Walking Through the Bird-Watchers Heaven
- David Ginisi
Bald eagles and hawks soaring overhead, forests alive with the songs of colorful warblers, common loons crossing a scenic lake, nesting bluebirds in wildflower meadows – such sights and sounds make bird watching a popular activity in North Central Massachusetts. The region’s many conservation areas host a wide variety of species, offering a wealth of viewing opportunities for experienced and beginner birders alike.
The northern Quabbin Reservoir is a haven for many species, including bald eagles, loons, wood ducks, songbirds, and wild turkeys. Listen for the calls of rare whip-poor-wills on late spring and summer evenings. Access is via numbered gates off Route 122 and Route 32A in Petersham and New Salem. The old road to Dana Common (Gate 40), which passes meadows and a side trail to Pottapaug Pond, is an easy walk with good variety. North Common Meadow, a former pasture near Petersham’s town common, is a great place to observe bobolinks, an uncommon grassland bird with a cheerful bubbly song. Owls, songbirds, and ruffed grouse are among the many forest species that inhabit the adjacent Brooks Woodland Preserve and Rutland Brook Wildfire Sanctuary. Check Connor Pond for flocks of migrating ducks in spring. Entrances to use properties managed by The Trustees of Reservations and Mass Audubon, are on Route 32, Route 122, Quaker Drive and East Street. Once Farmland on the banks of the Millers Rivers in Athol, Cass Meadow is now maintained as open habitat for wildlife. In the northern section off Pequiog Avenue, brushy thicket provides cover for species such as American woodcock, which make distinctive courtship flights on spring evenings. The southern section, which includes a wildflower field and butterfly garden often visited by hummingbirds, is next to the Millers River Environmental Center at 100 Main St., Athol.
Follow the Path:
The North Central Pathway recreational trail passes through wetlands at the headwaters of the Millers River in Winchendon, including Whitney Pond. The paved path, ideal for families and explorers of all abilities, offers the opportunity to see species such as great blue herons, Canada geese, mallard and wood ducks, flycatchers, and yellow warblers. Parking is available at the junction of Route 12 and Glenallen Street. At High Ridge Wildlife Management Area in Gardner, old roads lead to farm fields and beaver wetlands. Many nesting boxes provide homes for bluebirds, tree swallows, and house wrens, and chickadees. The main entrance is on Route 140, 2 miles north of Route 2. Nearby Lake Wampanoag Wildlife Sanctuary, at the end of Raymond Road, features large grassland and beaver pond on an old farm site. With more than 20,000 acres of diverse habitats and a network of woods, roads, and trails, the Ware River watershed offers many viewing opportunities. Hawks, owls, woodcock, and orioles’ frequent grasslands, brushy fields, and old orchards, and the numerous wetlands host a variety of waterfowl and wading birds. Barre Falls Dam Recreation Area, off Route 62 at the Hubbardston-Barre town line, is the main access point from the north.
Look for bluebirds, bobolinks, ravens, and migrating hawks around the fields near the dam. Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary in Princeton is also known for outstanding variety, including old farm pastures, wetlands on South Wachusett Brooks, ponds, and wooded slopes of Brown Hill. You can explore a 13-mile trail network, or watch barn swallows and familiar backyard birds around the fields and headquarters at the end of Goodnough Road.
Through the Watershed:
The Nashua River watershed is one of the region’s birding hotspots. Rare species such as American bitterns, king rails, pie-billed grebes, whip-poor-wills, and grassland birds are regularly seen in the meadows and floodplain at Bolton Flats Wildlife Management Area. At Oxbow National Wildlife Refuge, a 2-mile loop trail offers fine views of the Nashua River and its associated wetlands, including a beaver pond with an observation blind. Entrances are off Route 110 (Still River Road) and Route 117 in Bolton, and Harvard. At the aptly named Rocky Hill Wildlife Sanctuary in Groton, an outcropping offers a unique perspective of a beaver wetland with an active colony of great blue herons. More than 100 species have been recorded at this 420-acre Mass Audubon property, located on Cardinal Lane off Route 225.
– Text and Photos by John Burk