On a damp overcast day, a cloud of of Robins descended on our garden. The Dragon Lady hollies provided an abundance of food for the traveling flock. Their beautiful birdsongs filled the neighborhood as they went from tree to tree, devouring any remaining winter fruits.
A large flock of American Robins, often times mixed with European Starlings, arrives annually on Cape Ann round about mid-winter. Over the past several weeks they have been devouring tree fruits all around Eastern Point and East Gloucester. Yesterday our ‘Dragon Lady’ holies were bursting with brilliant red frutis, today, nary a berry!
Please write if you have seen the Robins in your garden or local wooded walks 🙂
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, having several different habits for surviving winter. There are year round resident robins that breed throughout Cape Ann during warmer months and also spend the winter here. Some Robins arrive in springtime, having spent the winter further south in parts warmer. A third group, the ones I like to call winter Robins, arrive in mid-winter, from parts further north. We are like their Bermuda. They are very hungry and thirsty and are here to feed on wild fruits and berries, as well as small fish fry and fingerlings, and mollusks.
In early spring, Robins begin to disperse from flocks. The ground thaws and worms, insects, and snails once again become part of the Robin’s diet. In early spring, too, is when we begin to hear the beautiful liquid notes of the male robin. He is singing to attract a mate. The robin’s song is one of the of most beloved and it is his music with which we associate the coming of spring.
Be sure your bird baths are filled with fresh, accessible water.
With several edits and updates since I first wrote the following article, I think you’ll find the information helpful in knowing what to feed and to plant for the robins.
Food for the American Robin
During the winter months Cape Ann often becomes home to large flocks of robins, and we have had the joy of hosting numerous numbers in our garden. I can’t help but notice their arrival. Their shadows descend, crisscrossing the window light, followed by a wild rumpus in the ‘Dragon Lady’ hollies. This pair of hollies is planted on opposing sides of the garden path, alongside my home office. I have learned to stealthily sneak up to a window, as any sudden activity inside startles birds that are investigating our garden, and they quickly disperse. Dining not only on berries of the ‘Dragon Ladies’, but also the ‘Blue Princess’ Meserve holly and winterberry bushes, I find dozens of noisy, hungry robins.
These winter nomads flock to trees and shrubs that hold their fruit through January and February, feasting on red cedar, American holly, Meserve hollies, chokecherries, crabapples, sumac, and juniper. Robins traveling along the shores of Cape Ann also comb the shoreline for mollusks, and go belly-deep for fish fry. Depleting their food supply, they move onto the next location. Gardens rife with fruiting shrubs and trees make an ideal destination for our migrating friends.
Year round resident robins will call your garden home when provided with trays of chopped fruit and raisins, supplemented with meal worms.
What to Plant for Robins
The garden designed to attract nesting pairs of summer resident robins, as well as flocks of winter travelers, would be comprised of trees and shrubs for nest building, plants that bear fruit and berries that are edible during the summer and fall, and plants that bear fruits that persist through the winter months. Suburban gardens and agricultural areas provide the ideal habitat, with open fields and lawns for foraging insects as well as trees and hedgerows in which to build their nests.
The following plants, suggested with robins in mind, will also attract legions of songbirds and Lepidoptera. The list is comprised primarily of indigenous species with a few non-native, but not invasive, plants included.
Trees for nesting ~ American Holly (Ilex opaca), Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana), Red Maple (Acer rubrum), Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum), Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida).
Summer and autumn fruit bearing trees, shrubs and vines for robins ~ Black Cherry (Prunus serotina), Blackberry (Rubus spp.), Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida), Gray Dogwood (C. racemosa), Red-osier Dogwood (C. sericea), Silky Dogwood (C. amomum), Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), Apple (Malus pumila), Virginia Rose (Rosa virginiana), Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), Wild Grape (Vitis spp.).
Trees and shrubs with fruits persisting through winter ~ Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), Mountain Ash (Sorbus americana), Crabapple (Malus spp.), Sargent’s Crabapple (Malus sargentii), American Holly (Ilex opaca), Meserve Hollies (Ilex x meserveae), Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana), Common Juniper (Juniperus communis), Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra), Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina).
Foraging energetically amidst the expiring sunflower stalks and then darting to the thicketed woodland edge, a mixed flock of adult and juvenile Common Yellowthroats is finding plenty of fat bugs to eat in these early days of autumn.
Common Yellowthroat female juvenile
Yellowthroats breed in cattail patches at our local North Shore marshes and will soon be heading south to spend the winter in the Southeastern US, Mexico, and Central America.
The above male in breeding plumage was seen taking a bath in our garden several years ago.
The northward avian migration is heating up! The following are just three of the fascinating species of wild birds readily seen at this time of year, found all around Cape Ann. Look for Brants, Scaups, and Ring-necked Ducks at coves, bays, ponds, quarries, and marshes.
Currently migrating along Cape Ann’s shoreline is a beautiful brigade of Brant Geese. They usually turn up at about this time of year, late winter through early spring, and I have been looking for them in all the usual places. Brants thrive in Cape Ann coves, devouring sea lettuce while riding the incoming and outgoing waves. I see them eating and pecking for food atop barnacle-crusted rocks and am not sure if they are eating seaweed caught on the rocks or tiny crustaceans.
Brants eating bright green sea lettuce.
In the 1930s a terrible disease devastated eel grass and the Brant population plummeted. Surviving Brants adapted to sea lettuce and as the eel grass recovered, so too is the population of Brants recovering.
Brants are wonderfully vocal, making a funny “cronk” sound. I was walking past a flock of geese off in the distance and wasn’t paying much attention. Thinking they were Canada Geese, I ignored them until hearing their vigorous cronking.
They fight with each too, over rocks and food. Tomorrow if I can find the time I will try to post photos that I took of a Brant scuffle.
Brants feeding on the rocks are knocked off by the incoming tide, but then quickly get right back up again.
Brants migrate the furthest north of any species of goose, as far north as Hedwig territory.
Two Males and a Female Greater Scaup
The Greater Scaup breeds as far north as Snowy Owls and Brant Geese, and Ring-necked Ducks are also passing through, not traveling quite as far, but on their way to the Alaskan and Canadian boreal forests. Greater Scaups travel in flocks, sometimes forming rafts of thousands. You can see why in the photos Greater Scaups are colloquially called Bluebills.
Three male Greater Scaups and a Red-breasted Merganser
The most significant threat to Greater Scaups is habitat loss, oil, and sewage pollution. Nearly eighty percent winter over in the Atlantic Flyway where they are subjected to heavy metals in foods and habitat.
So many suitors! Lone female Ring-necked Duck with potential mates.
The two species are closely related (Aythya collaris and Atythya marila); both are small diving ducks and both are vulnerable to becoming poisoned by lead from diving for food and incidentally eating the lead shot and lures that continues to cause problems in our wetlands.
All by his lonesome, Little Chick survived his first super busy Sunday entirely on his own. Perhaps he needs a new grown up name such as Tuffers, something that recognizes his strong spirit–or instinct for survival–subject to how anthropomorphic your views. I’ve gotten used to calling him Little Chick, but am open to suggestions 🙂
Little Chick in a Bowl
Stretch two three, right two three, left two three. Thirty-nine-day old Piping Plover
Saturday through Sunday and still no sign of Papa. He has not been seen since Friday night. We can only surmise that he has departed of his own accord or been killed by a predator. Either way, it’s terribly worrisome for the chick, just one of its kind, at the city’s most popular of beaches. Little Chick hasn’t as of yet shown great flying skills, and only Friday, Papa was piping warning commands when predators approached.
The summer migration is underway and within this past week we’ve seen Bonarparte’s Gulls, Laughing Gulls, Least Sandpipers, Sanderlings, and Semipalmated Plovers at Good Harbor Beach.
Flock of Semipalmated Plovers at Good Harbor Beach
Little Chick has been foraging in close proximity to the Semipalmated Plovers, which are similar in size to Piping Plovers, only much darker. The SemiP know to fly away when the beach rake is near; Little Chick still only hunkers down deeper into the sand. His plumage works as both an advantage and disadvantage. He’s well camouflaged from predators, and too much so from well meaning beach goers.Notice how much paler the Piping Plover (foreground) is in comparison to the Semipalmated Plover. Little Chick tried to rest at the high tide line during yesterday’s blustery afternoon. He didn’t like the strong winds one bit and quickly changed his mind, taking shelter beneath the vegetation in the roped off area.Thirty-seven-day old Piping Plover
This morning I had the joy to meet Don and Eleanor. Don built the fantastic Osprey platform that you see in the photos. Several years ago, Don noticed that an Osprey pair were trying to construct a nest on a post by the train tracks; the post that houses the all important train signals. Understandably, railroad workers had to destroy the nest as it was interfering with train operations. After watching the Osprey pair attempt to build a nest two years in a row, Don decided to build and install an Osprey platform in the marsh adjacent to his home. With some advice from Greenbelt, Don installed the platform early this spring. Wonder of wonders, his plan worked! The young pair built a perfect nest and one egg hatched.
Thanks to citizen scientists like Don and Eleanor and the Essex County Greenbelt’s amazing Osprey program, the north of Boston region is rapidly being repopulated with Opsrey. Don is already building a second platform with hopes of installing it in the spring of 2017.
Don reports that since the Osprey have been on the scene, they are no longer bothered by pesky crows. He witnessed a pair of crows trying to rob the Osprey nest of its egg. The Osprey swooped in, snatched both crows, and beat them down into the marsh. The crows have yet to return!
Many thanks to Don and Eleanor for their warm hospitality and efforts to help the Osprey.
Osprey nesting platform built by Don
To take some truly terrific closeups, a longer zoom lens is required than my own 400mm, but we can at least get a glimpse of the Osprey family with these photos.
My grandmother was fond of saying “the early bird catches the worm.” I assumed she said that because I adored getting up early to eat breakfast with my grandfather before he left for work. In a large family with siblings and cousins, I had him all to myself in those day break hours. Having developed a passion and love for wild creatures and wild places, I understand better what she meant. She and my grandfather built a summer home for their family in a beautiful, natural seashore setting and both she and my parents packed our home with books and magazines about nature. Now I see her design…
Day break, beautiful scene, beautiful creatures by the sea’s edge
Song Sparrow breakfast
American Robin fledgling, note its speckled breast feathers
Mockingbird feeding its fledgling
Song Sparrow and Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) flowers and fruit
As much as I was surprised by this sweet glimpse of mama and her ducklings coming around a bend in the marsh, she was as equally surprised to see me, hidden behind a clump of tall grasses. One glance, and mom quickly departed with her nine (!!) newly emerged ducklings.
Have you ever wondered why sometimes you can see the brilliant red gorget (throat feathers) of the male Ruby-throated and Allen’s hummingbirds, and sometimes not at all? Or why iridescent feathers appear green, and then blue, or possibly purple, and then in the next moment look drab and dreary? I think about this when photographing birds such as grackles, buffleheads and hummingbirds. Most recently, the turkeys in our community are currently displaying their wildly varying iridescent feathers when in full courtship mode.
Iridescent red gorget in male Allen’s Hummingbird; same bird, different angles
There are two types of structural color, layering and scattering. Iridescence in bird feathers is created by layering. Bird feathers are made of a translucent protein called keratin, which is a very rugged substance. Not only are the feathers made of keratin, but keratin coats the bird’s claws, legs, and bill. Because of the structure of the feather, with its microscopic barbules, when light hits the feather it causes the wave lengths to bend, or refract. Keratin reflects short wave length colors like purples, blues, and violets. The other colors are absorbed by the underlying layer of melanin. The refraction works like a prism, splitting the light into an array of colors. As the viewing angle changes, because of the viewer’s movement or because the bird is moving, the refracted light displays a shimmering iridescence, or none at all. Beautiful color combinations are created when iridescent layers are combined with pigments present.
In the above photo, the male Turkey’s iridescent feathers surrounding the head make a splendid display in full sun.
These same feathers appear entirely different when back lit.
Iridescence in Grackles
Keratin is interspersed with tiny pockets of air of within the structure of the feather filament (called barb). Scattering is created when light hits the pockets of air, which results in specific, non-iridescent color. The color blue in feathers is almost always created in this manner. Feathers of Blue Jays, Bluebirds, and Indigo Buntings are prime examples of scattering.
Here are two graphics found online from Cornell that I found very helpful in trying to visualize the difference between layering and scattering. The first shows how iridescence is produced and the second, how blue scattering is created.
Don’t you love the sound of the word loblolly? I am curious as to why Loblolly Cove is called as such. There is the Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda) but that is a species that grows in the the southern United States. Nautically speaking, loblolly refers to a thick gruel served on ships. Geographically, in some southern US dialects, a loblolly is a mire or mudhole. Loblolly Cove is neither of these. Perhaps the namer of Loblolly Cove just liked the name. To me, it sounds like the perfect setting for a mystery novel, the kind you read when a kid on summer vacation – “Mystery at Loblolly Cove.”
Scenes from around Loblolly Cove
Sing Your Heart Out Fella!
You may have noticed odd-looking Common Eiders on our shores lately. They are juvenile males. It takes several years for the adult male to develop his distinctive and crisp black and white wing pattern.
Adult Male and Female Common Eiders with Male Bufflehead in Flight
I’ve been keeping my eye on this pair of Mourning Doves and early this morning I found their nest! They saw me filming and photographing them and flew away. I hope they don’t abandon the nest as it would be wonderful to film the babies (squabs).
The male approaches the female with bobbing head and puffed chest, inviting her to a nesting site.
Female Mourning Doves build the nest.
The male dove carries the nest building material to the female.
A loose collection of twigs, pine cone needles, and grass, the nest is usually sited in a tree.
I hope I can find the nest again! Keeping my fingers crossed the pair will still be there when the rain lets up.
A sure sign spring is on the way with these three singing their way onto the scene!
While the trees have yet to leaf out, late winter is a terrific time of year to see songbirds. As the air temperature warms, singing their love songs and courting, establishing and defending territories, and nest building endeavors are more easily observed in the leafless trees.
American Robin cocking his head while looking for worms.
Mourning Dove with air-puffed feathers to keep warm.
Male Red-winged Blackbird perched on a cattail. Red-winged Blackbirds use the fluff of cattails as nesting material.
Recently, one of the very kind people who regularly feed our resident swan, Dominic Nesta, pointed out that Mr. Swan is unusual for his blue eyes. I was surprised by his comment because I’ve only ever filmed Mr. Swan, his deceased mate, and their offspring up close, and they all have (had) blue eyes. Aren’t all Mute Swans blue-eyed I wondered? After looking at hundreds of photos on Google images and reading dozens of descriptions, Mute Swans eyes appear as, and are always described as, black, whether they are the English Mute Swan or the Polish variant.
Mr. Swan is of the Polish kind. Polish Mute Swans are rarer, mostly pure white, and with pinkish gray feet, as opposed to the English sorts, which have black feet and legs. Hans Christian Anderson’s Ugly Duckling was perhaps logically written with the English Mute Swan cygnet in mind, which are typically dressed in a mottled gray downy coat. Polish Mute Swan cygnets are pure white. Until I learned the difference I wondered how there could ever be such a story as the Ugly Duckling because again, I had only ever seen Mr. Swan’s offspring, which have always been exceptionally beautiful perfect little balls of fluffy white down (gray cygnets aren’t ugly either, IMO).
Cygnet, Polish morph
Polish Mute Swans (Mrs. Swan and Cygnet, Henry’s Pond)
A pigment deficiency of a gene in the sex chromosomes is what causes the whiteness (leucism). Polish Mute Swans were given their name when in 1800 they were introduced to London from the Polish coast on the Baltic Sea. They were at first thought to be a new species because of their unchanging color form (Cygnus immutabilis).
Our Mr. Swan is extraordinary not only for his long-lived life of well over twenty years, but also for his sapphire blue eye color.
Help needed from our readers–do you have a pair of swans in your area? If so, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you very kindly.
The smallest, and I think most would agree, among the cutest North American sea ducks, every autumn Buffleheads arrive on the shores of Cape Ann after having journeyed many thousands of miles from their summer breeding grounds in the Canadian boreal forests. They are seen in twos or in small groups and unlike most ducks, are monogamous. Some males begin courting very early in the season as demonstrated in the flock currently residing on Cape Ann however, the birds will not pair until spring.
When out for a walk along shore and pond, you may notice a great deal of bufflehead kerfuffling taking place. The male’s courtship displays are wonderfully exuberant, with much head pumping, chest thrusting, and aggressive flying. The male goes so far as to exaggerate the size of his head by puffing out his bushy crest. Occasionally, the males chase females, but most of the chasing is directed towards other males in territorial displays, which are accomplished by both flying and skidding across the water as well as via underwater chasing. The female encourages her suitor vocally and with a less animated head pumping motion.
Female Bufflehead, left and male Bufflehead, right
Buffleheads are diving ducks, finding nourishment on Cape Ann on small sea creatures and pond grasses, as well as seed heads at the shoreline’s edge.
By the early twentieth century Buffleheads were nearing extinction due to over hunting. Their numbers have increased although now their greatest threat is loss of habitat stemming from deforestation in the boreal forests and aspen parklands of Canada.
The word bufflehead is a corruption of buffalo-head, called as such because of their disproportionately large and bulbous head. Buffleheads are a joy to watch and are seen all around Cape Ann throughout the fall, winter, and early spring. Their old-fashioned name, “Butterball,” aptly describes these handsome and welcome winter migrants!
Listen for the Buffleheads mating vocalizations. The Bufflehead courtship scenes were filmed on Niles Pond. The end clip is of a flock of Buffleheads in flight and was shot at Pebble Beach, Rockport.
Cooper’s Hawk, at least I think it is an immature Cooper’s Hawk. Raptor experts reading this please weigh in!
Several nights ago while filming at T Wharf in truly gorgeous fading light a very cool hawk flew on the scene, hungrily hunting amidst the flock of pigeons that were circling around Motif #1. The kerfuffle was captured on film, and then he perched about fifteen feet away from where I was standing! I very slowly and quietly turned cameras toward him. The hawk stayed for a few moments longer before heading back out to chase the pigeons.
I believe this is an immature Cooper’s Hawk because of the beautiful teardrop-shaped patterning of the feathers on its breast, the distinguishing three bars on its long tail, and the yellow eyes. What do you think?
The light was so dim and the hawk photos were shot at only a shutter speed of 40 and high ISO of 5400. Nonetheless, I’m impressed with the clarity of the images from my new lens when shooting in very low light conditions.
So many thanks to everyone who came out for my talk at the Cultural Center last night. Thank you to old friends who were there and thank you to my new friends; it was a pleasure to meet you!
We had a wonderful turnout. The Cultural Center at Rocky Neck and the Rocky Neck Art Colony did a tremendous job hosting. With special thanks and gratitude to Martha Swanson, Suzanne Gilbert Lee, Jane Keddy, Karen Ristuben, Tom Nihan, and Mary Lou. The Beautiful Birds of Cape Ann thank you to!
Several weeks ago, in response to a question sent in by a reader that asked can swans drink seawater, we responded yes, because just above the eyes and under the skin, they have a gland that removes salt from their blood stream and concentrates it in a solution that is excreted from their nostrils. In the photo below, you can see sunlight coming through the nare holes, which are near the base of the bill. When the swan shakes its head, the salt is removed through the nares. Most species of birds have nare holes, which lead to the nasal cavity within the skull, which is part of the respiratory system.
Please join us Thursday night at the Cultural Center at Rocky Neck. For more information on my illustrated talk “Beautiful Birds of Cape Ann” visit this post here.
Note the young swan’s brownish feathers and greyish-pink bill (left). This tells us that she is not quite two years of age.
Today at 9:30am while out doing errands, I stopped by Niles Pond to see if I could find my brand new glove, which was lost the morning previously. That Monday, the day after the weekend storm, the mergansers had moved overnight to Niles Pond to escape the wind and waves on the harbor and I had captured footage of Mr. Swan with the Red-breasted Mergansers. Last I saw him, he was alone and circling the pond, plaintively calling.
Just as I got to the spot where filming yesterday I looked up and flying overhead were not one, but two swans! They were flying towards Brace Cove. I hurried back to my car to get cameras, checking all the while to see if the pair would stay at Niles or continue up the coast. They circled back around Niles before landing on the far side of the pond. The large pure white male looks like Mr. Swan and his girlfriend appears to be much younger as she is comparatively smaller and still has some brownish-gray cygnet feathers.
I immediately called my friend Lyn to let her know about the swan pair swimming at her end of the pond. There was a large patch of ice that prevented the swans from coming closer to where she was calling them from shore but we did have a good long look and we both agree it could very well be Mr. Swan (Lyn calls him Poppa Swan and in Rockport he’s known as Buddy).
The pair of swans stayed, feeding on pond vegetation and moving slowly through the icy waters. Swans use their powerful breast muscles in a lifting and lurching movement to break up ice. It takes a great amount of effort to cut a path through the ice and Mr. Swan is much more adept at ice breaking than is his new girlfriend.
By a swan’s second summer (in other words two years of age) it will have lost all the characteristics of an immature. The brown feathers are gradually replaced with the white feathers. The last thing to visibly change is the color of the swan’s bill. A cygnet’s bill is blue/grey changing over the two year period to pinkish and then orange. Swans can breed as early as two years of age although most don’t begin until three years.
I can’t saw with 100 percent certainty that this is Mr. Swan because I didn’t get a close look at the distinguishing marks on his bill however, all signs point in this direction.
So many thanks to my friends Joey and Tom Ring for the wonderful tip. The Snowy is gorgeous!!! My right arm is a little unsteady with robo-cast but still managed to get a few moments. Notice how the Snowy Owl rotates its head, giving him nearly a 360 degree viewing vantage. The crows and a Peregrine Falcon were noisily dive-bombing the Snowy, but he held his ground. I hope we see him again soon