Bear Creek Wildlife Sanctuary

370 acres of created habitats located in the heart of the Rumney Marshes ACEC.  Actively 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.
Winter is Here and the Birding is Fantastic
The mild winter season is allowing for incredible views of rare winter visitors
This year's unseasonably mild weather has caused many of the grassland birds to stick around rather than migrating further south.  This includes some very rare birds for Eastern Massachusetts. Wide open views of these stunning migrants lingering in the grasslands has put the Sanctuary on the eBird Rare Bird Alert List for 13 weeks in a row.

Trip Report for February 19th, 2017

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

Feb 19, 2017 8:48 AM - 12:58 PM

Protocol: Traveling

3.5 mile(s)

36 bird species

Brant  12

Canada Goose  205

American Black Duck  60

Mallard  6

White-winged Scoter  8

Bufflehead  40

Common Goldeneye  2

Red-breasted Merganser  12

Wild Turkey  5

Northern Harrier  2

Cooper's Hawk  1

Bald Eagle  1

Red-tailed Hawk  3

Rough-legged Hawk  1     Dark-morph

Ring-billed Gull  3

Herring Gull  275

Iceland Gull  1

Great Black-backed Gull  20

Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)  10

Mourning Dove  20

Short-eared Owl  4

Downy Woodpecker  1

American Kestrel  3

Peregrine Falcon  2

Blue Jay  2

American Crow  2

Horned Lark  150     Large flock seen by many.

Black-capped Chickadee  4

European Starling  350

American Pipit  1

American Tree Sparrow  20

White-throated Sparrow  1

Song Sparrow  2

Northern Cardinal  1

Red-winged Blackbird  20

House Sparrow  15

Bird of the Week

Bird of the week this week was the Dark Morph Rough-legged Hawk spotted by Matthew while it was kiting over Bear Creek.

This seems to be a pattern with Matthew and his two birds of a feather, Isabella and BB, as the trio spotted the first Upland Sandpipers last spring as well.

Runner-up this week goes to Sebastian, who as usual, virtually pulled an American Pipit out of thin air in one of the short duration grassland passerine forage plots.
Scanning Through the Grasslands
On Sunday, December 4th 2016, a visiting predator was spotted swooping low through the grasslands at the Bear Creek Wildlife Sanctuary.  This predator from points unknown is a regular winter visitor to the grasslands at the Sanctuary, and because the weather has continued to be mild, he and his friends have remained ever since.

It is an owl with unusual hunting skills.  The Short-eared Owl, Asio flammeus, is an owl that hunts on the wing, flying low across open country in search of small mammals and birds.  But even more unusual than how this owl hunts, is that it is a diurnal owl that hunts in broad daylight.

Since early December, between 2-5 Short-eared Owls, or Shorties as they are more affectionately known as, can be observed hunting in the managed grasslands at the Sanctuary.  According to the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife Fact Sheet, despite having a worldwide distribution, Shorties in Eastern Massachusetts are as rare as the open habitats they prefer.  Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and Vermont are the only states in the Northeast that maintain breeding pairs of Short-eared Owls.  According to the Natural Heritage Database from 1983-present, out of the four states, Massachusetts maintains the largest breeding population with 20-25 breeding pairs located in four regions on the Cape and Islands.  It also states that the greatest threat to this species is loss of habitat because the large, open, undisturbed areas of the state are under enormous threats for development.

Mass.Wildlife Fact Sheet

Based on the regular observations of the Short-eared Owls at the Sanctuary from 2015- present, our visiting Shorties seem to prefer roosting in the second year rotation grassland habitats or in locations that appear similar in character.  The Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Breeding Bird Atlas 1 Species Account describes Short-eared Owls as an open country species that winters in coastal regions of the state and often forms communal roosts on the ground.  This is remarkably similar to what we have observed at Bear Creek.   Typically when encountered at the Sanctuary, two or three owls will pop out of the grassland within a few hundred square feet of each other.   Once up and active, the owls continue to hunt across the entire grassland for an extended period of time.  Even more interesting is that often times, perhaps 30% or more, the excitement of the owls taking flight flushes 1-3 Eastern Meadowlarks, Sturnella magna, from the same area.  This seemingly coincidental association between the two species is just a little too common to ignore.  The MAS Breeding Bird Atlas 1 data collected from 1975-1979 indicates that Short-eared Owls can be found in only 1.3% of the state.  The MAS Breeding Bird Atlas 2 indicates that the Massachusetts population has continued to decline significantly.



Having a large and active population of Short-eared Owls at the Sanctuary this season has been a real treat.  According to Cornell University, the worldwide population of Short-eared Owls has remained stable for the last 50 years.  Partners in Flight estimates that of the global breeding population of 3 million, approximately 14% spend a portion of their time within the United States.  The Cornell website also agrees with Mass Wildlife’s findings that habitat loss appears to be the major cause for population declines.  “Short-eared Owls require large uninterrupted tracts of open grasslands, and appear to be particularly sensitive to habitat loss and fragmentation.” The site goes on to make note that grassland restoration efforts, similar to the ongoing grassland restoration efforts at the Bear Creek Wildlife Sanctuary, have shown some success in restoring suitable habitats for Short-eared Owls on private lands.

Cornell University All About Birds

Special thanks to the Mass Wildlife Natural Heritage Program, the Massachusetts Audubon Society, and to Cornell University 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.
Thank You
Special thanks to Soheil, Alan, Ted, Norm, Tim, and everyone else who submitted pictures and support.  Without your help, this publication could not be produced.

Additional pictures from this week's walk.
The next scheduled nature walk is on Sunday, February 26th at 9:00 am. Please email or click  here to be added to our Nature Walk Announcement List.