Our beautiful Snowy Owl Hedwig was last seen on Monday night, March 12th. This was also the night before the third nor’easter. She was perched on the railing of the Ocean House Inn facing towards the sea. The wind was blowing fiercely. Well after dark, and after making several attempts, she successfully flew in a southerly direction out over the water.
It has been two weeks since that last sighting and perhaps we will see her again, but I imagine her to be safe and undertaking her return journey to the Arctic tundra, well-fed from her stay on Cape Ann. Whether she was well-rested is another story. The great majority of people who came to see this most approachable of owls were respectful and considerate of her quiet space. The crows however, were nothing short of brutal. After learning about why crows attack owls, and the degree of aggression possible, I am surprised she lasted as long as she did, and without great injury.
American Crow harassing a Peregrine Falcon, Atlantic Road
Crows and owls are natural enemies because a murder of crows may mob an owl to death (or any raptor by which it feels threatened) and owls occasionally eat crows. Crows are diurnal, which means they feed during the day. The majority of North American owl species that they encounter are nocturnal (night feeding). In the case of Snowy Owls, which feed both day and night, their paths may occasionally cross, as happened when Hedwig moved into the crow’s territory along Gloucester’s Atlantic Road.
American Crows harassing Snowy Owl Hedwig
A flock of American Crows can run circles around most owls, pecking, dive bombing, chasing, and in some instances killing. Snowy Owls are the exception; they are larger, stronger, and faster flyers than other North American owl species. And too, Snowy Owls are closely related to Great Horned Owls, a species known to eat crows when they are roosting overnight. So even though a crow in our area may never before have encountered a Snowy Owl, they instinctively know danger is present.
With their incredible ability for recollection, crows are considered the brainiacs of the bird world. Daily, Hedwig outsmarted this smartest of bird species. She learned to stay well-hidden during the daylight hours, laying low atop the hotel roofs. Her salt and pepper coloring blended perfectly with the black, white, and gray colors of industrial roof venting equipment. She adapted to hunting strictly at night, after the crows had settled in for the evening, returning to her hideouts before the day began.
From Hedwig’s perch atop the Atlantic Road hotels, she had a crystal clear view of the golf course and Bass Rocks, places prime for nightly hunting.
On one hand it would be fascinating if Hedwig had been outfitted with a tracking device. On the other, if she had been trapped for tagging, she may not return to this area. There is some evidence that Snowies occasionally return to an overwintering location. Next winter I’ll be taking more than a few peeks in the location of the Atlantis and Ocean House Inn Hotels to see if Hedwig has returned.
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
On the lookout for Snowy Owls, I instead encountered this scene of a Peregrine Falcon eating a freshly killed bird. At one point I caught a quick glimpse of what I think was a webbed duck foot, but could possibly also have been a cormorant. Despite all the gore, the Falcon was exquisite to observe. Especially beautiful were the hues of its slate blue wings in the early morning light.
Peregrine Falcons eat mostly birds. Over 450 species of bird prey have been documented in North America alone. From the tinniest Ruby-throated Hummingbird to the enormous Sand Hill Crane, few birds are safe from the talons of the Peregrine Falcon.
The Falcon methodically eviscerated its prey, all the while watching gulls, crows, me, and any other potential thief.
Robber crows stopped by to see what they could snatch and one brazen fellow made off with a gizzard dangling from its mouth.
A gull popped its head up from a lower rock outcropping to see what he could steal and after taking a quick look at the Peregrine Powerhouse, thought better of attempting robbery.
Nature’s Finest Flyer
Did you know that the Peregrine Falcon is the world’s fastest bird? A bird’s airspeed velocity is variable. During a hunting dive the Peregrine Falcon will average about 200 miles per hour; 242 miles per hour is the maximum speed recorded. The Golden Eagle is the second fastest bird, with an average diving speed of 150 miles per hour and a maximum speed of 200 mph.
Peregrines are fast, aggressive creatures and are on top of their food chain. While young Peregrines are preyed upon by Golden Eagle and Great Horned Owls there are few threats towards the adults other than man.
By the mid 1960’s, there were NO Peregrines in the eastern United States and the decline spread westwards so that by the mid-70’s western populations had declined by up to 90 percent. It was estimated that 3,875 nesting pairs were found
in North America prior to the 40’s; by 1975, only 324 pair existed in the US. Loss of habitat, shootings, egg collecting and other human disturbances had weakened North American populations for decades but drastic declines didn’t occur until after the widespread use of a popular insecticide – DDT. Like the canary in the coalmine, the Peregrine Falcon provided humans a warning as how chemical pollution can disrupt the environment and the life around it.
The use of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT, began during World War II as an extremely effective pesticide. Its use continued after the war as a way to control agricultural pests and in killing malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Unfortunately it would be years later before it was understood that DDT would have adverse effects on a variety of ecologically important insects, birds, and the environment. Bats, Fireflies and Peregrine Falcons were just a few species that were greatly affected. Editor’s note: In the United States, DDT was manufactured by some 15 companies, including Monsanto, Ciba, Montrose Chemical Company, Pennwalt, and Velsicol Chemical Corporation.
For the Peregrine Falcon, DDT poisoning was due to its being on top of the food chain. After consuming other birds that fed on seeds, insects and fish contaminated with DDT, the poison eventually accumulated in its system. High concentrations of a DDT metabolite called DDE prevented normal calcium production causing thin, frail eggshells that would break under the weight of the parent during incubation. Because of the toxic contaminant, many eggs did not hatch and the populations precipitously dropped until a mere 12% of normal peregrine falcon populations remained in the United States.
In 1970, the American Peregrine Falcon was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1969 (and then again in 1973 when the Endangered Species Act passed). Encouraged by the EPA’s banning of DDT in 1972, recovery projects began to take shape. Beginning in 1974, The Peregrine Fund, along with various national and state agencies in both the United States and Canada, embarked on a reintroduction program for the peregrine falcon.
Thanks to the scientists and researchers at Cornell University, adult birds were successfully bred in captivity. After the eggs hatched, they were raised in the labs until three weeks old. They were then placed in hack sites (artificial nesting sites) where they were fed and cared for by unseen benefactors until flight and hunting skills were developed enough for them to become independent. More than 6,000 American Peregrine Falcons have been released in North America since 1974 due to the cooperative efforts among federal and state Fish & Wildlife Services, The Peregrine Fund, Midwestern Peregrine Falcon Restoration Project and the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group.
The success of these recovery programs allowed the declassification of the Peregrine Falcon as a federally endangered species in 1999. Although the bird of prey remains federally protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and will be monitored until 2015, the survival of the Peregrine Falcon marked the most dramatic success of the Endangered Species Act.