Tag Archives: Migratory Bird Treaty Centennial

Backyard Birding: Sharing the Beach with Shorebirds

By Lee Halasz

Lee Halasz is a native of Australia and is a former conservation professional with the Queensland State Government. He and his family now reside in western Massachusetts, and he volunteered his time with us in 2015. This spring, we feature a series of bird stories Lee wrote to celebrate #birdyear. 

Will you be at the beach this summer? Keep an eye out for breeding shorebirds.

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Piping plover and chicks (Credit: Kaiti Titherington/USFWS)

The beach is a fantastic place to be. All year round it is a fun and inspiring element of our landscape, and part of that enjoyment comes from being around distinctive coastal birds.

Most of us only go the beach in summer, when we can enjoy the weather and water to relax and have fun. Summer is also an important time for many shorebirds; it is when they come to Northeast beaches to breed.

The beach is a thin strip of naturally precarious habitat in a dynamic environment. It is subject to the power of waves and wind, and extremes of temperature. Despite these challenges, this is where beach-nesting shorebirds have successfully bred through time.

The increased use of beaches by humans has introduced a new variable. The Northeast becomes home to more people every year, and over time society has become more affluent and gained greater freedom to enjoy coastal areas. These patterns have resulted in greater impacts on coastal environments and coastal wildlife, and consequently we need to take actions to ensure that beaches remain a safe place for shorebirds.

Beachgoers can drastically reduce the breeding success of beach-nesting shorebirds. The eggs and chicks are well camouflaged and can unknowingly be crushed by people walking above the high tide line. Also, if adults are flushed from the nest, chicks and eggs can suffer heat stress without the protective shading offered by the parents, and unattended eggs and chicks can be destroyed and eaten by predators.

There are some great shorebird recovery success stories. In Massachusetts, targeted actions have seen piping plover populations bounce back dramatically in recent decades, and American oystercatcher populations are recovering impressively since returning to the Northeast in the last half century.

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American Oystercatcher chicks (Credit: Stephanie Koch/USFWS)

Some of this success is attributable to programs like the Atlantic Flyway Shorebird Initiative that increase the focus on shorebird conservation. For example, many of the contributing partners organize summer beach stewards who raise awareness of nesting shorebirds, educate people about them, monitor nests, and notify authorities if protective action is needed.

How You Can Help

There are things all beachgoers can do to minimize their impact on breeding shorebirds:

  • Have a carry-in carry-out policy: Trash left on beaches can attract nest predators.
  • Don’t feed gulls: While it may be fun and seems harmless, gulls can eat shorebird eggs and chicks.
  • Walk your dog on a leash: Dogs love to chase and catch wildlife, including shorebirds, and just the stress of being chased, especially repeatedly, can lead to eggs and chicks being abandoned.
  • Respect wildlife protection signs: Please keep out of posted nesting areas.
  • Be aware of wildlife: If birds are calling loudly around you, dive-bombing you, or feigning injury, there are probably nests nearby. Please back away.

Perhaps the most important thing anyone can do is to recognize that shorebirds live and breed on the same beaches that people enjoy.

Summer is coming. Enjoy it, but please enjoy and respect the shorebirds also.

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Terns at sunset on Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge (Credit: USFWS)

Backyard Birding: A Rare Sighting of a Cerulean Warbler

By Lee Halasz

Lee Halasz is a native of Australia and is a former conservation professional with the Queensland State Government. He and his family now reside in western Massachusetts, and he volunteered his time with us in 2015. This spring, we feature a series of bird stories Lee wrote to celebrate #birdyear. 

Most of us have probably heard of and even seen a blue jay, and probably a bluebird, too. Perhaps some people know of indigo buntings – the males are almost entirely bright blue. But what about a cerulean warbler? The sky on a beautiful clear day is often described as cerulean blue.


Male Cerulean warbler (Credit: USFWS)

Well, it was just that sort of day in May two years, on an outing with my then three-year-old son, when I saw one.

The Right Place at the Right Time

We were doing a loop walk around the top of a local mountain. He did really well, though towards the end it was only snacking on salty carbohydrates that kept him going. As we were approaching the car, I heard a song that I instantly knew was different from the usual bird songs. It was a male cerulean warbler, singing with all his might.

Given my son was getting low on patience, I whipped out a lollipop, knowing it would give me a few minutes to enjoy the bird. Seeing it at such close quarters, and hearing it sing so loudly, really made my day (and the lollipop made my son’s!). It’s my one and only experience with a cerulean warbler.

It turns out that we were in exactly the sort of habitat that cerulean warblers like: ridge-tops and steep upper slopes, dominated by large oak trees, facing south, in large patches of forest. Sometimes finding wildlife is just about looking (or being) in the right place.

However, there is another ‘right’ place for cerulean warblers, and that is in the northern parts of South America. In fact, they spend just a few months in eastern North America, and most of their time in countries including Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador. Twice a year they also spend a few weeks in migration traveling between the two areas.Unfortunately in the last half century, populations of cerulean warblers have declined by more than half. However, much can and is being done to address this decline. The Cerulean Warbler Technical Group has shown that targeted forest management in the United States can increase breeding populations, and they have published guidelines for forest managers. There is now a Cerulean Warbler Conservation Reserve in Colombia, and landowners around it are being supported to make the surrounding area desirable for the species.

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The Cerulean Warbler Reserve in Colombia (Credit: Randy Dettmers/USFWS)

How You Can Help

Something very tangible anyone can do is to purchase ‘bird-friendly’ shade grown coffee (produced under canopy trees), rather than ‘conventional’ coffee grown in open fields.


Reserve coffee farm in Colombia (Credit: Katie Fallon/Virgina Tech University)

Is the average person ever likely to see a cerulean warbler? Probably not. But imagine if you were out walking, enjoying a beautiful blue sky spring day, and just happened to see one of these tiny birds?

I hope my son can see one again during his lifetime, if he wants to, when he can take in the whole experience, perhaps without a lollipop!

Backyard Birding: May Is the Best Time to Be a Birder

By Lee Halasz

Lee Halasz is a native of Australia and is a former conservation professional with the Queensland State Government. He and his family now reside in western Massachusetts, and he volunteered his time with us in 2015. This spring, we feature a series of bird stories Lee wrote to celebrate #birdyear. 

Spring is an amazing time to be outdoors appreciating the fresh buzz of life. While the season can start slowly, May arrives with a bang – it is the peak bird activity month of the year. For birders there is so much action in May, and you don’t want to miss a moment.

‘Birding’ is modern speak for ‘birdwatching,’ and it better acknowledges that appreciating birds includes tuning into their calls and songs, and thereby listening and not just looking at birds. Similarly, ‘birder’ is a modern term for ‘birdwatcher.’ Perhaps both new terms help broadcast the message that having an interest in birds is popular and growing.


Birders spot migratory birds from the Freeland Boardwalk Overlook, a popular wildlife viewing spot at Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge (Credit: Mary Konchar)


Look and Listen for Color, Songs and Nests

Birds become especially prominent in May for a few reasons. Firstly, many species migrate back from southern USA, and Central and South America, where they have spent our cooler months. These returning birds increase the variety and number of birds around. Secondly, birds are breeding, and with breeding comes colorful plumages, prominent singing and nest building. And lastly, deciduous trees do not yet have a thick crown of leaves, so many birds are easier to see than they will be in summer.

Some returning birds just pass through, with their final destination further north. They often move through in ‘waves’ made up of many species but especially warblers, and it is both exciting to see many species together and a challenge to try to identify them all.

In May the dawn chorus of singing birds extends well into the day, with birds such as Baltimore orioles, gray catbirds and house wrens all contributing their vibrancy to the sound waves.


Male Baltimore oriole (Credit: David Brezinski/USFWS)


The fresh, colorful plumages of the males make birding in May particularly delightful. Similar-looking species can be more contrasting than other times of the year, making species identification easier.

While American goldfinches are here all year round, in spring the males ‘reappear’ in their bright yellow breeding plumage, after molting out of their drab winter garb. Ruby-throated hummingbirds return, and to see your first one of the season is an exciting May moment. Chipping sparrows reappear on our lawns, scarlet tanagers in forest trees and indigo buntings in fields.


Ruby-throated hummingbird near Athol, MA (Credit: Bill Thompson/USFWS)


The extra activity associated with nest building means birds more easily catch our eye. Eastern phoebes build their mud nests under the eaves of buildings, and eastern bluebirds and tree swallows will use various materials to tailor their nestbox.

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An Eastern bluebird pair on a nest box (Credit: Kent Mason)

 By now American robins and northern cardinals can have chicks in the nest, and the chicks could fledge before May is out.

But sometime in June things start to go quiet. Birds are now busy getting food into the mouths of their chicks, while trying not to draw the attention of predators.

July and August are similarly more subdued, but by September birds begin migrating south, and there is once again a burst of activity, albeit a much smaller one than in May.

May provides a great opportunity to go birding, and perhaps see a species you’ve never seen before. Embrace the season and become a birder!