Farnham-Connolly Memorial Park is located in the town of Canton, Massachusetts, and opened to the public in July 2014. At the former site of the Canton Airport, the 338-acre park is part of the much larger Neponset River Reservation managed by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR).
The park is named for Lieutenant Arthur E. Farnham and Sergeant Thomas M. Connolly. Both men worked at the Canton Airport, where they became friends while employed as aircraft mechanics. Subsequently, Farnham and Connolly served in World War II, were shot down over Serbia, and eventually airlifted to a safe location after participating in a historic mission together.
The Canton Airport opened in 1931, but closed in 1954 due to flooding and maintenance issues. The airport was situated in the flood plain for the Neponset River and the area is still prone to occasional flooding today. The Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) acquired the land in 1996 and after years of construction, restoration, and mitigation activities, the park appeared on the landscape as a new birding site.
The park has few trails, but all of them provide access to a variety of natural communities including alluvial red maple swamp, mixed oak forest, shallow emergent marsh, and shrub swamp. White pine, quaking aspen, and gray birch are commonly encountered on the trails in the upland portions of the park; red maple, silky dogwood, highbush blueberry, and speckled alder are found in the wetland areas.
In late summer and early fall, some of the trails contain ragweed, smartweed, and foxtail grasses. The weedy conditions attract migrant sparrows and other species that prefer seeds as a food source during migration.
Historically, Least Bitterns were found nesting in the Neponset River Reservation. Although the last breeding record is from 1990, this species could still be present—but as yet undetected—in the cattail marshes found within the park.
While the park can produce interesting bird sightings in all seasons, the focus of this article is the spring and fall migration periods. Because the park is bordered to the west, north, and east by developed sections of the towns of Norwood and Canton, the area has the concentrating effect of a migrant trap. Furthermore, the nearby Neponset River, with its conspicuous north and south orientation, may be a guiding topographical feature utilized by spring and fall migrants.
Fig. 1. Great Lawn. Photograph by Marsha Salett
Please note that the Norwood Airport has air traffic that passes directly over the park. It is best to bird the park before 10:00 am when fewer planes are flying overhead and likely to interfere with the detection of chip notes and other avian vocalizations. Traffic from Interstate 95 (I–95) can also be a source of noise pollution, so an early morning visit is strongly recommended. Be prepared to spend two to three hours at the park during the spring and fall migrations. Most of the trails can be covered thoroughly in just a few hours. Farnham-Connolly Memorial Park is located close to I–95 and is convenient to access for anyone with a desire for pre-work birding or a respite from commuter traffic.
How to Get to Farnham-Connolly Memorial Park
Take I–95 south from the junction of Interstates 95 and 93 for about three miles to Exit 11A-Neponset Street toward Canton. If you are coming from southeastern Massachusetts or Rhode Island on I–95 north, you will also take Exit 11A, but be aware that there is no Exit 10 driving northbound. Travel east on Neponset Street for 0.2 miles and then take a left into the parking area. The traffic on Neponset Street can be challenging during the morning commute, so please exercise caution when entering or exiting the park.
The Great Lawn and Constructed Wetlands Area
The best place to start birding the park is the trail that borders the area that the park signage denotes as the “great lawn,” situated directly north of the parking lot (Figure 1). To access the trail, walk to the northwest corner of the parking lot and take a right. The trail parallels the northern border of the parking lot and leads to several observation platforms overlooking the constructed marshes.
Fig. 2. Constructed wetland attracts Tree and Barn swallows. Photograph by Marsha Salett.
During the fall migration, check the weeds and shrubs growing at the edge of the trail for Eastern Phoebes, Eastern Bluebirds, Palm and Nashville warblers, and Song and Chipping sparrows. Listen for Swamp Sparrows chipping from the cattails nearby and Common Ravens uttering their guttural croaks in the distance. Continue on the trail as it loops around the grassy knoll that affords a decent view of the constructed marsh below (Figure 2). This area has been a productive spot for watching migrating raptors such as Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned hawks. In late September and early October, the manicured areas may host good numbers of Savannah Sparrows. Be sure to listen for Bobolinks flying over this area during the morning flight. Follow the paved path as it loops back toward the parking area and connects with the unpaved main trail.
Directly across the trail is an area bordered by a stone wall and identified on park signage as the “ceremonial lawn.” It is worth exploring this area in the fall since there are usually foxtail grasses and other weeds growing around the perimeter of the walls. Check for sparrows in the weeds, but be sure to take a look at the deciduous trees growing just to the west of this location since the crowns are illuminated shortly after sunrise. These trees are a good place to look for Northern Flickers, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and Blue-headed and Warbling vireos after the passage of a cold front. Being at this spot at first light may provide the opportunity to witness American Robins exiting a roost site somewhere in the southwest corner of the park.
Gray Catbird. Photograph by Evan Lipton.
After birding the ceremonial lawn area, return to the main trail and continue north and beyond the great lawn area on the right. In the fall, Chipping and Song sparrows are typically encountered in this area; a Dickcissel made an appearance here in 2015. In addition, the weedy edges on the north side of the great lawn can be a good place to look for migrant sparrows. Vesper Sparrows are possible in spring and fall and the species has been observed at the park as recently as 2016. Continue north on the main trail and look for Tree Swallow nest boxes on either side of the path. Several pairs of Tree Swallows nest here and can be observed investigating the nest boxes in early April. The cattail marsh and wet areas in the vicinity are a good place to look for Spotted and Solitary sandpipers in early May. It is likely that at least one pair of Spotted Sandpipers breeds in this area, so a careful scan of the open areas between the trail and the marsh is definitely warranted. Other noteworthy species that may be observed here in spring include Barn Swallows, Blue-winged Warblers, Field Sparrows, and Purple Finches.
Neponset River Trails
About twenty yards north of the great lawn area, look for a trail on the left just before a stand of quaking aspen trees. Follow this trail west from the main park trail toward the Neponset River. The trail is not long and ends at the river, but a stroll along this route during the spring migration may yield sightings of Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Warbling Vireos, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and a variety of warblers. Rusty Blackbirds may be observed in this location from late March through early April. After reaching the end of the trail at the banks of the Neponset River, retrace your steps until you reach a fork in the trail. Taking either trail at the fork will lead back to the main trail and may produce sightings of Carolina and House wrens, Hairy Woodpeckers, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Gray Catbirds, Cedar Waxwings, Black-and-white and Yellow-rumped warblers, and American Goldfinches in the spring and fall seasons.
The Marsh Trail
Returning to the main trail, walk north and look for the large circular cement structure on the left. Directly ahead is the marsh trail, approximately one mile long, on what appears to be a former railroad bed. The trail is straight and, in several places, has breaks in the trees that afford great views of the large cattail marsh to the east. Continue north on this trail and look for Dark-eyed Juncos and White-throated Sparrows in the fall. Connecticut Warblers were observed along the first half-mile of the trail in September 2016. The rank weeds growing below the red maples and speckled alders lining the trail are perfect for this elusive species and certainly warrant a close look in mid to late September. Listening for the distinctive dry chimp call is usually key for detecting the presence of this large, but secretive, warbler.
While walking north on the trail, look for the openings in the vegetation for views of the marsh. The habitat here looks good for a variety of marsh birds, so be sure to spend some time scanning the wetlands whenever there is an unobstructed view. The sparsely vegetated areas along the trail can also be good for migrants like House Wrens, Eastern Phoebes, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Northern Waterthrushes, and Savannah Sparrows during the spring and fall migrations. Swamp Sparrows abound in the marsh in these seasons, but are more frequently heard than seen.
House Wren. Photograph by Evan Lipton.
The Red Maple Swamp Trail
The main trail ends at Interstate 95, but there is an approximately quarter-mile trail to the right that traverses red maple swamp habitat. The trail ends at a fence with a warning about the presence of commuter rail tracks just beyond it. Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Northern Waterthrushes, and Black-and-white Warblers may be present along this trail and at the entrance to the swamp. This area is not as productive in the fall, but Carolina Wrens and migrating White-throated Sparrows may be found in the dense understory.
Birding the Park in Other Seasons
Farnham-Connolly Memorial Park has a variety of species that are likely breeders and can be found in the summer months. Green Herons, Willow Flycatchers, Eastern Kingbirds, Black-billed Cuckoos, and Indigo Buntings all have been observed in the months of June and July. In late summer, presumed family groups of Song Sparrows congregate in the weedy areas surrounding the great lawn area. This area may also produce postbreeding dispersed species that have not been observed elsewhere in the park as migrants or breeders, so anyone with a penchant for patch birding may add a few new species to the growing tally.
Because the park has only been open to the public since 2014, there is ample room for ornithological exploration and discovery at a site that is less than a 45-minute drive (on a good day) from the metro Boston area. As mentioned earlier, the park is a great place to go birding if one has limited time or needs a break from the hectic pace of Interstate 95.
To learn more about the park, please visit the following site, which served as a primary source for this article: http://www.mass.gov/eea/docs/dcr/stewardship/rmp/bh/section-5-neponset-river-reservation.pdf
Jim Sweeney has been birding since 1980. He is the compiler for the Taunton/Middleboro CBC, a past vice president of the South Shore Bird Club, a member of Bird Observer’s Board of Directors, and a trip leader for various conservation organizations in Massachusetts. In addition to birding, he has a passion for dragonflies and damselflies, collecting rare natural history books, and exploring the natural history of local patches.