Category Archives: Birds of New England

A BOSSY QUARRELSOME FELLOW IS THAT RARE BLACK-HEADED GULL!

I have returned several times more to see that rare and beautiful little Black-headed Gull. He wasn’t alone but was feeding in a mixed flock of gulls and ducks. All seemed perfectly peaceful at first. Before too long, he was squawking noisily, barking orders, and flying aggressively toward any other gull that crossed his path. Very comical actually, as he was smaller than all the others nonetheless, they took orders readily and moved aside.

Black-headed Gull vs. Ring-billed Gull Battle 

Wonderfully animated surf dancer!

Bonaparte’s Gull left, Black-headed Gull right

A friend wrote wondering if I was sure what we are seeing is a Black-headed Gull. He, as was I initially, wondering if it was a Bonaparte’s Gull. Bonaparte’s have black bills, whereas the Black-headed Gull has a black-tipped red bill, along with red feet and legs. I found this terrific image showing the progressive molting stages of a Black-headed Gull while looking up Black-headed Gulls.

By the way, the head feathers of the Black-headed Gull in breeding plumage are really not black, but chocolate brown. Then again, there is an actual Brown-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus). Whoever gave name to these gulls!!
Black-headed Gull in breeding plumage, photo courtesy Google image search

HORNED LARK THREESOME!

Three brownish songbird sorts flew on the scene. Feeding along the pond’s edge at this time of year the brown birds we mostly see are Song Sparrows, but they are more solitary and I don’t usually see them flying around together in a group. Hoping for a bunch of beauties, I approached the trio very quietly, one baby step at a time, and was delighted to see not one but three Horned Larks! I wish the sun had been shining so you can see how beautiful is the male’s lemony yellow throat.

Several weeks ago there was one, possibly two, feeding with American Pipits and a Snow Bunting. What a treat to see three!

Two appeared to be male and one female. The easiest way to tell the male from the female is by looking at the facial markings. The female lacks the black eye patch.

Male and female Horned Larks foraging on seeds

STARTING THE NEW YEAR OFF ON A HAPPY BUT MELANCHOLY NOTE

As was the case for so many, New Year’s Day was joyful but bittersweet, too. I drove Liv to the airport at dawn for her return trip to LA. She can work remotely and was able to travel home in early December, before the second surge. When she arrived home she quarantined, taking a Covid test prior to, and again after arriving. Liv extended her visit an extra week so that she did not have to fly back last weekend. It’s nerve wracking dropping her off at the airport but she has had to fly occasionally for work during the pandemic and Delta is only allowing at most 50 percent capacity. She flies at odd times so the planes are mostly empty, and she is often allowed to upgrade to first class for free, as she was on this flight. All that being said, with the surge on top of the surge and the new strain running rampant, praying and hoping she will remain safe and Covid-free.

Having both adult children home, along with our darling Charlotte here with us full time, we are having more fun as a family – cooking together, playing card games, laughing, joking, and telling stories. This family time together has been the silver lining to the pandemic and the part I will choose to remember.

I stopped on the way home to watch the planes taking off and snap a photo of the first sunrise of 2021.

After returning from the airport, Charlotte and I took one of our mini nature walks around Eastern Point. The very first creature we encountered was a young Double-crested Cormorant. He was attempting to cross the berm. We almost walked right into him! For some reason we couldn’t quite understand, he didn’t care to fly from Brace Cove to Niles Pond, but was on foot.

After we stood very quietly for several minutes (no small feat for a three-year-old) he decided we weren’t a threat and crossed our path, not three feet away!

Continuing on our mini trek, we spotted the rare Black-headed Gull bobbing along in the cove (see yesterday’s post).

To top off our day, a young Cooper’s Hawk flew overhead and landed in a nearby tree.

Wishing you a healthy New Year Friends!

RARE BLACK-HEADED GULL IN GLOUCESTER!

At first glance I thought the gull feeding offshore was a Bonaparte’s Gull, but after taking a second look, I believe this is a Black-headed Gull in non-breeding plumage. The black-tipped red bill is the surest way to id when on the water, along with his cute little red legs and feet.

Common throughout Eurasia, they are rarer on this side of the Atlantic; the first sighting north of Mexico was recorded in 1930 in Newburyport. When Black-headed Gulls are spotted in the US, they are most likely seen along the Massachusetts coastline.

RED-TAILED HAWK IN THE WAXING CRESCENT MOON

As luck would have it, the Red-tailed Hawk swooped in and perched on a phone pole just opposite where I was standing taking snapshots of the Harbor. I turned to take a photo of the Hawk and the crescent Moon was rising! The Hawk only stayed a brief moment, but it was a beautiful thing to see.

Then, as we walked closer to the Lighthouse, a juvenile Great Blue Heron flew overhead! All on a  December’s afternoon!

AMAZED AND WONDERFUL TO SEE A HORNED LARK ON THE BEACH! Along with Snow Buntings and American Pipits

This past week while photographing a Snow Bunting and several American Pipits, a friendly bird, not in the least skittish, caught my eye. It was acting sort of Pipit-like, similar size-wise and foraging in the sand, but had a striking black streak across its cheek and lemony yellow face. I wasn’t sure what I was looking at until returning home to look it up. I always take lots of photos when I am unsure of what it is I am photographing, just because you never know. I am so glad, because several of the photos gave a great clue. In the snapshots where the bird is looking dead on, you can actually see its tiny feathery “horns.” I think there were two Horned Larks with the small mixed flock, one slightly paler than the other.

‘Horns’ of the Horned Lark

The Snow Bunting was clearly the boss of the mini flock. If another approached too closely to where it was foraging, the bird gave a brief but aggressive hop and flutter toward the intruder.

In winter time, look for Horned Larks in fields, meadows, beaches, and dunes, in large and small mixed flocks. Interestingly, in Europe, the Horned Lark is called the Shore Lark and after the wonderful beach walk surprise, it’s easy to understand why.

Snow Bunting unfazed by Charlotte

Horned Lark and Snow Bunting

American Pipit

Snow Bunting

 

CROWS ATTACKING HAWK

Poor little Sharpie didn’t stand a chance of going unnoticed. The Eastern Point Crow Patrol was all over him, cawing vociferously and dive-bombing, alerting every creature within earshot of his presence. The juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk held his ground for a bit, before tiring of the sky guardians and heading for cover into a nearby tree.

CHECK OUT THIS SUPER VIDEO FEATURING GREENBELT’S 2020 ACCOMPLISHMENTS AND OVERVIEW OF BEAUTIFUL PROPERTIES WITH PRESIDENT KATE BODITCH

We in Essex County are so incredibly blessed to have Greenbelt working so hard to conserve beautiful green space throughout the region. Check out this super video to get an overview of just some of the good work that has taken place this past year.

From Greenbelt, “Join Greenbelt President, Kate Bowditch, as she reviews Greenbelt’s challenges and accomplishments this past year. Thank you for your continued support of our organization!”

If you’d like to make a donation in support of Greenbelt, please visit ecga.org/annualfundBluebird nesting box Greenbelt Ipswich

Piping Plover Dad and Marshmallow Good Harbor Beach

Seine Field Gloucester

SO COLD YOU CAN SEE THE GREAT BLUE HERON’S BREATH

The second photo was taken during the last cold snap. I didn’t realize until looking at the photos tonight that you could see his breath. Note the rock he is perched on. For over a month I would find him there sleeping in the morning. In the top photo, the rock has barely any pooh, so funny because after only a month, it’s really sloshing with it.

WHEN SNOW BUNTINGS FILL THE SKIES!

At this time of year flocks of Snow Buntings small and large can be found at our local sandy beaches and rocky coastlines. I am finding them throughout my roaming range, from Plum Island to South Boston.

What is not to love about this sweetly charming tubby little songbird, including its name, Snow Bunting, and nickname Snowflake. I am often alerted to the Snow Buntings presence by their distinct and highly varied social chattering. More than once though I and it have been startled as one flutters away to avoid my footsteps. The alarmed Snow Bunting will call loudly, warning its flock mates of a human, and then they will all lift to the skies in a swirling unison of Snowflakes.

Snow Buntings especially love rocky crevices and outcroppings. They nest in rocky areas of the Arctic tundra and while resting and foraging along Massachusetts coastlines, Snow Buntings go largely undetected in the similarly colored rocks.

The conical -shaped bill of Snow Buntings tells us that they are are seed eaters and in autumn and winter, Massachusetts beaches provide a wealth of seed heads remaining on expired wildflowers and grasses. Beach stones, along with piles of beach debris, trap seeds and I have captured a number of photos where the foraging songbirds pop up between the rocks with a mouthful of seed.

Early morning invariably finds Snow Buntings sleeping amongst beach rocks. It is a joy to watch as they slowly awaken, stretching and floofing, before tumbling out in a burst of black, white, and rusty brown to forage for the day.

Remarkably, Snow Buntings are nocturnal migrants. They are able to detect the geomagnetic field of the Earth for guidance to their breeding and overwinter grounds. The orientation of the Snow Bunting during migration is independent of any visual cue.

The 40 plus year old annual Christmas Bird Count shows a 64 percent decline in the Snow Bunting population. Climate change and neonicotinoids (pesticides) are thought to be the main reason for the decline.

SNOWY OWLS ALERT!

Snowy Owls have returned to coastal Eastern Massachusetts. It’s exciting and wonderful and beautiful to see, but also I find it concerning with so many home, with time on their hands because of the pandemic, that we’ll see even greater crowds flushing the birds. That happened this weekend.Snowy Owl tracks in the sand

SNOWY OWL WATCHING ETIQUETTE: The following are some helpful tips for watching Snowy Owls. You will get better photographs and you won’t stress out the Snowies.

1. Watch from a safe and comfortable distance–comfortable for the bird that is. This is the number one rule. Young birds coming down from the Arctic are especially tolerant of people however crowds attract crows and raptors to their whereabouts and flushing a bird can cause them to fly into traffic.

2. Please keep children from throwing rocks towards the Snowy or anywhere within the vicinity of the Owl.

3. Please do not allow dogs to play near Snowies.

4. Slamming doors, radios blasting, barking dogs, and loud mufflers all stress Snowies.

5. Please do not try to take a selfie with the Snowy.

When Snowies are perching quietly, it’s not for our enjoyment (although beautiful) but because they are either resting or on the look out for their next meal.  After all, if they have a good hunting season and survive the winter, perhaps they will return the following year.

Below is an excerpt from a five part series about a beautiful Snowy Owl nicknamed Hedwig. The series was designed for kids especially and is free to educators to share with students. To see all five parts visit the Snowy Owl Film Project here

A Snowy Owl Comes to Cape Ann

 

 

 

AN EAR-FULL OF CEDAR WAXWINGS! ALONG WITH MERLINS AND HAWKS ON THE HUNT

During the last weeks of summer, I was blessed with the great good fortune to come across a flock of Cedar Waxwings. Everyday I followed their morning antics as they socialized, foraged, preened, and was even “buzzed” several times when making too quick a movement or crunched on a twig too loudly for their liking. They were actually remarkably tolerant of my presence but as soon as another person or two appeared on the path, they quickly departed. I think that is often the case with wildlife; one human is tolerable, but two of us is two too many. 

The Cedar Waxwings were seen foraging on wildflower seeds and the insects attracted, making them harder to spot as compared to when seen foraging at berries on trees branches. A flock of Cedar Waxwings is called a “museum” or an “ear-full.” The nickname ear-full is apt as they were readily found each morning by their wonderfully soft social trilling.  When you learn to recognize their vocalizations, you will find they are much easier to locate.

These sweet songbirds are strikingly beautiful. Dressed in a black mask that wraps around the eyes, with blue, yellow, and Mourning Dove buffy gray-brown feathers, a cardinal-like crest atop the head, and brilliant red wing tips, Cedar Waxwings are equally as beautiful from the front and rear views.

Cedar Waxwings really do have wax wings; the red wing tips are a waxy secretion. At first biologist thought the red tips functioned to protect the wings from wear and tear, but there really is no evidence of that. Instead, the red secondary tips appear to be status signals that function in mate selection. The older the Waxwing, the greater the number of waxy tips. Birds with zero to five are immature birds, while those with more than nine are thought to be older.

Waxwings tend to associate with other waxwings within these two age groups. Pairs of older birds nest earlier and raise more fledglings than do pairs of younger birds. The characteristic plumage is important in choosing a mate within the social order of the flock.

By mid-September there were still seeds and insects aplenty in the wildflower patch that I was filming at when the beautiful Waxwings abruptly departed for the safety of neighboring treetops. Why do I write “safety?” I believe they skeedaddled because a dangerous new raptor appeared on the scene. More falcon-like than hawk, the mystifying bird sped like a torpedo through the wildflower patch and swooped into the adjacent birch tree where all the raptors like to perch. It was a Merlin! And the songbird’s mortal enemy. Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks, too, had been hunting the area, but the other hawks did not elicit the same terror as did the Merlin.

Merlin, Eastern Point

Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks

A small falcon, the Merlin’s short wings allow it to fly fast and hard. The Merlin is often referred to as the “thug” of the bird world for its ability to swoop in quickly and snatch a songbird out of the air. The day after the Merlin appeared, I never again found the Waxwings foraging in the wildlflowers, only in the tree tops.

Within the sociable ear-full, Waxwings take turns foraging. Some perch and preen, serving as sentries while flock-mates dine. Cedar Waxwings mostly eat berries and they love a wide variety. The first half of their name is derived from one of their favorite fruits, the waxy berries of cedar trees. During the breeding season, Waxwings add insects to their diets. Hatchlings are fed insects, gradually switching to berries.

Juvenile Cedar Waxwing with adult Waxwings

If you would like to attract Cedar Waxwings  to your garden here is a handy list that I compiled of some of their most favorite fruits and berries –

Dogwood, Juniper, Chokecherry, Cedar, Honeysuckle, Holy, Crabapple, Hawthorn, Serviceberry, Mulberry, Raspberry, Grapes, and Strawberry. Cedar Waxwings are becoming increasingly more prevalent in backyards because people are planting more ornamental flowering and fruiting trees.

BONAPARTE’S GULLS AND BRACE COVE SUNRISE

Beautiful Bonaparte’s dancing in the waves at sunrise, Brace Cove

PIPING PLOVER ADORABLENESS OVERLOAD

This past week I have been reorganizing and adding new photos to my presentation about Piping Plovers. I came across these sweet scenes that were in my photo library from the past summer. There are so many photos that never see the light of day! Next week I will be presenting the PiPl program to the Junior League of Boston and it is the first time doing this program virtually. We’ll see how it goes.

Tender moments

There’s a lot going on in this nest! A twelve hour old chick, a chick that is a few hours old, a minutes-old newborn hatchling (still wet and with its leg akimbo), and an egg beginning to crack.

Last night I gave my first virtual film screening for BotWing. There were some initial glitches, but all in all, the screening went very well!

We all are frustrated by this new virtual reality. People are sociable beings. It’s much more meaningful and enjoyable to give programs in person and to create live events. Thank goodness though for virtuality because there just is no other safe way of doing things. I am just grateful to be alive and have immense hope for when the pandemic is truly under control we can come out and see our friends and loved ones. Stay strong friends, it’s going to be a  long winter. 

Station break #4, brought to you by a handsome Red-tailed Hawk hanging in our trees!

Interrupting your election news coverage to bring you PlumStreet Wild Kingdom chronicles:

What a luxuriously warm early morning and late day for photographing wild creatures – GBHeron, Blue Jays, a herd of White-tailed Deer (8!), Snow Buntings – and right in our own backyard, just at the moment our little Red Fox slipped behind the fence, a Red-tailed Hawk flew into a neighboring tree.

I wonder if he was attracted to the cacophony created by the Crows harassing the Fox. I never would have seen the Hawk if not for the Red Fox. The Hawk perched in the tree and then flew to my neighbor MJ’s towering and stunning Larch Tree (the tallest tree in the neighborhood). He stayed there for sometime before tiring of the Crows and swooping off.

Lift-off #1

Second flight

Station break #3 – Blue Jays in the Sunflower Field!

Expiring sunflower seed heads provide nourishment for flocks of songbirds, including Blue Jays. A Blue Jay’s diet consists mostly of insects, seeds, nuts, and grains. And they love acorns, too (yet another reason to plant oak trees!).

Blue Jays are year round residents throughout their range however, thousands do migrate along the Atlantic Coast and Great Lakes. Their migration is a bit of a mystery and one thought is perhaps that juveniles are more likely to migrate than the adults. The flock visiting the sunflower field this morning was about twenty or so in number.
Blue Jay range map

We interrupt your nail-biting election results newsfeed to bring you BUFFLEHEADS!

A brief break from election coverage –

Buffleheads may be the tiniest diving duck found in North America; they are also the spunkiest, and quite possibly the cutest. Buffleheads, along with their waterside courtship antics, have returned in full force to Cape Ann’s shores, having spent the breeding season in central Canada. Some will migrate as far south as central Mexico and lucky for us, we will have a population that remains all winter.Male Bufflehead

The English name is a combination of buffalo and head, referring to the bulbous head shape. This is most noticeable when the male puffs out the feathers on his head, greatly increasing how large his head appears to competing males and potential mates.

The genus name, Bucephala, is derived from Ancient Greek boukephalos, “bullheaded”, from bous, “bull ” and kephale, “head”, again a reference to the bulbous head shape of the species. The species name albeola is from Latin albus, white.

HOPE IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS – VOTE FOR PIPING PLOVER PROTECTIONS!

Look for a surprising number of chicks in this clip 🙂

Baby chicks need safe habitat. Please share and Vote the Blue Wave to continue protections afforded under the Endangered Species Act.

 

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –

And sore must be the storm –

That could abash the little Bird

That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –

And on the strangest Sea –

Yet – never – in Extremity,

It asked a crumb – of me.

 -Emily Dickinson

 

VOTE FOR SNOWY OWLS!

Global climate change is not a HOAX as has been declared by the current administration. Recognizing that climate change exists and addressing the devastating effects on wildlife is imperative to insuring a richly diverse Planet Earth for our children and children’s children. Fifty-two percent of the world’s raptors are in decline and with the Arctic warming at twice the rate of the rest of the globe, the Snowy Owl faces a frosty future. The Snowy Owl population is especially at risk having declined by 64% since 1970.

The challenges we face because of climate change have been with us for decades. Administrations prior to the current administration have been working in the right direction and the Biden-Harris team plans to lead the world to address the climate emergency. Read more here:

THE BIDEN PLAN TO BUILD A MODERN, SUSTAINABLE INFRASTRUCTURE AND AN EQUITABLE CLEAN ENERGY FUTURE  [https://joebiden.com/clean-energy/]

Vote the Blue Wave!

Snowy Owl Film Project

https://www.ecowatch.com/snowy-owls-climate-change-2623954976.html

https://www.owlresearchinstitute.org/climate-change-and-snowy-owls

https://www.birdlife.org/worldwide/news/snowy-owl-faces-frosty-future-classed-vulnerable-first-time

VOTE FOR CHICKS ON THE HALF SHELL!

Nesting shorebirds need safe habitat. Please share and Vote the Blue Wave to continue protections afforded under the Endangered Species Act.

What’s happening in this short clip? Within hours after hatching, tiny marshmallow-sized Piping Plover chicks leave the nest and begin foraging on their own. They still need Mom and Dad for thermo-snuggling and for protection. In this clip you can hear Dad Plover piping loudly, commanding the chick to take cover, and the day-old chick’s barely audible peeps in response.

 

AMAZING 68 HOUR GREAT BLUE HERON NONSTOP FLIGHT FROM CHALEUR BAY, CANADA TO CUMBERLAND ISLAND, GEORGIA!!!

Great Blue Herons truly are the Jet Blue of the avian world! The following incredible story is shared with us by reader Chris Callahan and comes from the Heron Observation Network of  Maine.

Harper Wows Us Again!

Harper, an adult female great blue heron outfitted with a solar-powered GPS unit, has just flown nonstop for 68 hours on her southward migration! She spent the summer in New Brunswick, Canada, and the post-breeding season on Chaleur Bay on the border of QC and NB. At around 7pm on October 8th she left this rich feeding area and flew continuously crossing over Nova Scotia and then out over open ocean. She came within 165 miles of Bermuda but turned westward toward the US mainland. At 3:15pm on October 11th, she finally made landfall on the southern tip of Cumberland Island on the Georgia coast. She has since gradually made her way to the Everglades in Florida. Last year she impressed the world by flying nonstop over open ocean for 38 hours. She nearly doubled that duration this year! We will be watching to see if she returns to last year’s wintering area in Guajaca Uno, Cuba, and will post updates on our Facebook Page. For more information on the tracking project, including how to download the data to explore on your own, visit: https://www1.maine.gov/wordpress/ifwheron/tracking-project/.

Great Blue Heron Gloucester Harbor

Great Blue Heron range map

JET BLUE COMING IN FOR A LANDING

Chasing Monarchs, and finding other beauties on the wing

Great Blue Heron 

SHORELINE MAYHEM – HERONS, CORMORANTS, AND GULLS AMASSING!

Life at the Edge of the Sea- Double-crested Cormorant Feeding Frenzy!

A note about the photos – for the past five years I have been photographing and filming the Cormorants massing. The photos are from 2016 – 2019, and most recently, from 2020. Some of the earliest ones were taken at Niles Beach in 2017. In 2018, my friend Nina wrote to say that the massing also takes place in her neighborhood on the Annisquam River. Several weeks ago, while hiking on the backside of Sandy Point, facing the Ipswich Yacht Club, the Cormorants were massing there, too. Please write if you have seen this spectacular event taking place in your neighborhood. Thank you so much!

Massing in great numbers as they gather at this time of year, Double Crested Cormorants, along with many species of gulls and herons, are benefitting from the tremendous numbers of minnows that are currently present all around the shores of Cape Ann.

Waiting for the Cormorants early morning

At inlets on the Annisquam and Essex Rivers, as well as the inner Harbor and Brace Cove, you can see great gulps of Cormorants. In unison, they push the minnows to shore, where gulls and herons are hungrily waiting. The fish try to swim back out toward open water but the equally as hungry Cormorants have formed a barrier. From an onlooker’s point of view, it looks like utter mayhem with dramatic splashing, diving, and devouring. In many of the photos, you can see that the birds are indeed catching fish.

The Double-crested Cormorants are driving the feeding frenzy. I have seen this symbiotic feeding with individual pairs of DCCormorants and Snowy Egrets at our waterways during the summer, but only see this extraordinary massing of gulls, herons, and cormorants at this time of year, in late summer and early autumn.

Cormorants catch fish by diving from the surface, chasing their prey under water and seizing it with the hooked bill.

Double-crested Cormorants

Double-crested Cormorants are ubiquitous. When compared to Great Cormorants, DCCormorants are a true North American species and breed, winter over, and migrate along the shores of Cape Ann.