Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Our Backyard Swans

photo by Sandy Bacon

When I was growing up, my family visited the Swan Boats in the Boston Public Garden somewhat regularly – usually on Mother’s Day. For years, I thought of the swan as a rare species – something one could only see at a special place -- never in the wild. But then in the 1980s a pair of swans took up residence in “the pond” behind our house. They -- and their successors -- have pretty much been there ever since. Elegant, with long curving necks and a seemingly serene demeanor, they always manage to capture our attention.

“The pond” behind our house is actually a wide upstream portion of the Green Harbor River. It is relatively secluded -- bordered in large part by the Hoyt-Hall Preserve, a parcel of conservation land managed by the Wildlands Trust of Southeastern Massachusetts. There are a few private homes along the riverbanks as well, and also the Garretson cranberry bogs. It often feels like the swans out back are “ours,” as there are only a few people who can see them!

It turns out that swans are not especially rare in our part of Massachusetts, and while technically they are an exotic species – meaning they are not native to our region – they’re somewhat commonplace. That doesn’t make them any less captivating, though.

Our region’s swans are members of the species Cygnus olor -- the mute swan. They were brought over from Europe and Asia to the United States in the late 1800s for use as living, breathing pond ornaments in parks and on private estates. The prevailing assumption is that some of them found their way into the wild, and gave rise to a slowly-increasing population. Today mute swans can be found up and down the coastline from Maryland to Massachusetts. Here in our state, they are concentrated primarily on Cape Cod and the Islands, with a decent number from Plymouth to Cohasset as well.

Up until the 1970s, mute swans were indeed rare to these parts. But the Massachusetts Audubon’s 1974 Christmas Bird Count identified 200 individuals in the state, and by the mid-eighties, there were 135 mating pairs, with closer to 600 in the winter, due to migration. (They seek refuge in unfrozen ponds and bays.)

The mute swan is striking. Its size alone is impressive. One of the heaviest of the flying birds, a typical adult male weighs from 20-32 pounds and extends to 55-63 inches in length. That’s more than five feet! The mute swan is completely white in color, save for its orange and black bill. Despite what its name suggests, it isn’t actually mute, but it is known to be quieter than other swan species. Still, it grunts and snorts and sometimes makes a hoarse whispering sound, and will hiss at predators such a snapping turtles and coyotes. Its wing flaps are loud, though. We frequently hear “our” swans taking off in flight.

Young swans are called cygnets. They are usually not stark white, but rather gray or off-white. The beak doesn’t turn orange until after the first year. Cygnets make more noise than their parents -- they will chirp and whistle and even squawk if in danger.

You may have heard that swans mate for life. It’s a romantic notion, and true too (mute swans are indeed monogamous), but their lifespan averages just 6-10 years. Mute swans typically inhabit coastal ponds and tidal creeks, and often return to the same nest year after year. They build large nests in shallow water or on islands within ponds and lakes, foraging for materials nearby. One advantage of their long shapely necks is their ability to harvest and feed on submerged aquatic plants.

A female mute swan lays eggs in April or May – 4 to 6 at a time – and then sits on them for 5-6 weeks. The male stays close-by, and when the cygnets hatch, the family stays together for 15 weeks before the young are able to fly. The mortality rate is high. Due to extensive predation, most cygnets do not survive.

As beautiful as they are to behold, mute swans are not friendly. They’re protective and territorial, and will attack even a human if it gets too close. If a mute swan senses another creature encroaching upon its territory, it may rush at it, attempt to bite it, or perhaps assault it with the spurs on its wings. That probably explains why, after all these years, we’ve never seen more than one family of swans on our pond at a time.

While state regulations deem it illegal to hunt them, mute swans aren’t exactly a favored species here in Massachusetts. Non-native, they are considered to be invasive as they drive other, more welcome, species out of their natural habitats. Swans can also be a nuisance to farmers, as they not only consume cereal crops such as wheat, they also trample them. Swans are best left undisturbed, but if you have a serious problem with them on your property, contact Mass Wildlife for assistance (508-759-3406).

by Kezia Bacon
December 2015 

Kezia Bacon's articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit www.nsrwa.org. To browse 19 years of Nature (Human and Otherwise) columns, visit http://keziabaconbernstein.blogspot.com



Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Skyline Trail at Blue Hills

Heading down a steep decline on the way up the Skyline Trail.
Here on the South Shore, we have plenty of walking places – the beaches, the woods, numerous trails around ponds and through meadows. But what we lack is places to hike. Living at sea level, there just isn’t much for those of us who wish to go vertical.

Well, . . . except for the Blue Hills! It’s so easy to forget that over 7,000 acres of open space lie just to the north of us. The Blue Hills Reservation, based in Milton, is home to 125 miles of walking and hiking trails. Many of them pass through forests and around ponds, but quite a few also lead up and down steep, rocky hills. The views from the top are spectacular.

Managed by the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), the Blue Hills Reservation is open to the public every day from dawn to dusk. In season, it offers camping, fishing, skiing (cross country and downhill), swimming, non-motorized boating, and even golf. There are trails for mountain bikers and horseback riders, spots for picnicking and rock climbing, and an annual controlled and permitted deer hunt. Great Blue, the tallest of the 22 hills in the area, extends to an elevation of 635 feet.

The reservation extends from Milton and Quincy to Randolph and Dedham. The park itself has been open to the public since 1893, but long before that, the lands were home to the Massachusett, a Native tribe who referred to themselves as “people of the great hills.” When Europeans began arriving on our shores, they observed the hills from a distance and named them for their bluish color. You can view archaeological evidence of both Native and Colonial settlements within the reservation, and also visit the Blue Hills Weather Observatory, a National Historic Landmark.

People tell me all the time that the Blue Hills is on their list of Places To Visit . . . but they never seem to make it there. Perhaps it has something to do with proximity: it’s almost too close to plan a day trip around it, but too far away to stop by on a lark. Plus, there are so many trails to consider – where would you start? However I think that once you’ve been there, and you see how accessible the place actually is, those barriers aren’t so daunting.

I’d actually been hiking in the Blue Hills a few times before – maybe three times over the course of 25 years -- but I still felt like I had a mental block against it. So I decided to plan a group outing there. With friends invited along, there would be no backing out because it suddenly became inconvenient to drive up to Milton on a Saturday afternoon.

We began our hike at 1pm. It was mid-November, and even though the trail guide indicated that it should take us about 2 hours to complete the course, we had lots of little legs with us (7 children ages 5 to 9, plus one yellow lab) and were concerned about getting back before the 4:30 sunset.
Departing from the Houghton’s Pond parking area, we followed a footpath along the side of Hillside Street to the Reservation Headquarters. We found a trailhead just behind the headquarters building, and following the directions I obtained from the excellent Friends of Blue Hills website, within a minute we made a right turn onto the Skyline Trail.

Our plan was to follow the Skyline Trail up to Eliot Tower and then down again. I find, when hiking with children, it’s helpful to have “something” to see at the top. Following the blue blazes, we immediately began to climb uphill, over rocks and through some steep passages. Before long, we were at the crest of Hancock Hill, enjoying the first of many great views of the Greater Boston area.

The Skyline Trail led us up and down wooded hills, over terrain that was more rugged than what you’d typically find on the South Shore, but not especially difficult. Because of the fallen leaves on the trail, there were a few times when I opted to scoot down steep declines on my behind, rather than risk slipping on the smooth rock surfaces. The boys and girls in our group seemed energized by the challenges of scrambling up and over each obstacle we encountered. Every so often, we’d crest a hill and find another, different view of the city. Eventually we reached the turn-off for Eliot Tower.

Most of the trails in the Blue Hills Reservation are clearly marked, not only with blazes of various colors, but also with wooden signs, the names clearly spelled out. You can download a map via the DCR website, or purchase one at the headquarters or at the Blue Hills Trailside Museum. I downloaded a PDF of the map, but finding the print to be small, I brought the file to a local copy shop and had it enlarged and printed in color. Another option is to download the (free) 16-page color “Discover the Blue Hills” booklet from the Friends of the Blue Hills.

Eliot Tower was constructed in the 1940s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Originally envisioned as a rest area of sorts for hikers, the rough stone tower and its adjoining shelter once featured a large stone fireplace, terraces with inviting views, picnic tables and benches, and restrooms. Much of this still remains, but only in a generally “rustic” sense. The restrooms are boarded up, and the doors have been removed from the shelter, so the wind blows through. However the views – especially from the top of the tower – are inspiring, and the tables and benches offer a welcome place to sit and rest.

After pausing for a snack at one of the picnic tables, our group began its descent. Again, using the directions from Friends of the Blue Hills, we turned at Marker 1066 and followed the blue blazes all the way back down to Hillside Street. It was a different trail going downhill, with plenty more rocks to scramble over. We were back to our cars by 3:30pm. Overall, it was a very pleasant way to spend an autumn afternoon. We will definitely be going back.

For general info about the Blue Hills Reservation,, including driving directions, visit the DCR’s page on Blue Hills: http://www.mass.gov/eea/agencies/dcr/massparks/region-south/blue-hills-reservation.html

For more detailed trail and event info, visit Friends of the Blue Hills: http://friendsofthebluehills.org/

by Kezia Bacon
November 2015

Kezia Bacon's articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit www.nsrwa.org. To browse 19 years of Nature (Human and Otherwise) columns, visit http://keziabaconbernstein.blogspot.com