Category Archives: Cape Ann Wildlife

The Magical Month of May for Migrations in Massachusetts

May is a magical month in Massachusetts for observing migrants traveling to our shores, wooded glens, meadows, and shrubby uplands. They come either to mate and to nest, or are passing through on their way to the Arctic tundra and forests of Canada and Alaska.

I am so excited to share about the many beautiful species of shorebirds, songbirds, and butterflies I have been recently filming and photographing for several projects. Mostly I shoot early in the morning, before setting off to work with my landscape design clients. I love, love my work, but sometimes it’s really hard to tear away from the beauty that surrounds here on Cape Ann. I feel so blessed that there is time to do both. If you, too, would like to see these beautiful creatures, the earliest hours of daylight are perhaps the best time of day to capture wildlife, I assume because they are very hungry first thing in the morning and less likely to be bothered by the presence of a human. Be very quiet and still, and observe from a distance far enough away so as not to disturb the animal’s activity.

Some species, like Great Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets, Black-crowned Night Herons, Great Egrets, Brant Geese, and Osprey, as well as Greater and Lesser Yellow Legs, are not included here because this post is about May’s migration and these species were seen in April.

Please note that several photos are not super great by photo skill standards, but are included so you can at least see the bird in a Cape Ann setting. I am often shooting something faraway, at dawn, or dusk, or along a shady tree-lined lane. As so often happens, I’ll get a better capture in better light, and will switch that out, for the purpose of record keeping, at a later date.

Happy Magical May Migration!

The male Eastern Towhee perches atop branches at daybreak and sings the sweetest ta-weet, ta-weet, while the female rustles about building a nest in the undergrowth. Some live year round in the southern part of the US, and others migrate to Massachusetts and parts further north to nest.

If these are Short-billed Dowitchers, I’d love to see a Long-billed Dowitcher! They are heading to swampy pine forests of high northern latitudes.

Black-bellied Plovers, much larger relatives of Piping Plovers, look like Plain Janes when we see them in the fall (see above).

Now look at his handsome crisp black and white breeding plumage; its hard to believe we are looking at the same bird! He is headed to breed in the Arctic tundra in his fancy new suit.

The Eastern Kingbird is a small yet feisty songbird; he’ll chase after much larger raptors and herons that dare to pass through his territory. Kingbirds spend the winter in the South American forests and nest in North America.

With our record of the state with the greatest Piping Plover recovery rate, no post about the magical Massachusetts May migration would be complete without including these tiniest of shorebirds. Female Piping Plover Good Harbor Beach.

The Good Harbor Beach Piping Plover Pair Are Struggling and Need Our help

Good Morning Papa Plover!

Over the past several weeks, five Piping Plovers battling over nesting turf have been observed at Good Harbor Beach, from the creek end of the beach, all the way to the entrance by the Good Harbor Beach Inn. In the past three days, there hasn’t been activity in the roped off area nearer the GHB Inn. It appears only one pair has decided to call GHB their home for the summer and they seem to be zeroing in on the cordoned off area by boardwalk #3, same as last year.

Unfortunately, the “Party Rock,” the large exposed rock up by the wrack line, is this year not in the roped off area; the roping comes just short of enclosing the “Rock.” The past few evenings, even before the heat wave, folks have been setting up their hibachis, behind the rock, abutting the restricted area. This morning there were a group of six sleeping next to the rock. Needless to say, our Plover pair was super stressed. Early morning is when they typically mate and lay eggs, and neither are happening under duress.

Papa wants to mate with Mama, but she is too stressed.

Here are just a few things we can do to help the Plovers. Please write and let us know your ideas and suggestions, they are so very much appreciated. It would be terrific to put together all the suggestions to present to Mayor Sefatia and Chirs. Thank you!

  1. Post a No Dog sign at the footbridge. I think this is critically important.
  2. Post signs at entrances to the beach to help educate folks about the Piping Plovers, why respecting the restricted area is so important, and why removing trash is equally as vital to the survival of the plovers.
  3. Additionally, I would love to make a brochure about the Piping Plover life cycle that we could hand out to visitors at the parking entrance. Though when I suggested that idea to a friend, he thought the brochures may end up littering the beach. What do you think?
  4. Fix the fencing around the dunes. As it stands now, the rusty old fencing is nearly buried in the sand and actually dangerously invites tripping. If the fences were mended and signs posted about the fragility of the dunes, folks would stop cutting through the dunes to go to and from the parking lot. Right now, they are walking through the restricted area to access the dune trail. Visitors may also want to know that the grass and shrubby growth on that trail is teeming with ticks, another reason to keep off the dunes.
  5. If folks are setting up a cookout or planning a sleepover next to the nesting area (especially near the party rock), gently explain why it would be best to move further down the beach, away from the restricted area.

Mama Plover fishing for worms

I would be happy to meet anyone at Good Harbor Beach to show exactly what are the issues. Dave Rimmer from Essex Greenbelt mentioned that in other communities where Piping Plovers have nested on very busy beaches, a network of Piping Plover babysitters was established to help the chicks survive on the busiest of beach days. If we are so fortunate as to have chicks, I would love to get together a group of “Piping Plover Babysitters.”

Good Harbor Beach

Winsome Willets

A Plain Jane, resting on a tuft of grass at the marsh edge, backlit, I at first thought she was a stone. A slight turn of the head and upon closer look, not a stone but a very large shorebird, with feathers worn in a subdued arrangement of brown and white—still, nothing special. Then she began to unfold her long elegant wings. Boldly barred in chocolate brown, this Plain Jane was swiftly transformed to Beauty Queen.

Willets are one of the few shorebirds that nest not in the Arctic tundra, but prairie and salt marshes of America and Canada. For over one hundred years Willets were hunted to non-existence in Massachusetts. Biologists have a name for this tragic occurrence, when a species is not extinct, but is no longer present in an area, and the term is extirpated. Because of the Migratory Bird Act of 1918, the Willet population is increasing and the Massachusetts coastline has once again become a safe home for these beautiful members of the sandpiper family.

Belonging to the same genus as yellowlegs, they do look similar to Greater Yellowlegs, but are comparatively larger, their beaks are thicker, and their legs are not yellow but gray. Look for Willets on beaches, marshes, mudflats, and rocky coasts. They forage on crabs and other small crustaceans, worms, mollusks, fish, and grass. The call of the Willet is unmistakable, piercing and urgent and their name comes from the ringing “pill-will-willet.”

 

PIPING PLOVERS COURTING ON GOOD HARBOR BEACH!!

The Piping Plovers have returned to nest on Good Harbor Beach. Last night I counted five plovers, and today four!

Above the wrack line, males are creating nest scrapes for females to approve (or disapprove, as is often the case). The gents use their back legs to vigorously dig a slight depression. They then sit in the scrape and beckon to the ladies with a continuous piping call to come inspect the potential nesting site.

Dave Rimmer, Essex County Greenbelt director of land stewardship, this morning installed fencing around a possible nesting area. We are all hoping that the Piping Plovers will quickly establish a nest and the chicks will have hatched before the July 4th crowds descend upon the beach. Dave’s message to everyone enjoying GHB is that if the Plovers are left undisturbed, the chicks will have a far better chance of survival the earlier in the season they hatch. If the nest site is continually disturbed and egg laying is delayed again and again, the Plovers will be here all that much longer.

It’s not easy being a Piping Plover. Rest time between foraging and courting.

The Plovers have traveled many thousands of miles to reach our shores and are both weary from traveling and eager to establish nesting sites.

What can you do to help the Piping Plovers? Here are four simple things we can all do to protect the Plovers.

1) Don’t leave behind or bury trash or food on the beach. All garbage attracts predators such as crows, seagulls, foxes, and coyotes, and all four of these creatures EAT plover eggs and chicks.

2) Do not linger near the Piping Plovers or their nests. Activity around the Plovers also attracts gulls and crows.

3) Respect the fenced off areas that are created to protect the Plovers.

4) If pets are permitted, keep dogs leashed.

The last is the most difficult for folks to understand. Dogs threaten Piping Plovers in many ways and at every stage of their life cycle during breeding season, even the most adorable and well-behaved of pooches.

Dogs love to chase Piping Plovers (and other shorebirds) at the water’s edge. After traveling all those thousand of miles, the birds need sustenance. They are at the shoreline to feed to regain their strength.

Dogs love to chase piping Plovers at the wrack line. Here the birds are establishing where to nest. Plovers are skittish at this stage of breeding and will depart the area when disturbed.

Dogs love to chase Piping Plover chicks, which not only terrifies the adult Plovers and distracts them from minding the babies, but the chicks are easily squished by a dog on the run.

 

M is for May Migration Through Massachusetts

During the month of May, Massachusetts is graced daily with species arriving from their winter homes. Some need to fortify for the journey further north, to the boreal forests, bogs, and tundra of Canada and Alaska. Some will nest and breed in Massachusetts, finding suitable habitat along the coast, and in the marsh, scrub, shrub, forest, and grassland found throughout the state. For several projects on which I am currently working, I have been exploring wildlife sanctuaries along the Massachusetts coastal region. Here is just a sampling of some recently spotted migrants, and it’s only May 4th. Lots more to come!

Biggety Brant ~ This Brant Goose appeared to be the bossy boots of his gaggle, chiding, nipping, and vocally encouraging the group along. A large of flock of approximately 40 Brants was recently reported by readers Debbie and Dan, seen at Back Beach in Rockport. The Brants are heading to the wet, coastal tundra of the high Arctic. No other species of goose travels as far north or migrates as great a distance as do Brants.

W is for Wading Willet. A PAIR were well hidden in the marshy grass! Both the flesh and the eggs of Willets are considered tasty. They were nearly hunted to extinction, saved only by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Willets breeding in Massachusetts is nothing short of a miracle. Notice how closely they resemble Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs; all three belong to the Genus Tringa.

Y is for Yawping Yellowlegs. Both Greater and Lesser Yellow are seen in Massachusetts marshes at this time of year. Greater Yellowlegs have a loud, distinct call, which they utilize often. The Greater Yellowlegs are feeding on tiny crustaceans, killfish, and minnows to fortify for the journey to the boggy marshes of Canadian and Alaskan coniferous forests.

Piping Plover Piping ~ We should be proud that our state of Massachusetts has the greatest record of Piping Plover recovery. I recently saw a bar graph at a lecture presentation, given by Dave Rimmer at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, which illustrated that the recovery rate has flatlined in Canada and New Jersey, and diminished in the Great Lakes region.

T is for Tree Swallow Tango ~ Males arrive on the scene prior to the females. The courtship ritual involves the gents showing the ladies possible nesting sites.

Tree Swallow preparing for takeoff.

 

MONARCH BUTTERFLY PRESENTATION TONIGHT IN SALEM

Learn about the life history, decline of, current status, and how big agriculture use of GMO Roundup Ready crops are killing Monarchs and pollinators. Learn how you can help the Monarchs breed in Massachusetts during the summer months and on their annual fall migration to Mexico. Lecture and slide presentation at the Salem Garden Club. For more information, email kimsmithdesigns@hotmail.com
Female Monarch depositing egg on Milkweed foliage and buds.

The Making of “The Narrow Edge” at the Sawyer Free Library

My friend Deborah Cramer is presenting a beautiful and informative program tonight at the Sawyer Free Library in Gloucester. Best wishes to Deborah for a tremendous evening!