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Wingin' It: Stay-at-home birding

With stay-at-home advisories in place as spring arrived, people have become more aware of the birds around their homes. In response to posts and questions about birds on Nextdoor, the social media site, David decided to start a birding group on the site to encourage questions and sharing of sightings. The interest and response has been broad with 82 people participating in the group at this time.

A male Baltimore oriole. (Courtesy photos)

One day David decided to make a list of the birds around the farm on a given day. He opened up eBird, a citizen science app, from Cornell Lab of Ornithology, that gathers information on bird sightings from all over the world. One can type in one’s position and up pops a list of possible birds in that location. Over several hours of working outside and mentally noting the birds we saw or heard, we had totaled 35 species by the end. The eBird app will share a birder’s observations with Cornell to add to their database and save the observations for life list.

Useful apps

An app, also from Cornell, that birders find useful is Merlin. The nice thing about this app is that if one is uncertain about an identification it provides a list of questions under Start Bird ID to help you figure out what you are seeing and hearing.

The app asks these questions:

  • Where did you see the bird?
  • When did you see the bird?
  • What size was the bird? It gives you four profiles to choose from, songbird to goose.
  • What are the bird’s colors? (Select up to three.)
  • Was the bird … eating at a feeder, swimming or wading, on the ground, in trees or bushes, on a fence or wire, or soaring or flying?

A great blue heron.

From these questions the app will create a list of possible birds. This app helps you to hone your observation skills by focusing on features such as size, color, and habitat. Professional birders talk about GIS, or general impression of size and shape, as the first step in identifying a bird.

Another app we find useful is BirdsEye Bird Finding Guide. One can choose a location and see what birds have been seen. This gives you an idea of what to look for. This app also has rare bird alerts.

We find Cornell’s website All about Birds,, the most detailed for research on ecology, range, behavior, and so forth.

Birdwatching areas

We have gone to several local conservation areas within a 10- to 20-minute drive to check on migrants. They are:

  • Bolton Flats, which has a selection of migrating waterfowl including sandhill cranes, glossy ibis, sandpipers, and snipe, as well as a good variety of warblers.
  • Oxbow, where you are sure to see American redstarts, blue-gray gnatcatchers, rose-breasted grosbeaks, common yellowthroats, yellow warblers, ovenbirds, and several other warblers.
  • Hager conservation land (in Boxborough behind the Blanchard School), which has nesting ospreys and lots of tree swallows hawking insects over the swampy area.
  • Delaney Wildlife Management Area is always good for ducks and has a large colony of nesting great blue herons.
  • Horse Meadows Knoll, which is a good place to see a scarlet tanager, nesting great blues, and a variety of warblers.
  • Acton Arboretum, with its orchard and variety of habitat, is good for several species of warblers.
  • Cisco (park at the end of Swanson Road) has nice level footpaths and a good variety of birds. Prairie warblers are nesting on the left side of the road if you drive down to the soccer fields. We have also seen a brown thrasher.
  • Rock Pond Trail, in Ayer, is still home to the red-headed woodpecker and worth the hike in. There is also an osprey nesting above the pond, and on the clearing beneath the power lines we have had great sightings of a pair of prairie warblers and a towhee.
  • Harvard’s conservation lands offer ample opportunities for seeing a wide range of birds when one takes the time to look and listen.

A rose-breasted grosbeak.

We often go on a bird walk to local conservation areas, only to return to the farm and be surrounded by birds. Since we gave up raising sheep we have let the meadows grow up, just mowing a path around the fence lines. We have a 1.25-mile, 3- to-4-foot mowed trail that passes through a variety of habitats—meadows, around the pond, over a stream, in the woods, wood’s edge, swamp, perennial beds, vegetable garden, orchard, and brushy tangles, all with the possibility of attracting different species of birds, insects, and animals. This trail invites us to walk the land daily, something we would not have done with sheep in the pasture. Recently our son Ian, during a socially distanced walk, discovered the nest of a song sparrow hidden in the tall grass in one of our fields.

Mowing less, using no sprays, especially insecticides and herbicides, putting outside lights on motion sensors, are all helping us make a friendlier natural environment and it would be nice if our readers considered this approach.

At the farm we have recently had rose-breasted grosbeaks, Baltimore orioles, American redstart, northern parula, ovenbirds, and common yellowthroat. We have dozens of barn swallows patrolling the farm from daybreak to nightfall for mosquitos, eating thousands a day. Our resident cardinals are the first birds to start singing in the morning, often starting around 4:30 a.m. (even beating our rooster), and many birds join in for a wonderful dawn chorus, giving a great start to our day.

Pamela and David Durrant live and work at Micheldever Farm on East Bare Hill Road. Their 24+ hens provide eggs for local customers, and they produce most of their vegetables and fruit from their gardens. Tetley, their 15-year-old rescue dog, can usually be found lying on the front porch ready to greet passersby.

Attracting birds: Additional resources

Readers who may want to consider reducing their lawn to attract more birds, pollinators,and other beneficial wildlife may be interested in these articles.


eBird reports

Here’s a typical eBird report, this one for Harvard, May 5 2020.

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