Birding and Forage Walk at Magazine Beach

Birding and Forage Walk at Magazine Beach

A tour of birds and edible plants in Cambridgeport

  • Posted on: 8 September 2013
  • By: mholbrow

In the photo above, forage expert David Craft (at left) shows jewelweed leaf to tour participants. Birdwalk leader Janet Crystal is in the center, holding binoculars. At right is Cathie Zusy, organizer of the event; Charles Holbrow is behind her.

A perfect early fall morning for a walk along the Charles – brisk and sunny. The event was a double-header: foraging for edible plants with David Craft and birding with Janet Crystal. A dozen people, including two children, took part in the tour at Magazine Beach on Saturday, September 7.

Early on, Crystal pointed out a red-tailed hawk perched on a rack of floodlights across the river. The big birds thrive here, protected by U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service laws.

“If they’ve built a nest at a construction site, you actually have to stop work until the babies can fly,” she said.

jewelweedAlong the riverbank David Craft pointed out a stand of jewelweed. Observers admired their orange trumpet-shaped flowers (left) and crunched some seeds (taste like walnuts). Craft showed how the pods explode at the least touch, and people crowded around to try it out.

Jewelweed stems and leaves can be eaten cooked or raw, Craft said. The milky juice is said to be an antidote for poison ivy.

Asiatic dayflower

Many of the edible plants Craft singled out were going to seed, but a sprawling Asiatic dayflower (left) still had its tiny blue flowers.

“These are a nice touch in a salad,” Craft said.

Not many waterfowl were out, apart from Canada geese and a single mallard. Black-crowned night herons and double-crested cormorants do fish along the Charles, Crystal said; they were not to be seen, but songbirds could be heard calling back in the trees.

drey“A lot of birding is done by ear,” Crystal said. “Listen to the chickadees – they’re the ones saying ‘Hi, sweetie; hi, sweetie’ or ‘Chick-a-dee-dee-dee.’”

She pointed out a “drey” high up in a tree (right). This was a new term to people on the walk. The drey, a solid, waterproof ball of leaves and twigs, is a squirrel’s home away from home, she explained.

“It’s like having a place on the Cape.”

A hole in a nearby tree-trunk had a gray squirrel-tail sticking out of it. This was probably a winter residence, she said.

house sparrowsA flock of house sparrows pecked busily in an open grassy patch. Somebody commented that these pests were introduced into the U. S. as part of a project to establish populations of birds that are mentioned by Shakespeare. The story is on line in a Scientific American article.

Meanwhile, David Craft gathered a handful of mushrooms (right) mushrooms
from the grassy area.

"These are either meadow mushrooms or horse mushrooms; it’s a little hard to tell – they’re both pinkish brown underneath, and they’re both good to eat,” he said.

Wild New England asters were coming into bloom around a marshy patch nearby. They were flanked by a thicket of cattails.

“You can make tea from the aster flowers,” Craft said. “The leaves are edible when they’re young; that’s true for a lot of these plants, but this late in the year – well, I’d call it survival food.” He gave the cattails a better culinary review, though they’re also best in spring and early summer.

IMG_1711“The roots give off a starch that people use, and you can eat the stems like asparagus,” he said. “You can even eat the seed heads before they get brown. I don’t know that I’d eat them from an urban drainage spot like this, though – you want to be sure they’re growing in clean water.”

(Photo, left: Burdocks have furry leaves.) Burdocks were also among the edibles. The roots are good roasted or stir-fried, according to Craft, and stems can be eaten like celery. Nearby was chicory, good for tea or to flavor French-style coffee. Tour participants tasted the seed pods of peppergrass, another seasoning.

Caterpillar_1710Meanwhile the kids exclaimed over a green sphinx caterpillar (right) on the stony walkway. Crystal nudged it onto a card and moved it to greener spot. Later, as a moth, it can enjoy the good life in the park.
-- Janet Crystal, a technical writer, leads bird walks for the Massachusetts Audubon Society at the Belmont Habitat.
-- David Craft is a radiation oncology researcher at Harvard Medical School and co-director of the non-profit Gallery 263 on Pearl Street.

The event was organized by Cathie Zusy, who is leading a Cambridgeport Neighborhood Association effort to rescue the 1818 granite powder magazine for which the park is named.


Mary, you made me wish I had been there! Thanks.