Birding at Nahanton Park

No doubt that Newton is a wonderful place for people to live. But as a heavily built up suburb, it is limited to how much suitable habitat is available for birds and other wildlife.

There is one park on Newton where you can see birds that you would otherwise not commonly find in most parts of the city. These include birds of the forest, farm land, and open fields. And though no doubt we all enjoy seeing the bright cardinals, blue jays and house finches at our back yard feeders, it’s always nice to see more variety. When I don’t have time to do a day trip up to Plum Island or drive out to Great Meadows to do some birding, I head over to Nahanton Park. Where else in Newton can you see Eastern bluebirds, tree and barn swallows, bobolinks, vireos, and warblers? This 57-acre parcel boasts waterfront, open meadows, mixed deciduous woods, a small pond, and wetlands, as well as community garden plots and a canoe launch. Because of the diversity of habitat, it supports a great diversity of species. It is a favorite site for the Conservators’ bi-annual bird walks. In May 2008 we held the Mother’s Day bird walk at the park, and we were not disappointed. The group of about twenty people spotted a good variety of species, including an orchard oriole, a pair of blue grey gnatcatchers, at least two pairs of rose breasted grosbeaks, a brown thrasher, and many species of warblers.

A large flock of migrating bobolinks raised a boisterous racket in the trees overhead. These are birds of open meadows and hayfields, of which we have very little in Newton, so seeing them here was a treat. These birds are champion migrants, often traveling more than 12,000 miles round trip from their wintering ground in the vast grasslands of southwestern Brazil and Paraguay and the pampas of Argentina to their breeding grounds in the central and eastern United States and southern Canada. Our birds were just passing through, on their way to the hayfields and open meadows of some of our more rural communities.

The park is also a good place in the fall to spot migrants. The large weedy fields are often hopping with many species of sparrows. On our fall walk in early October we spotted song, swamp white throated, savannah, chipping, and Lincoln sparrows. Most sparrows are considered rather plain birds. Often they are all lumped into the LBJ grouping (little brown jobs). But they really are subtly handsome birds. I think the swamp sparrows are especially beautiful with their rich rufous wings and intricate tapestry of warm stripes on their backs. And since they are primarily a bird of wetlands and swamps, as their name implies, they are another bird that most Newtonites won’t see at their backyard feeders.

Near the group of nest boxes at the park, I spotted five or six bluebirds, most of them juveniles or females with one bright blue male. One of the most beloved of North American birds, the bluebird underwent a dramatic decline in the 1960s and 1970s, as its preferred habitat of forest edges and open fields disappeared with the decline of agriculture. It also faced stiff competition from introduced species like starlings and house sparrows for nest boxes. Pesticide use also likely contributed to its decline. Fortunately bluebirds have made a dramatic comeback with help from enthusiasts who put up nest boxes and monitor them to keep non-native species from nesting in them. Again, this is a species that is hard to find in most parts of Newton, but here in Nahanton Park there are some small areas of suitable habitat still available.

Protecting and preserving our open space is a primary goal of the Newton Conservators. Spending a little time birding in Nahanton Park underscores the importance of this goal, especially in our congested suburbs. The park supports a variety of birdlife that would otherwise pass us by if it were simply another housing sub-division. Every acre of land with a house or other structure is a loss of habitat for many birds and wildlife. It means fewer trees and green space for us all to enjoy.

Alison Leary