Several years ago my husband suggested I write a “year end” wildlife review about all the creatures seen over the preceding year. That first review was a joyful endeavor though daunting enough. Over the next several years the reviews became more lengthy as I tried to cover every beautiful, wonderful creature that was encountered on woodland hikes, beaches, dunes, marshes, ponds, and our own backyards and neighborhoods. 2020 has been a very different year. There were just as many local wildlife stories as in previous years however, the pandemic and political climate have had far reaching consequences across geographic regions around the world, touching every living creature in the interconnected web of life we call our ecosystems.
This first year of the global pandemic has had a profoundly negative impact on wildlife and their habitats. In urban areas in developed countries, perhaps the economic slowdown afforded wildlife a break, with less pollution, less air travel, and some wild animals even reclaiming territory. Though the true downside of Covid-19 is that the pandemic has had an extraordinarily harmful impact on wildlife in rural areas and in less developed countries People who are dependent upon tourism, along with people who have lost jobs in cities and are returning to rural areas, are placing increasing pressure on wildlife by poaching, illegal mining, and logging. As mining and logging destroy wildlife habitats, animals are forced into ever shrinking areas, causing them to become sick, stressed, and to starve to death. These same stressed wild animals come in contact with people and farm animals, creating an ever increasing potential to transmit horrifically deadly illness, diseases such as Covid-19.
There are many, many organizations working to protect wildlife and conserve their habitats. I am especially in awe of one particular grass roots non-profit organization located in Macheros, Mexico, previously featured here, Butterflies and Their People. Co-founded by Ellen Sharp and Joel Moreno Rojas, the work they are doing to both protect the butterfly’s winter habit and provide employment for the forest’s guardians is outstanding.
All the butterfly sanctuaries (their winter resting places), are closed this year due to the pandemic. Dozens of people in the tiny town of Macheros are wholly dependent upon the income received by the work they do protecting the butterfly trees from illegal logging, as well as income from the tourist industry. Ellen, Joel, and their team of arborists have come up with a wonderfully creative way to bring the butterflies to you. For a modest fee, you can sign up to “Adopt a Colony” to receive monthly newsletters and video tours of the Monarchs at Cerro Pelon. The newsletters are written by Ellen, who writes beautifully and clearly about the month-by-month current state of the butterflies in their winter habitat, as well as human interest stories drawn from the community. To subscribe to “Adopt a Colony” from Butterflies and Their People, go here.
We can be hopeful in 2021 that with a new administration, a much greater focus will be paid by our federal government to stop the spread of the virus in the US as well as around the globe. Not only is there hope in regard to the course correction needed to battle the pandemic, but the Biden/Harris administration has made climate change and environmental justice a cornerstone of their platform, including measures such as stopping the environmental madness taking place along our southern border and reversing many of the previous administration’s mandates that are so harmful to wildlife and their habitats.
Around the globe, especially in less developed countries, the pandemic has set back environmental initiatives by years, if not decades. We are so fortunate in Essex County to have conservation organizations such as Greenbelt, MassWildlife, The Trustees, and Mass Audubon; organizations that protect the sanctity of wildlife and recognize the importance of protecting habitats not only for wildlife but equally as important, for the health and safety of human inhabitants.
The following are just some of the local images and stories that make us deeply appreciate the beauty of wildlife and their habitats found on Cape Ann and all around Essex County. Each picture is only a brief window into the elusive, complex life of a creature. Every day and every encounter brings so much more to observe, to learn, to enjoy, and to love.
To read more, each image and story from the past year is Google searchable. Type in the name of the creature and my name and the link to the story and pictures posted on my website should come right up.
Some Beautiful Raptors of 2020 – Red-tailed Hawk, Short-eared Owl, American Bald Eagle, Cooper’s Hawk, Merlin, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Osprey, and Snowy Owls
Essex County Greenbelt’s Osprey pair, Annie and Squam, successfully fledged three chicks, Vivi, Rusty, and Liz (nestling photo courtesy ECGA)
Dave Rimmer video from the Osprey cam at Lobstaland
The Snowy Owl Film Project was completed in March, with the objective of providing pandemic- virtually schooled kids a window into the world of Snowy Owls in their winter habitat (see all five short films here).
Spunky Mute Swan Cygnets
Utterly captivated by the winsome Red Fox Family
A tiny sampling of the beautiful songbirds that graced our shores in 2020 – Cedar Waxwings, Baltimore Orioles, Catbirds, American Robins, Tree Swallows, Barn Swallows, Snow Buntings, American Pipits, Horned Larks, and Eastern Bluebirds
A new favorite place to film is at my friend Paul’s wonderfully fun sunflower field in Ipswich, School Street Sunflowers. Beautiful Bobolinks, Common Yellowthroat Warblers, and Bluejays were just some of the songbirds seen feasting on the expiring seedheads of sunflowers and wildflowers growing amongst the rows of flowers.
Snowy Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, and juvenile Little Blue Herons delight with their elegance, beauty, and stealth hunting skills. Included in the montage is a juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron that spent the winter at Niles Pond
A fraction of the different species of Shorebirds and Gulls seen on Cape Ann this past year – Dowitchers, Killdeers, Black-bellied Plovers, Common Tern, Least Tern, Laughing Gulls, Bonaparte’s Gulls, Glaucus Gull, and rarely seen Dovekie, or”Little Auk.”
Cecropia Moth life cycle unfolding in our garden, from mating, to egg laying, to caterpillar, to adult.
Dozens and dozens of orb spider webs draped a small patch of wildflowers. The dream catchers were attracting Cedar Waxwings to feast on the insects caught in the webs. The following day I returned after a rainstorm. The webs had melted away in the downpour and the Waxwings had vanished into the treetops.
Harbor and Gray Seals hauled out on the rocks at Brace Cove, as many as 28 were counted on a winter’s day!
Piping Plovers and Marshmallow Montage
In 2020, our Good Harbor Beach Piping Plover pair fledged one chick, nicknamed Marshmallow. Despite the global pandemic, a group of super dedicated Piping Plover Ambassadors worked tirelessly from sunrise until sunset to help ensure the safety of the Piping Plover family and to help educate beachgoers about the beautiful life story of the Plovers unfolding on Gloucester’s most popular beach destination. We worked with Essex Greenbelt’s Dave Rimmer, the Gloucester DPW, and Gloucester City Councilor Scot Memhard, with much appreciated advice from Mass Wildlife Coastal Waterbird Biologist Carolyn Mostello.
Read more about Marshmallow, the Ambassadors, and the Piping Plover Film Project here.
Piping Plover Marshmallow Montage, from egg to thirty-eight days old. Filmed at Good Harbor Beach, Gloucester, Massachusetts.
It has been a wonderful, exhilarating, infinitely educational, and beautifully challenging journey creating my documentary, Beauty on the Wing: Life Story of the Monarch Butterflies. The film was released in February 2020, but because of the pandemic, was not seen by the public until August, when it premiered (virtually) at the New Haven Documentary Film Festival. Beauty on the Wing has gone on to win honors and awards at both environmental and children’s film festivals, including the tremendous honor of Best Documentary at the Boston International Kids Film Festival. I’ve just received the very attractive award in the mail and have not had time to post a photo yet.
Beauty on the Wing portrays Cape Ann in the most beautiful light and I think when we are ever able to have a live premiere in this area, local friends will be delighted at the outcome. Joyfully so, Beauty is now being distributed to schools, libraries, institutions, and the travel industry through American Public Television Worldwide.
Beauty on the Wing continues to be accepted to film festivals and I will keep you posted as some are geo-bloced to this area, including the upcoming Providence Children’s Film Festival.
Last but not least, our wonderfully wildy Charlotte, little adventurer and nature-loving companion throughout the year
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!
Interrupting your election news coverage to bring you PlumStreet Wild Kingdom chronicles:
What a luxuriously warm early morning and late day for photographing wild creatures – GBHeron, Blue Jays, a herd of White-tailed Deer (8!), Snow Buntings – and right in our own backyard, just at the moment our little Red Fox slipped behind the fence, a Red-tailed Hawk flew into a neighboring tree.
I wonder if he was attracted to the cacophony created by the Crows harassing the Fox. I never would have seen the Hawk if not for the Red Fox. The Hawk perched in the tree and then flew to my neighbor MJ’s towering and stunning Larch Tree (the tallest tree in the neighborhood). He stayed there for sometime before tiring of the Crows and swooping off.
The Red-tailed Hawk’s vision is eight times more powerful than a human’s, allowing it see a small rodent such as a mouse or vole from 100 feet away. It dove into the tall dry grass making a loud crackly rushing sound but, came up empty-mouthed. Again it flew to the top of the Pink House chimney from where, only a few moments later, it made a second dive.When diving to catch prey, their speed may exceed 120 miles per hour, and no joke, this Hawk’s speed appeared to increase as it became torpedo-like in shape.
Chances are that if you see a hawk, it is most likely a Red-tailed. Unlike so very many bird species, the Red-tailed Hawk population has increased over the past one hundred years. The global population hovers around 2 million and its success is due largely to the bird’s ability to adapt to a wide range of habitats, including urban, suburban, and exurban developments. As long as their is some open space, trees or tree-like structures for perching, and small mammals, you will find Red-tailed Hawks.
The Red-tailed Hawk seen here was photographed at Parker River on the luxuriously warm Saturday afternoon last weekend. There were loads of people out walking and enjoying the sunny skies. It was difficult to tell if the Hawk was simply extremely tolerant of people or if he were struggling with an injury or illness. He stayed for a very long time in a small area, over an hour, but flew periodically to hunt in the thicket below (unsuccessfully), and then flew easily back up to the phone lines and trees. At one point, he almost flew into a car driving into the refuge, missing the windshield by inches. I hope that after the gates closed at sundown the Red-tailed was able to right himself and find a tasty dinner.
Local lore has it that the house was built in 1922 by a couple who were in the process of divorcing and sorting their affairs. The wife asked that the husband build a replica of their Newburyport family home. She did not say where the house was to be sited. Out of spite, he built the house atop the isolated salt marsh, with only saltwater plumbing.
The Pink House has not been occupied since the early 2000s and looks worse with each passing year. Last winter I was at the refuge for a program held at the PRNWR headquarters. After the event I tried to drive towards Plum Island but with sea water gushing in from the marsh, the road in front of the house was dangerously impassable.
The house is FREE, if only you will either take it off the marsh or give Parker River National Wildlife Refuge a few acres of comparable land. The second option allows for the house to stay in its current location. Read more here: Free Pink House of Newbury: Take Me I’m Yours
He perched for a moment on a nearby limb, turning his head in all directions, hungrily triangulating the landscape for a tasty meal. Next he flew to a nearby telephone pole, and then over the houses towards the Harbor.
A few minutes later the Red-tailed reappeared, followed by several crows noisily haranguing and giving him the business, in no uncertain terms!
Our local wildlife rehabbers Jodi Swenson and Erin Hutchings (CAPE ANN WILDLIFE) are on the front lines of trying to save our raptors from rodenticide poisoning. They have treated three juvenile Red-tailed hawks just this week alone. Two perished and a third is barely hanging on. Tufts does necropsies on all dead raptors-98 percent have rat poison in their system. Please see previous post about safer alternatives to the new second-generation deadly poisonous rodenticides.
Recently we shared a story from the Snowy Owl Project that this year Snowy Owls have remained in Massachusetts throughout the summer. We also posted about eight cases of Snowy Owl deaths by rat poison, in Massachusetts, which has been documented during the present Snowy Owl irruption of 2017-2018. Buried in the post was a link to an article from Audubon, “Poisons Used to Kill Rodents Have Safer Alternatives,” which is about alternatives to the new second-generation rodenticide that is killing our native predator population. These are the very birds and animals that we want to support because they eat rats and mice. This is not an abstract problem; Cape Ann Wildlife rehabbers Jodi Swenson and Erin Hutchings are caring for almost daily dying wildlife that has been poisoned to death by second-generation rodenticide, and the problem is mushrooming. Second-generation rodenticides also kill pet dogs and cats!
Jodi and Erin recently shared the above photo of a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk they had been treating for rodenticide poisoning, which tragically did not make it. These birds are victims of second-generation anticoagulant rodenticides used by exterminators, businesses, farmers, and homeowners.
The brand names are Havoc, Talon, Generation, d-Con, and Hot Shot. Do not buy these products because they contain the deadly indgredients brodifacoum, bromadiolone, difethialone, and difenacoum.
“Both first- and second-generation rodenticides prevent blood from clotting by inhibiting vitamin K, though the second-generation products build to higher concentrations in rodents and are therefore more lethal to anything that eats them.
What makes second-generation rodenticides so non-selective is that they kill slowly, so rodents keep eating them long after they’ve ingested a lethal dose. By the time they expire, or are about to, they contain many times the lethal dose and are therefore deadly to predators, scavengers, and pets.
There’s no safe place or safe delivery system for second-generation rodenticides. After a rodent partakes, it stumbles around for three to four days, displaying itself as an especially tempting meal not just for raptors but for mammalian predators, including red foxes, gray foxes, endangered San Joaquin kit foxes, swift foxes, coyotes, wolves, raccoons, black bears, skunks, badgers, mountain lions, bobcats, fishers, dogs, and house cats—all of which suffer lethal and sublethal secondary poisoning from eating rodents. Deer, non-target rodents, waterfowl, waterbirds, shorebirds, songbirds, and children suffer lethal and sublethal poisoning from eating bait directly.”
Here in a nutshell are alternatives to second generation rat poison. Please read the complete article, which goes in to much greater detail to better understand why this is happening, which companies are responsible for creating the toxic poison, which companies are taking it upon themselves to ban second-generation rodenticides (Walgreens, yes, Home Depot, no), and how you can help.
- Prevent a rodent infestation by keeping waste in tightly covered garbage pails and compost bins.
- RATS! (Raptors are the Solution) – a national alliance of citizens, nonprofit groups, and local governments that educates consumers and municipalities about safe methods of rodent control and the dangers of second-generation poisons. MASS-RATS is the newly formed state chapter of RATS.
- . Hungry Owl Project – delivers safe, effective rodenticide in the form of Barn Owls! This organization also advocate for other predators—coyotes, foxes, mountain lions, badgers, skunks, bobcats, raccoons, opossum.
- When natural rodent control is not possible in urban areas: single- and multiple-entrance snap traps, electrocuting traps, glue traps (provided you use them only indoors and frequently dispatch stuck rodents), and even first-generation baits with these active ingredients: chlorophacinone, diphacinone, diphacinone sodium salt, war-farin, and warfarin sodium salt.
- The “Better Mouse Trap” – Take a metal rod, run it through holes drilled in the center of both lids of an emptied tin soup can so the can becomes a spinning drum. Fasten both ends of the rod to the top of a plastic bucket via drilled holes. Coat the can with peanut butter, and fill the bucket with water and a shot of liquid soap (to break the surface tension and thus facilitate quicker, more humane drowning). Mice and rats jump onto the can, and it spins them into the water.
They are finding finding plenty to eat. The owls are being closely monitored and thus far have no health issues. This is the time of year that Snowy Owls molt, so if you see one, it may be brown and missing some feathers.
Tragically, a Snowy was recently rescued at Logan Airport and was taken to Tufts, where it died of rodenticide poison. That brings this year’s total to eight that have been killed by rat poison. Imagine if in every region, this many were killed annually by rat poison. It’s no wonder the species is struggling, despite occasional irruptive years.
Photo Dan Vickers
Oregon Coast National Wildlife Refuge shares the following:
Do you have unwanted mice and rats around your home? Do you also have birds of prey and beloved pets using that same area? If you do, consider the potential deadly consequences of using toxic rodenticides on more than just the rodents.
Dan Vickers snapped this photograph of a Red-tailed Hawk eating a poisoned rat. The blue color you see in the gut of the rat is a fat-soluble dye used in anticoagulant rodenticides. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for rat poisons to accumulate in the food web. Once this hawk consumes the poison, it too can die.
Please help minimize wildlife exposure to pesticides and consider the collateral damage and danger for other mammals, birds of prey, domestic pets, and humans.
Follow this link for more information and safer rodenticide alternatives:
A second generation of ultra-potent rodenticides creates a first-class crisis for people, pets, and wildlife.
For the past week or so there has been a remarkably tolerant Snowy Owl feeding and perching on the rocks at Atlantic Road. Perhaps she (or he) is the same Snowy that has been noticed on the backshore over the course of the past month. I write tolerant because this Snowy was perched about fifteen feet from the sidewalk and neither traffic nor birdwatchers seemed to faze her much. As word has gotten out, her fan club has grown, so much so that there was a bit of a traffic jam today. Every several hours I stopped by to check on her whereabouts. At 2:00 today, she had only moved about a foot from where she was at daybreak. By sundown, she had flown up onto the rooftops of an Atlantic Road resident.
Many thanks to Kate for all her text alerts letting me know when the Snowy was on the backshore!
Early morning and the Snowies face and talons were bloodstained, which is a very positive sign that she is feeding well. Snowy Owls wintering over in our region eat rabbits, rodents (lots of rats), songbirds, and sea ducks. Being good stewards of the Snowies means not applying rat poison around your home or business. There are several methods equally as efficient in killing rats as rat poison. When a bird of prey such as a Peregrine Falcon, Snowy Owl, Red-tailed Hawk, or Bald Eagle ingests a rat that has eaten rat poison, the raptor becomes sick and will usually die.
The Snowy spent the better part of the day mostly dozing, preening, cleaning her talons, and puffing her feathers for warmth. At one point she pushed her face into a snow patch but I couldn’t tell if it was to drink or to wash.
I am in the midst of doing research for the Piping Plover film project and have found the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge to be a great resource. Recently I met a terrific warden there, Jean, and she gave me a copy of the historic brochure written in 1947 by Rachel Carson about the refuge. The brochure was reprinted and if you inquire, they may still have some copies in the back office. You can also download the brochure at this link: Rachel Carson Parker River Wildlife Refuge brochure
The brochure provides an early history of the refuge and is a fascinating view of mid-century conservation. And, too, it is a tremendous example of Carson’s thoughtful and thought-provoking style of writing.
Some interesting facts about the refuge —
Located along the northeastern coast of Massachusetts, the Parker River National Refuge includes lands that lie within the three towns of Rowley, Ipswich, and Newbury. We think of Plum Island as the heart of the refuge. The wildlife refuge also includes a range of diverse habitats and geographic features; over 3,000 acres of salt marsh, freshwater marsh, shrub lands, a drumlin, cranberry bog, salt pannes, beach and sand dunes, and maritime forest. The land is not conserved to revert back to a wild state, but is intensely managed in order to preserve and maintain the diversity of wildlife habitats.
Unlike our national parks, which preserves parklands or historic buildings, and are designed for people, a national wildlife refuge is established first and foremost for wildlife and their habitats, not for people. The preservation of wildlife is the number one priority of all our national wildlife refuges.
The Parker River National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1942 to help species of waterfowl that migrate along the Atlantic Flyway. There were three sharp declines in waterfowl populations in the early half of the 20th century, notably the American Black Duck, and national wildlife refuges all along the Atlantic coast were created in response to the precipitously low numbers.
As we can see with our local Niles Pond, Henry’s Pond, and Langsford Pond shorebirds, waterfowl, and myriad species of wildlife thrive where they have easy access to both fresh water and salt water. The three bodies of fresh water that you see in the refuge look like ponds but they are actually manmade impoundments, created by dams and are highly controlled by a series of dykes and pumps.
Parker River provides pristine habitats for a wide variety of mammals, insects, fish, reptiles, and amphibians. Hunting birds such as owls, hawks, osprey, eagles, herons, and egrets find an abundance of food at the wildlife refuge. Whenever at Parker River I never not see a raptor!
Red-tailed Hawk Preening
Transfixing Owl Eyes
Because owls mostly hunt at night their eyes are very efficient at collecting and processing light. To protect their extraordinary eyes, owls are equipped with three eye lids; an upper and lower lid, and a third lid that diagonally closes across the eye. This action cleans and protects the eye.
More about Parker River National Wildlife Refuge to come.
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?