Did you ever wonder why some birds, such as Bluebirds and Robins, lay blue or bluish green eggs? And just as interesting why, in some cases, Bluebirds which generally lay blue eggs, a nest may comprise eggs that are almost white?
The earliest avian eggshells probably lacked color, or pigmentation. Over time, most likely to protect the eggs from predators, birds evolved a diverse range of colored shell markings from mottled brown, gray and beige to rainbow hues from pure white to pale pink, lavender, yellow, aqua, orange, blue, born and even black.
The molecules that cause pigmentation in bird eggs are biliverdin (the blue-green shades) and protoporphyrin (red and brown colors and speckles) but we can talk about blue eggs without getting too technical.
Basically, blue and blue-green strikes a balance between white and very dark colored eggs. Darker eggs are predicted in moderate light to shield the embryo from intense light, including harmful UV radiation. If when eggs are in an exposed nest and the shells are too dark, it can cause the interior to heat up, similar to a “dark car effect.” Simply stated, blue eggs regulate the effects of sunlight on the developing chick (embryo).
This doesn’t explain entirely why Eastern Bluebird eggs range from white to blue green. Many cavity nester’s eggs are white because the adults need to see the eggs in the dark. Wood Ducks are an example of cavity nesters with white eggs. American Robins generally nest in trees or a semi-exposed site and their eggs are blue, affording both protection from dangerous UV light and low risk from heating up. Eastern Bluebirds are cavity nesters but only about 4 to 5 percent of their eggs are white. Oftentimes when learning about a topic, myriad more questions come to mind!
In reading about blue eggs I thought readers would enjoy seeing the amazing speckled and pear-shaped brilliant blue egg of the Common Murre, from USFWS
Some birds with blue eggs that nest locally include Red-winged Blackbird, Gray Catbird, Snowy Egret, Great Blue Heron, Little Blue Heron, House Finch, Bluejay, Goldfinch, European Starling, Eastern Bluebird, and American Robin.
American Robin nest at a friend’s home
Both Bluebird nest egg photos courtesy Google image search
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.
Great Blue Herons truly are the Jet Blue of the avian world! The following incredible story is shared with us by reader Chris Callahan and comes from the Heron Observation Network of Maine.
Harper Wows Us Again!
Harper, an adult female great blue heron outfitted with a solar-powered GPS unit, has just flown nonstop for 68 hours on her southward migration! She spent the summer in New Brunswick, Canada, and the post-breeding season on Chaleur Bay on the border of QC and NB. At around 7pm on October 8th she left this rich feeding area and flew continuously crossing over Nova Scotia and then out over open ocean. She came within 165 miles of Bermuda but turned westward toward the US mainland. At 3:15pm on October 11th, she finally made landfall on the southern tip of Cumberland Island on the Georgia coast. She has since gradually made her way to the Everglades in Florida. Last year she impressed the world by flying nonstop over open ocean for 38 hours. She nearly doubled that duration this year! We will be watching to see if she returns to last year’s wintering area in Guajaca Uno, Cuba, and will post updates on our Facebook Page. For more information on the tracking project, including how to download the data to explore on your own, visit: https://www1.maine.gov/wordpress/ifwheron/tracking-project/.
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.
The past week Eastern Point has seen a wonderful influx of wildlife, in addition to the beautiful creatures already wintering over and migrating through.
On Tuesday before Thanksgiving, a great raft of Ring-necked Ducks joined the flock of Buffleheads and Mallards at Niles Pond. Five chunky American Coots have been there for over a week, and two female Ruddy Ducks have been spotted.
Fifteen Harbor Seals were sunning and basking on the rocks at Brace Cove on Wednesday, along with several Bonaparte’s Gulls that were diving and foraging in the waves. The increasingly less timid Lark Sparrow is still here, too.
Great Blue Heron agitating the Ring-necked Ducks
The most enigmatic of Great Blue Herons criss crosses the pond a dozen times a day but, unlike last year’s fall migrating GBH, who allowed for a closer glimpse, this heron is super people shy. He has been here for about a week and was present again today.
This morning I watched the four beautiful Mute Swans depart over Brace Rock, in a southerly direction. Will they return? Mute Swans migrate from body of water to body of water within a region. Perhaps they will return, or they could possibly have flown to a nearby location–further exploring our Island.
The four had not returned to Niles Pond by day’s end. If any of our readers sees a group of four Mute Swans, please write and let us know. Thank you so much!
Leaving Niles Pond this morning and flying over Brace Cove.
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.
Contemplating taking flight, the perching juvenile Great Blue Heron moved its feet slowly, while turning to face the shore, then gracefully lifted its wings and departed, with a very loud and un-elegant QWOCK.
No signs of any Great Blue Herons since the big Thanksgiving Day freeze. Two days into the frigid temperatures, the last one observed appeared very unhappy. The unfrozen bits of water were too cold to forage. He seemed so cold, wasn’t fishing at all, and was only standing on the shore, in the glummest manner. I urged him onward, worried his frozen self might look tempting to a coyote, and hope perhaps he departed under the brilliant light of the full November Frost Moon.
Last week we posted a photo of a group of Great Blue Herons, Cormorants, Snowy Egrets, Little Blue Herons, and Great Egrets all foraging together on a rainy morning. The Great Blue Herons are so perfectly camouflaged when perched on the rocky shoreline and we asked how many GBH folks could see. Reader Julie W. saw the most and she even sent the photo back with the Great Blues circled. Thank you Julie for taking the time to do that!!
Click the photos to make larger and you can see the fine ribbon of migrating birds. Many, many species of birds migrate at night. You can often see them very late in the day as they are beginning their night time journey, traveling along the shores of Cape Ann before crossing Massachusetts Bay on their southward migration.
What do Great Blue Herons, North America’s largest species of herons, eat? Because they feed in a variety of both freshwater and saltwater habitats, their diet is richly varied. Great Blue Herons dine on small fish, crabs, shrimp, mice, rats, voles, frogs, salamanders, turtles, gophers, snakes, many species of small waterbirds including ducks and ducklings, and insects.
How many Great Blue Herons do you see in the photo above? I thought there was only one in the shot, until returning to my office and had a good look at the scene.
Cape Ann provides welcome habitat for a menagerie of creatures beautiful, from the tiniest winged wonder to our region’s top predator, the Eastern Coyote. Last year I posted a Cape Ann Wildlife Year in Pictures 2016 and I hope you will find the wildlife stories of 2017 equally as beautiful. Click on the image to find the name of each species.
Winter: Only partially frozen ponds allowed for dabblers and divers such as Mallards, Mergansers, and Buffleheads to forage at the freshwater. Mr. Swan had his usual entourage of quwackers and daily heads to the other side of the pond to get away for his morning stretches. Sightings of Red-tailed Hawks and other raptors abounded. Although photographed in Newburyport, the owl photos are included, well, just because I like them. An Eastern Screech Owl (red-morph) was seen daily perched above a playground and Barred Owl sightings too were reported throughout the winter. Raptors live on Cape Ann all year round but are much easier to see in winter when the trees are bare of foliage.
The beautiful green eyes of the juvenile Double-crested Cormorants were seen wintering at both Niles Pond and Rockport Harbor. And during a warm February day on a snowless marsh a turkey bromance shindig commenced.
In early spring, a male and female American Wigeon arrived on the scene making local ponds their home for several weeks. In the right light the male’s electric green feathers at the top of his head shine brightly and both the male and female have baby blue bills.
Meadow and marsh, dune and treetop were graced with the heralding harbingers of spring with photos of a Red-winged Blackbird, a pair of Cedar Waxwings, Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, Eastern Towhee, Eastern Kingbird, Tree Swallow, and Grackle included here.
The Great Swan Escape story made the news in Boston as Mr. Swan eluded captors for hours. He had re-injured his foot and someone took it upon themselves to call the animal rescuers, which would have surely meant death for our beloved 27-year old swan if he had been wrangled into captivity.
M is clearly for Migration through Massachusetts and the month-long arrivals and departures did not abate. Short-billed Dowitchers, winsome Willets, Yellow Legs, and Ruddy Turnstones are just some of the migrating shorebirds spied on Cape Ann beaches and marshes. The best news in May was the return of the Piping Plovers. Of the five or six that camped at Good Harbor Beach to investigate potential nesting sites, one pair bonded and built their nest mere yards from the nesting pair of last year. Could it be the same pair? The nesting Piping Plover story took up much of the spring and by early summer four little Piping Plover chicks hatched over Fiesta weekend. Hundreds of photos and hours of film footage are in the process of being organized with a children’s book and documentary in progress.
Piping Plover Courtship Dance
Piping Plover Nest
The survival of one Piping Plover chick was made possible by a wholesale community effort, with volunteers covering all hours of daylight, along with Mayor Sefatia and her team, Ken Whittaker from the conservation office, Chief McCarthy, and animal control officer Diane Corliss all lending a hand.
Sadly, several Northern Gannets came ashore to die on our Cape Ann beaches, struck by the same mysterious and deadly disease that is afflicting Northern Gannets in other regions. During the summer season they are typically at their North American breeding grounds, which are six well-established colonies, three in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Quebec, and three in the North Atlantic, off the coast of Newfoundland.
An orphaned swan was introduced to Niles Pond, much to the dismay of Mr. Swan. Eastern Point residents Skip and Lyn kept watch over the two while they reluctantly became acquainted.
By mid-July many of us were seeing Monarchs in much greater numbers than recent years. Nearly every region within the continental United States experienced a fantastic Painted Lady irruption and butterflies of every stripe and polka dot were seen flitting about our meadows, fields, and gardens.
The tadpoles and froglets of American Bullfrogs and Green Frogs made for good eating for several families of resident otters, who are making their homes in abandoned beaver lodges. Little Blue Herons too, find plentiful frogs at our local ponds.
In early August we see the Tree Swallows begin to mass for their return migration. They find an abundance of fruits and insects in the dunes, headlands, and beaches. The Cedar Waxwings and Ruddy Trunstones were back again observed foraging on their southward journey, along with myriad species of songbird, shorebird, diver, and dabbler.