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.
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.
After feeding, the herons often find a quiet place to preen before heading back in the late afternoon to their overnight roosting grounds.
Double-crested Cormomrant range map
Quietly slipping through the shallow creek water, the graceful Snowy Egret would stop every now and then to shake its leg. Stirring up the sandy flat in hopes of awakening a sleeping crab or fish, the elegant bird would then violently pierce the water with its dagger like beak, more often than not coming up empty billed.
Watching the brilliant yellow-footed Snowy Egret foraging at the creek for diner I was reminded of how Piping Plovers have a similar foraging technique, pattering their (much smaller) feet, also in hopes of disturbing unsuspecting prey.
Snowy Egrets are sometimes described as piscivorous (a diet that consist largely of fish), however they eat a wide variety aquatic foods such as jellyfish, crustaceans, mollusks, and aquatic insects. Ospreys are a better example of a piscivorous bird species.
The bird in the photos above is in full breeding plumage. Their stunning aigrettes are the reason they were nearly brought to extinction by plume hunters, and one of the main reasons for the creation and passing of the century old Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
How to tell the difference between a Showy Egret and Great Egret: Snowy Egrets have yellow feet and black bills, while Great Egrets have yellow bills and black feet. As the name suggests, Great Egrets are the larger of the two. Great Egrets
A grand Great Egret has been hanging out at the Good Harbor Beach marsh. He has been dining on small fish mostly. The photos are from Sunday but I didn’t spot him either yesterday or today; perhaps he has moved on.
Cape Ann is part of the Great Egrets breeding range, particularly House Island. This Egret is in full breeding plumage, advertising to a potential mate how fit and desirable he is to other Great Egrets. These same beautiful feathers, and humanity’s indiscriminate killing of, are what caused the bird to become nearly extinct. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the long breeding plumes, called aigrettes, of many species of herons and egrets were prized as fashion accessories to adorn women’s hats. Thanks to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, it is illegal to hunt or harm in any way gorgeous birds such as the Great Egret, and egrets and herons are making a comeback.
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.
Excerpt from a previous post OUTSTANDING COASTAL WATERBIRD CONSERVATION COOPERATORS MEETING! talking about Jeff and the success of the Crane Beach Trustees Piping Plover
“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.”
Both kinds 🙂
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.
The Great Egret doing the happy dance was fishing with a group of mixed herons and egrets when he began to leap about and flourish his wings. I couldn’t tell why from the distance I was shooting until returning to my office to look at the photos and saw he had a minnow in his mouth. What a show-off!
What is happening here? A hungry swim of cormorants have pushed a stream of bait fish towards the shallow shore waters. The minnows are met by equally as hungry Snowy Egrets and Great Egrets waiting on the rocks. I’ve watched many egrets eat prey and they often toss it about in the air for half a minute before swallowing whole, I think to line it up so the fish or frog goes straight down its gullet. At that very moment when the egrets are adjusting their catch, the gulls swoop in and try to snatch the minnows from the egrets.
Great Egret Flying Over Perched Osprey
There is much to chortle about in this latest Cape Ann Winged Creature Update. Early April marked the arrival of both Snowy and Great Egrets, Black-crowned Night Herons and Great Blue Herons. Osprey pairs and evidence of Osprey nest building can be seen wherever Essex Greenbelt platforms have been installed. Northern Pintail and American Wigeon Ducks are stopping over at our local ponds on their northward migrations while scrub and shrub are alive with the vibrant song of love birds singing their mating calls. Oh Happy Spring!
Ospreys Nest Building
Northern Mockingbirds Singing
My husband Tom suggested that I write a year-end post about the wildlife that I had photographed around Cape Ann. Super idea I thought, that will be fun and easy. Not realizing how daunting and many hours later, the following is a collection of some favorite images from this past year, beginning with the male Snowy Owl photographed at Captain Joe’s dock last winter, to December’s Red-tailed Hawk huntress.
Living along the great Atlantic Flyway, we have been graced with a bevy of birds. Perhaps the most exciting arrival of all occurred when early summer brought several pairs of nesting Piping Plovers to Gloucester’s most beloved (and most highly trafficked) of beaches, Good Harbor Beach. Their story is being documented on film.
While photographing and filming Red-winged Blackbirds this past spring, there was a face-to-face encounter with a hungry coyote, as well as several River Otter sightings.
The summer’s drought brought Muskrats out from the reeds and into full view at a very dry Henry’s Pond, and a short film about a North American Beaver encounter at Langsford Pond. Numerous stories were heard from folks who have lived on Cape Ann far longer than I about the extraordinary number of egrets, both Snowy and Great, dwelling on our shores.
There were few Monarch sightings, but the ones seen thankfully deposited eggs in our garden. Thank you to my new friend Christine who shared her Cecropia Silkmoth eggs with me and thank you to the countless readers who have extended an invitation to come by and photograph an exciting creature in their yard.
Pristine beaches, bodies of fresh water, and great swathes of protected marsh and woodland make for ideal wildlife habitat, and Cape Ann has it all. With global climate change pushing species further away from the Equator, I imagine we’ll be seeing even more creatures along our shores. Butterfly and bee populations are overall in decline, not only because of climate change and the use of pesticides, but also because of loss of habitat. As Massachusetts has become less agrarian and more greatly forested, fields of wildflowers are becoming increasingly rare. And too fields often make the best house lots. Farmers and property owners developing an awareness of the insects’ life cycle and planting and maintaining fields and gardens accordingly will truly help the butterflies and bees.
Thank you to all our readers for your kind comments of appreciation throughout the year for the beautiful wild creatures with which we share this gorgeous peninsula called Cape Ann.
The images are not arranged in any particular order. If you’d like to read more about a particular animal, type the name of the animal in the search box and the original post should come up.
I wonder what 2017 will bring?
Don’t mess with these bad boys!
In no uncertain terms
Tussles over turf pop up regularly between the egrets and herons feeding in the marsh. They often conglomerate in one small area to fish for minnows, occasionally steeling a catch from one another, and there is always one who seems to be the big kahuna of the marsh.
Tropical storm Hermine’s rain has breathed new life into Cape Ann’s drought depleted freshwater ponds and brackish marshes. Perhaps it was her winds that delivered a surprise visit from the Yellow-crowned Night Heron, a rarity for Massachusetts as we are at the tippy northern end of their breeding range. Towering waves accompanied by a tumbling undertow tossed from the deep sea gifts of nutrient rich seaweeds, mollusks, and tiny crustaceans, providing a feast for our feathered friends. See all that she brought!
Yellow Crowned Night Heron, juvenile
Wind and weather worn Red Admiral Butterfly, drinking salty rain water from the sand and warming its wings in the sun.
The Wingaersheek Piping Plover family has not yet begun their southward migration. Here they are foraging in the bits of shells, tiny clams, and seaweed brought to the shoreline by Hermine and not usually found in this location.
Often asked this question, I thought it would be helpful to post the answer again, especially at this time of year when we see numerous numbers foraging in our marshes and along the shore. Both species of birds breed on Cape Ann and the coast of Massachusetts.
The first clue is size. Snowy Egrets are small, about the size of the Mallard Duck. Remember the letter S for small and snowy. Great Egrets are much larger, nearly identical in size to that of the Great Blue Heron.
Great Egret (Ardea alba)
Great Egrets have black feet and yellow bills. Snowy Egrets have reverse coloring, yellow feet and black bills.
Great Egrets stand very still while fishing. Snowy Egrets are wonderfully animated when foraging; they run quickly, walk determinedly, fly, and swish their feet around to stir up fish.
The magnificent Great Egret was very nearly hunted to extinction during the “Plume Bloom” of the early 20th century. Startling, cumbersome, and hideous, hats were fashioned with every manner of beautiful bird feather. Europeans were partial to exotic birds that were hunted the world over and they included hummingbirds, toucans, birds of paradise, the condor, and emu. The American milinery trade favored herons for their natural abundance. The atrocities committed by the murderous millinery led to the formation of the first Audubon and conservation societies however, what truly led to saving the birds from extinction was the boyish bob and other short hairstyles introduced in about 1913. The short cuts could not support the hat extravaganzas, which led to the popularity of the cloche and the demise of the plume-hunters.
A quick and easy reference on how tell the difference between the Snowy and Great Egrets, both white and both often times found feeding in the marsh and tide pools together: The Great Egret is greater in size and has a bright yellow bill, with black legs and black feet. The smaller Snowy Egret has the opposite markings, with unmistakeable cadmium yellow feet and a black bill.
In the above photo taken this morning, the egrets were too far away for my camera’s lens to get a really clear picture however, when cropped, you can see a side-by-side comparison. The Snowy Egret, with black bill and bright yellow feet, is flying in the background and the Great Egret, with black feet and yellow bill, is perched in the foreground.
More posts about Great Egret and Snowy Egrets: BIRDS OF CAPE ANN: GREAT EGRET VS. GREAT EGRET BEAUTIFUL GOOD HARBOR FOGGY MORNING SUNRISE, SNOWY EGRET, AND WHIMBRELS
On a gorgeous dawn this past season I filmed an epic battle between two, possibly three, Great Egrets at the Good Harbor Beach marsh. The battle lasted nearly ten minutes with the defending egret aggressively flying lower and beneath the intruder, preventing it from landing anywhere on the marsh.
Great Egrets have very interesting breeding behavior in that the male selects the nesting site and builds a platform nest of sticks and twigs in a tree, shrub, or on the ground near a marsh, prior to selecting a mate. Both parents incubate the eggs and feed the chicks, and both male and female vigorously defend the nesting territory. Perhaps that is what I had observed, a male and/or female defending their nesting site.
The Good Harbor Beach victor first surveyed the marsh from his perch on the adjacent cottage and, after determining his foe was defeated, swooped to the tide pool below to feed peaceably alonsgide the Great Blue Heron.
How do you tell the difference quickly between a Great Egret and Snowy Egret? If you saw the two species side-by-side it would be easy as the Great Egret is nearly a third as large as the Snowy Egret. I don’t often see them together so the easiest way for me to tell them apart is to remember that the smaller Snowy Egret has brilliant cadmium yellow feet and a black bill. The Great Egret has black feet and a yellow-orange bill.