For the first ten days of February 2016, the attention of the Massachusetts birding community focused on a bend in the Connecticut River in Franklin County. James Smith had photographed a gull there that turned out to be the state’s best prospect so far for a documented Yellow-legged Gull—pending consideration by the Massachusetts Avian Records Committee (MARC). Hundreds of birders crowded both sides of the river, Gill to the east and Turners Falls (a village in Montague) to the west, scanning the resident roosting gull flock for this oddball. It was a level of interest that the county rarely receives from birders.
Franklin County is perhaps the least-birded county in Massachusetts, with fewer eBird checklists submitted than any other except for the two island counties. Its habitat is relatively monotonous, mostly forest with a few scattered pockets of grassland or wetland. Less densely populated than most of the state, farthest from any coast, it rarely hosts the sort of species that attract listers from the rest of the state. But it has had a few rarities: Great Gray Owl in Gill (1973), Brambling in Montague (2000), Cassin’s Kingbird in Whately (2002), Varied Thrush in New Salem (2005), and Henslow’s Sparrow in Montague (2009).
Within the county, Gill, Turners Falls, and Montague are usually the main hotbeds of birding activity. The main attraction here is the Connecticut River, including a series of bays and a canal, which draw in a variety of water-associated bird species impressive for a location so far inland. Rare waterbirds often hop from one local spot to another, disappearing from their initial location to be refound nearby. The area’s list includes Barnacle Goose (2003), Whimbrel (2006), Tundra Swan (2007), Little Gull (2008), and Slaty-backed Gull (2009). Iceland, Glaucous, and Lesser Black-backed gulls are an almost annual occurrence, as are Cackling Geese and Barrow’s Goldeneye. Bald Eagles have at least two active nests in the immediate area and are seen daily year-round, often flying over the outdoor tables of various restaurants (including the Wagon Wheel and Ken’s Roadside Diner on Route 2 in Gill, and the 2nd Street Bakery on 4th Street in Turners Falls; the author eats regularly at all three).
Summer is the slowest season for birding this area. Winter is reliably fun. When the water freezes, birders may have to hunt around for the remaining patches of open water, but those patches are all the more entertaining because the remaining waterbirds are concentrated. Migration, of course, can be a jackpot when one’s timing is right. In addition to waterbirds, flocks of hundreds of swallows that may include five or more species often swirl over the water, skimming for aquatic insects when the air is too cool for many bugs to fly.
Bald Eagles. All photographs by the author.
That bend in the river where James Smith found the peculiar gull with yellow legs is one of the gems of Franklin County birding—Barton Cove (http://ebird.org/ebird/hotspot/L673714). A large dam on the river, directly under the Turners Falls-Gill bridge, forms a wide, shallow expanse of water. Thirty-four species of ducks, geese, and swans have been documented here, including a rare inland record of Common Eider in 1986. When ice spreads across the cove in the winter, flocks of gulls congregate to roost on the ice every evening; the yellow-legged bird appeared in such a flock. The depth of the water fluctuates wildly and unpredictably based on the operation of the dams downstream. When the water is down, extensive mud flats are exposed and at the right times of year can attract shorebirds. During migration, especially just after a cold front, species such as Laughing Gull, Franklin’s Gull, Black-legged Kittiwake, Arctic Tern, Red-throated Loon, and Red-necked Phalarope, and flocks of Red-necked Grebes and all three scoters may fall out on the cove. The county’s best-known Bald Eagle nest is located here. Merlins frequently lurk in the vicinity and Peregrine Falcons often perch on old factory smokestacks within sight of the bridge.
You can view the cove from several vantage points. Perhaps the most popular is Unity Park. From Avenue A—the main road through downtown Turners Falls, and the one that runs across the bridge to Gill—turn southeast onto 1st Street and follow it along the water to a large gravel parking area at the water’s edge. A paved parking lot lies on the opposite side of the road for anyone who doesn’t want to brave the ample potholes in the gravel. This is the only access point on the Turners Falls side. It has the most parking spaces, a paved walking trail, and the most panoramic view of the largest area of the cove. However, you will need a spotting scope because many of the birds are at a considerable distance.
For a closer approach to birds across the river, drive over the bridge into Gill, turn right (east) onto Route 2 (aka the Mohawk Trail), and almost immediately turn right again onto Riverview Drive. It is a narrow street in a residential neighborhood with no real parking, so is unsuitable for convoys of vehicles or large crowds chasing a rarity.
Return to Route 2 and continue east; look for the public boat ramp on the right. When Barton Cove freezes over in winter, the last remaining patch of open water is usually near this ramp, often attracting impressive aggregations of diving ducks including the occasional Redhead or Canvasback. This is also the best spot to view the local eagle nest, especially in spring before the trees leaf out. Birders can drive up to the ramp at the water’s edge during the boating season; when the gate closes during the colder months, park just outside the gate and walk in.
A bit farther east on Route 2, also on the right, is the Barton Cove Campground, the southernmost vantage point on the cove. It adjoins a bay that often harbors rafts of waterfowl not easily visible from the rest of the cove, sometimes triple-digit totals of Ring-necked Duck or Hooded Merganser. The campground is on a rocky peninsula jutting into the cove. The peninsula is mostly covered by mature forest, which makes it the best spot on the cove to hear singing warblers, vireos, and flycatchers, and rarely a Saw-whet Owl. The area is open for camping from Memorial Day through Labor Day, but you can visit for hiking and birding (and using the Porta-Potty) year-round.
Return to the bridge and cross back into Turners Falls, this time following 1st Street past Unity Park and uphill to where it merges into Millers Falls Road. Keep going and look for a small sign on the left pointing down Norman Circle to the Turners Falls Rod & Gun Club. The top of the club’s driveway descends from the back corner of the circle, and is labeled on maps as Deep Hole Road. This is a private club, but they allow birders to visit so long as we are quiet, respectful, and unobtrusive. If you visit this spot, please be extremely careful not to disturb any club members or get in the way of their activities, or else they may cease allowing us to visit.
Deep Hole Road is very steep; don’t attempt to drive down if any ice or snow is on the road, as you may find it impossible to drive back up again until it melts! The last house before this descent often has well-stocked and popular bird feeders that have attracted Purple Finch or Pine Siskin in some winters. The road descends through deeply wooded slopes that are excellent for hearing Neotropical migrants singing in spring and summer. The lawn below the club and shrubs along the water’s edge usually harbor sparrows and other passerines. Some of the friendlier club members will chat with birders about the Red-headed Woodpecker that visited in 2003. Deep Hole, the bay beside the club, attracts many of the same waterbirds and seabirds that are seen at Barton Cove, sometimes leading birders on chases from one to the other and back. A shallow mud bar across the bay from the club features a small cattail marsh that occasionally draws in a Northern Harrier. When low water levels expose the mud around this marsh, it can be one of the best shorebird spots in the county.
Return to Turners Falls, taking a left on Avenue A and following it out of the downtown area (where its name changes to Montague City Road). Turn right on 11th Street, and cross a bridge over the Turners Falls Power Canal. This is home to the county’s most reliably impressive wildlife spectacle as well as its longest species list. Adjacent to a power station, the water is warmer here than in the river, so it remains open long after Barton Cove and the Rod & Gun Club bay have frozen over. Few birds are present in the morning, as they spread out to forage on nearby rivers, fields, and ponds, but numbers build throughout the winter day. By sunset the canal is swarming with waterfowl, with ducks continuing to fly in well after the light is too dim to identify them. By dark the accumulated mass often includes triple-digit totals of Common Goldeneye, Common Merganser, and Mallard; four-digit numbers of Canada Geese; and smaller numbers of several other species. Large gull flocks will spend the night here at times, especially if the local Bald Eagles have flushed them off Barton Cove. If a birder really needed to see a Barrow’s Goldeneye in Massachusetts, being here at sunset in the winter might be one of the safest bets, as the species is found annually among the rafts of Commons. A Pink-footed Goose appeared here for a few days in 2011, and two Ross’s Geese that were found nearby—in a farm field in Gill (2004) and at Barton Cove (2014)—were relocated at the canal days after their initial detection.
While the canal is best known for its waterbirds, birders can find much more here. The power company drains the canal almost completely for maintenance for a few days every autumn, exposing extensive mud that often brings in a few shorebirds. The narrow strip of forest between it and the river can be excellent on the right day for Neotropical migrant passerines in mixed-species flocks. The power line cuts and other open spots often provide habitat for a variety of sparrows, even one record of Nelson’s. The canal’s species list includes 23 warblers and 13 sparrows.
You can view the canal from either side. The west side is more popular with birders. From the 11th St bridge, turn left onto G Street, which continues to a gate where the street’s name amusingly changes to Migratory Way and leads to a federal aquatic biology research facility. When the gate is open, you can bird the canal from here without leaving the car, an appealing option in poor weather or for less mobile birders. Even when the gate is closed, the walk down to the widest part of the canal (where most waterbirds accumulate) takes only a few minutes. There is a small parking lot just outside the gate, and birders who walk nearly always see or hear species that the car-bound birders miss, occasionally including Eastern Screech-owl.
The Canalside Rail Trail runs along the east side of the canal. The easiest access is by returning to Montague City Road, turning right, and taking another right turn on Depot Street. Park in one of the few spaces under the power lines. A paved path beyond a gate leads up to the rail trail; occasionally another parallel path is cut into the dense brush beneath the power lines. Birding is often significantly better from this side, especially in the morning when the light on birds in the canal is much more favorable.
For some reason, rarities such as Eurasian Wigeon or Greater White-fronted Goose seem to favor this side. The more open habitat along the east side of the Rail Trail harbors bird species that do not occur on the forested west side. If the path under the power line cut is not too overgrown, it can be productive for landbirds and leads to a nice-looking little marsh.
South of the canal, just across the town line into Montague, another stretch of the Canalside Rail Trail leads to another excellent birding spot where it crosses the Connecticut River on a historic former railroad bridge. From the power canal, take Montague City Road south. Before this road crosses the river, turn left onto Greenfield Road, then immediately turn right onto Poplar Street. Poplar dead-ends in a gravel patch often used by fishermen to access the river. Be wary of mud and ice anywhere off the paved road. When winter gets so cold that even the Power Canal as well as Barton Cove freezes, this is still the one place in town where the water might be open and harboring waterfowl. Even during milder parts of the winter, many of the mergansers and goldeneye—including Barrow’s—that overnight on the canal feed along this stretch of the river during the day. Views are often from a greater distance than at the canal (a scope is essential) but the Barrow’s can be seen in much better light from the Rail Trail bridge since the goldeneyes usually move from here to the canal at dusk. In the late spring and summer, you can see hen Common Mergansers escorting rafts of their fluffy chicks. Bald Eagles and Peregrine Falcons are often seen from the bridge as well. The woods along the river are productive for woodpeckers all year and Neotropical migrant landbirds in spring and fall. On just the right day at the end of the winter when the ice breaks up, this bridge offers a view of the spectacle of large floes washing downstream, cracking apart, and dramatically crashing into each other.
If time allows, you should visit three nearby birding spots that are away from the water. One is downtown Turners Falls itself. Though densely developed, several of the streets are lined with crab apple trees. These trees regularly bring in flocks of frugivorous birds in late winter and early spring, normally Cedar Waxwings, American Robins, and European Starlings, but also the more rare irruptive northern species. In 2008 and 2012, flocks of Pine Grosbeaks were present along these urban streets. Bohemian Waxwings were found here in six out of eight years between 2004 and 2011. Avenue A and 3rd Street are often the most productive, but L Street and others have trees worth checking as well.
On Millers Falls Road, just east of the turnoff for the Rod & Gun Club, is the Turners Falls Airport. This little-used facility is one of the largest expanses of grass in the area. During the breeding season, it is home to Grasshopper Sparrows, and you may observe more of these sparrows here than anywhere else in Franklin County. The species is often easiest to hear and see from West Mineral Road, which is off Millers Falls Road just outside the airport fence to the east. In the late fall and winter, occasional flocks of Horned Larks or American Pipits may stop here, sometimes with a Snow Bunting or Lapland Longspur mixed in. Rarely, a Northern Shrike or Rough-legged Hawk has shown up.
Just past the airport, Lake Pleasant Road runs south from Millers Falls Road into one of the state’s real natural gems: the Montague Plains. Most of the unusual species here are not birds: rare insects, reptiles, and at least one federally endangered plant live in this Wildlife Management Area. However, birds typical of pine barren habitat are common breeders here: Pine Warbler, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Field Sparrow, Brown Thrasher, Hermit Thrush, and more. Ornithologists from University of Massachusetts have studied the Prairie Warbler population here for years. Ring-necked Pheasants show up regularly, undoubtedly the product of stocking for hunters. Red Crossbills can be found when the pine cone crops are good, and might stick around to breed on occasion. A male Hooded Warbler lingered here into July one year, sparking similar rumors of breeding.
Joshua Rose grew up in Essex County and started tagging along after Barbara Drummond and the Brookline Bird Club when he was in fifth grade. His first job was a wildlife research internship for Massachusetts Audubon in 1990 while he was in college. Since then, he has worked for Manomet, the Point Reyes Bird Observatory (now Point Blue Conservation Science), Whitefish Point Bird Observatory, and most recently at the World Birding Center. He earned a Master’s degree from the University of Texas at Arlington studying giant water bugs, and a Ph.D. from Duke University studying dragonflies. In 2009, he moved back to Massachusetts and has been living in Amherst with his wife, children, and assorted pets, serving as a board member of the Hampshire Bird Club, writing articles for the Hitchcock Center for the Environment, and volunteering for the Kestrel Trust and other local groups.