This is the enchanting season of procreation, when we see mating behavior, brooding, and newly hatched birds beginning brand new lives. We find several pairs of wood ducks in a secluded cove in the Charles river. They perform head-dipping behaviors in the waning light. The male is stunning, with blocks of color delineated by white. He sports an Elvis hairdo, and whips up wings and tail fast, showing off violet feathers underneath to entrance the female, who is brown with a white facial patch. They will procreate here before migrating south in the fall, nesting in tree cavities overlooking the water. A lone osprey, back from winter migration, soars above the cove, fishing. 

Credit: Elsa Lichman

We also see very small bufflehead ducks which will soon go north to breed. The male has a white body and head patch surrounded by iridescent green and purple feathers which can be difficult to spot.

Painted turtles line up on a log in the river, one slightly atop the other, heads alert, appearing to enjoy the warmth of the sun. We are beginning to see various species crossing roads near water, looking for an ideal spot to lay dozens of eggs. This is a time to be more watchful when driving, and to help turtles to cross safely if you see them. I have watched a female painted turtle dig a hole in soft earth with her back legs and proceed to lay egg after egg after egg. Her job is done; she will not see them hatch 72 to 80 days later. The young will seek water on their own.

During this season, we see territorial behavior on the part of many bird species; parents are on red alert for intruders, as they guard their eggs and young. Male mute swans patrol their section of the river, chasing off Canada geese. After the season has passed and the young have fledged, various species may amicably share sparse food resources. I have observed swans and a variety of waterfowl in close proximity in winter, sharing small sections of live water in the otherwise frozen river.

This is the time to see large raptors mobbed by crows and even smaller birds, as the predators try to escape harassment. The small birds are protecting their own nesting territory. At a local cemetery, three large crows go after a lone red tailed hawk, relentlessly, sometimes making contact, evidenced by the hawk’s missing two wing feathers! The display can be extended until the hawk flies off into the distance. These small birds have the advantage of being more agile in flight. Look up, and don’t be surprised if this drama is playing out nearby, it is so common.

Just above rooftops and high tree branches, I am amazed to see two falcons fly erratically, then “stand” on air, not moving. They are the only raptors which have the ability to hover. When they spot prey, they dive down to knock it to the ground. In another maneuver, one falcon has stolen a fish from the dagger-beak of a passing great blue heron, probably taking food to its nest of hungry offspring. Falcons normally feed on birds of various sizes, some quite large. And they are not averse to stealing prey from hawks or other falcons on the wing. 

A black crowned night heron and a great blue heron are spotted at a river walk. The large bird has settled in for the night, roosting on a low branch which overhangs the river. The smaller bird is waiting for dark to begin its night hunt. It sports a black cap and dramatic red eyes, adapted to superior night vision. It displays ‘countershading’ — its breast is white, to hide from the prey’s view, and its black back averts predators from above.

Normally, in daytime, the great blues stand stock still at the water’s edge, waiting patiently for prey to pass by. The only time I have seen them fly has been to make a foray just above the water, seeking out a new fishing location. But now, they are seen regularly, flapping large wings, going in random directions, not just to roost at night. I surmise that this is a busy season for these birds as well, as they visit their nests high in dead trees in swampy areas. 

Once I encountered a juvenile behind a tiny bush at the water’s edge. Despite the proximity of humans moving around and chatting, this bird never wavered in its stance, laser- focused on the task at hand.  

A swan family has four remaining swanlings out of six, now large enough to evade snapping turtle attacks. These offspring are flanked by parents, protected. Canada geese also form strong family bonds, with the males taking part in rearing the young. Four small goslings follow the parents to feed on a hill. One plops down to sleep for a mini-nap, then gets up to carry on feeding with the others! Ducklings in a pond gather to the mother like filaments to a magnet, forming a tight group which helps them evade predators. 

We have had a variety of nests on or around our house. One robin’s nest under an eave on a porch has been active for several years, with parents coming and going with food items almost constantly. In the middle of traffic, an intruder male and our male parent were on the sidewalk, in the midst of a battle to the death. I had always assumed them to be rather sweet birds, but this melee was a traffic stopper, drivers were stunned, and the local male prevailed, protecting his brood, as the intruder flew off.

One year I had a cardinal nest in my tall hedge. The father carried food in, but the female hopped onto a street sign when she saw me, her beak brim full, waiting for a safe moment to make her delivery. This year a pair have built a nest in a bushy forsythia near the back stoop railing, very close to humans coming and going, or sitting on the small porch. I hope they can adapt and stay. I hear the pair calling to one another. Used to the long whistle they sing out, I had thought this was the cardinal call, but I am surprised to find out they have 28 different calls, depending on the occasion! This is quite a repertoire, larger than most humans possess. 

A tree swallow lands on a naked hanging branch just overhead, swinging in the breeze. I find this sighting unusual, as they are most often seen soaring high in the sky, catching insects on the wing.

There have been eagles in the area, but only once have I seen one fly fast above the sky-space over my yard. While out watching our variety of nesting avians, a large adult circles overhead, riding on thermals on black outstretched wings, taking its time, providing me with five minutes of bliss as its gleaming white tail and head catch the sun. 

Join the Conversation


  1. Per usual Elsa never fails to disappoint; I almost feel she should teach aviary, I learn more and more from each column and her vocabulary and descriptions are impeccable. Thank you again for a lovely educational descriptive column.

  2. I can never resist reading about the swans, as that is my maiden name. Elsa’s observation skills are amazing as she paints the motivation behind the actions; the ordinary observer may see various birds and never guess the back story. We are better for learning to see as Elsa sees.

  3. Thank- you Elsa for encouraging me to see more clearly with my heart and mind and your wisdom. So much is happening around me and I am not aware enough
    to really see and understand.

  4. Thank you, Elsa, for your keen eye and well-expressed descriptions to explain what you see.

  5. A lovely column, as usual. You packed a lot into this one. I guess it coincides with the many things that are happening around you. On the side of the highway, there are small ponds. Each pond has a Great Blue Heron. It is fun to try to spot the bird while driving by. As far as the Cardinal goes, we had a nest in bushes on the side of the property every year. I don’t know if it was the same or a different pair. Regardless, they are just beautiful. I didn’t know that they had so many different vocalizations! I learn something from each article you write. Thank you!

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