I have so loved filming and photographing Snow Buntings this winter, finding small and medium sized flocks from Sandy Point to Cape Ann, and further south, all along the coast of Massachusetts. The flocks I have been filming are becoming smaller; male Snow Buntings have already begun their long migration north. Don’t you find all migrating species of wildlife fascinating? Especially a tiny creature such as the Snow Bunting, which breeds the furthest north of any known land-based bird. From the shores of Massachusetts Snow Buntings migrate to the high Arctic where they nest in rocky crevices.
The range shown in orange is where Snow Buntings nest
What has been especially fun to observe is when the Snow Bunting uses its feet as snowshoes and belly like a sled when traversing snow covered beaches. Oftentimes that’s how you can find them, with their unique step-step-slide-tracks. Snow Buntings seem to forage nearly non-stop, perching while shredding grassy seed heads and leaves, and pecking on the ground for seeds caught between sand, stones, and snow. To get from one clump of vegetation to the next, they hop lightly over the surface, snowshoeing along, and then slide along on their bellies. Snow Buntings must gain 30 percent of their body weight before beginning their journey.
Snowshoeing and Sledding
Lively disagreements over food ensue, usually nothing more than a mild spat.
Males typically depart the northeast for their nesting grounds earlier than do the females, arriving three to six weeks ahead of the females. Snow Buntings migrate entirely at night, following the geomagnetic field of the Earth, independent of any type of visual clue!
Notice in several of the photos you can see their “feathered pantaloons,” providing extra protection against freezing temperatures.
Snow Bunting eggs and nest in rocky crevice, images courtesy Google image search
Nicknamed Snowflakes because of their ability to nest in snow!
On a damp overcast day, a cloud of of Robins descended on our garden. The Dragon Lady hollies provided an abundance of food for the traveling flock. Their beautiful birdsongs filled the neighborhood as they went from tree to tree, devouring any remaining winter fruits.
A large flock of American Robins, often times mixed with European Starlings, arrives annually on Cape Ann round about mid-winter. Over the past several weeks they have been devouring tree fruits all around Eastern Point and East Gloucester. Yesterday our ‘Dragon Lady’ holies were bursting with brilliant red frutis, today, nary a berry!
Please write if you have seen the Robins in your garden or local wooded walks 🙂
Our garden is a postage stamp but we have planted it richly for the songbirds. The pair of ‘Dragon Lady’ holly trees hold their berries for the Robins, the crabapples have yet to be sampled, the winterberry is still ripe with fruit, and the tiny rosehips of the climbing white rose are beckoning.
We’re fortunate that on Cape Ann many American Robins nest and migrate along our shores, having several different habits for surviving winter. There are year round resident robins that breed throughout Cape Ann during warmer months and also spend the winter here. Some Robins arrive in springtime, having spent the winter further south in parts warmer. A third group, the ones I like to call winter Robins, arrive in mid-winter, from parts further north. We are like their Bermuda. They are very hungry and thirsty and are here to feed on wild fruits and berries, as well as small fish fry and fingerlings, and mollusks.
In early spring, Robins begin to disperse from flocks. The ground thaws and worms, insects, and snails once again become part of the Robin’s diet. In early spring, too, is when we begin to hear the beautiful liquid notes of the male robin. He is singing to attract a mate. The robin’s song is one of the of most beloved and it is his music with which we associate the coming of spring.
Be sure your bird baths are filled with fresh, accessible water.
With several edits and updates since I first wrote the following article, I think you’ll find the information helpful in knowing what to feed and to plant for the robins.
Food for the American Robin
During the winter months Cape Ann often becomes home to large flocks of robins, and we have had the joy of hosting numerous numbers in our garden. I can’t help but notice their arrival. Their shadows descend, crisscrossing the window light, followed by a wild rumpus in the ‘Dragon Lady’ hollies. This pair of hollies is planted on opposing sides of the garden path, alongside my home office. I have learned to stealthily sneak up to a window, as any sudden activity inside startles birds that are investigating our garden, and they quickly disperse. Dining not only on berries of the ‘Dragon Ladies’, but also the ‘Blue Princess’ Meserve holly and winterberry bushes, I find dozens of noisy, hungry robins.
These winter nomads flock to trees and shrubs that hold their fruit through January and February, feasting on red cedar, American holly, Meserve hollies, chokecherries, crabapples, sumac, and juniper. Robins traveling along the shores of Cape Ann also comb the shoreline for mollusks, and go belly-deep for fish fry. Depleting their food supply, they move onto the next location. Gardens rife with fruiting shrubs and trees make an ideal destination for our migrating friends.
Year round resident robins will call your garden home when provided with trays of chopped fruit and raisins, supplemented with meal worms.
What to Plant for Robins
The garden designed to attract nesting pairs of summer resident robins, as well as flocks of winter travelers, would be comprised of trees and shrubs for nest building, plants that bear fruit and berries that are edible during the summer and fall, and plants that bear fruits that persist through the winter months. Suburban gardens and agricultural areas provide the ideal habitat, with open fields and lawns for foraging insects as well as trees and hedgerows in which to build their nests.
The following plants, suggested with robins in mind, will also attract legions of songbirds and Lepidoptera. The list is comprised primarily of indigenous species with a few non-native, but not invasive, plants included.
Trees for nesting ~ American Holly (Ilex opaca), Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana), Red Maple (Acer rubrum), Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum), Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida).
Summer and autumn fruit bearing trees, shrubs and vines for robins ~ Black Cherry (Prunus serotina), Blackberry (Rubus spp.), Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida), Gray Dogwood (C. racemosa), Red-osier Dogwood (C. sericea), Silky Dogwood (C. amomum), Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), Apple (Malus pumila), Virginia Rose (Rosa virginiana), Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), Wild Grape (Vitis spp.).
Trees and shrubs with fruits persisting through winter ~ Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), Mountain Ash (Sorbus americana), Crabapple (Malus spp.), Sargent’s Crabapple (Malus sargentii), American Holly (Ilex opaca), Meserve Hollies (Ilex x meserveae), Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana), Common Juniper (Juniperus communis), Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra), Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina).
Check out this fantastic video created by Dave Rimmer, Essex Greenbelt’s Director of Land Stewardship and Osprey Program. The footage was taken last summer from Greenbelt’s OspreyCam. Watch highlights of the 2020 Osprey season captured from Annie and Squam’s nest in Gloucester. Annie and Squam fledged three chicks, Vivi, Rusty, and Liz, and you can watch their development from egg to fledging.
It’s that time of year again when we occasionally find stranded seabirds on our beaches. Seabirds, also known as marine birds and pelagic birds, are birds that spend most of their time on the ocean, away from land. Ninety-five percent of seabirds breed in colonies. During the nesting season is the only time you will see them on land. Common Murre, Thick-billed Murre, Dovekie, Puffin, and Northern Gannet are examples of marine birds.
Seabirds can become stranded for several reasons. Possibly they are sick, injured, or starving. Seabirds are also generally clumsy when on land. Sometimes they are stranded for no other reason than they can’t make their way back into the water.
If you find a stranded seabird first check to see if it is injured. If the birds appears uninjured and relatively healthy, approach from behind, gently pick up, and place in the water.
Wear gloves. When dealing with waterfowl, a thick pair of work gloves can prevent personal injury. A net is very useful for capturing animals that will try to flee or fly. If a body of water is nearby, get between the water and the animal. If the bird is not flighted, you can try to herd it towards an area like a wall or bush where you can more easily catch it.
Prepare a container
A large crate or large box with air holes, lined with newspaper or a sheet/towel will work for most large birds.
Put the bird in the box
Cover the bird’s head with a towel, keep the wings tucked into the body, and always be careful of its bill and wings. Immediately close the box.
If you can’t transport it immediately
Keep the bird in a warm, dark, quiet place.
Do not give it food or water. Feeding an animal an incorrect diet can result in injury or death. Also, a captured animal will get food and water stuck in its fur/feathers potentially leading to discomfort and hypothermia.
Do not handle it. Leave the animal alone. Remember human noise, touch and eye contact are very stressful to wild animals.
The rarely seen Black-headed Gull continues to make his home in Gloucester waters this winter. It’s super fun to watch his troublemaking antics, which include trying to snatch morsels of food from other gulls. Here he is getting into a smackdown with a Ring-billed Gull.
Black-headed Gull lost this round but after flying away briefly and dusting himself off, he jumped back into the fray.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Posting a bunch of photos for my friend Paul’s Mom, Debbie Wegzyn. Paul, and his Dad Paul, own and operate School Street Sunflowers. I love photographing at their fields, not only because the fields and all the wildlife attracted to the fields are beautiful but because Paul and his Dad love sharing the beauty of the fields with their community.
The photos were taken in September and October. The hay was being harvested and the winter cover crop planted. Most of the sunflowers had been cut down to plant rye, but Paul left several rows standing. The sunflower seed heads were Mecca for every songbird in the neighborhood, including a beautiful flock of Red-winged Blackbirds, Goldfinches, Song Sparrows, Bobolinks, and Blue Jays.
On December 21st, School Street Sunflowers is planning to share wonderfully exciting news that I think all of Essex County and the North Shore will be overjoyed to learn. Please stay tuned <3
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.
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
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.
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.