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!
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.
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
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
Friday morning found the Jean Elizabeth at the Dogbar Breakwater. The lobster boat was close enough inshore for Charlotte to watch and understand what was happening and she was fascinated. Despite the numbing cold and wind, the men were hard at work. Thanks to our local Cape Ann lobstermen, we are blessed to have fresh caught lobsters throughout the year!
Reader Ned Talbot writes that the captain of the boat is Jay Gustaferro. Thank you Ned for commenting!
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.
Two appeared to be male and one female. The easiest way to tell the male from the female is by looking at the facial markings. The female lacks the black eye patch.
Male and female Horned Larks foraging on seeds
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.
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!
Wishing you a healthy New Year Friends!
As luck would have it, the Red-tailed Hawk swooped in and perched on a phone pole just opposite where I was standing taking snapshots of the Harbor. I turned to take a photo of the Hawk and the crescent Moon was rising! The Hawk only stayed a brief moment, but it was a beautiful thing to see.
Then, as we walked closer to the Lighthouse, a juvenile Great Blue Heron flew overhead! All on a December’s afternoon!
This past week while photographing a Snow Bunting and several American Pipits, a friendly bird, not in the least skittish, caught my eye. It was acting sort of Pipit-like, similar size-wise and foraging in the sand, but had a striking black streak across its cheek and lemony yellow face. I wasn’t sure what I was looking at until returning home to look it up. I always take lots of photos when I am unsure of what it is I am photographing, just because you never know. I am so glad, because several of the photos gave a great clue. In the snapshots where the bird is looking dead on, you can actually see its tiny feathery “horns.” I think there were two Horned Larks with the small mixed flock, one slightly paler than the other.
The Snow Bunting was clearly the boss of the mini flock. If another approached too closely to where it was foraging, the bird gave a brief but aggressive hop and flutter toward the intruder.
In winter time, look for Horned Larks in fields, meadows, beaches, and dunes, in large and small mixed flocks. Interestingly, in Europe, the Horned Lark is called the Shore Lark and after the wonderful beach walk surprise, it’s easy to understand why.
Horned Lark and Snow Bunting
Poor little Sharpie didn’t stand a chance of going unnoticed. The Eastern Point Crow Patrol was all over him, cawing vociferously and dive-bombing, alerting every creature within earshot of his presence. The juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk held his ground for a bit, before tiring of the sky guardians and heading for cover into a nearby tree.
Sunday night was simply wonderful for sky watching. Looking eastward, the nearly full Beaver Moon (also called Frost Moon) rose over Brace Cove while the seals were still lolling about on the rocks.
Passing Niles Beach on the way home the last lingering red rays of light were illuminating the Boston skyline and the Dogbar Breakwater light.
Full Beaver Moon rising
The second photo was taken during the last cold snap. I didn’t realize until looking at the photos tonight that you could see his breath. Note the rock he is perched on. For over a month I would find him there sleeping in the morning. In the top photo, the rock has barely any pooh, so funny because after only a month, it’s really sloshing with it.
At this time of year flocks of Snow Buntings small and large can be found at our local sandy beaches and rocky coastlines. I am finding them throughout my roaming range, from Plum Island to South Boston.
What is not to love about this sweetly charming tubby little songbird, including its name, Snow Bunting, and nickname Snowflake. I am often alerted to the Snow Buntings presence by their distinct and highly varied social chattering. More than once though I and it have been startled as one flutters away to avoid my footsteps. The alarmed Snow Bunting will call loudly, warning its flock mates of a human, and then they will all lift to the skies in a swirling unison of Snowflakes.
Snow Buntings especially love rocky crevices and outcroppings. They nest in rocky areas of the Arctic tundra and while resting and foraging along Massachusetts coastlines, Snow Buntings go largely undetected in the similarly colored rocks.
The conical -shaped bill of Snow Buntings tells us that they are are seed eaters and in autumn and winter, Massachusetts beaches provide a wealth of seed heads remaining on expired wildflowers and grasses. Beach stones, along with piles of beach debris, trap seeds and I have captured a number of photos where the foraging songbirds pop up between the rocks with a mouthful of seed.
Early morning invariably finds Snow Buntings sleeping amongst beach rocks. It is a joy to watch as they slowly awaken, stretching and floofing, before tumbling out in a burst of black, white, and rusty brown to forage for the day.
Remarkably, Snow Buntings are nocturnal migrants. They are able to detect the geomagnetic field of the Earth for guidance to their breeding and overwinter grounds. The orientation of the Snow Bunting during migration is independent of any visual cue.
The 40 plus year old annual Christmas Bird Count shows a 64 percent decline in the Snow Bunting population. Climate change and neonicotinoids (pesticides) are thought to be the main reason for the decline.
During the last weeks of summer, I was blessed with the great good fortune to come across a flock of Cedar Waxwings. Everyday I followed their morning antics as they socialized, foraged, preened, and was even “buzzed” several times when making too quick a movement or crunched on a twig too loudly for their liking. They were actually remarkably tolerant of my presence but as soon as another person or two appeared on the path, they quickly departed. I think that is often the case with wildlife; one human is tolerable, but two of us is two too many.
The Cedar Waxwings were seen foraging on wildflower seeds and the insects attracted, making them harder to spot as compared to when seen foraging at berries on trees branches. A flock of Cedar Waxwings is called a “museum” or an “ear-full.” The nickname ear-full is apt as they were readily found each morning by their wonderfully soft social trilling. When you learn to recognize their vocalizations, you will find they are much easier to locate.
These sweet songbirds are strikingly beautiful. Dressed in a black mask that wraps around the eyes, with blue, yellow, and Mourning Dove buffy gray-brown feathers, a cardinal-like crest atop the head, and brilliant red wing tips, Cedar Waxwings are equally as beautiful from the front and rear views.
Cedar Waxwings really do have wax wings; the red wing tips are a waxy secretion. At first biologist thought the red tips functioned to protect the wings from wear and tear, but there really is no evidence of that. Instead, the red secondary tips appear to be status signals that function in mate selection. The older the Waxwing, the greater the number of waxy tips. Birds with zero to five are immature birds, while those with more than nine are thought to be older.
Waxwings tend to associate with other waxwings within these two age groups. Pairs of older birds nest earlier and raise more fledglings than do pairs of younger birds. The characteristic plumage is important in choosing a mate within the social order of the flock.
By mid-September there were still seeds and insects aplenty in the wildflower patch that I was filming at when the beautiful Waxwings abruptly departed for the safety of neighboring treetops. Why do I write “safety?” I believe they skeedaddled because a dangerous new raptor appeared on the scene. More falcon-like than hawk, the mystifying bird sped like a torpedo through the wildflower patch and swooped into the adjacent birch tree where all the raptors like to perch. It was a Merlin! And the songbird’s mortal enemy. Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks, too, had been hunting the area, but the other hawks did not elicit the same terror as did the Merlin.
Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks
A small falcon, the Merlin’s short wings allow it to fly fast and hard. The Merlin is often referred to as the “thug” of the bird world for its ability to swoop in quickly and snatch a songbird out of the air. The day after the Merlin appeared, I never again found the Waxwings foraging in the wildlflowers, only in the tree tops.
Within the sociable ear-full, Waxwings take turns foraging. Some perch and preen, serving as sentries while flock-mates dine. Cedar Waxwings eat berries and they love a wide variety. The first half of their name is derived from one of their favorite fruits, the waxy berries of cedar trees. During the breeding season, Waxwings add insects to their diets. Hatchlings are fed insects, gradually switching to berries.
Juvenile Cedar Waxwing with adult Waxwings
If you would like to attract Cedar Waxwings to your garden here is a handy list that I compiled of some of their most favorite fruits and berries –
Dogwood, Juniper, Chokecherry, Cedar, Honeysuckle, Holy, Crabapple, Hawthorn, Serviceberry, Mulberry, Raspberry, Grapes, and Strawberry. Cedar Waxwings are becoming increasingly more prevalent in backyards because people are planting more ornamental flowering and fruiting trees.
While filming Cedar Waxwings at Eastern Point, I came across this remarkable scene in a small patch of wildflowers. The patch was only about fifteen feet long by ten feet wide, but was layered in hundreds of orb spider webs. I was so glad to have been there that morning because the following day I returned after a storm, and all the spider webs had vanished.
A mystical symbol of the season for their ability to weave intricate webs, orb spiders are an important part of our ecosystem. They eat hundreds of species of insects in our gardens and homes, and are also themselves a source of food for other organisms.