Moms, aunties, grandmoms, and sisters raise Common Eider ducklings in large communal nurseries called crèches. This creche of Common Eiders was feeding on the abundance of seaweed and sea lettuce found along the shores of Cape Ann.
Often enough a wave would wash a few ducklings onshore and they would frantically race back to join the nursery. It was easy to see how the ducklings can become separated from their family. We occasionally find Common Eider ducklings on shore and there is a technique to reuniting them with a crèche.
What a little mini adventure was had over the weekend, along with the joy of meeting Hilary Frye!
I was at one of the beaches where documenting the Piping Plovers and noticed a little chocolate brown duckling shape smack in the middle of a wide sandy beach, sitting all alone. I moved closer to the duckling and it ran towards me, peeping and piping all the while. The little thing would run pell mell through the flats and then plop down exhaustedly. It appeared to be a Common Eider duckling but, not having seen any that small, I wasn’t entirely sure. I looked for its Mom but could not find her.
To my utter surprise, a short time later and while I was still trying to figure out what to do, a second duckling appeared. It, too, was moving in the same direction, running and plopping. I scooped both ducklings up and put them together and they immediately began to cuddle and snuggle with each other. A sweet couple with a baby agreed to watch the pair while I went further down the beach looking for Mom.
I only found a dead female Common Eider and decided these babies were never going to make it on their own. A quick call to wildlife rehabilitator Jodi from Cape Ann Wildlife and she referred me to her friend Hilary, who she said would take the ducklings out on her boat to search for, and possibly join, another Common Eider family.
One thing you should know about Common Eiders is that Common Eider Moms, along with non-breeding “Aunties,” band together for protection. The individual broods come together to form a crèche, which may include as many as 150 ducklings!
Ducklings in a pail
The sweet couple and I packed sand at the bottom of one of Charlotte’s beach pails that were conveniently stored in the car’s trunk, placed the ducklings ever so carefully, and then gently covered with an unused diaper. I drove home with one hand on the steering wheel and one hand applying slight pressure to the diaper. I was just imagining what would be the outcome of the two rambunctious little fellows escaped in my car.
Stopping for a minute at our home to grab a larger container because I was again imagining the little escape artists, this time running around on a boat. Husband Tom had packed a crate and Charlotte had a brief, but squealing-with-joy moment.
I arrived at Harbor Loop just before sunset and after quick introductions, Hilary escorted the ducklings and I to her skiff. Pulling out of her slip and passing the Schooner Ardelle two minutes hadn’t gone by when eagle-eyed Hilary spotted a crèche! She zoomed the boat over to the other side of the Harbor at Pirate’s Lane and sure enough there was a small flock of five ducklings and several adult female Common Eiders.
Slowly and expertly Hilary steered the boat towards the flock. I placed the ducklings in the water however, they all began to swim in opposite directions. It looked bad for a few minutes but Hilary turned the boat around and ever so gently corralled the birds until the flock was headed back toward the orphans. The two were peeping continuously and as the flock grew closer, the adults could hear their peeps. The Moms and Aunties began craning their necks and swimming towards the peeps. After only another brief moment, it appeared flock and babies were united. We didn’t hang back very long because the boat we thought may distress the birds.
I am happy to report that the following morning I walked down to the bottom of our hill and found the crèche of Eiders. Guess how many ducklings were swimming with the Moms and Aunties? Seven!
Hilary was simply amazing. She was ready at a moment’s notice to help. This was actually the third time she has reunited Common Eider ducklings.
Many in the community already know and love Hilary for her GHS sailing program, but for me, it was the first time meeting her and it was completely my joy. Thank you, thank you Hilary.You are the best!
The most joyous story about Cape Ann wildlife during the summer months of 2018 is the story of the high number of Monarch butterflies and caterpillars in gardens and meadows, seen not only in strong numbers along the Massachusetts coastline, but throughout the butterfly’s breeding range–all around New England, the Great Lakes region, Midwest, and Southern Canada.
Three days after celebrating the two week milestone of our one remaining Piping Plover chick, Little Pip, he disappeared from Good Harbor Beach. It was clear there had been a bonfire in the Plover’s nesting area, and the area was overrun with dog and human tracks. The chick’s death was heartbreaking to all who had cared so tenderly, and so vigilantly, for all those many weeks.
Our Mama and Papa were driven off the beach and forced to build a nest in the parking lot because of dogs running through the nesting area. Despite these terrible odds, the Good Harbor Beach Piping Plover pair hatched four adorable, healthy chicks, in the parking lot. Without the help of Gloucester’s DPW, the Piping Plover volunteer monitors, Ken Whittaker, Greenbelt’s Dave Rimmer, and the AAC, the parking lot nest would have been destroyed.
These brave little birds are incredibly resilient, but as we have learned over the past three years, they need our help to survive. It has been shown time and time again throughout the Commonwealth (and wherever chicks are fledging), that when communities come together to monitor the Piping Plovers, educate beach goers, put in effect common sense pet ordinances, and reduce trash, the PiPl have at least a fighting chance to survive.
Little Pip at twelve- through seventeen-days-old
All four chicks were killed either by crows, gulls, dogs, or uneducated beach goers, and in each instance, these human-created issues can be remedied. Ignoring, disregarding, dismissing, or diminishing the following Piping Plover volunteer monitor recommendations for the upcoming 2019 shorebird season at Good Harbor Beach will most assuredly result in the deaths of more Piping Plover chicks.
Not one, but at least two, healthy and very hungry North American River Otters families are dwelling at local ponds, with a total of seven kits spotted. We can thank the fact that our waterways are much cleaner, which has led to the re-establishment of Beavers, and they in turn have created ideal habitat in which these beautiful, social mammals can thrive.
Several species of herons are breeding on our fresh water ponds and the smaller islands off the Cape Ann coastline. By midsummer, the adults and juveniles are seen wading and feeding heartily at nearly every body of water of the main island.
In order to better understand and learn how and why other Massachusetts coastal communities are so much more successful at fledging chicks than is Gloucester, I spent many hours studying and following Piping Plover families with chicks at several north of Boston beaches.
In my travels, I watched Least Terns (also a threatened species) mating and courting, then a week later, discovered a singular nest with two Least Tern eggs and began following this little family, too.
Least Tern Family Life Cycle
Maine had a banner year fledging chicks, as did Cranes Beach, locally. Most exciting of all, we learned at the Massachusetts Coastal Waterbird meeting that Massachusetts is at the fore of Piping Plover recovery, and our state has had the greatest success of all in fledging chicks! This is a wonderful testament to Massachusetts Piping Plover conservation programs and the partnerships between volunteers, DCR, Mass Wildlife, the Trustees, Greenbelt, Audubon, and US Fish and Wildlife.
Cape Ann Museum
Friends Jan Crandall and Patti Papows allowed me to raid their gardens for caterpillars for our Cape Ann Museum Kids Saturday. The Museum staff was tremendously helpful and we had a wonderfully interested audience of both kids and adults!
In August I was contacted by the BBC and asked to help write the story about Monarchs in New England for the TV show “Autumnwatch: New England,. Through the course of writing, the producers asked if I would like to be interviewed and if footage from my forthcoming film, Beauty on the Wing, could be borrowed for the show. We filmed the episode at my friend Patti’s beautiful habitat garden in East Gloucester on the drizzliest of days, which was also the last day of summer.
Lobster Boat Arethusa and Crèche of Common Eider Hens and Ducklings
You never know what wonderful glimpses of wild life you may encounter at Captain Joe and Sons. Sunday morning during the podcast, a crèche of fourteen Common Eider ducklings and their mother hens were spotted, bobbing in the waves and foraging at the edge of the dock.
Common Eider Moms, along with non-breeding “aunties,” band together for protection. The individual broods come together to form a crèche, which may include as many as 150 ducklings!