The wonderful Hairy Woodpecker featured in this short film was seen on a sunny afternoon along the banks of Niles Pond. He spent a great amount of time alternating between excavating a fallen log, foraging for wood boring beetles, and climbing up and down trunks of trees. I’ve been back several times and can usually find him by his funny high pitched squeak that sounds much like a pup’s squeaky chew toy.
Snagging a grub
On that very same day the Hairy Woodpecker was pummeling away at the log, a sweet little Downy Woodpecker and beautiful Red-bellied Woodpecker were also in the neighborhood. And too, there is an elusive golden-winged Northern Flicker flitting about, but he has been a challenge to capture. Hopefully, at some point in the future, we can add him to the short film.
Repair work to the Niles Pond/Brace Cove berm was completed last week. Severe storms over the past several years had breached the area of the Pond adjacent to the Retreat House. Sand, rocks, popples, and even boulders have been pushed by the pounding surf into the Pond.
Despite the excellent repairs, this corner of Niles Pond continues to remain vulnerable. The causeway needs not only to be repaired, but to also be rebuilt to withstand future storms and rising sea level.
Why not just let nature take its course and let the sea pour in you may ask?Won’t Niles Pond eventually become a saltwater marsh? Wouldn’t that be a good thing?
The answer is a resounding NO!
For readers not familiar, the very narrow strip of land that runs between freshwater Niles Pond and Brace Cove is interchangeably referred to as a berm or causeway. This narrowest bridge of land plays an outsized, yet invaluable, role in preventing the salty sea of the Atlantic from swallowing Niles Pond.
It is believed that long ago Niles Pond was a lagoon, which was sealed off by rising sand and rock. Over time, it became a freshwater pond, fed by springs and rainfall. The detail of the Mason map from 1831 clearly shows the division between the Pond and the Cove.
It can’t be overstated enough how uniquely invaluable is the ecosystem created by the causeway, this juncture where Niles Pond meets Brace Cove. Ponds are widely regarded as ecological “hotspots,” for the diversity of life they support. Nowhere is that more evident than at Niles Pond. The sheer number of species of wildlife supported by Niles Pond is simply breathtaking. To name but a few: Painted Turtles, Snapping Turtles, Spring Peepers, American Bullfrogs, Leopard Frogs, Muskrats, Minks, Red Squirrels, Green Herons, Little Blue Herons, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Black-crowned Night Herons, Screech Owls and Barred Owls, Cedar Waxwings and songbirds of every tune and color, Honeybees and native pollinators, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Coyotes, Red Fox, White-tailed Deer … the list goes on and on.
Common Buckeye drinking nectar from Seaside Goldenrod, Niles Pond causeway
The Niles Pond ecosystem not only supports myriad species of resident wildlife but also hundreds of species of migrating songbirds, waterbirds, raptors, and insects. Eastern Point is an important stopover and staging area for wildlife traveling the Atlantic flyway. Niles Pond provides essential freshwater while both the Pond and Brace Cove provide much needed sustenance. Berries, wildflower seeds, pond vegetation, and the zillions of invertebrates found at the Pond, in the seaweed, and at the shoreline support a wondrous array of travelers; a small sampling includes herons, Merlins, hawks, songbirds, Monarch butterflies, Bald Eagles, gulls and ducks and geese (rare and common), Snow Buntings, Plovers, Whimbrels, and many more.
Why, even the wildly-rare-for-these-parts White Pelican and juvenile Wood Stork have stopped at Niles Pond to rest and to refuel!
To lose Niles Pond to some misguided notion that it needs to become a saltwater marsh would be tragic beyond measure. Our nation as a whole is losing its freshwater ponds at an alarming rate. Ponds are absolutely critical to the survival of local and migrating wildlife, especially large scale, healthy natural ponds that are located within the four US Flyway zones. Niles Pond has been a great pond for millennia. The accessibility of the fresh water ecosystem found at Niles Pond is part of the instinctual DNA of both resident and migrating wild creatures.
The Association of Eastern Point Residents has assumed responsibility for the maintenance of the causeway. In the future, the Association needs permission to bring riprap in to distribute at the weakest points of the causeway. Every time the topography of the causeway is redistributed to rebuild the corner where the greatest number of breaches are occurring, the vegetation from another part of the berm is disturbed. This is wholly counterproductive because it is in part preventing a natural succession of vegetation to permanently take hold.
Migrating yellow-rumped Warbler Niles Pond
Niles Pond is enjoyed by dog lovers, ice skaters, ice boat sailors, birders, painters, photographers, joggers, walkers, and more. We can all give thanks to the Association of Eastern Point Residents for the stellar job they are doing in maintaining the causeway. Their time and expense is a gift of the greatest kind to the entire community.
This narrowest of causeways plays the critical role in preventing a freshwater dedicated Massachusetts great pond from becoming a salty marsh or lagoon. Cherished greatly by residents and guests alike for the beautiful, peaceful walk it affords along the banks of the Pond, the preservation of Niles Pond benefits all of Cape Ann, her citizens and wildlife.
With thanks to Karen Gorczyca, John McNiff, and Mike S. for sharing information about preserving the Niles Pond causeway.
Late day Sunday, Charlotte and I took a walk to Niles Pond hoping to see the Harbor Seals in the rising Hunter’s Moon. We were not disappointed! We also saw a mini flock of Yellow-rumped Warblers and a Merlin on the hunt.
If you see a larger, chunkyish sandpiper foraging alongside Semipalmated Plovers and Sanderlings, look at its neck and chest feathers. The Pectoral Sandpiper is heavily streaked above with bright white below.
This long distant traveler breeds in wet coastal areas of the Arctic tundra, from easternmost Russia, across Alaska, and into Canada. According to Cornell’s All About Birds, most winter over in southern South America, which means that some Pectoral Sandpipers migrate a whopping 19,000 miles every year!
The weekend was spent learning a new film editing program. I thought using the early morning B-roll that I shot of the beautiful sea smoke event we are experiencing would make wonderful content to practice my new skills. Filmed along Cape Ann’s eastern most shore from Thacher Island to Loblolly Cove, Pebble Beach, Back Shore, Good Harbor Beach, scenes around Gloucester Harbor, and ending at Brace Cove.
PiPl Friends, I thought you may be interested in what looks to be an interesting celebratory event, tonight a 6pm. If you are interested and can’t attend, register anyway, and they will send a link to a recording of the event.
In 2019, on a small island in coastal South Carolina, biologists discovered a phenomenon that was difficult to believe.
Nearly 20,000 whimbrel were stopping at Deveaux Bank along their migration north — half the estimated eastern population of the declining shorebird.
Hear from the people who were there. Join us on June 22, 2021 for a free virtual screening and panel discussion featuring members of the dedicated team who made the discovery.
Join us on June 22 at 6 p.m. EST as we celebrate the newly announced discovery with a virtual screening, panel discussion and audience Q&A with the dedicated team who made it happen.
Registrants will receive an email with a link to the webinar on the evenings of June 21 and 22.
Maina Handmaker (Panelist), Whimbrel Researcher & Graduate Student, University of South Carolina
As a graduate student in the Senner Lab at the University of South Carolina, Maina studies the role nocturnal roost sites play in the stopover ecology and migratory performance of Atlantic flyway Whimbrel. Prior to joining the Senner Lab, Maina worked as the Communications Specialist for the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN). Her current research uses GPS transmitters to track the daily movements of Whimbrel that roost on Deveaux Bank during their migratory stopovers on the coast of South Carolina, seeking to better understand how individuals select foraging and roosting sites and how those choices influence their entire annual cycle.
Andrew Johnson (Panelist), Conservation Media Center filmmaker, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Andy Johnson is a film producer at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Center for Conservation Media. Andrew studied biology at Cornell University, where his research focused on tracking Whimbrel migrations. Now, with a career in natural history filmmaking, the work on Deveaux Bank has been a convergence of his longtime interests in shorebird migration, conservation, and visual storytelling.
Dr. J. Drew Lanham (Panelist), Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology, Master Teacher, and Certified Wildlife Biologist at at Clemson University
A native of Edgefield, South Carolina, Dr. J Lanham is an author, poet, ecologist, and an extraordinary birder. His focus is on the ecology of songbirds and the intersections of race, place, and conservation with wild birds as the conduit for understanding. Dr Lanham is the author of The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature, which received the Reed Award from the Southern Environmental Law Center, the Southern Book Prize, and was a finalist for the John Burroughs Medal. He is a birder, naturalist, and hunter-conservationist who has published essays and poetry in publications including Orion, Audubon, Flycatcher, and Wilderness, as well as anthologies including The Colors of Nature, State of the Heart, Bartram’s Living Legacy, and Carolina Writers at Home.
Just as did Robert McCloskey’s Beacon Hill Mr. and Mrs. Mallard Duck hatch eight ducklings, so too did our Niles Pond pair. Meet Luck, Chuck, Puck, Cluck, Stuck, Huck, Oouck, and Muck.
The family foraged for seaweed in the rough surf of the Cove before crossing the berm. The ducklings bathed, preened, and swam in fresh water Niles Pond. Mrs Mallard found a cozy patch of dried reeds to take a nap, which lasted all of two minutes before the little quackers were back in the water.
The strip of land that narrowly divides Niles Pond from Brace Cove suffered storm damage this past winter. Rough rocks and boulders were strewn willy nilly all about the berm. The path has been greatly smoothed and looks fantastic!
A heads up for all the many people who enjoy walking the loop around Niles Pond. The berm is no longer a compacted path but is awash with rocks, pebbles, popples, and even some of the large boulders have become dislodged and knocked about.
A few snapshots more from Brace Cove after the nor’easter
Three brownish songbird sorts flew on the scene. Feeding along the pond’s edge at this time of year the brown birds we mostly see are Song Sparrows, but they are more solitary and I don’t usually see them flying around together in a group. Hoping for a bunch of beauties, I approached the trio very quietly, one baby step at a time, and was delighted to see not one but three Horned Larks! I wish the sun had been shining so you can see how beautiful is the male’s lemony yellow throat.
As was the case for so many, New Year’s Day was joyful but bittersweet, too. I drove Liv to the airport at dawn for her return trip to LA. She can work remotely and was able to travel home in early December, before the second surge. When she arrived home she quarantined, taking a Covid test prior to, and again after arriving. Liv extended her visit an extra week so that she did not have to fly back last weekend. It’s nerve wracking dropping her off at the airport but she has had to fly occasionally for work during the pandemic and Delta is only allowing at most 50 percent capacity. She flies at odd times so the planes are mostly empty, and she is often allowed to upgrade to first class for free, as she was on this flight. All that being said, with the surge on top of the surge and the new strain running rampant, praying and hoping she will remain safe and Covid-free.
Having both adult children home, along with our darling Charlotte here with us full time, we are having more fun as a family – cooking together, playing card games, laughing, joking, and telling stories. This family time together has been the silver lining to the pandemic and the part I will choose to remember.
I stopped on the way home to watch the planes taking off and snap a photo of the first sunrise of 2021.
After returning from the airport, Charlotte and I took one of our mini nature walks around Eastern Point. The very first creature we encountered was a young Double-crested Cormorant. He was attempting to cross the berm. We almost walked right into him! For some reason we couldn’t quite understand, he didn’t care to fly from Brace Cove to Niles Pond, but was on foot.
After we stood very quietly for several minutes (no small feat for a three-year-old) he decided we weren’t a threat and crossed our path, not three feet away!
Continuing on our mini trek, we spotted the rare Black-headed Gull bobbing along in the cove (see yesterday’s post).
To top off our day, a young Cooper’s Hawk flew overhead and landed in a nearby tree.
No matter how your candidates fared, we can still all rejoice in the beauty found on Cape Ann –Halloween weekend brought a flower-melting snow storm, surfers in sea smoke at daybreak, wildy winds, Full Blue Halloween Moon, beautiful sunrise and sunsets
A bob of five Harbor Seals has spent the past few afternoons lollying about in a socially distant fashion on the rocks at Brace Cove. I write ‘naturally’ distancing not because of coronavirus, but because they prefer some measure of personal space when hauled out. We see both Harbor Seals and Gray Seals at Brace Cove throughout the year although there seem to be fewer during the spring and summer months. I wonder if that is because they are busy breeding and raising young. With the onset of cooler weather their numbers have been increasing once again. On a bright sunny day last winter we counted twenty-nine!
Life at the Edge of the Sea- Double-crested Cormorant Feeding Frenzy!
A note about the photos – for the past five years I have been photographing and filming the Cormorants massing. The photos are from 2016 – 2019, and most recently, from 2020. Some of the earliest ones were taken at Niles Beach in 2017. In 2018, my friend Nina wrote to say that the massing also takes place in her neighborhood on the Annisquam River. Several weeks ago, while hiking on the backside of Sandy Point, facing the Ipswich Yacht Club, the Cormorants were massing there, too. Please write if you have seen this spectacular event taking place in your neighborhood. Thank you so much!
Massing in great numbers as they gather at this time of year, Double Crested Cormorants, along with many species of gulls and herons, are benefitting from the tremendous numbers of minnows that are currently present all around the shores of Cape Ann.
Waiting for the Cormorants early morning
At inlets on the Annisquam and Essex Rivers, as well as the inner Harbor and Brace Cove, you can see great gulps of Cormorants. In unison, they push the minnows to shore, where gulls and herons are hungrily waiting. The fish try to swim back out toward open water but the equally as hungry Cormorants have formed a barrier. From an onlooker’s point of view, it looks like utter mayhem with dramatic splashing, diving, and devouring. In many of the photos, you can see that the birds are indeed catching fish.
The Double-crested Cormorants are driving the feeding frenzy. I have seen this symbiotic feeding with individual pairs of DCCormorants and Snowy Egrets at our waterways during the summer, but only see this extraordinary massing of gulls, herons, and cormorants at this time of year, in late summer and early autumn.
Cormorants catch fish by diving from the surface, chasing their prey under water and seizing it with the hooked bill.
Double-crested Cormorants are ubiquitous. When compared to Great Cormorants, DCCormorants are a true North American species and breed, winter over, and migrate along the shores of Cape Ann.
Nearly all the species of herons that breed in our region have been spotted in the frenzy including the Great Blue Heron, Snowy Egret, Great Egret, Little Blue Heron, Green Heron, and Black-crowned Night Heron.
After feeding, the herons often find a quiet place to preen before heading back in the late afternoon to their overnight roosting grounds.
For the past several weeks I have been filming at day break at fields with autumn’s beautifully expiring wildflowers and grasses. I didn’t have time this morning for trekking around and all that, and as I lay in bed looking out at the overcast sky, I wondered, should I just loll around for a few extra minutes or go and see sunrise on the Back Shore? It was a beauty this morning and am so glad I did 🙂