As I am sure many of you are, I am finding pure joy in the return of herons to the North Shore, especially Great Blues. North America’s largest herons began arriving about a month ago, shadowing our landscapes with their massive wingspan. In the case of the largest males, their wingspan may measure up to seven feet wide! Stately and elegant, they also remind us of prehistoric flying dinosaurs or baby pterodactyls.
The courtship, mating, and nest building of the magnificent Great Blue Heron is highly ritualized. Great Blues do not mate for life, but are reportedly monogamous during the nesting season (I have observed and filmed differently). The male typically arrives at the nesting site, or heron rookery (also called a heronry), first. He choses either a new nest location or an old nest to rebuild. With his neck fully extended and majestic slow wingbeats, the male flies in great circles around the nesting grounds while calling for a mate. The female perches and calls back, waiting for the just the right fellow to come along.
Once the pair have bonded, the male selects the nesting materials and brings them to the female. The female arranges the material and it can take up to a week to build the nest. During the nest building period, the pair further bond with elegant displays of preening each other’s feathers, bowing, fluffing and rubbing their necks together, twig exchanges, tapping beaks together, and more. And, too, during the nest-building time period, the pair frequently (albeit very briefly) continues to mate.
The facial disc of an owl is the concave collection of feathers around its face that collects sound waves and directs those sound waves towards the owl’s ears. The owl can adjust the feathers of the facial disc, enabling the bird to focus at different distances, which allows it to locate prey by sound alone under snow and plant cover.
One of the most beautiful creatures of the snowy landscape has to be the Snow Bunting. Also known as Snowflakes, Snow Buntings light up winter scapes with swirls of flight and highly animated foraging habits.
During the breeding season in the high Arctic, Snow Buntings eat a protein rich insect diet but while here during the winter months in the relatively milder climate of Massachusetts, they forage on tiny grass seeds and must constantly eat. Although their feeding habits are highly entertaining to the human observer, it’s really a matter of life or death for these cold weather warriors.
Standing on tiptoes for breakfast
Snow Buntings have several methods for extracting seeds. Sometimes they vigorously shake a wildflower or stalk of grass at the base of the plant. Other times they alight on a single blade of dried beach grass and slide their beaks along, shredding the stalk and releasing teeny seeds. They may stay alit and eat their foraged treasure, but more often than not, they shake the blade while perched and release the seeds to the ground. The Snow Bunting’s fellow flock member will seize upon the shower of released seeds and try to gobble them up. Herein lies the the conflict and disputes occur non stop while a flock is feeding. Typically one will readily retreat while the other dines, but occasionally a nasty battle ensues.
The wonderfully rich beach grass habitat where the Snow Buntings flock was formerly a barren scape that persistently washed away after every storm. Beach grass was planted, temporary dune fencing installed, and small rocks were added. After only several seasons, this habitat restoration project began attracting butterflies, songbirds, and nesting shorebirds during the spring and summer months, along with glorious creatures such as the beautiful Snow Bunting during the winter months.
I plan to find out exactly what this species of beach grass is that the Snow Buntings find so appealing because there are several locations on Cape Ann where habitat restoration is badly needed and I think this precise species of grass would surely be at the top of the list for stabilizing shoreline conservation projects.
Beginning three winters ago, American Pipits have been spotted consistently all around Eastern Point. The first year, the winter of 2019-2020, there was a pair that could be located daily without fail. Last year, three were present, again throughout the colder months. And this year there has been a mini flock of up to seven seen at any one time.
Lately, I have been running into birders from out of state and out of town who are here to see the Pipits and are very excited by their presence. When I tell them they have been on Eastern Point steadily for several years, they look at me askantly.
What to look for – The Pipit’s shape reminds me of a slimmer version of the American Robin, with winter plumage in shades of gray and brown. American Pipits have a very cute way of continuously waggling their long tail feathers when bobbing around the seaweed and rocks.
Pipits like to forage amongst rocks, at the wrack line, and along the sandy part of the beach where there are seed heads of wildflowers and grasses.. As you can see from the map, Massachusetts is north of the Pipit’s winter range. If you see a Pipit at any of our area beaches, please write and let us know and even better, please try to take a photo and we will share it here. The more documentation, the better!
The following is a collection of photos from the past three winters, including this winter.
Winter 2022 – two clearly different shades of breast feathers on theses two individualsAmerican Pipit beach camo
For the first time, as far as anyone can recollect, a pair of Piping Plovers nested at Cape Hedge Beach in Rockport during the summer of 2021. The family was not observed until after the chicks had hatched but we can make a fairly educated guess as to where the nest was hidden. I think, too, based on comparing many photos and film footage that the pair at Cape Hedge had nested originally at the Salt Island end of Good Harbor Beach. That nest of three eggs was washed away by a storm surge during the King Tide. There was a great deal of competition for nesting territory at Good Harbor during this time period and it is logical the SI pair would have moved north one beach. I imagine that to a Plover’s way of thinking, from Cape Hedge to Good Harbor is one long continuous beach.
One of the most fascinating aspects observed about the Cape Hedge Piping Plover family was the very young chick’s ability to navigate the popples. They used the larger rocks as slides, leapt from rock to rock, occasionally got stuck and, especially when they were very teeny, did mini somersaults.
Why did the Plovers go up and down the steep bank of popples countless times a day? Better camouflage was afforded at the top of the bank while food was more plentiful in the tidal flats. Insects could be had amongst the rocks, but super nourishing mini mollusks and sea worms can only be found in the intertidal zone.
I am currently in the midst of the daunting task of organizing six years of PiPl footage and photographs, from 2016 through 2021. I’ll be posting snippets from time to time. See below for some PiPl acrobatics and a somersault in slow motion 🙂
Wishing you Happy Holidays, good health, peace and joy in the coming year. I am so thankful for you and grateful for your support of our Monarch documentary, Cape Ann’s Piping Plovers, and for the shared love of all our backyard and shorebird wild creatures.
I made this short film for you, mostly for the audio, but there is a funny moment when one of the Waxwings takes a large berry that is a challenge to swallow.
Several people have asked how do I “see” so many Waxwings. Cedar Waxwings are sociable birds that tend to flock together. They make a wonderfully ascending trilling sound, which once you learn their vocalizations, you will begin to hear everywhere. When Waxwings are at eye level dining on fruits and berries, they are readily detected. Often, though, Waxwings congregate in treetops. You can hear them, but can’t see unless you look to the tippy top of trees. Learn the Cedar Waxwing’s lovely trilling sounds and look up!
In the following short, shot several weeks ago in early December, the Cedar Waxwings were intermittently feeding alongside American Robins, flitting between several crabapple trees and a large clump of native Winterberry. You can also hear the Robin’s birdsongs in the video. The Waxwings are here in our midst, as long as there are plentiful fruits. Happy finding!
Laying low in the dunes, I unexpectedly came upon this beautiful Snowy Owl. He appeared to be superficially injured (see arrow in photo below).The Snowy is perhaps a male, and on the younger side. You can often tell the difference between male and female because the male has lighter barring in the wing patterning, although the darkest male can also look like a female with lighter wing barring.
Note the sharp difference in wing pattering: The Snowy Owl on the left (Cape Ann’s Hedwig) is most likely a female, while the Snowy from the dunes, on the right, is more likely than not, a male.
It”s not easy being a bright white Snowy against the golden yellow of dunes. The white wedge shapes are easily detected by all manner of harassing critters, most notably Crows and gulls. Flying overhead, too, was a territorial battle royale between a Peregrine Falcon and a Red-tailed Hawk.
In the video posted here, which is part one of a five part series from the Snowy Owl Film Project, you can see the beautiful Snowy that called Cape Ann’s back shore home for a winter is being harassed and dive-bombed by Crows, at 1:00 to 1:25.
More photos of the Snowy recently spotted in the dunes just after daybreak
Check out the Gloucester Times article by Taylor Ann Bradford about the wandering Wood Stork that called Cape Ann home for about a month in November. Such a gift to have this magnificent species in our midst!
The footage was shot on the Annisquam River, on November 21st, at dusk. I wish it was brighter, but this is what we have to show that the stork was feeding well, flying, and pooping often (at about 3 mins), all signs he/she was in good health.
Fantastic news about the young Wood Stork, at least we have no reason to believe it is not the same WS as our Cape Ann Wood Stork. On November 29th, a juvenile WS was photographed by two observers at a marsh on Sconticut Neck, Fairhaven, which is just east of New Bedford, on Buzzards Bay. The Stork is heading in the right direction!!
Fun fact about Wood Storks – Friend and fellow lover of all creatures Jill Whitney Armstrong had a question about Wood Storks as they are born without a bird voice box, or syrinx. The only sounds the adults make are bullfrog-like croaks and snake-like hisses. I have read that Wood Stork nestlings are very noisy and that a colony sound like a bunch of braying donkeys!
For more information about the Wood Stork that came to Cape Ann see:
About six years ago, Cape Ann was graced with another great rare bird sighting, that of a White Pelican. He spent a very brief twenty minutes or so at Niles Pond, before then heading in the wrong direction, north. The White Pelican was spotted an hour later flying over Plum Island.
As has been the case for many summers (ever since we first planted Cardinal Climber), we have had a Mama Ruby-throated Hummingbird nesting nearby. I have looked and looked for the nest, but our garden is a bit of a jungle and I don’t have any real hopes of finding her half-walnut shell sized nest; it’s just fun to look.
This past week her two young fledglings have been joining her at the feeders and special flowers planted just for them. The youngsters are more playful than the Mama and give chase to each other. I wish I could get a snapshot of all three but am happy with what I can get.
One of the three perched in the pear tree several days ago and proceeded to giver herself a thorough grooming from tip to toe.
She first floofed and fluffed.
Then rubbed both sides of her bill, back and forth, against the gnarly rough bark of the pear tree.
Then used her tiny mouse-sized toes to clean her bill from the base to the tip!
Lastly, she used her toes to arrange (or scratch) her neck feathers.
The past week I have been astounded with the array of warblers that we are seeing in our garden and on walks in the neighborhood. The big attraction in the garden is the native pink flowering dogwood tree (Cornus florida ‘Rubra’), my neighbor’s maple tree and the tiny insects feeding there, and our funky weathered old bird bath. There has been so much activity in the bird bath we are changing the water several times a day! Perhaps the travelers are dusty and dirty and appreciate the fresh bathing water.
One of the most fun to see was an American Redstart and the new-to-my-eyes Bay-breasted Warbler.
We also had a trio of black and white birds for an afternoon, the Black and White Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, and a female Yellow-rumped Warbler.
Black and White Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, and Yellow-rumped Warbler
There’s much that could be written about each species. I’m posting these photos for ID purposes in case anyone else has noticed a recent influx of warblers in your backyard or neighborhood. Please write if you do. Thank you!
Dave Rimmer, Osprey Program Director writes the following-
2021 Nesting Season Updates
Please send any questions to email@example.com)
Update Early April 2021 – Annie and Squam (at least we thought at first it was him) returned to the nest earlier this year – probably around April 5-7. The webcam went live on April 13 and new nesting materials had been brought to the nest. However, we have observed a banded Opsrey at the nest on April 13 and 14, which would not be Annie or Squam. So we will have to watch and wait to see what unfolds here.
Update April 15, 2021 – Watching the Osprey pair on the webcam now for the past few days, we have noticed that the male Osprey has a US Fish and Wildlife Service aluminum band on his right leg. I have banded over 200 Osprey chicks in the past 5-6 years and all on the right leg. Squam was not banded and it is highly unlikely he would have been banded during migration. Plus, this banded male is a large Osprey who appears almost equal in size to the female, who looks very much like and we believe is Annie. Squam was noticably smaller than Annie. About noontime today, the banded male attempted to copulate with Annie. Since then there has been a third Osprey around the nest and much commotion, including a lot of chasing and calling.
It will take more time to determine what is going on here. Are two males competing to be Annie’s mate. Did something happen to Squam or did this larger male just outcompete him? These are all possible scenarios that will unfold in the coming days. Stay tuned!
Beautiful Ospreys are returning to Massachusetts nesting sites. Annie and Squam, Cape Ann’s resident pair, are actively re-establishing their bond, arranging the nest and courting. Their nest is located in the marsh behind Lobstaland and when driving past, you can often catch sight of the pair’s nesting activity. Annie and Squam’s nest is managed by Essex Greenbelt’s director of land stewardship, Dave Rimmer.
Lobstaland Osprey nest
Osprey courtship is wonderfully fun to observe. Pairs typically mate for life and seem to simply enjoy hanging out together in the nest. They return each year to an established nest site, which is always near water and may be at the top of a dead tree, cliff, rocky outcropping, or manmade structure including Osprey nesting platforms, telephone poles, channel markings, and even church rooftops (see last photos)! By reusing the same nest from year to year a ready-made nest allows for earlier egg laying, which generally leads to greater success. And if the first nest fails, there may be time to try again.
This past week I had the unexpected joy to observe close up a pair of Osprey reuniting. The two flew to a phone pole adjacent to their established nest after which the male took off, quickly returning with a large stick. He placed the stick on the phone pole near to where the female was perched, repeating this behavior half a dozen times. The pair called to each other frequently during the stick placement bonding, when they both suddenly flew to their nest and mated. Osprey mating is very brief, lasting only seconds. The female positions her self higher on the rim of the nest while the male jumps on her back. During this extraordinarily brief cloacal kiss, sperm is transferred. I have read pairs will mate frequently during the few days before she begins laying eggs, her most fertile time.
After mating, the lovebirds stayed in their nest for several hours, continuing to “talk” to each other, housekeeping, and what appeared to be simply doing nothing more than hanging out together.
I didn’t see the male delivering fish to the female or the Osprey’s famous courtship flight; hopefully another day 🙂
Goin’ to the chapel
How to tell the difference between male and female Osprey. The female of a pair is oftentimes, but not always, larger than the male, by as much as twenty percent in some instances. But unless you see them side-by-side from exactly the same angle, that can be difficult to compare. Females may also have a more prominent ” necklace,” sometimes referred to as “freckling,” around the neck. Her feather necklace patterning is usually more pronounced. You can see the difference in the photo below.
Female Osprey right, male Osprey left
Fun facts about Osprey
Osprey are one of the largest birds of prey, with a wingspan of five feet.
Osprey are found worldwide, in every continent except Antarctica.
The oldest Osprey lived to be 30 years old.
Osprey are recovering from the use of the pesticide DDT, which caused breeding failure from eggshell thinning. DDT was banned in 1972.
Ospreys are piscivorous, with fish comprising 99 percent of their diet.
When an Osprey catches a fish, it arranges the fish head first, reducing aerodynamic drag.
This beautiful pair of Eastern Screech Owl lovebirds has made its nest in the cavity of an ancient maple tree. The tree is on the property of a kindly and very tolerant gent, Ron, who always has a nice word or humorous comment for the many observers and photographers that have visited.
According to neighborhood lore, this is not the first year the pair has nested here. What makes these lovebirds especially wonderful to see and fun for comparing life forms is that one is a gray morph (or phase) and the other a rufous (red) morph. The color has nothing to do with the sex of the owl. There are rufous males and rufous females, and vice versa. There is also a brown morph. The gray and brown morphs are thought to have evolved to better blend with deciduous trees such as maples and oask, whereas the rufous morph is better camouflaged in pine trees.
Rufous Screech Owl at daybreak
Eastern Screech Owls in maple tree
With this pair of lovebirds I am still unsure of who is who. Sometimes you see only the red Screechie sitting in the fore, more often the gray lately, and very rarely now, the pair together. As I suspected, and as was confirmed by Mass Audubon, the male will roost with the female during nesting, which also makes it challenging to determine one from the other. The females are larger but when they are sitting side by side snuggled up against each other as they were at the beginning of courtship, it doesn’t help much in determining size.
Gray Screech Owl
My best guess is the red is the female and the gray the male, because it is the gray one I have seen heading out at night to hunt.
Screech Owls don’t create their own nests; they use abandoned woodpecker homes and other natural cavities.The Screech Owl’s nest is merely the cavity. They don’t add sticks or twigs or any nesting material and simply lay eggs on the substrate. The female lays between three to eight eggs. The male does the better part of hunting for both during incubation. After approximately 26 days the eggs hatch. The owlets grow quickly and will begin to stretch their wings at about one month old.
Screech Owls are nocturnal and are seen hunting mostly in the first hours after nightfall. They eat just about anything they can catch, from small mammals such as mice, bats, squirrels, moles, shrews, and voles to small birds such as finches, as well as doves and quail. Other prey include large insects, earthworms, toads, lizards, snakes, spiders, centipedes, and crawdads.
I haven’t heard this pair make the “screeching” sound for which they are famous, instead they make the most beautiful gentle tremolo trilling at dusk. I tried to record it and if it came out well and when I have a few spare minutes, I will post.
The tree provides food and habitat for many species of songbirds. All these birds photographed are aware of the owl’s presence and some, like the Tufted Titmice, Bluejays, and Nuthatches make it their business to harass on a daily basis.
I have so loved filming and photographing Snow Buntings this winter, finding small and medium sized flocks from Sandy Point to Cape Ann, and further south, all along the coast of Massachusetts. The flocks I have been filming are becoming smaller; male Snow Buntings have already begun their long migration north. Don’t you find all migrating species of wildlife fascinating? Especially a tiny creature such as the Snow Bunting, which breeds the furthest north of any known land-based bird. From the shores of Massachusetts Snow Buntings migrate to the high Arctic where they nest in rocky crevices.
The range shown in orange is where Snow Buntings nest
What has been especially fun to observe is when the Snow Bunting uses its feet as snowshoes and belly like a sled when traversing snow covered beaches. Oftentimes that’s how you can find them, with their unique step-step-slide-tracks. Snow Buntings seem to forage nearly non-stop, perching while shredding grassy seed heads and leaves, and pecking on the ground for seeds caught between sand, stones, and snow. To get from one clump of vegetation to the next, they hop lightly over the surface, snowshoeing along, and then slide along on their bellies. Snow Buntings must gain 30 percent of their body weight before beginning their journey.
Snowshoeing and Sledding
Lively disagreements over food ensue, usually nothing more than a mild spat.
Males typically depart the northeast for their nesting grounds earlier than do the females, arriving three to six weeks ahead of the females. Snow Buntings migrate entirely at night, following the geomagnetic field of the Earth, independent of any type of visual clue!
Notice in several of the photos you can see their “feathered pantaloons,” providing extra protection against freezing temperatures.
Snow Bunting eggs and nest in rocky crevice, images courtesy Google image search
Nicknamed Snowflakes because of their ability to nest in snow!
We in Essex County are so incredibly blessed to have Greenbelt working so hard to conserve beautiful green space throughout the region. Check out this super video to get an overview of just some of the good work that has taken place this past year.
From Greenbelt, “Join Greenbelt President, Kate Bowditch, as she reviews Greenbelt’s challenges and accomplishments this past year. Thank you for your continued support of our organization!”