Category Archives: Birds of New England

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.

Nearly all the species of herons that breed in our region have been spotted in the frenzy including the Great Blue Heron, Snowy Egret, Great Egret, Little Blue Heron, Green Heron, and Black-crowned Night Heron.

After feeding, the herons often find a quiet place to preen before heading back in the late afternoon to their overnight roosting grounds.

 

Double-crested Cormomrant range map

Maine’s Piping Plovers Had Another Record Nesting Season

Thanks to Piping Plover Ambassador Deborah Brown for sharing the following story. Way to go Maine!

For the third consecutive year, Maine saw a record number of nesting piping plovers and fledglings despite greater traffic at some beaches as people looked to get outside during the pandemic.

There were 98 nesting pairs and 199 fledglings at the 25 beaches where the birds are monitored, up from last year’s mark of 89 nesting pairs and 175 fledglings, said Laura Minich Zitske, the plover project director at Maine Audubon, which runs the program for the state. Zitske attributes the banner year to the work of hundreds of volunteers who helped educate the public – such as at Higgins Beach, where there were 40 patrolling, and in Wells, where 40 volunteers helped at three beaches.

“I do think the big year is unrelated to the pandemic. We expected to have a lot of birds back after last year’s record year,” Zitske said. “But we did have a lot of pandemic-related problems. Birds nested right next to paths when the beaches were closed. And some people struggled to follow rules. Some people left common sense behind. You definitely could see that to a degree.”

READ the full story here

BLUEBIRD OF HAPPINESS

The very last thing I expected to see on this morning’s trek were Bluebirds. So many shades of blue in those beautiful wings – Egyptian Blue, Azure, Cerulean, Lapis lazuli, Coblat, Ultramarine -simply astounding! More to come when I have time to sort through photos this weekend 🙂 Eastern Bluebird Male

BOBOLINKS AMONGST THE SUNFLOWERS!

Life at the Edge of the Sea -Bobolinks! 

Part One

Recently I asked my friend Paul Wegzyn, owner of School Street Sunflowers, if I could poke around his sunflower field after it had closed for the season. The field had not yet been turned over to prepare for planting a winter cover crop and with all the expiring flowers, I thought perhaps it might be a wonderful place to photograph. He is so kind and said surely, no problem.

Suffice it to say, Paul’s field far exceeded my expectations for dreamy “expiring” beauty. The sunflowers not only provide myriad species of wildlife with seeds, but the tall, sturdy heads and leaves make for an outstanding songbird perch. The Song Sparrows use the sunflower heads to both forage and groom, the warblers for cover as they are hunting insects, and the most ingenious of all is how the Bobolinks make use of the seed heads. The grass that grows in and amongst the sunflowers is nearly as tall as the flower heads. The Bobolink lands on the sunflower and after thoroughly eyeballing the surrounding landscape for danger (hawks, I imagine), she slides a mouthful of grass seeds down the stalk and into her beak.

Over a period of several days I counted between half a dozen to a dozen Bobolinks, all females and immatures, not a single adult male amongst the flock. I wonder if the males migrate earlier than the females and immatures or if this was just a fluke. The males are striking in their crisp coat of black, white, and yellow, while the female’s feathers look nothing like the male’s wing patterning. (Thank you to author John Nelson for the positive bird ID!)

Male and female Bobolink, image courtesy The Bobolink Project

School Street Sunflowers has been providing a fantastic source of fuel for this super long distant migrant. At this time of year Bobolinks eat seeds and grains, switching over to insects during the breeding season.The Bobolink’s journey is an impressive 6,000 mile trek and they can fly 1,100 miles in a single day. Each year Bobolinks fly approximately 12,500 miles round trip and during the course of an average Bobolink’s life span, they will have traveled a distance equal to circumnavigating the earth four to five times.

Bobolinks are, as are many species of grassland birds, in overall decline. In some areas of New England they are recovering, due in large part to the success of The Bobolink Project. Because Bobolinks nest on the ground and because hay fields are typically planted and mowed earlier than in previous decades, the nest, eggs, and nestlings are churned up in plowing. The Bobolink Project is non profit organization that pays farmers to plant and to mow a little later in the season, which allows the birds to mature to fledge.

 

Note how well hidden is the Bobolink nest

Above photo gallery courtesy The Bobolink Project

Because of habitat loss, the use of neonicotinoids, and global climate change, grassland species need our help. Like other charismatic species of wildlife–Monarchs, Snowy Owls, and Piping Plovers come to mind–perhaps the Bobolink can be that grassland flagship species that people get excited about. Understanding a wild creature’s life story and lending a helping hand also provides habitat conservation for other species of wildlife as well.

Bobolinks at School Street Sunflowers

To learn more about The Bobolink Project go here.

To donate to The Bobolink Project (your donation helps pay the farmers) go here.

If you are a farm owner and would like to apply to The Bobolink Project go here

More reading:

Grassland Birds: Fish and Wildlife Habitat Management Leaflet

American Bird Conservancy: Bobolink

Grassland bird decline tied to neonicotinoids

History of Grassland Birds in Eastern North America

Bobolink Range MapGoblin Story

SMILEY FACE SUNFLOWERS

Smiling Sunflowers – Paul W of School Street Sunflowers and local kids have been having fun with the sunflower seed heads.

What a special place is School Street, and special owners – more tomorrow!

ATTENTION BIRD LOVING AND PHOTOGRAPHY FRIENDS – RUN, DON’T WALK, TO PARKER RIVER NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE!

According to Rangers at Parker River, the 2020 fall migration at Plum Island is the best they have ever seen, with over 180 species on the current list (last ten days).

Perhaps the lessened human activity across North America has allowed for many species of birds to flourish.

Female Bobolink (more about beautiful Bobolinks in an upcoming post)

I was filming at a location nearby at dawn or I would have gone at my usual daybreak time, which I find is the best time to observe birds, and wildlife of all sorts. Mid-day is not the best time to go, but it was my one and only chance and I wanted to check it out. Plum Island is gorgeous whenever you go. Autumn hues are beginning to show (especially the brilliant purple-red of PI), there are great swaths of goldenrods in full bloom, and there is a wealth of bird food, berries and seed heads, for the birds to forage upon. Stage Island and Hellcat are two current hotspots for bird sightings.

When you drive up to the kiosk where you show your membership card, ask for the species list of birds seen recently. Or click this link here:

Recent Bird Sightings from Plum Island

Stage Island, Plum Island

SNOWBIRDS – WE LOVE YOU, BUT PLEASE GO BACK FROM WHERE YOU CAME!

Life at the Edge of the Sea- Dark-eyed Juncos arrive September 19th

Over the very last remaining days of summer a sweet flock of Dark-eyed Juncos has been spotted on Eastern Point. Beautiful Song Sparrow-sized birds feathered in shades of gray and white, Dark eyed Juncos purportedly arrive in mid-October and are thought to presage the coming of winter.

Really little ones, you are much TOO EARLY.

Nicknamed Snow-bird in New England days of old, in fact Dark-eyed Juncos actually nest in Massachusetts, primarily in the western part of the state. Mostly Dark-eyed Juncos breed further north and migrate to warmer climes in the fall. Does their early arrival in the eastern part of the state portend of an early winter? The weather prediction for the winter of 2020 – 2021 is much more snow compared to last year’s nearly snow-less season, along with the possibility of a blizzard in mid-February (Farmer’s Almanac).

 

Study in shades of gray

WEST COAST WILDFIRE SMOKE CASTING AN EERIE HAZE OVER EASTERN MASSACHUSETTS SKIES

West Coast fire haze and belted Kingfisher

My Facebook friend Greg shared the graphic below and I think it shows very well the reason why the sun is appearing to look more lunar-like and the skies are so hazy and overcast.

GREAT EGRET MORNING FLOOFING

 Beautiful juvenile Great Egret morning feather floofingSoon Great Egrets will be heading south for the winter. I know we are all going to miss seeing these grand beauties that grace our local ponds, marshes, and shorelines. Great Egrets travel as far as the West Indies and southern Central America.

 

BABY CEDAR WAXWINGS IN THE HOOD!

Life at the Edge of the Sea – Cedar Waxwing Baby Masked Bandits

For over a month I have been filming a flock of Cedar Waxwings. Exquisitely beautiful creatures, with their combination of soft buffy and brilliantly punctuated wing patterning, along with graceful agility, it’s been easy to fall in love with these birds and they have become a bit of an obsession. 

I filmed some wonderful scenes and will share the photos and story as soon as there is time but in the meantime I wanted to share these photos of a juvenile Cedar Waxwing so you know what to look for. Waxwings are often found high up in the treetops. They are most easily seen on limbs bare of leaves. Their repetitious soft trilling song gives them away and if you learn the sound you will begin to see Cedar Waxwings everywhere. They have an extended breeding period in our region and because it is so late in the season, this juvenile may be one of a second brood.

While I was shooting for my short short story, the Waxwing flock was mostly on the ground in a wildflower patch devouring insects. Cedar Waxwings are more typically berry-eating frugivores. During the summer they add insects to their diet and I think it may have to do with keeping the hatchling’s bellies filled. It wasn’t until they moved back up into the treetops that this little guy began appearing amongst the flock. He has the same masked face, but the breast is softly streaked. You can see the yellow feathers tips beginning to grow in.

Juvenile Cedar Waxwing

Adult Cedar Waxwing

TREE SWALLOW, BARN SWALLOW, OR CLIFF SWALLOW?

Life at the Edge of the Sea – Swallows of Massachusetts

Lovely large flocks of Tree Swallows continue to gather, gracing our shores with their chattering cheery chirping. But these flocks aren’t only comprised of Tree Swallows, often seen in the mix are Barn Swallows, too.Barn Swallow left, female Tree Swallow right

Male Tree Swallows

There are six species of Swallows that breed in Massachusetts and they are Tree, Barn, Cliff, Purple Martin, Northern Rough-winged, and Bank Swallows. Tree Swallows are the most abundant breeders, with Barn Swallows coming in second. Cliff, Northern Rough-winged, Bank, and Barn Swallows are all in decline.Male and female Tree Swallows

Male Tree Swallows wear brilliant iridescent greenish blue feathers, with a sharply defined face mask. The females are a duller brownish, but they too have some blue iridescence in their plumage. Both have white chins and predominantly white breasts.Barn Swallow

Male Barn Swallows are a beautiful cobalt blue with rusty red forehead and red feathers below their bills. Their bellies vary from buffy tan to cinnamon colored.

Tree Swallows breed in the wetlands and fields of Cape Ann. Their name comes from the species habit of nesting in tree cavities. Tree Swallows have benefited tremendously from efforts to help save the Eastern Bluebird because they also nest in the nest boxes built specifically for the Bluebirds.

Juvenile Barn Swallow

Barn Swallows build their nest cups from mud and they prefer nesting sites such as the rafters, eaves, and crossbeams of barns, stables, and sheds. They also chose the undersides of wharves and bridges.

Acrobatic aerialists, both Tree and Barn Swallows twist and turn mid-flight to capture a wide variety of insects including flies, butterflies, dragonflies, bees, beetles, and wasps. We on Cape Ann especially love swallows because they eat the dreaded Greenhead.

Life at the Edge of the Sea – Good Afternoon Little Green Heron!

A Little Green Heron crossed my path, flying in low and fast. Stealthily hunting along the water’s’s edge, he had an uncanny ability to make himself nearly flat before striking.

The light was at first overcast but when the sun poked through the clouds, everything turned all golden orange.

Green Herons eat a wide variety of fish and small creatures including minnows, sunfish, catfish, pickerel, carp, perch, gobies, shad, silverside, eels, goldfish, insects, spiders, crustaceans, snails, amphibians, reptiles, and rodents. Although found throughout the US but, it is a species in decline in most regions, except California, where the bird appears to be increasing. Green Herons breed in Massachusetts coastal and inland wetlands.

My days are full, full to overflowing sometimes, with taking care of Charlotte and family, film, and design projects. Though there isn’t day a day that goes by that I don’t think of my life as a gift. Daily I try to fit in a walk, always with a camera slung over each shoulder. How blessed are we on Cape Ann, especially during the pandemic, to have such beauty for our eyes to see and our hearts to travel.  I can’t keep up with sharing footage and that will all go towards larger projects anyway, and I am behind with sharing photos. Perhaps I should make these walk photos a series – ‘life at the edge of the sea,’ or something along those lines.

 

RAGWEED VS GOLDENROD – WHAT IS CAUSING MY SEASONAL ALLERGIES?

Migrating Monarchs and Seaside Goldenrod

So often I hear folks blaming goldenrod as the source of their allergy suffering, when they really mean to say ragweed. The three species of goldenrod that we most often see in our coastal north of Boston fields, meadows, woodland edges, and dunes are Seaside Goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens), Tall Goldenrod (Solidago altissima), and Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis).  All three have beautiful yellow flowers, Seaside blooming a bit after Canada and Tall, and all are fabulous pollinator plants, providing nectar for bees, butterflies, and migrating Monarchs.

In our region, we most often encounter Common Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisifolia), with Plain Jane tiny green flowers and raggedy looking foliage. Goldenrods and ragweeds both bloom at roughly the same time of year, in mid- to late-summer, but why is ragweed the culprit and goldenrods are not? The colorful showy flowers of goldenrods are attractive to pollinators and they are both insect and wind pollinated. The drops of goldenrod pollen are too large to fall far from the plant. Ragweed’s tiny flowers are not of interest to most pollinators and the plant has evolved to rely on the wind to disperse its pollen from plant to plant. Ragweed produces massive amounts of teeny, breathable pollen to travel widely on the wind.

Cedar Waxwing foraging in weed patch with Common Ragweed

Although many of us are fortunate not to be bothered by ragweed, I completely empathize with friends who are. If it is any consolation, I recently learned two good uses for Common Ragweed. Shetland sheep love to eat it and it is good for their wool. And I have been following a flock of  Cedar Waxwings for over a month. I often see in the morning the Waxwings descend on patches of mixed weeds, mostly Common Ragweed. Waxwings change their diet in summer to include insects and I think the birds are attracted to the plant for the host of insects it supports. So next time you are ragging on ragweed remember, it is a native plant and it does support a community of insects and birds.

ONE OF THE MOST BEAUTIFUL SCENTS ON ALL OF CAPE ANN – ‘SAILOR’S DELIGHT’ SUMMERSWEET

Clethra alnifolia is more commonly known by its many descriptive names of Summersweet, Sweet Pepperbush, and Honeysweet. In an old book on fragrance, written by Louise Beebe Wilder, she writes that in Gloucester of old it was described as ‘Sailor’s Delight.’ During the 19th and early 20th century, as told by Wilder, the sailors entering the harbor on homebound ships would reportedly delight in its fragrance wafting out to see.

Much of Niles Pond road is to this day lined with great thickets of ‘Sailor’s Delight.’ Wild Clethra growing on Cape Ann blooms during the month of August.

The following is an excerpt from a book that I wrote back in 2004-2007, which was published by David R. Godine in 2009. The book is about designing landscape habitats for wild creatures and for people, titled Oh Garden of Fresh Possibilities: Notes from a Gloucester Garden, and all that I wrote then, still holds true to day.

“Summersweet bears small white florets held on racemes, and depending on the cultivar may be shaded with varying hues of pink to rose-red. The tapering spires of fragrant blossoms appear in mid to late summer. Clethra has a sweet and spicy though somewhat pungent aroma, and when the summer air is sultry and humid, the fragrance permeates the garden, Summersweet is a nectar food attractive to bees and a wide variety of butterflies, notably the Silver-spotted Skipper.” See more at Oh GardenMyriad species of bees and butterflies, along with Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, are attracted to Clethra for its sweet nectar, while American Robins, Goldfinches and warblers dine on Summersweet’s ripened berries.
Clethra fruits ripening

SUNFLOWER DREAMS

I am dreaming nightly about sunflowers. Thanks to the mystical beauty found at School Street Sunflowers, it’s no wonder why <3

Nature rarer uses yellow
Than another hue;
Saves she all of that for sunsets,—
Prodigal of blue,

Spending scarlet like a woman,
Yellow she affords
Only scantly and selectly,
Like a lover’s words.

Emily Dickinson

Don’t miss School Street Sunflowers while the field is in full, glorious bloom. There are still hundreds of buds yet to open. Pay online in advance to reserve a time – see below.

Paul Wegzyn is the genius behind School Street Sunflowers

With Paul’s Dad, Paul.

Sunflowers, freshly cut each morning, are for sale. Only $10.00 a half  dozen and they last a very good long while.

When you go -the sunflower trail is one way, which is great for avoiding mashups on the trail during the pandemic. Paul and his staff all wear masks, so please wear your mask as well. This year, the tractors are not available for playing on because they would need to be disinfected after each use. There are picnic tables and wonderful vignettes for family photos. I went with three year old Charlotte on a sunny morning and she led the way through the winding trail. Last year, Charlotte only ventured a few feet into the field; this year it was “COMEON, hurry up Mimi!”

Live in the Sunshine, Swim the Sea, Drink the Wild Air – Ralph Waldo Emerson

School Street Sunflowers is located on School Street in Ipswich, behind the high school. For more information visit –

Website: www.schoolstreetsunflowers.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/schoolstreetsunflowers

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/schoolstreetsunflowers

Live music with Paul’s friend and first year Berkeley College of Music student, Jade Hua

Sunflowers are heliotropic when they are young. By the time they mature, sunflowers generally face toward the East throughout the day. The scientific name for Common Sunflowers is Helianthus annus – helios for resembling the sun, anthos for flower, and annus for yearly.

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360 degrees of Sunflowers 🌻 #schoolstreetsunflowers

A post shared by Kim Smith (@kimsmithfilms) on

WHAT’S SO FUNNY ABOUT LAUGHING GULLS?

Laughing Gulls are so named for their wonderfully noisy laugh-like call and a large flock, such as the one seen on our shores lately, is even more fun to listen to.

Laughing Gull in breeding plumage

Strikingly handsome birds in their breeding feathers, with a sharply defined black head contrasting against their crisp white breast and slate gray feathers, the flock that is currently on Cape Ann looks entirely different because they are a varied mixture of mostly juvenile first hatch year, along with adults that are losing their breeding plumage.The younger members wear a contrasting scalloped brown and white pattern on their flight feathers while the adults have smudgey gray heads. All have stout, slightly curved bills; at this time of year the adult’s bills are black although you may see some red remaining in its bill.

Whether adult or juvenile, an easy way to id is that both have a pair of white crescent spots above and below the eye.

All three above are Laughing Gulls

If spotted beside a juvenile Herring Gull, the Laughing Gull is smaller, with more sharply defined plumage.

The Laughing Gulls diet is varied; they eat many invertebrates including snails, crabs, insects, and earthworms. Laughing Gulls also eat berries, fish, squid, and garbage.

Coming in for a landing

Tossed off by a rock by an incoming wave

Laughing Gulls breed in the Northeast and typically depart to winter in Central America and northern South America. They can be found year round along both the Gulf and Southeast coastlines.

GOOD MORNING FROM GOOD HARBOR!

Despite the pandemic heartbreak, along with the social and economic hardships so many are experiencing, the summer of 2020 been a beautiful season of sunrises and sunsets. This one is from several days ago.I’m so behind in posting local wildlife stories while trying to prepare all the ancillary materials needed to send my film to APTWW, a huge back log of stories really. But I did want everyone to be aware that there is a a great flock of juvenile Laughing Gulls on our shores right now. They are fishing feeding with juvenile Herring Gulls as well as with adult Laughing Gulls. The Laughing Gull juveniles are smaller than the Herring Gulls and have a very distant scallop pattern on their flight wings. Will try to post some more photos later today 🙂Laughing Gull juvenile

LITTLE BLUE HERON CAPTURES A MYSTERY CREATURE?

This morning while observing a juvenile Little Blue Heron fishing he captured a small pond creature, but then spit it out almost immediately. No wonder, it is so odd looking. Can anyone help ID? Thank you!

Ready for take off

Skipping logs