I hope you are all doing well, or as well as can be expected during this heartbreaking pandemic event. The following kind words were spoken by Pope Francis today and I think they could not be truer.
“We are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed,” he said.
“All of us called to row together, each of us in need of each other.”
In the world of wildlife, spring migration is well underway and gratefully, nothing has changed for creatures small and large. That may change in the coming days as resources for threatened and endangered species may become scarce.
A friend posted on Facebook that “we are all going to become birders, whether we like it or not.” I love seeing so many people out walking in the fresh air and think it is really the best medicine for our souls.
Several times I was at Good Harbor Beach over the weekend and people were being awesome at practicing physical distancing. Both Salt Island Road and Nautilus Road were filled with cars, but none dangerously so, no more than we would see at a grocery store parking lot. I’m just getting over pneumonia and think I will get my old bike out, which sad to say hasn’t been ridden in several years. Cycling is a great thing to do with a friend while still practicing distancing and I am excited to get back on my bike.
An early spring wildlife scene update
The Niles Pond Black-crowned Night Heron made it through the winter!! He was seen this past week in his usual reedy location. Isn’t it amazing that he/she survived so much further north than what is typical winter range for BCHN.
Many of the winter resident ducks are departing. There are fewer and fewer Buffleheads, Scaups, and Ring-necked Ducks at our local ponds and waterways.
No sign lately of the American Pipits. For several days there were three! Snow Buntings at the Brace Cove berm.
As some of the beautiful creatures that have been residing on our shores depart, new arrivals are seen daily. Our morning walks are made sweeter with the songs of passerines courting and mating.
Song Sparrows, Mockingbirds, Robins, Cardinals, Chicadees, Nuthatches, Tufted Titmice, and Carolina Wrens are just a few of the love songs filling backyard, fields, dunes, and woodland.
Newly arrived Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets have been spotted at local ponds and marshes.
Cape Ann’s Kildeers appeared about a week or so ago, and wonderful of wonderful news, a Piping Plover pair has been courting at Good Harbor Beach since they arrived on March 22, a full three days earlier than last year.
Why do I think it is our PiPls returned? Because Piping Plovers show great fidelity to nesting sites and this pair is no exception. They are building nest scrapes in almost exactly the same location as was last year’s nest.
We should be seeing Fox kits and Coyote pups any day now, along with baby Beavers, Otters, and Muskrats 🙂
It’s been an off year for Snowy Owls in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic with relatively many fewer owls than that wonderful irruptive winter of 2017-2018 when Hedwig was living on the back shore. 2019 was a poor summer for nesting however, reports of high numbers of Lemmings at their eastern winter breeding grounds are coming in, which could lead to many owlets surviving the nesting season of 2020, which could lead to many more Snowies migrating south this coming winter of 2020-2021.
Take care Friends and be well ❤
This sweet messy-faced girl was relaxing on the limb of a craggy tree after what had clearly been a successful morning hunt. She coughed up a pellet while enjoying a rare quiet moment perched in the branches.
Watching this beautiful creature hunting at day’s end, it was fascinating to see the Marsh Hawk hovering, suspended mid-air for moments at a time. With razor sharp focus it’s gaze did not swerve. He swooped down toward the tall grass and I lost sight of him after a brief, second long glance from the ground. I hope he caught his dinner!
Marsh Hawk range map, note that Cape Ann and Plum Island are in their year-round range. In Massachusetts, they breed primarily along the coast and are regularly seen in coastal marshes in the winter. The Northern Harrier has experienced population declines through much of its North American range. Due to its dependence on rare and vulnerable habitats, the Marsh Hawk is listed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service as a species of national wildlife concern.
These Snowy Owl photos were taken earlier in the month at Parker River. The dirt road, the one that begins after the Hellcat Trail, has reopened, although I wouldn’t recommend going there on the weekends, much better to go during the week. There are so many photographers and owl lovers on the weekends, especially in the afternoon, that it has become really disruptive to the owls, both the Snowies and Short-eared. Even though folks are very respectful and (most) stay on the road, the Short-eared Owls aren’t catching much food, as far as I can observe, when there are great crowds chasing them up and down the road.
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.
Melded to the grass as he was, in monochromatic winter pasture shades of taupe, buff, and gray, it was nearly impossible to spot the impostor posing in the dry stalks and twigs. But there he was, a small mound resting along the thicket edge. You can barely see him in the photo below.
I’ve read the Short-eared Owl flight described as erratic, but I would call it anything but that. They swoop gracefully over fields in multi-directions, with great intention, listening for the sound of voles, moles, mice and other small mammals scurrying through the tall winter grass and phragmites. Flying low while hunting, their wingbeats are smooth and steady.
The Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) is called as such because of the little tufts of display feathers atop its head, which aren’t really ears at all. The Long-eared Owl (Asio otus) is a cousin of the Short-eared and it has longer feather tufts. Owls have a highly developed hearing system and their ears are actually located at the sides of their heads, behind the eyes, and are covered by the feathers of the facial disc.
Unlike many species of owls, which prefer forest and woodland, the Short-eared Owls is a bird of open country. They require fields, grasslands, marshes, bogs, heaths, and dunes. Shorties are crepuscular, which means they mostly feed at dawn and dusk.
Short-eared Owls are found the world over on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. Sadly, in Massachusetts, breeding pairs have been driven to the brink of extirpation. There may still be one or two pairs that breed at Nantucket’s Tuckernuck Island but, because of loss of habitat, the Short-eared Owl was listed as endangered in Massachusetts in 1985.
Listen for the Short-eared Owls wing “clapping” in the video below, and some adorable chicks, too 🙂
From Cornell: “Hawaii’s only native owl, the Pueo (Asio flammeus sandwichensis), is a Short-eared Owl subspecies found on all the chain’s major islands. Pueos may have descended from Alaska forebears, taking hold in the islands after the first arriving Polynesians brought owl food in the form of the Pacific rat.”
Short-eared Owl Range Map
It was a beautiful morning at Parker River despite mostly overcast skies and a strong wind. This first day of our “January thaw” was made even more beautiful by the presence of the Snowy Owl.
I believe she’s a female, although the lightest females can look like the darkest males. She appeared largely unperturbed by the gaggle of photographers that came and went. The Snowy flew across the dune for a few moments, but then flew back to roughly the same spot; in both locations she was somewhat protected from the blustery wind.
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.
Far, far down the ridge sat a little white wedge-shaped dot. We were all wishing he would fly our way, but alas, he was content to stay in place while washing his face and preening his flying feathers, with the crowd standing comfortably behind the rope set up by the refuge.
There are two Snowy Owls currently at Parker River and one has been spotted at Salisbury Beach. Hopefully, more will call the North Shore home this winter. The photo below was taken with a 400mm lens and very closely cropped.
Taking advantage of whatever sunshine can be had at this time of year, I took Charlotte to Plum Island for the day this past Thursday. We began at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and were immediately enchanted with an American Bittern stealth hunting in the marsh, a regal buck, Pintail Ducks, and hawks. Next we made sand castles at Sandy Point and then spent a great deal of time exploring a seemingly abandoned bulldozer in the parking lot there.
Lunch was a shared lobster roll from Bob’s Lobster Shack, which is located on the causeway heading out to Plum Island. We then stopped at the refuge headquarters to see the Snowy Owl, Piping Plover, and Monarch displays.
Charlotte’s day was made perfect when we learned that homemade cupcakes could be found at the Buttermilk Baking Company.
Last stop was one of my favorite shops for wonderfully unique and vintage home decor, The Barn at Todd Farm. The shop is decorated beautifully for the holidays and is bursting with Christmas gifts and treasures.
The American Bittern hunting in the marsh at Parker River was not at first easy to locate. Not only do the brown and buff colors of their feathers meld perfectly with the surrounding vegetation, but this heron has adapted an additional, highly effective method of camouflage. The Bittern stands motionless with its neck tilted upward, mirroring the tall reeds where the bird forages for fish, crustaceans, amphibians, insects, reptiles, and even small mammals.
The Bittern was beautiful to watch, perfectly poised in striking mode and waiting for the exact moment to attack. He wasted not an ounce of energy and did not miss a single strike.
American Bitterns breed in our region however, they generally migrate further south for the winter to regions where the water does not freeze. Managed wetlands such as those found within Parker River Wildlife Refuge play an important role in the survival of the American Bittern, especially during migration and the winter months.
Perched on the lobster traps, I only had a fleeting moment to take a photo pulling into the parking lot at Captain Joe’s. While getting my camera out, the Hawk appeared to pop into a lobster trap. He popped back out, I took a snapshot under cover of car, then off he flew.
Raptors such as Sharp-shinned Hawks and Peregrine Falcons are attracted to lobster pots because the traps often house songbirds such as sparrows. The smaller birds eat the crusty tidbits found on the pots and the larger birds have learned to find a tasty meal there.
Several years back when there was a male Snowy Owl at Captain Joe’s, a Peregrine Falcon flew on the scene, defending his territory by repeatedly dive bombing the Owl. The Falcon disturbed him so much so that the Snowy eventually departed.
There were not one, not two, not three, but four chicks feeding together at the wrack line at day break this morning. The mystery chick appears to be about the same age as our brood, exhibiting all the same habits although it is not a Piping Plover fledgling. I think it is a Semipalmated Plover fledgling.
The chick was sopping, soaking wet and very disheveled, but feeding as vigorously as our family, finding Good Harbor Beach ants, beetles, mollusks, and sea worms to be excellent breakfast fare.
When Papa Plover voiced danger warnings, the little visitor listened as attentively as did our brood of three. At one point Papa ran towards him, I thought to scare him away, but Papa was really after the Bachelor and kept on charging.
How could such a little fledgling fly from their northern breeding grounds at such an early age I wonder. He was so drenched, he appeared to have “washed” ashore, not flown. Semipalmated Plovers breed as far south as Newfoundland so perhaps he only traveled across the Gulf of Maine.
Although state guidelines say piping Plover chicks have fledged by 25 days, that simply is not the case with our chicks. They cannot fly more than a few feet and are still swimming across the creek to the other side (about ten feet wide at mid-tide). If they could fly across, they would.
Every morning I find the chicks thermoregulating under Mom or Dad. Throughout the day, the parents guide the chicks up and down the beach to the most safe locations for foraging. And in the evening, they return to the protected area to snuggle under Mom or Dad, spending the night as a family unit.
The Federal guidelines are much more accurate when comparing my own observations and documentation. USFWS mandates protection up to 35 days. We PiPl monitors are going with protecting our family to 35 days, at five weeks old.
Thank you to the Johnson Family of Wakefield and Connecticut for their interest in learning about the Piping Plovers and for giving them the space they needed when trying to get to the creek.
Volunteer monitor Laurie Sawin spent time with the family on Wednesday, sharing her binoculars and teaching the young conservation-minded kids all about Piping Plovers and their habitat. The kids were so interested and considerate of the birds, it was a joy to meet them!
People love the portable new signs, both beach goers and the volunteer monitors. The signs provide an opportunity for beach guests to ask questions and learn about the PiPls, and they also provide a reference for the monitors. Many thanks to volunteer monitor Heather Hall for sharing a photo online of the signs used at PiPl protected areas in Ontario.
On Saturday our Good Harbor Beach PiPl chicks turned three weeks old. They remind me so much of toddlers, with their indefatigable spirits, high energy and great appetites, adventuring, tumbling and bumping themselves throughout the day, flopping their tired selves down and wanting to be cuddled and protected, and then picking themselves up to start all over again.
Our chicks are spreading their wings! Their flight feathers have not yet grown in nonetheless, it doesn’t stop them from testing their wings. They stretch wide and take little leaps in the air, often ending with a face plant.
The chicks spend a good part of the day at the creek. On Saturday they crossed the creek and much to PiPl monitor Laurie Sawin’s dismay it appeared as though they were trapped on the other side and might have been swallowed up by the incoming tide. Instead, all three chicks swam across the creek to the safety of the shore.
We are stymied by the decision to shrink the Piping Plover’s protected area and are working toward re-establishing the size of their designated area. It’s really much too soon to be shrinking the roped off area and to have raked over the mini mounds of sand they sleep on every night. The chicks are all over the beach at all times of day and the protected area not only provides safety from people and pets, the un-raked areas provide a feast of good eating.
It clearly takes a village to raise a family of chicks at a popular city beach and we have a corps of wonderfully dedicated volunteers. We could really use help over these final ten days before the chicks are fully fledged. The weather has warmed and the beach has become much busier. Please contact Alicia Pensarosa if you would like to help. You can also directly sign up here. Thank you so much, and even more importantly, the PiPls thank you, too ❤
Snowy Egrets are the most animated of hunting herons and this one did not disappoint, tossing his minnows in the air, flapping his wings while leaping from rock to rock, stirring the sand with his bright cadmium yellow feet, dip diving, and shimmy shaking his feathers.
Two weeks ago today, four tiny Piping Plover chicks hatched at Good Harbor Beach. Nesting got off to a rocky start, with the mated pair first attempting to nest at the beach, then at the parking lot, but then thankfully, returning to their original nest site.
The relative peace on the beach, excellent parenting by Mama and Papa PiPl, cooler than average temperatures, vigilant monitoring by a corps of dedicated volunteers, outpouring of consideration by beach goers, as well as support from the DPW, City administration, and City Councilors has allowed the chicks to attain the two-week-old stage of maturity. With each passing day, we can see the chicks are gaining in strength and fortitude and listening more attentively to their parent’s voice commands. Adhering to Mama and Papa’s piping calls is an important milestone in their development. The parents continuously pipe commands and directions, warning of danger and directing the chicks to come to a stand still. The tiny shorebird’s best defense is its ability to blend with its surroundings when motionless.
The chicks spent the early morning warming up and foraging at the protected area. Afternoon found them camped out at the creek.
Snapshots from the morning
There was a group of young people stationed near the PiPl protected area enjoying the beach on this fine sunny afternoon. All was good though as the chicks were perfectly safe, foraging far down the creek. With gratitude and thanks to everyone who is helping to keep our PiPl family safe.
Snapshots from the afternoon
A grand Great Egret has been hanging out at the Good Harbor Beach marsh. He has been dining on small fish mostly. The photos are from Sunday but I didn’t spot him either yesterday or today; perhaps he has moved on.
Cape Ann is part of the Great Egrets breeding range, particularly House Island. This Egret is in full breeding plumage, advertising to a potential mate how fit and desirable he is to other Great Egrets. These same beautiful feathers, and humanity’s indiscriminate killing of, are what caused the bird to become nearly extinct. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the long breeding plumes, called aigrettes, of many species of herons and egrets were prized as fashion accessories to adorn women’s hats. Thanks to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, it is illegal to hunt or harm in any way gorgeous birds such as the Great Egret, and egrets and herons are making a comeback.
Our little Good Harbor Beach Piping Plover family of five all appear to be doing well. The three chicks made the five-day-old milestone today. They are becoming increasingly independent, so much so that is is occasionally difficult for the PiPl volunteers to find. We monitors have had it relatively easy up to this point. With the cooler temperatures, the chicks have spent a great deal of time tucked under Mama and Papa. This first warm day of June, they were zooming from one length of the beach by the No. 3 boardwalk, all the way to the creek end, in and out of the cordoned off area, and to the shoreline. The chicks were also observed by monitor Laurie Sawin running up into the edge of the dunes and taking shelter from the heat and sun under the beautiful native flowering Beach Pea.
Ward One City Councilor Scott Memhard has provided laminated information about Piping Plovers, on a clipboard that any PiPl monitor can access via Cape Ann Coffees, which is around the corner from Good Harbor Beach at 86 Bass Avenue. The information can be picked up and dropped off by asking at the counter. Many, many thanks to Rick and Dorthe Noonan, proprietors of Cape Ann Coffees, for volunteering to keep the information at their wonderful coffee shop.
Gloucester Animal Advisory Committee chairperson Alicia Pensarosa reminds everyone to follow this link to sign up if you are interested in becoming a Piping Plover volunteer monitor: https://signup.com/client/invitation2/secure/2801244/true#/invitation
The weather prediction for the weekend is blue skies and seventies, so much help will be needed, especially during the mid-day when the beach is most congested. If you have any questions or comments, please email Alicia at gloucesterAAC@gmail.com.
Three-day-old PiPls waking up at sunrise, foraging in the wrack zone, and taking turns warming up under Mom and Dad.
These sweet Piping Plover chicks are only hours old. All four are healthy, vigorous, and already feeding themselves and stretching their wing buds. They sure were giving their Mom and Dad reason to panic as they ran hither and thither, not yet understanding the adults piping voice commands. A dog ran through the nesting area and a pair of Crows added to the parent’s stress. After both parents briefly left the chicks to distract the dog and give chase to the Crows, calmness was restored and three snuggled under Mom while the fourth kept dad on the run.
*Note–I have been following and filming half a dozen PiPl nests around the state and just to be clear in case of any confusion, these are not our Good Harbor Beach PiPls 🙂
There have been quite a few PiPl chicks hatching around New England beaches. The cool, overcast weather will benefit the hatchlings tremendously. The beaches are relatively quieter, with fewer people, dogs, and trash that attracts avian predators, which will help allow the babies to reach that critical one week old age.
It was a beautiful Memorial Day weekend in more ways than one. Piping Plover chicks have been hatching all around Massachusetts this past week and I was fortunate to observe two nests with a total of six one-day-old chicks zooming around beaches. We’re so blessed that our Good Harbor Beach pair are also on a relatively early track, which greatly increases the chicks chance of surviving.
Mama and Papa spent the weekend on the crowded beach incubating their eggs and foraging. Ironically, I think they benefitted from beach goers picnics (minus the gulls and crows). Papa spent a busy Monday morning pecking at the sand and devouring mouthfuls of large tasty black ants.
Friends, If you have seen a solitary swan in your neighborhood, please write and let us know in either the comments or at firstname.lastname@example.org. We haven’t seen him in his usual places since Easter. He sometimes takes off for an extended rendezvous, but this one seems unusually long.