We could hardly believe it when we got a message from Jos Baart telling us that Europe’s biggest owl, the Eurasian eagle-owl, had made a nest in a planter in front of his window. Not only that, she had also hatched three giant chicks! Now, when he watches television, three huge chicks watch television with him.
Vroege Vogels is a Dutch radio and television show about nature, environment, climate and animal welfare.
The scientific name for the Eurasian Eagle-owl is Bubo bubo, making it a cousin of both North America’s Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginanus) and the Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus). Eurasian Eagle-owls are likely the largest owl in the world. They are an apex predator with no natural predators.
Jeff Denoncour, the Trustees of Reservations Eastern Region Ecologist, gave an outstanding and informative presentation to a packed audience Saturday afternoon. Subjects included the formation and history of Crane Beach, marsh, and dunes; the seven uniquely different ecological zones; the many species of flora and fauna that comprise the rich biodiversity at Castle Island; and the Trustees protective measures managing rare and endangered species.
Since 2010, Jeff has managed the Trustees Shorebird Protection Program at Crane Beach. Because of the very excellent shorebird management at Crane Beach, 2018 was a banner year, with 42 pairs of nesting Piping Plovers and approximately one hundred PiPl chicks fledged. Our community can learn a great deal from the success at Crane Beach in how to better manage shorebirds migrating and nesting at Cape Ann beaches.
We learned from Jeff that Crane Beach is part of a string of barrier beaches formed from sediment deposited by the outflow of the Merricmack River. Salisbury Beach is at the northern end, then Plum Island, then Crane, with Coffins and Wingaersheek at the southern end. The sand that was deposited at Salisbury Beach is the coarsest; the sand at Wingaersheek the lightest and finest as it would have more easily flowed furthest away from the mouth of the river.
“Readers will be interested to know that our region’s Crane Beach continues to have one of their best year’s ever. Trustees of Reservations Jeff Denoncour shared information on the latest census data from 2018 and Crane Beach has a whopping 76 fledglings, with 25 more chicks still yet to fledge. Because of the huge success at Crane Beach, the northeast region, of which we are a part, has fledged a total 136 of chicks in 2018, compared to 108 in 2017, and as I said, with more fledglings still to come! The northeast region encompasses Salisbury Beach to the Boston Harbor Islands.
Jeff noted that this year they had less predation by Great Horned Owls. Because of owl predation, several years ago the Trustees gave up on the wire exclosures and now use electric fencing extensively. The Great Horned Owls learned that the Piping Plover adults were going in and out of the exclosures and began perching on the edge of the wire, picking off the adults as they were entering and exiting the exclosure.
Crane has an excellent crew of Trustees staff monitoring the Least Terns and Piping Plovers, as well as excellent enforcement by highly trained police officers. No dogs are allowed on Crane Beach during nesting season and dogs are prevented from entering at the guarded gate. As we saw from one of the graphics presented about nesting Double-crested Cormorants, when a dog runs through a nesting area, the adults leave the nest, temporarily leaving the eggs and chicks vulnerable to predation by crows, gulls, raptors, and owls.”
Jeff Denoncour and Courtney Richardson, Director of Education and Public Programs at the Cape Ann Museum
Piping Plover Chick Lift-off! – Not quite ready to fly yet, but testing his wings and airborne for a few seconds.
On Tuesday this past week my friend Deborah and I attended the Coastal Waterbird Conservation Cooperators meeting, which took place at Cape Cod Community College in Barnstable. The meeting is held annually to bring together people and organizations that are involved with population monitoring and conservation efforts on behalf of coastal waterbirds. Threatened and endangered species such as Least Terns, Piping Plovers, and American Oystercatchers are given the greatest attention, while the meeting also encompasses efforts on behalf of heron, cormorant, and egret species.
Conservationists from all seven Massachusetts coastal regions participated, as well as conservationists from nearby states, including representatives from New Jersey, Maine, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire. To name just some of the organizations presenting at the meeting-Mass Wildlife, Trustees of Reservations, Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), and US Fish and Wildlife. Gloucester was well represented. In addition to Deborah and myself, two members of the Animal Advisory Committee also attended; chairperson Alicia Pensarosa and former animal control officer Diane Corliss. Many of you may remember our Mass Wildlife Piping Plover intern Jasmine. She was there to give a presentation on habitat vegetation utilized by nesting Piping Plovers. Her aunt, Gloucester’s Terry Weber, was there to support Jasmine. This was Jasmine’s first time speaking in public and she did an excellent job!
Each region gave the 2018 population census report for nesting birds as well as providing information about problems and solutions. We all share similar challenges with predation from crows and gulls, uncontrolled dogs, enforcement, and habitat loss and it was very interesting to learn about how neighboring communities are managing problems and issues.
Just one highlight of a day filled with helpful insights and useful information is that we can be very proud of our state—Massachusetts is at the leading edge of the Piping Plover recovery effort. The representative from New Jersey was there specifically to learn from Massachusetts conservationists on how they could possibly improve their recovery program as the New Jersey PiPl population is not growing, with fewer and fewer each year retuning to nest. As you can see from the graph provided at the meeting, the Canadian recovery is going very poorly as well.
Readers will be interested to know that our region’s Crane Beach continues to have one of their best year’s ever. Trustees of Reservations Jeff Denoncour shared information on the latest census data from 2018 and Crane’s has a whopping 76 fledglings, with 25 more chicks still yet to fledge. Because of the huge success at Cranes Beach, the northeast region, of which we are a part, has fledged a total 136 of chicks in 2018, compared to 108 in 2017, and as I said, with more fledglings still to come! The northeast region encompasses Salisbury Beach to the Boston Harbor Islands.
Jeff noted that this year they had less predation by Great Horned Owls. Because of owl predation, several years ago Crane Beach gave up on the wire exclosures and now use electric fencing extensively. The Great Horned Owls learned that the Piping Plover adults were going in an out of the exclosures and began perching on the edge of the wire, picking off the adults as they were entering and exiting the exclosure.
Crane has an excellent crew of Trustees staff monitoring the Least Terns and Piping Plovers, as well as excellent enforcement by highly trained police officers. No dogs are allowed on Crane Beach during nesting season and dogs are prevented from entering at the guarded gate. As we saw from one of the graphics presented about nesting Double-crested Cormorants, when a dog runs through a nesting area, the adults leave the nest, temporarily leaving the eggs and chicks vulnerable to predation by crows, gulls, raptors, and owls.
Crane Beach Least Tern fledgling.
Compare the Least Tern to the Common Tern in the above photo. It’s easy to see why the birds are called Least Terns; they are North America’s smallest member of the tern and gull family (Crane Beach).
Another interesting bit of information shared–if you listen to our podcasts, back in April, we talked about the potential dilemma of what would happen if Snowy Owls remained on the beaches as the Piping Plovers returned from their winter grounds. Knowing that Snowy Owls (Bubo scandiacus) and Great Horned Owls (Bubo virginianus) are close cousins and that the Great Horned Owl eats Piping Plover chicks and adults, I was concerned that a Snowy might eat our PiPl. At one particular beach on Cape Cod, a Snowy stayed through mid-July. An adult Piping Plover skull was found in the owl’s pellet.
Snowy Owls remained in Massachusetts this year through July.
After attending the cooperators meeting, I am more hopeful than ever that our community can come together and solve the problems that are preventing our PiPl from successfully nesting and fledging chicks. What we have going in our favor is the sheer number of amazing super volunteers along with strong community-wide support.
Piping Plover fully fledged and flying up and down the beach – we”ll have these next year, I am sure!
At least, I think she is our Hedwig. Comparing photos from last winter, the feather patterning around her face looks to me identical.
With thanks and gratitude to Bob and Doug Ryan from Ryan and Wood Distilleries. Bob emailed yesterday afternoon that a Snowy Owl was being dive bombed by crows and gulls. I raced over and she had tucked in under the rocks at the base of a tree.
I took several photos and footage, and just as I had packed up to go, she flew to a large boulder. Immediately, within thirty seconds, a noisy flock of gulls were harassing her from overhead once again, and a few crows dove at her. She then flew to the nearest building. The crows and gulls pestered her for another fifteen minutes, while she quietly perched.
To write “return” is not entirely accurate. She was probably here all along. As soon as work began on the Atlantic Road hotel roofs, we no longer saw her at the back shore. I thought Hedwig might still be here last month, but wasn’t positive, and then Alicia wrote to say she had seen a Snowy and thought it could possibly be Hedwig. It was difficult to confirm without looking at closeups from a long lens. I searched around Alicia’s location for several days but could not find.
Considering most Snowies have left Massachusetts by April, it’s wonderful to have a record of her here in Gloucester in early May. I am elated, and grateful, to Bob and Doug for the call, because now we have footage of her in a rocky woodland Cape Ann setting! Thank you, thank you!
The reason crows mob owls is because some owl species, like the Great Horned Owl, eat crows. Snowy Owls (Bubo scandiacus) and Great Horned Owls (Bubo virgianus) are closely related.
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.
Hedwig is the gift that keeps on giving! What a joy to see her awakening in the rising full moon last night. She preened and fluffed, then flew through the moonlight to a nearby phone pole.
The wind was whipping up and ruffling Hedwig’s feathers, making her look extra fine in the glow of the Snow Moon rising.
While I am sorting through the challenges of one of the hard drives for my Monarch film crashing, I have been organizing the Snowy footage. Captured in photos and on film, we have her bathing, passing a pellet, pooping, eating, flying, and much more, and is going to make a terrific short film. It’s a mystery to me exactly where she goes when she disappears for several days and I am hoping to document every aspect of her stay in Gloucester. She has been spotted at several locales in East Gloucester, Salt Island, and Twin Lights but, if by chance, she is a regular visitor to your yard, please write and let me know. The best way to keep the information from becoming public knowledge is to email me at email@example.com. I am also looking for a few minutes of footage of a Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) as they are closely related to Snowies (Bubo scandiacus), so please write and let me know if you have a resident Great Horned Owl. Thank you so much for any leads given 🙂