Category Archives: Cape Ann Wildlife

BEAUTIFUL AND FUNNY RARE BIRD IN GLOUCESTER THE “LITTLE AUK” OR DOVEKIE

The tiny “Little Auk” has been on our shores for several days and this morning I was finally able to take a few good snapshots. It dips and bobs in a funny manner, weaving back and forth, up and down the channel, before using its wings to deeply dive for small fish and crustaceans.

The Dovekie is the smallest member of the auk (puffin) family. A bird of the open Atlantic Ocean that breeds on Islands in the high Arctic, Dovekies are only seen during winter months in New England.

SUPER TICK ALERT! – TICKS ARE PRESENT HERE ON CAPE ANN ALL YEAR ROUND!

A cautionary note to continue to check for ticks. Our family has had two recent tick scares, even though we have had some bitterly cold temperatures. Especially after a weekend like this, don’t forget to check yourself and family members for the wretched devils.

MAMA AND CALF – A HOPEFUL SIGN FOR RIGHT WHALES

RIGHT WHALE DISCOVERED PREGNANT IN AUGUST, SPOTTED WITH NEW CALF

AMID THE GROWING CONCERN THAT ENDANGERED NORTH ATLANTIC RIGHT WHALES COULD BE CREEPING TOWARD EXTINCTION DUE TO THEIR DECLINING NUMBERS, EVERY WINTER CALVING SEASON OFFERS A CHANCE FOR HOPE.

ON JANUARY 2, 2020, HARMONIA, AN 18-YEAR-OLD RIGHT WHALE WHO WAS DISCOVERED TO BE PREGNANT THIS SUMMER BY THE NEW ENGLAND AQUARIUM RIGHT WHALE TEAM, WAS SPOTTED OFF CUMBERLAND ISLAND, GA, WITH HER NEWBORN CALF.

An aerial survey team from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission saw the pair just over 7 miles from shore while doing routine surveys of the right whale calving ground. This is optimistic news for the right whale population, which now stands at about 411.

“Every calf gives us hope, and seeing Harmonia, who we’ve watched grow from a calf to a healthy mom, with her third calf is particularly exciting. The future of this species rests on the backs of dependable reproductive females like her,” said Philip Hamilton, a Research Scientist at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium.

Harmonia, right whale Catalog #3101, was sighted with her newborn calf about 7 nautical miles off Cumberland Island, GA, on January 2, 2020. Photo: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, taken under NOAA permit 20556-01

For 40 years, the Aquarium’s right whale team has extensively researched and tracked the endangered North Atlantic right whales with the photo-identification catalog it manages. The scientific team monitors the whales’ arrival at breeding and feeding grounds, registering new calves, death rates, and measuring changes in stress and reproductive hormones through scat and blow, or whale’s breath, research developed by the team. The team collaborates with fishermen on new techniques to reduce deadly entanglements in fishing gear, and it works with lawmakers locally and nationally to lobby for protections for the whales.

On Aug. 7, the team collected a sample of Harmonia’s feces in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where she was sighted with two other whales. An analysis of her hormones indicated that she was pregnant. By Nov. 23, she was spotted off the coast of Florida, the first right whale spotted in the Southeast this winter, exciting researchers with hopes that she had migrated to warmer waters to give birth. She was seen again on Dec. 10 off the coast of Georgia by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium aerial survey team.

Harmonia is well-known and well-studied by the New England Aquarium team. She was born in 2001 to parents, Aphrodite and Velcro, who are both thought to still be alive. Harmonia also has at least six half-brothers and two half-sisters. Harmonia has previously given birth to two calves – one in 2009 and another in 2016. Her first calf barely made it past its first year before being struck by a vessel and killed during the summer of 2010. Harmonia’s second calf, “Gully,” is still alive but was discovered in 2018 suffering another major threat to right whales – entanglement in fishing gear, leaving severe wounds and a deep gouge in its head.

As the right whale team has developed its health assessment techniques using blow and scat samples from free-swimming right whales, Harmonia has been an invaluable test case. The team was able to gather two blow samples and one fecal sample from Harmonia in 2015. Those samples showed elevated levels of reproductive hormones, characteristic of pregnancy, and she subsequently gave birth to Gully 10 months later. That finding was pivotal because it was the first proof that a sample of exhaled blow could effectively detect pregnancy.

Harmony on December 10, 2019. Photo: Clearwater Marine Aquarium, taken under NOAA Permit #20556-01.

Looking back on Harmonia’s history, she was one of a handful of calves from 2001 who stayed with her mom into her second year – unlike most calves who are weaned by the end of their first year. Harmonia also gave birth to her first calf three years earlier than average and was pregnant by the age of 7. She’s had two suction cup tags attached to her – the first at age 2 so researchers could understand how she behaved underwater, and the second to assess how she and her calf vocalized. Her blubber thickness has been measured, and she’s been observed by a special aerial camera designed to provide accurate length and width measurement – all in addition to her involvement in the feces and blow hormone studies.

Harmonia has been seen by the Aquarium right whale team in the Bay of Fundy many times and almost every year up until 2011, but has not been seen there since. Due to ocean changes brought on by climate change, few right whales use the Bay of Fundy now. Harmonia is one of the 130 or so right whales that have adapted and now feed in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where she has been seen every year since 2015.

“Harmonia” waves her fluke around in the air. Photo: Monica Zani, New England Aquarium/Canadian Whale Institute.

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BEAUTIFUL CAPE ANN WINTER WILDLIFE UPDATE

Our shores abound with wonderful wild creatures we more often see in wintertime, and species we can view better because the trees are bare. The duo of male American Wigeons are still here, as are the pair of Pipits. I watched yesterday afternoon as the Pipits flew away from the beach in unison, and then returned together about twenty minutes later to continue to forage in the seaweed and sand.

American Wigeons

American Pipits

It’s easier to catch a glimpse of a Downy Woodpecker pecking and a wasp nest in the tangle of thickets when viewed through naked limbs and branches.

The Harbor Seals are seen almost daily. One day last week 24 were present!

A sleepy-eyed female Common Eider was peacefully resting on the beach. I know she was okay because on our way back she slipped back into the surf.

Song Sparrow

Red-breasted Merganser

And that’s our Charlotte, my favorite wild one, and ever at the ready to go exploring. After we get dressed in the morning she chortles, “Now I’m ready for action Mimi.”

A PAIR OF PIPITS AT BRACE COVE!

Don’t you just love the name ‘Pipit?’ At first glance the American Pipit looks rather like a Plain Jane but their sweet name complements their spunky personality. I loved watching them energetically forage on the beach as they ran hither and thither wagging their tails and craning their necks chicken-like while searching for tiny bits of seafood amongst the popples and seaweed.

With a silhouette that looks something like a slender and smaller American Robin, and a facial expression to match, I was having trouble identifying the bird. I emailed John Nelson, author of Flight Calls and a recent guest on our GMG podcast, and he knew just what they were.

The photos were taken in low light and at some distance, but you can still get a good idea of what to look for. In Massachusetts, the American Pipit is reportedly seen during spring and fall migration, much less so in winter. They breed in both the high Arctic tundra as well as alpine meadows. Their varied habitats include mudflats, sandbars, airfields, and farms.

Notice the Pipits long, long hind claws – excellent for foraging on the ground.

American Pipit range map

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

HERE’S TO A HAPPY NEW YEAR AND A HAPPY NEW DECADE! 

In spending the afternoon reflecting on the past year’s wildlife stories and photos, I have been thinking about what an extraordinary place is Cape Ann. How fortunate we all are to see amazing and beautiful wildlife stories unfolding in our own backyards each and every day! I am planning a Cape Ann Wildlife 2019 Year in Pictures and hope to find the time to post that this week.

News this year of an increase in Monarchs at the butterfly’s overwintering sites in Mexico, as well as strong numbers during the summer breeding season and fall migration, gives me great hope for the future of this beautiful species, and for all wildlife that we take underwing.

Monarchs flying into Gloucester butterfly trees, forming an overnight roost.

Our community has taken under its wings a pair of Piping Plovers. The two began calling Good Harbor Beach home in 2016. Because the community came together and worked as a team, this year we were able to fledge three tiny, adorable marshmallow-sized fluff balls at Gloucester’s most well-loved and populous beach. Thank you Piping Plover friends and Community for all that you did to help these most vulnerable of shorebirds successfully reach flying age. 

Another example of “underwing” – three nearly full grown PiPl chicks, all determined to nestle for warmth under Papa

HELLO LITTLE DECEMBER SNOW BUNTINGS!

Sunday afternoon while walking along Brace Cove I by chance met up with my friend Michelle. I was showing her where to look for the Lark Sparrow when Michelle spotted a beautiful male Snow Bunting, and then we spotted a second! They were pecking at the sand looking for seeds caught between the granules.

Also called “Snowflakes,” their arrival on our shores seems appropriate enough for the pending snowstorm 🙂

An interesting note about Snow Buntings – Male Snow Buntings look very different in their breeding and non-breeding plumage. Not due to molting, but because they rub their bellies and heads in the snow, wearing down brown feather tips to reveal pure white feathers beneath.