up for with its colorful personality. I heard my first catbird while interning with EwA last summer – or rather, it was then that I discovered that the occasional mewing I had heard in forests was most likely not a stray kitten after all. Catbirds can produce an impressive array of sounds that span from quite musical to rather abrasive. The catbird we spotted during this month’s Forest Exploration, for instance, serenaded us with an increasingly noisy series of stilted whistles and squeaks.
The Bird with the Crimson Epaulet
In contrast to the catbird’s monochromatic gray feathers, Red-winged Blackbirds are undeniably beautiful. As is the case with many bird species, the female Red-winged Blackbird (left) is less colorful than the male (right). It is the male’s coloration – black with a striking red and yellow patch at each shoulder – that gives the bird its name. Red-winged Blackbirds are one of the most common birds in the United States, but I still find them quite captivating.
Living on the Edge
This month’s walk took us alongside the pond behind Flynn’s Rink. The pond’s edge has started sporting signs of spring activity – we noticed unfurling fronds of Cinnamon ferns (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) poking their heads above the water and new leaves on the Sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia) shrubs lining the shore. Sweet pepperbush are especially important during the spring and summer, as they support the caterpillar populations that provide an important food source for the chicks of many different species of birds. EwA uses the platform Caterpillars Count (University of North Carolina) to count the occurrence of caterpillars and other arthropods at the Fells. Caterpillars Count has seen a decrease in caterpillars last year, not only at our sites but at many sites around the country. It’s too early for us to call this decrease a trend at our sites, but if the drop in caterpillars continues it would likely affect bird populations in the area.
How to Spot an Imposter
One of my favorite plants at the Fells this time of year is Smooth Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum). The plant had yet to flower at last week’s walk, though it should be starting to very soon if not already. I find the placement of the flowers – dropped below the stalks – to be delicate and oddly charming. This placement is also what distinguishes Smooth Solomon’s seal from False Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum), also referred to as Solomon’s plume. Unlike Solomon’s seal, the latter’s flowers present as a cluster of tiny white blooms perched atop the stalk as opposed to below.
Smooth Solomon’s seal’s leaves | © Bill MacIndewar
Smooth Solomon’s seal’s flowers | © Bill MacIndewar
Spring’s Early Risers
Solomon’s seal may have yet to bloom, but other early flowers are now making an appearance at the Fells. Early spring flowers usually only bloom briefly during the window before the tree canopy fills in completely and blocks most sunlight. One particularly exciting find on this month’s walk was a large patch of Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis). Though their beautiful white flowers and distinct leaf shape may seem innocuous enough, these native perennials contain poisonous red juices (hence the name). Another white flower – Wood anemone (Anemonoides nemorosa) – formed a thick blanket directly across the path from the Bloodroot patch. Wood anemone flowers are much smaller than those of Bloodroot and usually present as 6-7 tepals (petal-like segments). The flower is native to Europe, but naturalized populations have formed in Massachusetts.
This Forest Exploration was one of my favorites to date; prior to the walk I hadn’t been at the Fells in nearly two months, so it felt extra special to attend. Thanks as always to those who joined us this month! For those who couldn’t make it, you can check out more of our May Fells’ sightings here! and we hope to see you again 📅 next month.
May, 21th 2020 | by Mina Burton
Editing & layout by Claire O’Neill. The photos of species in this article are for the most the visual observations that the EwA team recorded when scouting for and during the May Forest Explorations event (© Mina Burton, © Claire O’Neill, © Joe MacIndewar, and © Bill MacIndewar). Click any species photo and see the corresponding record in EwA’s iNaturalist Fells project (and its author). Photos are licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC).
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