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Burrage Pond

Looking for birds in Hanson:

Yes, you read that right. I went looking birds in Hanson, MA. Why? Because Mary Jo suggested it, that’s why. Plus, I’ve been searching for an off-Cape site to visit ever since I stopped writing about local birding spots. It’s been brought to my attention that many of the Cape’s conservation lands are small and limited, and these important habitats (and wildlife) would be better served if they saw fewer, not more, people. But in Hanson, it’s a different story.

A few weeks ago, Mary Jo, a fellow birder told me about Burrage Pond Wildlife Management Area. She said it was a great place to look for birds, and she’s right. According to eBird, there has been 223 bird species reported in this one location, including a pair of Sandhill Cranes, which may be nesting on the property. And unlike our tiny local conservation areas, this site has over 2,000 acres. That’s enough room for both birds and people, and, as I soon found out, a few other critters, too.

Only forty-five minutes from the Canal, Burrage Pond WMA is now a state property, but not long ago it was totally private. Unsurprisingly, the refuge is named after a guy name “Burrage.” In 1916, Albert Burrage had several factories on the site. When the factories burned down, Albert lost interest and sold the place to cranberry growers, who, unsurprisingly, converted the area into cranberry bogs. In 1977, Cumberland Farms bought the bogs and increased cranberry production by draining many acres of wetlands. This egregious act eventually got them in trouble with the EPA. As part of the settlement, Cumberland Farms was required to give some of the land to Mass Audubon. (It was rumored that Cumbie’s offered Audubon free lottery tickets, energy drinks and Slim Jims instead, but the offer was rejected.) Cranberry growing eventually came to an end in 2002 when the Commonwealth bought the property and began restoring it for birds and other wildlife. Yay!

On the day I decided to explore Burrage Pond, I got up at 4:30AM. I asked my wife if she’d like to go with me. She never really answered. Instead, she pulled the blankets over her head, which meant I was going alone. I didn’t know the location of either the refuge or Hanson, but fortunately my car’s GPS did and it helped me arrive just as the sun was coming up. The dirt parking area was fairly large and mega bumpy. (Apparently, this is where all of the state’s potholes are stored for the summer.) Arriving visitors typically start down any of the ten miles of hiking trails, but I had just stepped out my car when I heard singing coming from a nearby bush. It was a Red-eyed Vireo, which was soon joined by a Warbling Vireo, a Prairie Warbler, an Eastern Towhee and one very nosey hummingbird. To help me hear these high-pitched songs, I use a special device called “Hearphones” (really). The device works great, except I didn’t realize the parking lot was next to the Hanson commuter rail station. When the train arrived, its whistle was amplified a hundred times, causing me to jump like I was about to be run over by the Cannonball Express. My heart is still racing.

Although there are some wooded trails, most of the walking is done along the levees and embankments that once enclosed the cranberry bogs. The trails are flat, wide and allow for easy viewing. The first “bog birds” to get my attention was a pair of courting Swamp Sparrows. Seeing a couple of Swamp Sparrows likely wouldn’t excite most folks, but they are uncommon breeders on the Cape and I typically only see them when they’re peering back at me from inside a dark thicket. But here, the male was right out in the open, singing from the top of a plant stalk. Not far away, and also singing, was a far more colorful male Orchard Oriole. Many of my customers report getting these handsome birds on their feeders, but I never do so I was glad to see it. Then I noticed something that I never expected to see. Several trees along the water’s edge had been cut down in a rather peculiar manner. For some reason, the stumps weren’t cut clean, but appeared to have been chewed. It was as if they had been gnawed by…OMG, beavers! This place has beavers! There are actual beavers living in Hanson, and Hanson is in nearby Plymouth County. Get ready, Cape Cod. We might be next.

With so many reclaimed ponds and wetlands, the area has an Everglades vibe to it. Ospreys, Great Blue Herons and egrets were constantly flying overhead and even an American Bittern could be heard calling from deep in the reeds. Other birds of prey included a Red-shouldered Hawk, an American Kestrel and a bold Cooper’s Hawk that attempted to fly past an Eastern Kingbird. The kingbird, however, was having none of it. The much smaller kingbird immediately began chasing after the larger hawk. Most songbirds avoid hawks, but kingbirds go out of their way to annoy them. I like their style.

Thanks for the tip, Mary Jo. I explored the Burrage Pond WMA for five hours and still missed much of it. I really enjoyed my entire day, except for one item. It all was going great until I saw something swimming towards me in the water. I excitedly started to wonder if it was an otter, or maybe a muskrat or one of the beavers. Nope. It was a Northern water snake and my visit was over. I was back in my car and heading home faster than the Cannonball express. Snakes make me a little uncomfortable…unsurprisingly.