Winter Birds in Cold Spring Park

Cold Spring Park is a large wooded area west of Newton Center and south of Beacon Street. It is a successful, multi-use park, with tennis courts, basketball, soccer and baseball areas, as well as a parking lot and Farmer’s Market. Beyond these areas, in the more wooded part of the park is the Exertrail with posted stations for exercising various groups of muscles.

If you stroll along the Exertrail on a crisp fall day, you will encounter the “fearless five,” five species of birds that are reliably active in the park throughout the winter months. These are the black-capped chickadee, the tufted titmouse, the white-breasted nuthatch, the downy woodpecker and the golden-crowned kinglet. The latter bird is usually more of a treat for people to see closely, as it is a striking but small and flighty bird. Usually you only hear it rather than see it, up high in conifers such as those along the Cochituate Aqueduct. The aqueduct runs along the southernmost boundary of the Park, between Duncklee Street and Plymouth Road. The golden-crowned kinglet’s song is a distinctive three-syllabic call which is sung quickly with a high-pitched sibilant quality.

If you are lucky you will hear and then see them at a waist-high level, close to the Exertrail. Their flashy golden crowns are eye-popping sights in the fall and winter landscape. The male birds have a pretty orange center in the golden crown. Golden-crowned kinglets often travel with roving bands of chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and downy woodpeckers. If you see or hear any of these birds, look and listen for the others.

Another regular resident of Cold Spring Park is the male red-bellied woodpecker. He has a brilliant red crown and nape, has a black and white pattern on his back, and is larger by far than any others of the “fearless five.” His mate migrates south for the winter, while he spends his time surviving and excavating several nesting holes for next spring. He may roost in one on cold nights. When the female red-bellied woodpecker returns in the spring, she will go on an inspection tour, even with the current real estate risks, and select the best tree cavity in which to raise their family. Downy and hairy woodpeckers are also year-round residents of Cold Spring Park. A fourth woodpecker, the northern flicker, is here for the summer, but most of these birds migrate south.

Raptors that spend the winter in Cold Spring Park include large red-tailed hawks, screech owls and great horned owls. These raptors are often mobbed by the smaller birds who are threatened by them. Screech owls, which roost in the holes of trees, can be found by observing angry mobs of the fearless five. Screech owls come in gray and rufous color phases. Hawks and great horned owls are most often mobbed by crows. A hysterical mob of crows usually is going after a great horned owl. Imagine being a crow and having a huge, silent, night-flying predator that can take out your family and that lives in your neighborhood. These owls often roost high up in conifers like those found along the Cochituate aqueduct in Cold Spring Park. Their distinctive hooting at dusk is another way to find them. Their call is usually a six-part hoo, hOO-hOO-hOO, hoo, hoo. They call during December and January during courtship and nest by February, even in the snow. Another way to see these owls and other birds in Cold Spring Park is to go on the Christmas bird count with local birders, including members of The Newton Conservators.

Of course, in other seasons, there are many more birds, wildflowers, butterflies, dragonflies and small animals in Cold Spring Park. It is a magical spot. Take a visit and look around.

Pete Gilmore