By Eamon Corbett
This past Saturday was a gorgeous fall day, and we were fortunate enough to be able to spend it at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, a freshwater marsh in Concord, with Harvard ornithology professor Scott Edwards. Pulling myself out of bed at 6 a.m. on a Saturday was a bit of a challenge, but at 7:30 four of us (Ina, Lily, Jeff and me) met up with Professor Edwards at Alewife T stop and headed out towards Concord, fortified by the delicious pumpkin muffins that he had brought.
En route to the refuge Prof. Edwards spotted a bluebird by the side of the road, and we pulled over to get fleeting but good looks at bluebirds, chickadees, titmice, and chipping sparrows in a weedy field for our first sightings of the day.
Not long after we arrived at Great Meadows, and quickly headed up the observation tower to survey the marsh– most impressive were the great blue herons and great egrets, joined by fly-by wood ducks, black ducks, and mallards. The trees by the tower held a greenish fall blackpoll warbler, jays, blackbirds, grackles, chickadees, and a nuthatch, while two sparrows on the ground turned out to be different species: a song sparrow and the less common swamp sparrow, giving us a great comparison between the two.
We continued on to the trail into the wetland, stopping along the way for an adorable treetop red squirrel.
The marsh itself was covered in the aquatic American lotus, which is native to the Eastern US, but the populations here are considered to have been introduced. Its odd hole-filled seed pods and big waterproof leaves were the dominant vegetation in the wetland. One enterprising downy woodpecker that had figured out that the lotus pods contained food, and was hammering away at the floating vegetation. I couldn’t find any other records of woodpeckers doing this, and it was fun to watch!
In addition to getting better looks at great blue herons, a great egret, and wood ducks, we spotted a distant belted kingfisher and 2 diving pied-billed grebes, and got good looks at them in the scope.
While on the path we were treated to a close fly-over of 3 accipiter hawks in quick succession– 2 Cooper’s Hawks, and a third that may have been a Sharp-shinned. By the end of the day we had seen at least 7 Cooper’s, and 1-2 Sharpies, all an unexpected bonus in addition to the wetland species.
The cattails and scrub were filled with sparrows, mostly swamp and song, but we did pick up 2 Savannah Sparrows, and, most unusually, a juvenile White-crowned Sparrow. We also had a few interesting insect sightings: a meadowhawk dragonfly that landed on Jeff, and milkweed pods covered in milkweed bug nymphs.
By the time we reached the other side of the wetland, however, our focus had shifted from birds to reptiles and amphibians. It began with an Eastern painted turtle floating serenely in a patch of open water, but soon amphibians stole the show. The path we were on skirted the marsh, with reeds and water on one side and woodland on the other, apparently making it a perfect spot for Northern leopard frogs. The first that we spotted was the first I had ever seen, but it was quickly followed by leopard frogs two through about twenty-five, including some that hopped right into our legs as they dove for cover. We tried to catch one, but despite all of efforts came up empty-handed.
We had much more success capturing our next sighting, a garter snake that Jeff deftly grabbed as it sunbathed by the side of the path. It turned out to be a surprisingly friendly and calm snake, and we all got a chance to hold it before letting it return to its sunny patch of vines.
We looped around and began retracing our steps, finding more leopard frogs and a single larger frog that could have been either a bullfrog or green frog. Our serpentine friend had been joined by another, much smaller garter snake when we found it exactly where we had left it, and we snapped a few more photos but otherwise let it be this time.
Early in the morning it had been chilly, but by then it had warmed up considerably, and the day couldn’t have been better. We spotted another blackpoll warbler, and had great looks at a pair of marsh wrens flitting and clambering through the cattails, before we rounded a bend and left the marsh for the forest.
We flipped over logs, finding slugs but not the hoped-for salamanders. We had better luck on the botanical side: trees in autumnal colors were joined by a variety of ferns and some clubmosses, with their powdery spores that can be released in a white cloud at a touch or in the wind.
Finally we returned to the parking lot, where we tallied species (~38 birds), chowed down on the remaining pumpkin muffins, and headed back to Cambridge. It was a great morning, thank you to Professor Edwards for leading the walk! Hopefully we’ll be back sometime soon!