At this time of year, look for Autumn Meadowhawk Dragonflies at our local ponds, wetlands, slow moving streams, marshes, and woodlands. They emerge in mid-summer and are on the wing as late as through November. The males especially are easily spotted with their brilliant vermilion abdomens. Male Meadowhawks dart about chasing other males away from their territory.Autumn Meadowhawks copulating in the typical dragonfly “mating wheel” fashion. The male (vermilion abdomen) grasps the female behind her head while the female places the tip of her abdomen at the spot on his abdomen where he stores sperm.
Autumn Meadowhawks in-tandem
After mating, the female Autumn Meadowhawk oviposits (lays) her eggs in-tandem with the male. They stay attached while he dips her in water and at the base of vegetation as she deposits her eggs. By staying joined together and flying in-tandem, he prevents other male Meadowhawks from replacing his sperm with their own.
These late season dragonflies are an important strand in our wetland ecology. Their tiny larvae provide food for ducks, fish, frogs, and wading birds, while migrating songbirds and shorebirds traveling through dine on the adults.
American Bullfrog patiently waiting for a dragonfly snack
If you have seen a congregation of white herons at Niles Pond, chances are they were not Snowy Egrets or Great White Egrets, but Little Blue Herons.
During the summer of 2022, we had an extraordinary wildlife event unfolding at Niles Pond. In an average year we only see a handful, if any, Little Blue Herons at Niles. Amazingly, on any given evening in August of this year, I counted at a minimum two dozen; one especially astonishing evening’s count totaled more than 65!
Little Blue Herons are an average-sized wading bird, smaller than Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets but larger than Little Green Herons and Black-crowned Night Herons.
Little Blues in their first hatch summer are often confused with Snowy Egrets because they are similar in size and color. A Little Blue Heron, despite its name, is mostly pure white its first hatch summer (the wings are tipped in slate gray). Their bills are pale greyish blue at the base and black at the tip, with yellowy-green legs.By its third summer, Little Blue adults have attained the two-toned rich moody blue body plumage and violet head and neck feathers.
It’s the Little Blue’s second hatch year, in-between juvenile and adult, when it shows a lovely bi-color, calico pattern that is the most enchanting. The feather patterning is wonderfully varied as the bird is losing its white feathers and gaining its blue and violet feathers. The patterning is so interesting, on one of our many visits to check on the herons, Charlotte dubbed the Niles Pond calico, La Luna.
Little Blue Herons – first hatch summer
Little Blue Heron – second summer (Luna)
Little Blue Heron – adult
Little Blue Heron adult and first hatch summer juvenile
The Little Blue Herons have begun to disperse and I have not seen Luna in over a week. They will begin migrating soon. I am so inspired by the presence of Luna and her relations at Niles Pond I am creating a short film about New England pond ecology, starring Luna!
Food for thought – Because of the drought, the water level at Niles has been lower than usual. The lower water level however apparently did not effect the American Bull frog population and that is what the Little Blues have been feasting on all summer. By feasting, I literally mean feasting. In our region, Little Blue Herons are “frog specialists.” During the first light of day, I witnessed a Little Blue Heron catch four American Bullfrogs, either an adult, froglet, or tadpole. They hunt all day long, from sunrise until sunset. If at a bare minimum, a typical LBH ate 20 frogs a day times 60 herons that is a minimum 1200 frogs eaten daily over the course of the summer.
Here in New England, we are at the northern edge of the Little Blue Heron’s breeding range. Perhaps with global climate change the range will expand more northward, although Little Blue Herons are a species in decline due to loss of wetland habitat.
Luna in early summerSnowy Egret (yellow feet) in the foreground and Great Egret (yellow bill) in the background
Compare white Little Blue Heron first hatch summer to the Snowy Egret, with bright yellow feet and black legs and bill to the Great White Egret with the reverse markings, a bright yellow bill with black feet and legs.
This month I am taking a short break from working on the Piping Plover feature documentary and am developing a film about the ecology of New England ponds. Frogs, in all their myriad incarnations, are keystone species, playing starring roles as both predator and prey.
American Bullfrogs are by far the most commonly seen. While filming and adventuring around local ponds with Charlotte we witnessed a dramatic scene where a Garter Snake snatched a Bullfrog from the road. As the snake was keeping his eyes on us, he was successfully dragging the frog into the cover of grass, simultaneously trying to devour the frog whole in one swallow. As you can see, the frog was enormous, compared to the mouth of the snake nonetheless, the snake was determined. We couldn’t continue to wait to see what took place but were convinced the snake was going to prevail and eventually swallow the frog.
Known predators of American Bullfrogs include Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, Little Blue Herons, snakes, raccoons, Belted Kingfishers, and turtles.
Little Blue Heron eating a froglet
As tadpoles, American Bullfrogs are herbivores that eat aquatic plants. As adults, ABullfrogs are carnivorous ambush predators who eat insects, birds, fish, snakes, baby turtles, bats, rodents; anything that fit into their wide mouths. They even eat each other! Bullfrogs wait patiently for prey to pass by and and then use their powerful back legs to pounce. American Bullfrogs are North America’s largest. Females are generally larger than males and can grow up to 8 inches.
Note the tail on the above Bullfrog froglet. Half tadpole, half frog, froglets are outgrowing their tadpole stage, but are not yet fully fledged frogs.
An easy way to tell the difference between an American Bullfrog and a Green Frog is to look at the fold of skin behind the eyes. The ABfrog’s wraps around the very large eardrum (tympanic membrane). The Green Frog’s fold on either side runs along the length of the body.
All living creatures need clean water, clean air, and safe habitat. The North American River Otter has made a remarkable comeback as a direct result of bipartisan clean water acts first written in 1948, and then rewritten in 1972. Stop the republicans from their continuous environmental rollbacks that will have a tremendously harmful impact on our water quality.
Vote the Blue Wave!
What is happening in this clip? Mom River Otter caught a frog. Rather than eating it herself, she set it on the log between her feet for her kit to find and eat.
Read More – The Clean Water Act (CWA) establishes the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into the waters of the United States and regulating quality standards for surface waters.
Under the CWA, EPA has implemented pollution control programs such as setting wastewater standards for industry. EPA has also developed national water quality criteria recommendations for pollutants in surface waters.
The CWA made it unlawful to discharge any pollutant from a point source into navigable waters, unless a permit was obtained.
In June 2020, EPA director Andrew Wheeler eliminated states’ and tribes’ rights to halt projects that risk hurting their water quality by rolling back a section of the Clean Water Act (CWA).
Jon Devine, director of federal water policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, counters:
Enforcing state and federal laws is essential to protecting critical lakes, streams, and wetlands from harmful pollutants and other threats. But the Trump administration’s rule guts states’ and tribes’ authority to safeguard their waters, allowing it to ram through pipelines and other projects that can decimate vital water resources.
This is a dangerous mistake. It makes a mockery of this EPA’s claimed respect for ‘cooperative federalism.’
This action undermines how our foundational environmental laws work. The federal government should be setting baseline standards, while states apply and enhance them to the benefit of their unique natural resources and residents.
In the span of about ten minutes, fifteen minutes tops, this Little Blue Heron ate a fish and three froglets (froglets are frogs that still have their tadpole tails).
Little Blue Heron eating froglet (note the frog’s tail).
According to Audubon and Cornell’s website, they are scarce breeders on Cape Ann, but I am not so sure about that. Although we are at the northern range of their breeding range, every year we see many first hatch year Little Blue Herons gathering at our local ponds along with other herons and egrets. They are definitely breeding on Cape Ann, despite maps that say otherwise.
First hatch year Little Blue Heron eating an American Bullfrog
Why is this not so little white heron called a Little Blue Heron? Compared to a Great Blue Heron, it is relatively smaller. As to the entirely white plumage, this is a first hatch year Little Blue in its white phase. In the second spring and summer, the white feathers will gradually be replaced by beautiful slate blue feathers, giving the bird a temporary and unique calico appearance.
Little Blue herons are closely related to Snowy Egrets and the white immature morphs feed alongside the Snowys. You can tell them apart easily not only by bill and feet, but by their feeding habits. Snowy Egrets forage with a great deal of flourish, agitating the water with their feet, and vigorously fluttering, flapping, and flying along the shoreline. Little Blue Herons are stealth hunters, moving with slow deliberation before executing an exacting capture.
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: 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.
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
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
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.
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
Upcoming film projects and studying the life story of our beloved Mr. Swan led to learning more about the life story of many creatures found at our local ponds. Frogs in all their myriad incarnations I soon discovered were the keystone species, playing starring roles as both predator and prey. American Bullfrogs are by far the most common, but I also filmed Green Frogs and Wood Frogs. I shot hundred (perhaps thousands) of photos of frogs, and hours of footage too, and have only begun to organize, but here is a small sampling.
American Bullfrog Snatching a Bee Mid-air
Young Bullfrogs lay in wait for bees and other insects drinking nectar from the pond lilies. They’ll sit stone still for half an hour and in some cases, even much longer, for the perfect moment. The smallest Bullfrog can leap several feet across the water and lily pads to snatch an insect mid-air.
Waiting for a Bee-breakfast.
Half tadpole, half frog, froglets are outgrowing their tadpole stage, but are not yet fully fledged frogs.
When the hunter is hunted. Birds and otters feast on tadpoles, frogs, and froglets. Larger Bullfrogs are cannibalistic and eat smaller versions of themselves. First hatch-year Little Blue Herons (pictured) eating a frog in the above photo and a froglet in the photo below.
More about pond life coming soon!
If you would like to help towards the completion of my documentary film Beauty on the Wing: Life Story of the Monarch Butterfly, filmed in the wilds of Cape Ann and Angangueo, Mexico, please consider making a tax deductible donation here: