Category Archives: Songbirds

WINTER ROBINS HAVE RETURNED AND THEY ARE RIGHT ON SCHEDULE!

Their shadows in flight crisscrossing the light through my office window, I look up to see one feather-fluffed fellow sitting on a crabapple branch, gazing right back at me. I wonder, if I silently and cautiously open the window, will he fly in?

It is so very cold out doors. The flock seems more weary than in past years. One sits on the ground outside the window, barely moving aside when I walk down the garden path; another is half asleep in the holly limb overhead. There are fewer, too, perhaps only eight to ten when often we see several dozen. On this coldest of January days, it must be difficult to keep warm, especially as there are no little fish to catch along the frozen sea’s edge to warm their bellies.

This one was so worn out, he sat in the snow beneath the holly tree, eating what the other Robins dropped on the ground.

The winter Robins arrive to our garden every year in January, nearly to the day (today, January 21st). 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. Some Robins live here all the year round; some arrive in springtime, having spent the winter further south in parts warmer; and some–the ones I like to call winter Robins–arrive in January, from parts further north. We are like their Bermuda, and they are here to feed on wild fruits and berries, as well as small fish fry and fingerlings, and mollusks.

Rime-sweetened rosehips

TWO OWL SPECIES IN ONE DAY!

Saturday my daughter Liv and I took a break from all things Christmas and visited Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and Sandy Point Reservation. Hiking around the refuge is one of our favorite things to do and I was thrilled that she got to see not one, but two owls, a Barred Owl, and a Snowy Owl. The Barred was very nearly completely obscured in a dense thicket, nonetheless exciting to see, and the Snowy was spectacular, causing quite a hullabaloo with the onlookers as he perched in a tree by the road leading into the refuge.

To see an owl in the wild is a gift, and I am counting my blessings, for my beautiful, kind-hearted daughter, and wonderful wild creature encounters.

 

Tappity, Tap, Tap, Tap

Standing perfectly still while filming during yesterday’s gloriously warm afternoon, a beautiful female Downy Woodpecker flew to a tree not five feet from where I was working. She was very much obscured by foliage as she tapped her way up and down the trunk, turning the tree into a pantry for her winter supply of nuts and seeds. For a quicksilver moment I caught a clear look and snapped a shot through the leaves.

Downy Woodpeckers are common on Cape Ann throughout all four seasons.

CAPE ANN WILDLIFE: A YEAR IN PICTURES 2017

CAPE ANN WILDLIFE: A YEAR IN PICTURES 2017

By Kim Smith

Cape Ann provides welcome habitat for a menagerie of creatures beautiful, from the tiniest winged wonder to our region’s top predator, the Eastern Coyote. Last year I posted a Cape Ann Wildlife Year in Pictures 2016 and I hope you will find the wildlife stories of 2017 equally as beautiful. Click on the image to find the name of each species.

WINTER

Winter: Only partially frozen ponds allowed for dabblers and divers such as Mallards, Mergansers, and Buffleheads to forage at the freshwater. Mr. Swan had his usual entourage of quwackers and daily heads to the other side of the pond to get away for his morning stretches. Sightings of Red-tailed Hawks and other raptors abounded. Although photographed in Newburyport, the owl photos are included, well, just because I like them. An Eastern Screech Owl (red-morph) was seen daily perched above a playground and Barred Owl sightings too were reported throughout the winter. Raptors live on Cape Ann all year round but are much easier to see in winter when the trees are bare of foliage.

The beautiful green eyes of the juvenile Double-crested Cormorants were seen wintering at both Niles Pond and Rockport Harbor. And during a warm February day on a snowless marsh a turkey bromance shindig commenced.

SPRING

 

In early spring, a male and female American Wigeon arrived on the scene making local ponds their home for several weeks. In the right light the male’s electric green feathers at the top of his head shine brightly and both the male and female have baby blue bills.

Meadow and marsh, dune and treetop were graced with the heralding harbingers of spring with photos of a Red-winged Blackbird, a pair of Cedar Waxwings, Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, Eastern Towhee, Eastern Kingbird, Tree Swallow, and Grackle included here.

The Great Swan Escape story made the news in Boston as Mr. Swan eluded captors for hours. He had re-injured his foot and someone took it upon themselves to call the animal rescuers, which would have surely meant death for our beloved 27-year old swan if he had been wrangled into captivity.

M is clearly for Migration through Massachusetts and the month-long arrivals and departures did not abate. Short-billed Dowitchers, winsome Willets, Yellow Legs, and Ruddy Turnstones are just some of the migrating shorebirds spied on Cape Ann beaches and marshes. The best news in May was the return of the Piping Plovers. Of the five or six that camped at Good Harbor Beach to investigate potential nesting sites, one pair bonded and built their nest mere yards from the nesting pair of last year. Could it be the same pair? The nesting Piping Plover story took up much of the spring and by early summer four little Piping Plover chicks hatched over Fiesta weekend. Hundreds of photos and hours of film footage are in the process of being organized with a children’s book and documentary in progress.

Piping Plover Courtship Dance

Piping Plover Nest

 

SUMMER

 

OctoPop

The survival of one Piping Plover chick was made possible by a wholesale community effort, with volunteers covering all hours of daylight, along with Mayor Sefatia and her team, Ken Whittaker from the conservation office, Chief McCarthy, and animal control officer Diane Corliss all lending a hand.

Sadly, several Northern Gannets came ashore to die on our Cape Ann beaches, struck by the same mysterious and deadly disease that is afflicting Northern Gannets in other regions. During the summer season they are typically at their North American breeding grounds, which are six well-established colonies, three in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Quebec, and three in the North Atlantic, off the coast of Newfoundland.

An orphaned swan was introduced to Niles Pond, much to the dismay of Mr. Swan. Eastern Point residents Skip and Lyn kept watch over the two while they reluctantly became acquainted.

By mid-July many of us were seeing Monarchs in much greater numbers than recent years. Nearly every region within the continental United States experienced a fantastic Painted Lady irruption and butterflies of every stripe and polka dot were seen flitting about our meadows, fields, and gardens.

The tadpoles and froglets of American Bullfrogs and Green Frogs made for good eating for several families of resident otters, who are making their homes in abandoned beaver lodges. Little Blue Herons too, find plentiful frogs at our local ponds.

In early August we see the Tree Swallows begin to mass for their return migration. They find an abundance of fruits and insects in the dunes, headlands, and beaches. The Cedar Waxwings and Ruddy Trunstones were back again observed foraging on their southward journey, along with myriad species of songbird, shorebird, diver, and dabbler.

Tree Swallows Massing

FALL

 

 

The Late Great Monarch migration continued into the fall as we were treated to a wonderfully warm autumn. Waves and waves of Monarchs came ashore and more butterflies arrived on the scene including new batches of Painted Ladies, Clouded Sulphurs and Common Buckeyes (nothing common about these beauties!).

A pair of Northern Pintails called Cape Ann ponds and coves home for nearly a month while we seem to be seeing more and more raptors such as Red-tailed Hawks, Osprey, Bald Eagles, and Peregrine Falcons. Juvenile herons of every species that breeds on Cape Ann lingered long into the fall—Black-crowned Night Herons, Yellow-crowned Herons, Great Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets, Great Egrets, and Green Herons.

Just as Mr. Swan and the Young Swan appeared to be warming to each other, the Young Swan, who has yet to learn to fly, became trapped in the ice at Niles Pond. He was rescued by caretakers Lyn and Dan and is now spending the winter at a cozy sanctuary built by Lyn and friends.

Heart-wings Monarch

Thank you to all our readers for your kind comments of appreciation throughout the year for the beautiful wild creatures with which we share this gorgeous peninsula called Cape Ann. If you’d like to read more about a particular animal, type the name of the animal in the search box and the original post should come up

With its expansive marshes and dunes, bodies of fresh clear water, saltwater coves and inlets, and geographic location within the Atlantic Flyway, 2017 has been a banner year for Cape Ann’s wild and wonderful creatures. I can’t wait to see what awaits in 2018!

Snowy Owl “Hedwig” January 2018 Backshore Gloucester

HOW DO HURRICANES AFFECT MIGRATING SHOREBIRDS LIKE LITTLE CHICK

We can hope our Little Chick is taking his time migrating southward. Perhaps he has traveled only as far as Cape May, New Jersey, or maybe he has already migrated as far as Cape Lookout, North Carolina. Migrating shorebirds often travel shortly after a low pressure system and hurricanes are a part of the environment to which wildlife like Piping Plovers have adapted. However, no wildlife has in the recorded history of the world had to cope with a storm the magnitude of Hurricane Irma.

Piping Plover foraging, building fat reserves for the southward migration. The above PiPl was one of four of a small flock traveling in Gloucester, spotted on August 24, 2017.

Extraordinary weather events can push endangered species over the brink. High winds, storm surges, and wave action destroys coastal habitats and flooding decreases water salinity. Songbirds and shorebirds are blown far off course away from their home habitats, especially young birds. A great deal of energy is expended battling the winds and trying to return to course. Songbirds have it a little easier because their toes will automatically tighten around a perch but seabirds and shorebirds are the most exposed.

Shorebirds like Piping Plovers feet have evolved to run over sand easily and do not grip well with their toes.

Numerous Piping Plovers winter over in the low-lying Joulter Cays, a group of sandy islands in the Bahamas, and one of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Irma. Perhaps migrating PiPl sensed the pending hurricane and held off before crossing the Atlantic to reach the Bahamas and other Caribbean Islands. The flock of nine PiPl in the above photo were seen last year at the end of August in Gloucester (August 29, 2016.)

One famous shorebird, a Whimbrel named Machi, who was wearing a tracking device, became caught up in the eye of a powerful storm but made it through to the other side of the storm. Tragically, he was subsequently shot dead in Guadeloupe. Many migrating birds like Whimbrels know to avoid places like Guadeloupe where unbridled shorebird hunting is allowed, but Machi had no power over where he made landfall. Sea turtles too are severely affected by the loss of barrier beaches. Staggering loss of life has been recorded after recent powerful hurricanes–fish, dolphins, whales, manatees, baby crab and lobster estuaries, insects, small mammals, all manner of birds–the list is nearly as long as there are species, and nothing is spared.

A pair of Whimbrels at Brace Cove in July 2015

If you see rare or an unusual bird after a storm or hurricane, please let us know and we can contact the appropriate wildlife official.

Hello Funny Catbirds!

I’ve yet to meet a Catbird I don’t love! With big personalities and a repertoire of beautiful melodies they are no stranger to gardens planted with blueberry bushes.

The first Gray Catbird to make an appearance in our garden arrived the day we planted blueberries. We don’t grow enough blueberries to provide all that we, and the Catbirds, would like to eat, so for the past several years I have been feeding the Catbirds handfuls at a time, the ones that come in the box that are smallish, and generally more sour tasting. If I forget to refill the bowl, the mom Catbird perches on a table just outside the kitchen window, calling and calling until the bowl is replenished. This summer she was joined by two fat little fledglings, also demanding of blueberries. The other day, both fledglings sat smack in the middle of the blueberry bowl and then proceeded to have a disagreement over the fruit!

Mature Gray Catbirds are mostly slate gray all over, with a little black cap, and when in flight, flash rufous red underneath. They belong to the same family of birds as do Northern Mockingbirds and Brown Thrashers, Mimidae, having that wonderful ability to copy the sounds of other songbirds and string them together to make their own music. During mating season, male Catbirds use their songs to establish their territory. The song may last up to ten minutes. This past spring, while walking along the wooded edge of a dune, I came upon a male singing his heart out. I didn’t have my tripod with me, but began recording him while singing. Boy, did my arms grow weary trying to capture the song in its entirety!

Catbird Egg

Patti Papows resident blueberry-eating Catbird

Note about the benefits of of planting blueberry bushes ~ Did you know that blueberries are native to North America? Fantastic for attracting songbirds to the garden, the foliage is also a caterpillar food plant for Spring and Summer Azure butterflies, and the blossoms provide nectar for myriad species of pollinating insects, including many species of native bees.

KIM SMITH POLLINATOR GARDEN PROGRAM FREE AND OPEN TO THE PUBLIC THURSDAY EVENING

Please join me Thursday evening, August 10th, at 7:00pm, at the Peabody Institute Library, South Branch. I will be giving my talk about how to create a garden to benefit a host of pollinators and screening several short films. I hope to see you there! 

The day we planted blueberries, is the day the Catbirds moved in. Many species of songbirds are pollinators, too!

Painted Lady nectaring at wildflower Joe-pye, Good Harbor Beach