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Worcester County Wonders: 'Swifties' show up at New England's largest wildlife sanctuary

Worcester County Wonders: Orioles, swifts & warblers keep birders busy


WORCESTER — Pulling into the parking lot at Broad Meadow Brook Conservation Center and Wildlife Sanctuary just before 7 on a Friday morning, a group of "Swifties" can be found eagerly waiting to catch a glimpse of the music maker. No, we're not talking about Miss Taylor Swift but rather an excited group of birders with their sights set on chimney swifts dancing and singing among the trees.


"This morning, I think I heard a scarlet tanager," exclaimed Martha Gach, education manager with Broad Meadow Brook. "That's a good omen!"


A collective "ooooh" reverberated throughout the small crowd, the excitement absolutely contagious.


The small and bright red bird is a rare sight but not totally unheard of at Broad Meadow Brook, but it's the warblers, orioles and swifts that have drawn this crowd. The group has gathered for Mass Audubon's Friday-morning Bird Walk program to take a guided walk through the wildlife sanctuary and "sharpen their birding skills."


Meandering through the clean-cut pathways and stepping lightly on the raised boardwalk, the walk takes you from the concrete of the sanctuary's parking lot, deep into the lush green of the forest.


A massive tree full of noisy birds stands tall just outside the learning center, giving the group ample practice to crane their necks.


"Most likely these birds have just migrated last night," Gach said, arms open to the trees. "They're most likely tired and hungry, very hungry."

A few minutes later Gach spoke up again.


"Hopefully everyone did their yoga before birding today, we wouldn't want to get 'warbler neck,'" she said.


Turns out "warbler neck" is a real issue for some birders. The Audubon Society describes the injury as "the Achilles heel of the sport." The solution is simple: exercise. According to the American Physical Therapists Association, core strength along with proper posture could save birders from the troubling neck pain.


With some 435 acres of land, Broad Meadow Brook is the first and largest urban sanctuary in New England, sitting just three miles from downtown Worcester. Five miles of trails part the woods, all accessible for those with wheelchairs or strollers.


The group slowly made their way away from the warbling tree and deeper down the path into the sanctuary. The buzz of Worcester waking up fades away into the background as visitors are bathed in the sounds of flora and fauna.


"I just can't believe some of these trees," said Deb Cary, community advocacy and engagement manager at Mass Audubon. "They've just gotten so big."


The group laughs, knowing Cary has been walking this path for more than three decades and was instrumental in creating the wildlife sanctuary back in the early 1990s and was there when several of the trees now standing in front of her were mere saplings.


Walking with Cary, she absorbs everything around her and carries her phone with the Merlin Bird ID app open, recording every birdsong with each step. The app listens to the birds around you and identifies their calls in real time. She shouts the names of each bird the app records, while the group swivels their binoculars to spot the species.


Turning the bend, a bright orange glimmer flies by as the group collectively turns and gasps.

"It's a Baltimore oriole," several people shout before bringing heavy binoculars up to their face. Sure enough, a bright speck of orange darts through the trees before stopping briefly at a bird feeder in a nearby residence, visible through the leaves.


A few minutes later, the group stopped in front of a nearby pine tree that buzzed with energy and the flapping of tiny wings. Suddenly the group's attention was stolen by a small hummingbird, flitting back and forth.


"That's how hummingbirds defend their territory," Gach said as a black-and-white warbler came into view.


Aside from the hummingbird and warbler, a number of swifts could be seen hoping from branch to branch. The most common seen along the path is the chimney swift, named after the birds' choice to nest in chimneys. Unfortunately, chimneys have fallen into disuse across most of the United States, ultimately causing a sharp decline in the population.


It's easy to see why these birders have such admiration for the small brown bird. The silhouette is affectionately described as a "flying cigar" and are known for their unique high-pitched chattering call. What's more, the swift rarely stops moving — in fact they're almost always flying except when roosting overnight. If they do find a branch to perch upon, the small bird equipped with long claws simply hops to-and-fro.


Rounding a bend, the group came to a stop, with pointed fingers and whispers of excitement. Suddenly a large male, red-shouldered hawk swooped in with breakfast in his mouth, dropping it off in a nest for his mate and their chicks. A moment later he took off once again, flying off, presumably to find lunch for his hungry family.


All in all, the group caught sight of 40 different species of birds, including Canada geese, wild turkeys, mourning doves, belted kingfishers, several species of woodpeckers and wrens, along with chickadees, cardinals and blue jays.


Aside from the bird walks, Mass Audubon hosts a plethora of events at locations across the state, including educational programs, summer camps, homeschool sessions, nature walks and more. In 2023, Broad Meadow Brook saw some 18,000 visitors.


The organization has just wrapped up its annual Bird-a-thon, the largest fundraising event of the year. During which, a dozen teams compete in a series of birding competitions and raise funds for the organization while learning about Worcester's local feathered friends. While this year's event has finished, you can still donate online.


Thanks to Deborah for her suggestion of Broad Meadow Brook for this edition of Worcester County Wonders.


T&G engagement editor Sarah Barnacle is getting to know Central Mass. by exploring some of the best places to go and things to do in Worcester County. If you have an idea or suggestion, please email sbarnacle@gannett.com.


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