Bear Creek Wildlife Sanctuary

A 370-acre wildlife sanctuary located in the heart of the Rumney Marshes ACEC.  Maintained and managed grasslands, salt marshes, shrublands, and maturing woodlands that combine to provide migratory habitat for 200 bird species.  Follow along with us as the birds change with each passing season.
Issue 2017-02                                                                              Serving 263 Members
A Promise of Spring
A week of record-breaking warm temperatures comes to a grinding halt with strong winds that bring the first wave of spring migrants.
The biting westerlies that followed a week of warm temperatures carried three species of spring migrants back to the Bear Creek Wildlife Sanctuary on Sunday, February 26th.  As these early arrivals prepare to re-establish their territorial boundaries, they must quickly learn to avoid the raptors from the north that are still patrolling the grasslands.  The arrival of the new migrants marks the beginning of another breeding season on the grassy plains of the Rumney Marshes ACEC.

Trip Report for February 26th, 2017

Bear Creek Sanctuary (restricted access), Essex, Massachusetts, US 

Feb 26, 2017 9:00 AM - 12:04 PM

Protocol: Traveling

2.65 mile(s)

29 bird species

Snow Goose  4              Continuing. Seen well and photographed by group.

Brant (Atlantic)  35 

Canada Goose  150

American Black Duck  40

Mallard (Northern)  1

White-winged Scoter  4

Bufflehead   8

Red-breasted Merganser   11

Northern Harrier  1

Red-tailed Hawk  5

Killdeer  1
Heard and seen well by the group. Photos.

Herring Gull 150

Great Black-backed Gull  24

Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon) 6

Mourning Dove 2

Short-eared Owl (Northern) 5

Downy Woodpecker (Eastern)  1

American Kestrel 3

Merlin (Taiga)   1

Blue Jay   1

American Crow   5

Horned Lark   24

Black-capped Chickadee   6

European Starling   30
American Tree Sparrow   3

White-throated Sparrow   1

Song Sparrow   1

Red-winged Blackbird (Red-winged)  26

Common Grackle (Bronzed) 3
Bird of the Week

This week's bird (more like 'birds') of the week was the communally roosting Short-eared Owl, located by Mark.  Four of these birds huddled together and held fast as the group passed within 50 feet of the roost in an early trek across the grassland.  On the way back, Mark took a closer look at a scruffy patch in the second year rotation grassland and was rewarded with a heart stopping surprise as all four owls exploded out from the grass below his feet.  The Short-eared Owl was also the featured species in the February 19 e-newsletter.

Runner-up this week goes to Jarrett for finding the first evidence of the 'bird we almost saw.'  One of our members spotted a large, white owl-shaped object in the Sanctuary's grasslands from the Revere side of the Rumney Marsh on both Friday and Saturday. Upon further investigation Sunday morning, young Jarrett found the first of what would be many very large owl pellets.  With an approximate size of 1.5 inches in diameter and 4-5 inches long, it is safe to assume the owl-shaped object was in fact our first Snowy Owl of the season. 

Honorable mentions this week goes to everyone who endured the gale force winds and spotted the 'way too early' Killdeer that stepped out of the tall grass while we were seeking shelter in the lee of the shed used by the Saugus High School Golf Team.  The curiosity raised by the sight of more than a dozen people huddling together behind a small building, in a howling windstorm, was just too much for the poor sandpiper to ignore.  Despite the fact that he himself was nearly freezing to death for being caught north of the Mason-Dixon Line in February, it couldn't help but come out and take a closer look us.
Scanning Across the Grassland
On any given day, the most frequently observed resident at the Bear Creek Wildlife Sanctuary can be seen hovering low over the grasslands, ready to pounce on a meal at a moment’s notice.  Not much larger than a parakeet, and nearly as stunning, it’s North America’s smallest falcon, the American Kestrel, Falco sparverius.

Once a common sight in Massachusetts, this tiny raptor's North American population is believed to have declined by as much as 50%.

We are proud to provide habitat for the American Kestrels that can be found at the Sanctuary in significant numbers all year round.  During the breeding season, the Sanctuary usually maintains two breeding pairs of Kestrels.  During the spring and fall migration seasons we can have population densities as high as 12-14, with a typical daily average of 6-9 Kestrels.  The Sanctuary’s winter resident population varies depending on the severity of the winter.  Most winters the Sanctuary has a steady population of 2-4 male Kestrels.

The Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program describes the American Kestrel as an open country bird that breeds in all regions of Massachusetts, though specific breeding sites can be limited.  Additionally, the threats listed for this species include a lack of suitable nesting sites, an overall decrease in suitable open habitats, and a sensitivity to pesticides and other toxic chemicals.

Masswildlife American Kestrel

The Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Breeding Bird Atlas indicates a similar steep decline for the American Kestrel.  During the Breeding Bird Atlas 1 data collection period of 1975-1979, the American Kestrel was considered fairly common and widespread, breeding in 51.4% of the state’s area blocks. Its greatest population densities were in eastern Massachusetts, including the Cape and Islands.  In stark contrast to Atlas 1, by the time the Breeding Bird Atlas 2 data was compiled the species is described as much-declined, only occupying a fraction of its previous breeding distribution in the Coastal Plains, Boston Basin, and Bristol/Narragansett Lowlands.  Teetering upon regional extirpation in the Cape and Islands region.

MAS BBA1 Am. Kestrel

MAS BBA2 Am. Kestrel

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes the American Kestrel as the continent’s most common and widespread falcon, but, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, populations have declined by 50% from 1966-2015.  Partners in Flight estimate the global breeding population at 4 million with 39% of the population in the United States.  Population declines are attributed to loss of prey and suitable habitat due to the expansion of agribusiness ‘clean farming practices’, and increased exposure to pesticides and other pollutants.

Cornell Lab Am. Kestrel

Special thanks to the Massachusetts Natural Heritage Program, the Massachusetts Audubon Society, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for not only maintaining such wonderful online resources free to the public, but also for the extraordinary efforts these organizations preform each and every day in the conservation and preservation of our natural resources.       

Upcoming Workshops

We are currently planning our Spring and Summer workshop schedule for the Sanctuary.  If you have any requests or suggestions, please contact us  here

Salt Marsh Resiliency
This season we will be taking a special interest in salt marshes.  Lately, it is difficult to go through a day without hearing a news story on sea level rise or global climate change.  For salt marshes, the threat of sea level rise is of great concern.  Existing in a narrow band between mean sea level and extreme high tide, marshes need to migrate inland or increase in elevation to survive. 

Salt Marsh Sparrow
Salt Marsh Sparrows are solely dependent on salt marshes, and because they are, this sparrow is predicted to be the first vertebrate species in this region to become extinct due to sea level rise.   Based on the eBird database, the Rumney Marshes ACEC has a stable Salt Marsh Sparrow population.  This season we would like to establish a population baseline for use in future restoration efforts.

Innovative Invasive Species Control
Bear Creek Wildlife Sanctuary has nearly two decades of experience controlling Phragmites australis without the use of harsh chemicals.   With increasing health concerns about the use of herbicides and dwindling management budgets,  methodologies that focus on trajectory stabilization are returning to the forefront of resource management.
Questions and Comments

Please click here  to submit any questions or comments.
Question:  Are there any grassland birds that breed at the Sanctuary, and do you host summer bird walks so we can see them?

Thanks, Jay C.

Answer: Jay C,
Thanks for your questions and interest in our breeding grassland bird programs.  We have several birds that breed in the grasslands at the Sanctuary.  Some of these species are fairly common,  such as Red Winged Blackbirds and Killdeer.  Others are far more interesting and fairly unique, such as Bobolinks, Savannah Sparrows and Willets, all of which require special habitat management practices at the Sanctuary.  Additionally, over the last 10 years, our records show we have documented non-breeding juvenile Grasshopper Sparrows, Upland Sandpipers, and Northern Harriers that have stayed at the Sanctuary for the summer.

In general, other than our breeding bird surveys, we do not host public bird walks during the height of the breeding season.  We have a dense population of breeding grassland birds, so we try to avoid disturbing them.  However, we do host weekly walks during other times of the year when these birds are present at the Sanctuary.  We suggest joining a walk in late April or early May to best observe the stunning plumage and unusual courtship displays of some of these species.
Thank You
Special thanks to Soheil, Ted, Norm, Tim, Mark, and everyone else who contributed  pictures and support this week.  Without your help, this publication could not be produced.

Additional pictures from this week's walk.
The next scheduled nature walk is on Sunday, March 5th at 9:00 am. Please email or click  here to be added to our Nature Walk Announcement List.