Category Archives: Birds of New England

KIM SMITH MONARCH BUTTERFLY PROGRAM FOR KIDS AT THE SAWYER FREE LIBRARY

Come join us Wednesday morning from 10am to 11am at the Sawyer Free Library where I will be sharing Monarch fun with young people. We have art activities, as well as eggs, caterpillars, chrysalides, and possibly a butterfly or two emerging on the day of the program. I hope you can join us!

This program is held in conjunction with the Cape Ann Reads exhibit currently on view at the main floor of the Sawyer Free.

2019 has been an amazing year for Monarchs. We got off to a very early and fantastic start, but then with a wave of cool rainy weather the Monarch movement slowed considerably. Despite the slow down, we’ve had at least two subsequent waves come through for a total of three broods this summer. Hopefully this will translate to a great 2019 migration followed by strong numbers at the Monarch butterfly’s winter sanctuaries at Michoacán and the state of Mexico.

The eggs we see now on milkweed plants are the super generation of Monarchs that will travel to Mexico!

The photos show the Monarch caterpillar becoming a chrysalis. When ready to pupate, the caterpillar finds a safe place and spins a silky mat. He inserts his last pair of legs into the silky mat and hangs upside down in a J-shape for about a day. Biological developments that began when the caterpillar first emerged are in high gear now. The caterpillar’s suit, or exoskeleton, splits along the center line of the thorax and shrivels as the developing green chrysalis is revealed. The last photo in the gallery shows the moment when the old skin is tossed off.

NORTHERN GANNET MYSTERIOUS DIESEASE STRIKES AGAIN

Reposting this from 2017 as another Northern Gannet is struggling  on the Backshore.

A second Northern Gannet, in little over a week, has come ashore to die on a Cape Ann Beach. A friend messaged from the Backshore that the Gannet was resting on the rocks and was not walking well.

Heartbreaking to see, the usually majestic Northern Gannet is struggling to survive.

This beautiful Northern Gannet appears to have the same neurological symptoms of the mysterious disease that has caused over one hundred Gannets to wash ashore on Cape Cod beaches. Veterinarians are sending samples of the dead and dying birds to the USDA to see if federal experts can find the cause. A harmful algae bloom (often referred to as Red Tide) is suspect.

The Gannet tried and tried to take flight, but to no avail, wobbling instead and repeatedly tipping over.

The first dying Northern Gannet seen on a Cape Ann beach was shared by Ann Rittenburg. On July 12th, she discovered the bird struggling at Good Harbor Beach. Dianne Corliss, Gloucester’s Animal Control Officer, rescued the seabird. Dianne tried to help, but the Gannet was eventually put to sleep. She warns that the bills of Northern Gannets are extremely powerful. If you come across a Gannet on the beach, do not go near it as they are known to go for the eyes and necks of people. 

What makes the deaths even more troubling is that Northern Gannets are winter migrants through our area, and most months are spent at sea. During the summer season they are typically at their North American breeding grounds, which are six well-established colonies, three in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Quebec, and three in the North Atlantic, off the coast of Newfoundland.

My husband Tom and I saw  these magnificent seabirds from the shores of Provincetown last spring. They were feeding along with the Right Whales. The Northern Gannets soared high above the whales and then plunged straight down with a powerful ferocity. It was dramatic and gorgeous to see. I hope the same illness or Red Tide that is killing the Gannets will not affect whales.

TREMENDOUS COASTAL WATERBIRD CONSERVATION COOPERATORS MEETING!

On Tuesday I attended the Coastal Waterbird Conservation Cooperators meeting, which took place at the Harwich Community Center on Cape Cod. The meeting is held annually to bring together people and organizations that are involved with population monitoring and conservation efforts on behalf of coastal waterbirds. Threatened and endangered species such as Least Terns, Piping Plovers, Roseate Terns, and American Oystercatchers are given the greatest attention.

I was invited by Carolyn Mostello, event organizer, to create a short film, Gloucester Plovers Go Swimming, for the “Strange and Unusual” section about our three little chicks and the fact that for about a week they were SWIMMING in the tidal creek (see next post). I also provided a group of photos of the late hatching chicks for DCR. The film and the photos were well-received, which was gratifying to me, to be of help in documenting these wonderful stories.

Conservationists from all seven Massachusetts coastal regions participated, as well as conservationists from nearby states, including representatives from Maine, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire. To name just some of the organizations presenting at the meeting-Mass Wildlife, Trustees of Reservations, Essex Greenbelt, Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), Mass Audubon, and US Fish and Wildlife.

In the morning, each region gave the 2019 population census report for nesting birds as well as providing information about problems and solutions. We all share similar challenges with predation from crows and gulls, uncontrolled dogs, enforcement, and habitat loss and it was very interesting to learn about how neighboring communities are managing problems and issues.

Trustees of Reservations Coastal Ecologist Jeff Denoncour presented on behalf of the north of Boston region, of which Gloucester is a part. Essex Greenbelt’s Director of Land Stewardship Dave Rimmer and intern Fionna were in attendance as well. Both Crane Beach and Parker River are having a fantastic year and the numbers are up across Massachusetts, Maine, and Rhode Island. There are still many young chicks yet to fledge on Massachusetts beaches so the final count has not been determined.

The afternoon session was filled with outstanding lectures presented by conservation biologists and all the programs were tremendously informative.

I met Beth Howard from Mass Audubon, who has been involved with care taking the L Street Piping Plovers and Paige Hebert from Mass Wildlife who has been helping manage Roseate Terns. The DCR staff managing the shorebirds at Nahant, Salisbury, Winthrop, and Revere Beach were all there and they are just a stellar group of young people.

It was a great day! Many attendees expressed congratulations for Gloucester fledging three chicks. Last year after attending the meeting I wrote the following and it’s wonderful that our hope for Gloucester’s Plovers was realized this year: “After attending the cooperators meeting, I am more hopeful than ever that our community can come together and solve the problems that are preventing our PiPl from successfully nesting and fledging chicks. What we have going in our favor is the sheer number of amazing super volunteers along with strong community-wide support.” 

THE WONDERFUL MIRACLE AND MESSINESS OF BIRTH – PIPING PLOVER CHICKS HATCHING PART TWO

I stopped by on my way home from work, fully expecting to see all three chicks hatched. Dad was sitting on the nest and two fluffy chicks were zooming in and out. He left the nest for a moment and wonderful luck of luck, the third chick was making its appearance!!

When I write messy, it is because while the third chick was hatching, the two older ones needed to thermoregulate, or cuddle, beneath the parent’s wing. There was a great deal of seeming disorder going on beneath the canopy provided by Dad’s fluffed out feathers.

Because the two older siblings were running in and out of the nest, as well as the parents leaving to discard the remaining chick’s eggshell pieces, I had a longer window into the third chick’s hatching (by mere seconds, I mean). Plus the twelve-hour-old chicks were just as adorable as could be!

From a nest of three eggs, two chicks hatched at dawn and the third, at day’s end. During both times, I had my movie camera on a tripod zoomed in on the nest and was able to film and simultaneously take still photos. A very unforgettable and happy day!!!!!!!!!!

Mom switched places with Dad but only stayed for a few moments before hopping up quickly. All three chicks were in the nest. You can see the newly hatched chick with its two older siblings. 

Read Part One Here

Hello World! Eyes barely open and first peek at the world.

Twelve-hour-old chick -my what big feet I have 🙂

THE WONDERFUL MIRACLE AND MESSINESS OF BIRTH – PIPING PLOVER CHICKS HATCHING PART ONE

As many of our readers know, this summer while finishing up with editing my Monarch film, I have also been continuing to document our Good Harbor Beach Piping Plovers. To make the best and most informed documentary, I have also been filming at other north of Boston beach locations. During our last heat wave, we posted about about how PiPl parents protect their eggs during extreme temperatures. The chicks that you see hatching in the photos are the same eggs that survived the heat wave! and are from a very, very special Piping Plover pair. More about these two parents in an upcoming post; for now I just have time to write about the chicks hatching.

Witnessing a beautiful family of Piping Plover chicks hatch is a day I won’t soon forget. Not only struck by the sheer beauty of it all, I was highly aware of the formidable challenges these valiant little birds face at every stage of development. Even hatching was messy and challenging.

On my way into work, I had been checking daily on the nest and knew the hatching day was soon approaching. Arriving at dawn on the twenty-fifth day from when the pair had begun brooding all three eggs, it was apparent and wonderfully exciting to see something was going on in the nest. Mom was on the nest and she was unusually active, moving around and adjusting the eggs repeatedly. She popped up for a split second and I could see an egg cracking. A miracle truly, that the eggs were viable, as it was so late in the season and the heat had been so extreme.

During hatching, the Mom (or Dad, whoever happens to be brooding the eggs at the time hatching begins) makes a canopy over the nest with their fluffed-out feathers. The nest is a mere depression in the sand, below eye level, so the only time you can see what is happening is when the parent leaves the nest. This only happens for the briefest of moments. A chick begins emerging and while it is still half in its eggshell, the nesting parent takes any parts of the broken eggshell in his/her mouth and runs, then flies further with it, dropping the eggshell far away from the nest. During those few brief seconds when the parent leaves to discard the eggshell, you can see what is taking place in the nest.

In the last three photos, the chick’s feathers are almost completely dry and fluffy.

Enthralled, I watched as two chicks hatched over an hour period, but then had to leave to be on site for a job installation that couldn’t wait. I hated to leave wondering, not knowing how the third chick would fare, and just prayed that it would still be light out when I stopped back on my way home from work that night.

Part two tomorrow.

PiPl Mom brooding eggs during heat wave.

Eggshell camouflaged amongst shells and sea bits.

SEA-ROCKET!

What is that wonderful succulent yet scrubby-looking green plant we see growing on our local beaches? You are most likely looking at American Sea-rocket (Cakile edentula). Named for its rocket-shaped berries, Sea-rocket is a native annual. It grows in dry sand and is pollinated by beetles, moths, butterflies, flies, and bees. The edible flowers and peppery, succulent leaves, which taste somewhat like horseradish, attract myriad species of tiny insects as well.

Sea-rocket reseeds itself each year all around New England beaches and thrives in the poor medium of dry sand, above the high tide line. In springtime, along the Massachusetts coastline, you will see tiny shoots emerging and by early summer the multi-branching plant can grow two feet wide and equally as tall.

Throughout the Piping Plover’s time spent at Good Harbor Beach, Sea-rocket is an important plant, providing shade on hot summer days, protection from the wind, and attracts a smorgasbord of insects that both the adults and tiniest of chicks depend upon for their diets.

Piping Plover chicks and adults forage for small insects at Sea-rocket.

SEA-ROCKET GROWTH PROGRESSION-

The first photo was taken on April 6, 2019. You can see that there is no vegetation growing in the roped off area.

The second photo was taken about one month later, at the time our mated Piping Plover pair began nesting. Notice the tiny shoots of Sea-rocket beginning to emerge.

The third photo was taken during the second week of July. Look how beautifully the Sea-rocket is growing in the roped off area.The fourth photo shows the same area after the PiPl refuge was dismantled and the Sea-rocket raked over.Three Piping Plover chicks finding shelter beneath the Sea-rocket foliage.

HOW DO NESTING BIRDS SUCH AS PIPING PLOVERS KEEP FROM BOILING THEIR EGGS IN A HEAT WAVE?

During this heat wave I have been concerned about one of the Piping Plover families that I am documenting. They are nesting in an exposed site and it is late in the season. I wondered if their eggs were at risk of becoming overheated. As of Saturday, my worries were for naught.

Both the Mom and Dad are sitting high on the nest. Typically when brooding eggs, Piping Plovers fluff out their brood feathers and the eggs are entirely hidden. During these 90-degree-plus days, the parents are continuing to sit on the nest to keep predators from seeing the eggs from overhead, but they are raising their bodies enough to allow air to flow beneath.

Both parents are struggling in the heat; they are overheated and panting while minding their nest, yet despite their obvious discomfort, they are determinedly continuing to brood.

Panting nesting Plover in 95 degree temperatures.

Allowing for air circulation is really a pretty genius way of managing their eggs and I am keeping my hopes up that the pair will be successful ❤

Dad PiPl says why is it so dang hot!