December 2015

Vol. 43, No. 6

Birding the Charles River Peninsula, Needham, Massachusetts

Peter W. Oehlkers

Charles River Peninsula is a Trustees of Reservations property in Needham. Surrounded on three sides by the Charles River, it features 20 acres of managed upland grassland ringed by wooded riparian habitat and shrubby marshes. Access to trails and parking is easy except after heavy snowfall.

Charles River Peninsula isn’t the kind of place that attracts many exciting rarities; those are more likely to be found in the parks downstream—Nahanton, Cutler, and Millennium. Its size, configuration, and habitats are ideal for novice birders looking for a dependable spot to find the region’s more charismatic common birds, including Baltimore and Orchard orioles, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Bobolinks, Eastern Bluebirds, and Wood Ducks. There is, nevertheless, plenty to interest the veteran birder, including occasional appearances by Barrow’s Golden-eyes, Rusty Blackbirds, and Mourning Warblers; the presence of breeding Yellow-throated Vireos and possible breeding White-eyed Vireos; and regularly occurring autumn flocks of staging Northern Rough-winged Swallows.

Charles River Peninsula is about seven minutes by car from Interstate 95 (Route 128). Take exit 17 to Route 135 and go west. At the first set of lights in Needham, take a left onto South Street and follow it, keeping a careful eye out for bicyclists, for about two and a half miles until you come to Fisher Street. Take a right on Fisher Street. Shortly, the driveway to the property, marked with a sign for Red Wing Bay, will be on the left.

Red Wing Bay Parking Lot

At Red Wing Bay there is a boat launch managed by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) with an unpaved circular driveway and space for about a dozen cars. For many years, there was a canoe rental boathouse at Red Wing Bay; it burned down in the 1980s. The existing boat launch is rarely used in the early morning but can get crowded later in the day, especially during weekends. After parking, it is worthwhile to spend a moment scanning the immediate area for White-crowned Sparrows, especially in the fall. You can find migrating kinglets in the surrounding shrubs and warblers in the upper branches of bordering willows. Common Grackles, Baltimore Orioles, and Warbling Vireos regularly breed here. During the winter, it is worth looking from the boat launch for passing Hooded and Common mergansers. You’ll often find Mallards and Canada Geese and sometimes Great Blue Herons in Red Wing Bay.

Many of our common year-round resident species frequent the parking area and the paved driveway: Mourning Doves, Blue Jays, Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatches, American Robins, Northern Cardinals, and American Goldfinches.

View of the Charles River from the boat launch. (All photographs by the author.)

Red Wing Bay marks the end of a long, twisted leg of the Charles River stretching from South Natick to Needham. A kayak or canoe is a splendid way of birding the peninsula during the warmer months. A waterfall prevents passage downstream. Below the waterfall there is open water year-round, good for a variety of wintering ducks. During cold spells it is worth a drive along nearby Mill Street in Dover to scan the Charles River for mergansers, golden-eyes, and Ring-necked Ducks.

Path to the Peninsula

In the parking area, The Trustees have a placed a kiosk with a large map of the Charles River Peninsula and some relevant information that you can use to plan your visit. Walk up the paved driveway from the parking lot and descend down a gravel path toward the peninsula. The river will be to your left and a rail trail on a ridge will be to your right. Gray Catbirds and Yellow Warblers breed in the vegetation between the path and the water; their nests are often visible. Crab apple trees along this path are popular with birds of all sorts. You’ll sometimes hear White-eyed Vireos, Field Sparrows, and Blue-winged Warblers along this stretch.

The gateway to the peninsula is a wooden footbridge that crosses a small intermittent stream. You will be at the base of a hill, looking out on a large open field. You should see three paths: to the left, up the hill, and to the right. Take the path to the left and walk the trail clockwise.

Barrow’s Golden-eye on the Charles River.

Charles River Peninsula’s upland grassland has been maintained for agricultural purposes for over a century. It was owned by the Fisher family of Needham during the colonial era, and then was part of the Walker Gordon Dairy before being donated to The Trustees in the 1960s. The dairy’s famous Rotolactor building is still standing, part of the adjacent Walker School property. For the last few years, The Trustees have consciously managed the property as a grassland habitat. They removed a large stand of mature trees in the process, in hope of fostering grassland-dependent species such as Bobolinks, Savannah Sparrows, and Eastern Meadowlarks.

Numbered nesting boxes ring the property and contribute to robust Tree Swallow and Eastern Bluebird populations during the spring and summer. House Sparrow breeding attempts are aggressively managed. During spring and summer, scan the swallows in the air or perched on overhead wires for Barn as well as Tree swallows. In September, Northern Rough-winged Swallows perch in large numbers on the wires at the opposite side of the property.

Wooded River Overlook

Just beyond the first nesting box there is a path to the left through a wooded area. This is a good place to look for warblers during migration periods. Charles River Peninsula, generally, is not a place to expect great fallouts of warblers, but during the year you can see a good variety, including Blackpoll, Black-and-white, Northern Parula, Magnolia, American Redstart, Pine, Palm, Wilson’s, and Nashville.

The path provides high, unobstructed views of the river. Look for ducks and herons, as well as Solitary and Spotted sandpipers. Golden-eyes, including Barrow’s, make appearances during the winter when the water is open. When the river is frozen, you can sometimes see river otters and mink cavorting on the ice.

Back to the Meadow

Exit back onto the grassland path. During migration, you will flush large numbers of Savannah Sparrows as you walk. This section of the field has historically attracted the largest concentration of Bobolinks. Over the past few years, Bobolink pairs have been spotted in this area well into June, but no actual breeding has been observed. The Trustees hope that will change. Eastern Meadowlarks are rare but possible.

Short Woodland Loop

Near nesting box #5 you will see an opening into a wooded area. This is a short loop that passes close to the river and the remains of an old brick structure. The path takes you behind the shrubs and briars that line much of the peninsula and provides good looks at birds that are otherwise hidden. Orchard Orioles, which arrive at the peninsula in mid to late April, will sometimes skulk here. There are usually at least two breeding pairs a year on the property and a great deal of competition for the females that arrive. Human walkers approaching Orchard Oriole nesting areas may receive the rare privilege of getting flutter-flighted, as the male circles eye-level, singing on the wing.

The Charles River Peninsula meadow in May.

Out on the Meadow Again

This section of the trail is close to prime Red-winged Blackbird nesting areas. During the summer, fledglings will hide in the long meadow grass, and parents will anxiously circle interlopers. During the past few years, there has been a particularly aggressive pair of Tree Swallows along this stretch that will dive-bomb you if you linger too long.

This is a major song corridor. Singing Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, plus Orchard and Baltimore orioles are dependable during May, particularly when the crab apples are blossoming. As you near the far end of the peninsula, the volume and variety of song increases. I’ve seen as many as a half-dozen male Baltimore Orioles competing here through song and chases. I’ve heard Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Scarlet Tanagers, Baltimore Orioles, Bobolinks, Gray Catbirds, American Robins, Wood Thrushes, Yellow Warblers, and Common Yellowthroats simultaneously singing here. This is also the best spot for relative rarities, including White-eyed Vireos, Rusty Blackbirds, and shrub-oriented warblers.

Female Baltimore Oriole collecting nesting material.

Woodland Trail

As you turn the corner, you have the choice of entering another woodland path or continuing on the meadow. Take the woodland path. This is a prime courtship and breeding area and because of the relative narrowness of the wooded part, nesting can be quite visible. One spring, I had daily views of a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak as she sat silent and still on her nest. The next year, I was able to watch as a pair of noisy Blue-gray Gnatcatchers built and defended their lichen-edged nest in the crook of a tree. Chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches will be close and abundant most of the year.

In April, Wood Ducks will congregate in large numbers on the river and in tree branches. Fox Sparrows may be singing in the understory. In spring and summer, Great Blue and Green herons may feed in the grassy shallows at water’s edge. The woodland edge, as well as the other narrow wooded areas that border the Charles River and ring the property, attract Northern Flickers and Downy, Hairy, and Red-bellied woodpeckers.

Back Out to the Meadow

After exiting the woodland trail, keep left and follow the path along a dense row of low trees and shrubs where you will find many sparrows and finches, as well Common Yellowthroats and an occasional Willow Flycatcher. At the end of this stretch, near the rail trail, is a relatively grassy area where one can sometimes hear the churr of a Mourning Warbler in late May.

Turn the corner and head toward a row of mature oak trees that extends into the meadow. This is another favored nesting spot and the best place on the property to get close views of Eastern Bluebirds, who seem to be particularly fond of nesting box #16. For a few years, Yellow-throated Vireos nested in these trees. All summer long, one could hear the male vireo airing his raspy monotonous song. Alas, they seem to have moved across the river; you can hear him only from your canoe or kayak these days. Maybe they’ll move back to the peninsula.

Juvenile Eastern Bluebirds on power line structure.

On Top of the Hill

A little way beyond the row of trees, you will have the option of continuing straight along the edge of the property or to the right, up a hill. Go up the hill. Until it was blown down in storm a few years ago, a large shagbark hickory stood on the top of the hill, a favored spot for songbirds—particularly woodpeckers—squirrels, and Red-tailed Hawks. Now the hill offers clear views of the entire property. During April, look for American Kestrels, which are regular visitors and potential breeders. Red-tails, Turkey Vultures, and an occasional Osprey also soar overhead. Descend down the hill and return to the parking lot. Or, return to the loop and try it again, switching directions and walking counter-clockwise for a slightly different perspective.

Additional Notes

Charles River Peninsula is known locally as the Tick Farm. It is important to stay on the paths, to take whatever precautions to avoid ticks that work for you, and to be vigilant about deer tick checks after your visit.

In order to improve the quality of the hay harvested from the meadow and the habitat for grassland wildlife, The Trustees have begun an aggressive program to control invasive plants. The milkweed and goldenrod that usually grew throughout the fields and hosted a large variety of interesting insects are gone, at least temporarily, but the hope is that the program will control the cypress spurge and black swallow-wort that had begun to take over large sections of the grassland.

Trustees Site: river-peninsula.html

Peter W. Oehlkers is chair of the Communications Department at Salem State University and vice chair of Needham’s Conservation Commission. He manages nesting boxes and monitors grassland birds for the Trustees of Reservations at Charles River Peninsula and other properties. Peter is the Production Editor of Bird Observer.

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