Moonsetting over the Harbor
Massachusetts has two species of cottontails, the New England Cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis) and the Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus). The introduced vegetable-and-flower-eating Eastern Cottontail has flourished, while this beautiful and illusive little creature’s numbers have dwindled to an alarmingly low number.
Prior to 1930, New England Cottontails were present in all 14 counties of Massachusetts and it was the only cottontail species appearing among 59 reports, except for 7 from Nantucket where Eastern Cottontails were introduced as early as the 1880s. Between 1924 and 1941, at least 16,200 Eastern Cottontails were imported from the mid-west and released. Another 4,600 were raised and released at a state propagation facility.
The most critical threat to New England Cottontails is loss of habitat. They can only survive in the ephemeral landscape of newly emerging forests, which provide low ground cover for shelter. Once a forest matures, the low growing plants become too sparse to offer food and shelter. Today the New England Cottontail resides in only about one fifth of its historic range.
The photo above of the New England Cottontail was taken at Gooseberry Island in Westport. He shot across the path on the way to the beach and wish I had a better photo to share, but now that I know to look for them there, I’ll try again.
You can compare the difference in the rabbit species in the two photos. The New England Cottontail’s (above photo) ears are shorter and his fur a bit grayer than the Eastern Cottontail (below). When I caught a glimpse of him I immediately recognized the rabbits we saw daily at my grandparent’s home, built in the dunes on a bluff on Cape Cod, where at that time, there were few homes and lots of cool scrubby habitat for wild creatures.
The ubiquitous Eastern Cottontail, Good Harbor Beach
As you can see, New England Cottontails have been completely extirpated from Cape Ann and Essex County.
We can hope our Little Chick is taking his time migrating southward. Perhaps he has traveled only as far as Cape May, New Jersey, or maybe he has already migrated as far as Cape Lookout, North Carolina. Migrating shorebirds often travel shortly after a low pressure system and hurricanes are a part of the environment to which wildlife like Piping Plovers have adapted. However, no wildlife has in the recorded history of the world had to cope with a storm the magnitude of Hurricane Irma.
Extraordinary weather events can push endangered species over the brink. High winds, storm surges, and wave action destroys coastal habitats and flooding decreases water salinity. Songbirds and shorebirds are blown far off course away from their home habitats, especially young birds. A great deal of energy is expended battling the winds and trying to return to course. Songbirds have it a little easier because their toes will automatically tighten around a perch but seabirds and shorebirds are the most exposed.
Numerous Piping Plovers winter over in the low-lying Joulter Cays, a group of sandy islands in the Bahamas, and one of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Irma. Perhaps migrating PiPl sensed the pending hurricane and held off before crossing the Atlantic to reach the Bahamas and other Caribbean Islands. The flock of nine PiPl in the above photo were seen last year at the end of August in Gloucester (August 29, 2016.)
One famous shorebird, a Whimbrel named Machi, who was wearing a tracking device, became caught up in the eye of a powerful storm but made it through to the other side of the storm. Tragically, he was subsequently shot dead in Guadeloupe. Many migrating birds like Whimbrels know to avoid places like Guadeloupe where unbridled shorebird hunting is allowed, but Machi had no power over where he made landfall. Sea turtles too are severely affected by the loss of barrier beaches. Staggering loss of life has been recorded after recent powerful hurricanes–fish, dolphins, whales, manatees, baby crab and lobster estuaries, insects, small mammals, all manner of birds–the list is nearly as long as there are species, and nothing is spared.
If you see rare or an unusual bird after a storm or hurricane, please let us know and we can contact the appropriate wildlife official.
Eclipse Day was a dream day filming wildlife on Cape Ann. I did the usual early morning stops at my “migrations stations,” but because I had taken the afternoon off to see the eclipse, I got to film in the afternoon, too, which I don’t often get a chance to do. First stop was Good Harbor Beach to see a beautiful subdued and rosy-hued sunrise.
The Tree Swallows were everywhere, in dunes, on the beaches, lined up on telephone lines, in meadows, and marsh. I filmed and photographed that hullabaloo for a bit, along with a dozen other species of migrating shorebirds and songbirds; there are simply too many images for one post. I’ll share these migration photos in the upcoming days.
The most wonderful of all was coming upon a tiny flock of Piping Plovers. Initially I thought only two, then a third joined the scene, and then a fourth!
One was definitely a juvenile, about the same age as would be our Little Chick. The PiPl were bathing, grooming, and foraging in the intertidal zone while also being dive-bombed by the Tree Swallows. This is behavior that I filmed last year as well. Tree swallows, although beautiful, are the fightenist little tuffies you’ll ever see. They’ll fly straight at other birds, biting one of their own kind, Barn Swallows, and plovers alike.
PiPl bath time
The PiPl that looked just like Little Chick also did the funny flight take-off dance that we all observed of LC. He flew around in a circle, backwards and forwards, spreading and unspreading his wings, and hopping up and down. It’s very comical and I can’t wait to share the film footage and storybook. Anyway, the little traveler I encountered on Eclipse Day was doing the PiPlover flight jig for an extended period of time.
Doing the Jig!
I stayed to watch the Plovers for a bit longer and then finished walking the length of the beach. Eclipse dayOn my return walk I was surprised from a quiet reverie to hear a flock of Plovers piping. I looked up and before I could turn my movie camera back on, a group of a dozen Piping Plovers flew past. Happy Day!
Backlogged with wildlife photos, more to come. Some wonderful surprises!
Here are a collection of recent photos of different species of shorebirds and songbirds gathering and migrating along Cape Ann beaches that Little Chick may encounter on his journey south.
During the spring breeding season Piping Plover mating adults chase all other birds out of their territory, from the largest Black-backed Gull to the tiniest Song Sparrow. At this time of year, during the summer southward migration, you’ll often see PiPl feeding alongside other PiPl, as well as with Semipalmated Plovers, Black-bellied Plovers, Killdeers, peeps, terns, and gulls.
Won’t someone, anyone, please, please feed me! Unlike Piping Plover chicks, Common Tern chicks cannot feed themselves at birth. Common Tern chicks can walk and swim, but it will be many weeks before they learn to fish.
Tree Swallows massing, foraging in dunes rich with insects and berries.
Compare Common Tern in the foreground to Bonaparte’s Gull in the background. Both have red-orange legs and feet and both are black-headed. The easiest way to differentiate when on the beach is the Common Tern’s bill is orange; the Bonaparte’s Gull’s bill is black.
Least Sandpipers are the smallest of peeps. Note how beautifully camouflaged are they in the drying seaweed.