A GUIDE TO BIRD WATCHING IN
W
ILLIAMSTOWN MASSACHUSETTS

Written by Ted Floyd





This guide to birding in Williamstown is designed for students (and others) who do not own or use a car or bicycle. I will describe a walking tour that can either be done in its entirety (6 miles) or in smaller bits and pieces. Please note that all directions and birding information are based on my experiences during the year that I lived in Williamstown (1995-1996). A good local contact person is Ms. Leslie Reed-Evans, who is the executive director of the Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation. She is a very good birder, and she would welcome inquiries from people who are interested in learning more about birding in the Williamstown area. She is also the president of the Northern Berkshires Audubon Society. Her email address is wrlf_lre@msn.com.

Here is a list of the 181 species of birds that I saw in Williamstown during the year that I lived there.

 


The Williams College campus serves as the hub for a relatively easy and varied birding hike that takes you through a diversity of very good birding habitats. The whole tour can be done in a few hours, but I usually required at least 6-8 hours when the birding was good. There are no eateries along the way, so bring water and a snack.

Start on campus and walk north on Stetson Road, toward the athletic fields. Several hundred yards past the intersection of Stetson Road and Lynde Lane, you will come upon EPH'S POND on your right. This spot can be superb and should be thoroughly studied. The pond is ringed with cattails (in season) but there are several breaks where you can peer through to look at birds.

Even in the dead of winter, I found that Eph's Pond was very exciting. I saw large flocks of Bohemian Waxwings in the buckthorns and sycamores that surround the pond. One morning I saw more than 550 of these very rare and elegant birds, eating snow from the branches, gleaning berries from the buckthorns, and making quite a racket all the while. During winter thaws, beautiful Common Mergansers rest on the middle of the pond, while a Great Blue Heron may be prowling about the pond's edges. Eastern Bluebirds sometimes are present in the tangles that surround the pond.

Spring is exciting at Eph's Pond. By the end of March, Tree Swallows are hawking for insects over the pond's surface, and Rusty Blackbirds are skulking about in the surrounding vegetation. A respectable scattering of waterfowl drops in during early spring, including strikingly patterned Wood Ducks, Blue-winged and Green-winged Teals, Buffleheads, and Hooded Mergansers. Things really pick up in April, and birds like Osprey, Palm Warbler, and Savannah Sparrow are common at this time. And by mid-May, the birder can hardly keep up with the hordes of migrants that pause at Eph's Pond. Warblers are the most conspicuous of the May migrants at the pond, but just about anything is possible.

The warmer months can be excellent at Eph's Pond, too. In August and September, the pond's summer resident herons (Great Blue and Green) are joined by post-breeding wanderers from the coast. During late August and early September, I saw all of the following heron species at Eph's Pond: Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, Black-crowned Night-Heron, and American Bittern. Meanwhile, a decent scattering of shorebirds descended upon Eph's Pond in August and September, including Semipalmated Plover, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Greater Yellowlegs, and Lesser Yellowlegs.

After you have birded at Eph's Pond, go across Cole Field and check out the narrow strip of floodplain woodland that parallels the Hoosic River.



Located directly across (i.e, north of) Cole Field from Eph's Pond is the HOOSIC RIVER, which I found to be especially good in winter and spring. On winter nights I was sometimes successful in calling in Eastern Screech-Owls, which are rare birds in the Berkshires. By imitating their "songs" (easily reproduced with whistling), I was able to call the birds to within 10-20 feet, and to study them closely. They are fascinating birds, and the promise of finding one is well worth a tromp through the deep snow on a stone-cold winter evening. Even if you don't find a screech-owl, you are likely to hear -- and maybe to glimpse -- a Great Horned Owl. They are especially vocal on still winter nights in the dead of winter. Once I even found the rare and elusive Long-eared Owl, hunting right at dusk on a snowy evening.

By mid-March, another fascinating nocturnal bird, the American Woodcock had appeared on the Hoosic River scene. Male woodcocks would gather in floodplain clearings, from which they would deliver their bizarre and spectacular mating displays. You should start to look -- and listen -- for these birds right around dusk. They were most conspicuous in late March and early April.

The Hoosic River was excellent for warblers in April and May. Northern Parulas sang from the budding treetops, and Northern Waterthrushes foraged on the floodplain understory. Meanwhile, a colorful assembly of Chestnut-sided, Black-throated Green, Black-throated Blue, Blackburnian, and Magnolia Warblers (to name just a few) paraded through the midstory.

When you have finished birding the south bank of the Hoosic River, proceed east across the playing fields, back toward Stetson Road, and then to its terminus at Cole Avenue. Don't neglect the birds right on the playing fields! I have had Horned Larks and Lapland Longspurs here, and flocks of gulls sometimes gather in large numbers. Turn left onto Cole Avenue, and cross the bridge over the Hoosic River. And don't forget to look for birds on the water! -- I once saw a beautiful alternate plumage Red-necked Grebe swimming and diving just below the bridge. Also, if you're doing a "Big Day", the Cole Avenue bridge is a great place to get more mundane stuff, namely, Rock Dove, European Starling, and House Sparrow. These three can be relatively difficult to find, believe it or not, along the Hoosic River and at other Williamstown birding locations.



As soon as you come off the Cole Avenue Bridge (heading north, i.e., away from campus) over the Hoosic River, proceed left (west) onto the railroad tracks. Continue for several hundred yards (looking for passerines along the way), at which point you will come across BRIDGES POND on your right. Bridges Pond is about the twice the size of Eph's Pond, and it is relatively more secluded. Chances are, you'll come across a goodie or two, lurking around the pond's edges, or lounging out on the open water. Pied-billed Grebes seemed especially fond of Bridges Pond, and I would sometimes see as many as five species of swallows (Barn, Cliff, Tree, Bank, and Northern Rough-winged at one time.

The tangles and shrubbery that surround Bridges Pond can be very good for land birds. Big flocks of Myrtle and Yellow Warblers would gather here during migration. In fall, migrant flocks of Evening Grosbeaks often put down into the various fruiting trees along the pond's edges. In early winter, this area was good for lingering Golden-crowned Kinglets and Brown Creepers. And one or two Northern Shrikes spent the whole winter here. More often than not, I would see them perched conspicuously atop the tallest trees.

When you are done with the pond, head back out to the railroad tracks, turn right (i.e., west), and proceed along the tracks, toward the Route 7 Bridge (visible in the distance, at this point). Both sides of the railroad tracks can provide good birding. During the fall migration, this area proved attractive to American Tree Sparrows, Fox Sparrows, and Slate-colored Juncos. There were fewer birds in mid-winter, but I could usually count on finding one or both of the small accipiters (Sharp-shinned Hawk or Cooper's Hawk) here. Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Myrtle Warblers were especially common as spring migrants. And by the time I had departed Williamstown, in mid-May, Purple Finches and Eastern Warbling-Vireos already were nesting.

When you arrive at the Route 7 Bridge (also called the "Moody Bridge"), you can either return to campus by proceeding south (make a left turn) on Route 7, or you can continue along the railroad tracks. If you do decide to head back to campus, take the shortcut along Syndicate Road. That is, veer left (watching traffic!) with Syndicate Road where it forks away from Route 7. There's less traffic, and the birding is better, along Syndicate Road.



From the Route 7 Bridge, walk northwest along the railroad tracks until you reach a paved road that crosses the tracks. Turn left here, and follow this road until you come upon MOORE'S POND on your right. This pond offers birding opportunities that are similar to those presented at Eph's and Bridges Ponds. The abundant dead snags out in the water prove attractive to Tree Swallows and Cedar Waxwings. The lower snags often provide perches for a passing Solitary or Spotted Sandpiper.

When you are done scanning the pond, you can continue along the road that took you to Moore's Pond. Eventually, it comes to a dead-end at the Hoosic River. Just across the river is Hopkins Forest, but there is no access to the forest from here. So, you'll have to content yourself with distant and tantalizing glimpses of the birds that can be found in the forest proper! In spring the forested hillside rings with the songs of migrant warblers, and, at any time of the year, you have an outside chance of hearing the hurried cry of the Pileated Woodpecker. However, there is at least one forest-loving bird that you have a good chance of seeing, even here on the "wrong" side of the river. This is the Louisiana Waterthrush, one of the most distinctive and fascinating birds of the Williamstown area. The waterthrushes forage along the river's edge, and they sing their complex and beautiful songs from the trees along the banks.

When you're done here, backtrack to the Route 7 Bridge, and remember to check Moore's Pond again on your way out. More often than not, I would find something on the way out that wasn't there on the way in. When you get to the Route 7 Bridge, head south (i.e., make a right turn) back to campus. Route 7 is pretty busy -- and birdless. But you're likely to hear Eastern Phoebes singing down by the stream that parallels Route 7 to your right.



To get to HOPKINS FOREST, walk up Bulkley Street (a right turn off Route 7 if you're coming from the north, i.e., from Moore's or Bridges Pond; a left turn off Route 7 if you're coming from campus) all the way to its terminus at Northwest Hill Road. It's a slight hike, but the birding can be good. The plantings and birdfeeders along residential Bulkley Street proved attractive to lingering Fox and Chipping Sparrows. Throughout the winter, the fruit- and catkin-bearing trees along Bulkley Street were a good bet for Pine Grosbeaks and Common Redpolls. Meanwhile, the extensive plantings of non-native conifers were favored by wintering Red-breasted Nuthatches. In spring, the fallow field to your left (south) was a reliable location for Eastern Meadowlarks.

When you get to Northwest Hill Road, turn right. Then turn left after a few hundred feet, onto the dirt road that leads into Hopkins Forest. Follow this road past the parking area and headquarters building on your right, pausing to look for migrant passerines (in season) in the abundant shrubs and tangles. The entrance road takes you right into the forest, and right into a fine birding area. The ravine to your right harbors breeding Louisiana Waterthrushes and Winter Wrens, two of the finest songsters among all the birds in North America. Solitary Vireos and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are common and conspicuous, and you should be able to turn up a Yellow-throated Vireo, too.

Continue along this road until you reach a four-way intersection (in less than a mile), where you should turn right. (Turning left takes you right back to the headquarters building; going straight through the intersection takes you deep into the forest.) Turn right again, at your next opportunity to do so (at the obscure sign that marks the way to Northwest Hill Road). At any point, be on the lookout for Northern Goshawk and Pileated Woodpecker, which breed in the forest and wander widely throughout. Hermit Thrushes and Brown Creepers breed in here; they can be difficult to see, but you are sure to hear their lovely songs.

When you come out onto Northwest Hill Road, turn right (i.e., back toward Bulkley Street), looking for birds the whole way back. Migrant warblers are especially easy to see here, where the vegetation is lower than in the forest. Chestnut-sided Warblers are especially common breeders here. In migration, you're sure to find Black-throated Green, Black-throated Blue, and Blackburnian Warblers -- and, really, just about anything else. After a while, the habitat opens up a bit, and you'll come across a fairly substantial farm on your right. Bobolinks sing like crazy here, and you cannot miss them. It takes a little more patience to discern the thin, hissing songs of the Grasshopper and Savannah Sparrows that dwell here. I even saw Vesper Sparrows in migration, but I don't believe that they stick around to breed.

As you approach the turnoff back to Bulkley Street, your route returns you to a more forested scene, where, again, you should be on the lookout for migrants. In particular, I found this final stretch to be good for migrant thrushes, including Gray-cheeked and Swainson's. If you didn't see the Louisiana Waterthrush earlier, then you get one last chance, right by the entrance to the forest, where the road crosses a stream.