Several weeks ago on my way home for work, I stopped by one of my favorite places to film and photograph, Winthrop Shore Reservation. I began filming there several years ago because I thought it would be super helpful for our community to understand what was happening with Piping Plovers at beaches similar to Good Harbor Beach, similar in that they are urban beaches located in densely populated neighborhoods and are managed without the 24/7 protection of the Trustees (Crane Beach) or the USFWS (Plum Island).
What I discovered there was so much more than the story of WSR Piping Plovers and have since been filming and documenting many species of birds that call Winthrop Shore Reservation home throughout the four seasons, including the Least Tern colony, Snowy Owls, Snow Buntings, a family of Great Blue Herons, Oystercatchers, and Killdeers.
On my visit of several weeks ago there were so many Least Tern nestlings, fledglings, and juveniles, I was afraid to walk through the rocky shore for fear of stepping on a nestling. In their soft hues of buffy peach, gray, and ivory, the wee ones were perfectly camouflaged, tucked in and amongst the wind- and weather-worn monochromatic stones.
Tiny Killdeer chicks and newly hatched Piping Plovers were also running about the Tern colony. I left with a heart full of joy at seeing so much new life in such an extraordinary location, extraordinary in the sense that it was only a few short years ago that Winthrop Shore Reservation underwent a major restoration, renovation, and renourishment project, which was undertaken by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation. I’d say the renourishment aspect of the project has been a whopping success!!!
A late day update as I had several meetings this morning, including a wonderful interview with Heather and Kory at 1623 Studios about Marshmallow and all things Piping Plover!
We have a first at Good Harbor Beach and that is a Plover chick and his Dad, along with a Common Tern fledgling and its parent! The Terns must have flown in sometime last night. Both pairs are currently together at the bend in the Creek as it is high tide, the beach is busy, and there aren’t any other places to go.
For more information about local terns, below are links to several articles that I have written about Least Terns that were nesting at other north of Boston beaches, but it is so interesting to think about because I have never seen a Common or a Least Tern fledgling in five years of daily monitoring at Good Harbor Beach and it’s pretty exciting!
Common Terns are about 12 to 14 inches, whereas PiPls are only about 7 inches. It is the fledglings though that are quite comical. I call them the Baby Hueys of the avian world because at this approximately one-month-old stage of development, they look larger than their parents. Common Terns are semi-precocial, which means they hatch with feathers and can run around shortly after hatching, just as do PiPl chicks, but Common Terns cannot feed themselves. The chicks and fledglings sit on the shoreline with mouths gaping open and squawking loudly as the parents fish non-stop, depositing minnows into their open beaks.
Common Tern Fledgling
Oftentimes Common Terns and Piping Plovers share the same beach habitat and they typically only go after one another when one is doing something really offensive to the other. Common Terns though are very territorial in terms of people and gulls. If you are observing a Common or a Least Tern and it is flying over your head, calling out constantly, or even dive bombing your head, you are much too close and need to move back. Today’s Common Tern has been going after Great Black-back Gulls, a hawk, and people as it establishes a protective zone around its fledgling.
I hope so much the Tern Family stays for more than a day and that you all get to see the Terns at GHB!
Common Tern adult harassing a Great Black-back Gull
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.
“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.”
Jeff Denoncour and Courtney Richardson, Director of Education and Public Programs at the Cape Ann Museum
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.
Three days after hatching the Rosetti’s Least Tern parents moved the chicks further down the beach and deep into the roped off sanctuary. Tiny gray and white speckled fluff balls well-hidden amongst the rocky shoreline became increasingly difficult to see.
Well-camouflaged and nearly impossible to see one-week-old Least Tern chicks.
Every now and then though I would catch a glimpse and one of the best moments was watching both chicks test their wings in short little take offs. Stretching wide their wings and in little fits and bursts, the flights lasted about two- to three-feet in length, and equally as high. After witnessing the tremendous hardships the Least Tern colony at Winthrop had undergone this nesting season, I was over joyed to see at least one family hit this milestone.
One-week-old Least Tern chick feeding.
Two-week-old Least Tern chick.
Eighteen-day-old Least Tern chick taking shelter under beach vegetation on a scorchingly hot day in July.
After exploring the beach, the three-day-old Least Tern chick decided to take a short cut through the rocks to nestle under Mom. She was well-camouflaged while brooding and keeping warm and cozy her second chick.
He tried and tried to get to her, first hopping from one foot to the other,
while trying to squeeze with all his tiny might through the space between the rocks…
before tumbling backward, with legs splayed and wings all akimbo.
Quickly righting himself (with directives from Mom),
around he went the long way and had himself a good long snuggle under Mom.
While observing and thinking about tiny shorebird chicks, like Least Terns and Piping Plovers, I am continually struck by their resiliency, by their tenacity, and by their ability to prevail, despite the natural and manmade threats to their survival.
Piping Plover Chick Lift-off! – Not quite ready to fly yet, but testing his wings and airborne for a few seconds.
On Tuesday this past week my friend Deborah and I attended the Coastal Waterbird Conservation Cooperators meeting, which took place at Cape Cod Community College in Barnstable. The meeting is held annually to bring together people and organizations that are involved with population monitoring and conservation efforts on behalf of coastal waterbirds. Threatened and endangered species such as Least Terns, Piping Plovers, and American Oystercatchers are given the greatest attention, while the meeting also encompasses efforts on behalf of heron, cormorant, and egret species.
Conservationists from all seven Massachusetts coastal regions participated, as well as conservationists from nearby states, including representatives from New Jersey, Maine, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire. To name just some of the organizations presenting at the meeting-Mass Wildlife, Trustees of Reservations, Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), and US Fish and Wildlife. Gloucester was well represented. In addition to Deborah and myself, two members of the Animal Advisory Committee also attended; chairperson Alicia Pensarosa and former animal control officer Diane Corliss. Many of you may remember our Mass Wildlife Piping Plover intern Jasmine. She was there to give a presentation on habitat vegetation utilized by nesting Piping Plovers. Her aunt, Gloucester’s Terry Weber, was there to support Jasmine. This was Jasmine’s first time speaking in public and she did an excellent job!
Each region gave the 2018 population census report for nesting birds as well as providing information about problems and solutions. We all share similar challenges with predation from crows and gulls, uncontrolled dogs, enforcement, and habitat loss and it was very interesting to learn about how neighboring communities are managing problems and issues.
Just one highlight of a day filled with helpful insights and useful information is that we can be very proud of our state—Massachusetts is at the leading edge of the Piping Plover recovery effort. The representative from New Jersey was there specifically to learn from Massachusetts conservationists on how they could possibly improve their recovery program as the New Jersey PiPl population is not growing, with fewer and fewer each year retuning to nest. As you can see from the graph provided at the meeting, the Canadian recovery is going very poorly as well.
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’s has a whopping 76 fledglings, with 25 more chicks still yet to fledge. Because of the huge success at Cranes 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 Crane Beach 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 an 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.
Crane Beach Least Tern fledgling.
Compare the Least Tern to the Common Tern in the above photo. It’s easy to see why the birds are called Least Terns; they are North America’s smallest member of the tern and gull family (Crane Beach).
Another interesting bit of information shared–if you listen to our podcasts, back in April, we talked about the potential dilemma of what would happen if Snowy Owls remained on the beaches as the Piping Plovers returned from their winter grounds. Knowing that Snowy Owls (Bubo scandiacus) and Great Horned Owls (Bubo virginianus) are close cousins and that the Great Horned Owl eats Piping Plover chicks and adults, I was concerned that a Snowy might eat our PiPl. At one particular beach on Cape Cod, a Snowy stayed through mid-July. An adult Piping Plover skull was found in the owl’s pellet.
Snowy Owls remained in Massachusetts this year through July.
After attending the cooperators meeting, I am more hopeful than ever that our community can come together and solve the problems that are preventing our PiPl from successfully nesting and fledging chicks. What we have going in our favor is the sheer number of amazing super volunteers along with strong community-wide support.
Piping Plover fully fledged and flying up and down the beach – we”ll have these next year, I am sure!
In only one day’s time, you can see the teeny shorebirds gaining strength. As Dad approaches with dinner, the two-day-old Least Tern chicks stretch and flap their wings and open wide their beaks. The noisiest and flappiest is fed first. After depositing a minnow in one beak, off he flies to find dinner for the second sibling.
The polka-dot fluff balls blend perfectly with the surrounding sand and rocks. The brilliant red inside the chicks mouth makes it easier for the adult terns to find them against the monochromatic pebbly beach habitat.
Waiting for dinner.
The tern parents will share feeding their chicks and fledglings non-stop for weeks; the chicks won’t be on their own for another two months.
For the first several days after hatching, Least Tern chicks keep fairly close to Mom in scooped out scrapes and natural divots in the sand, or well-hidden hidden behind rocks and beach vegetation.Tiny Least Tern Chick camouflaged in the sand, flanked by an adult Least Tern and Piping Plover male passing by (right).
The Rosetti’s Piping Plover fledglings (three) sharing the nesting site with the Least Tern Rosetti’s family.
The Rosetti’s Least Terns hatched both eggs and both chicks are doing beautifully!
Least Tern eggs are astonishingly well camouflaged on a pebbly beach, making them nearly impossible to see. It’s easy to understand why the species is threatened, and in some regions, endangered. Least Terns nest on sandy beaches with little vegetation, the same type of beach habitat that people love. Piping Plovers and Least Terns often nest in association with each other. In Massachusetts, the Least Tern is considered a Species of Special Concern.
Mom and Dad Least Terns take turns brooding the eggs. Here they are changing places. Least Terns are monogamous and the Rosetti’s Least Terns are especially good parents.
Least Terns are semi-precocial. Like Piping Plovers, which are fully precocial, Least Terns are mobile after one or two days and can leave the nest.
Unlike Piping Plovers, they cannot feed themselves and will be fed for the next eight weeks by Mom and Dad, a diet consisting mostly of tiny fish.
Tiny minnows, for tiny chicks. Dad does most of the feeding while Mom mostly broods the babies during the first few days. As the nestlings grow, the parents feed the chicks increasingly larger fish.
First day venturing away from the nest, and then returning to Mom for warmth and protection.
Just as the eggs are perfectly camouflaged, so too are the tiny nestlings.
Almost as adorable as are Piping Plover chicks are Least Tern chicks. However, they are much, much harder to film and to photograph. Least Terns are shyer of humankind than are Piping Plovers. Anyone who has seen PiPl in action know that they have a high tolerance for people and may come right up to you especially if you are standing perfectly still and are perfectly quiet. Least Terns on the other hand are elusive and skittish. The nestlings quickly take cover behind a rock or clump of beach vegetation when disturbed. The Mom and Dad when both courting and nesting will let you know if you are too close by dive bombing and if you still can’t take a hint, will poop on your head. If either happens, then you know for sure you are way too close and are interfering with the chicks feeding. Back away and observe from a more considerate (considerate-to-the-Terns distance that is).
Unfortunately, I recently observed a fellow photographer repeatedly being dive-bombed by a nesting pair of Terns, and that person has a humongously long telephoto lens. She would have gotten perfectly lovely photos from a distance more respectful of the Terns.
Or is it Sex for Fish? –The Quid Pro Quo Courtship of the Least Tern
While learning more about Piping Plovers on North Shore beaches I happened to be on Winthrop Shore Beach on an afternoon in May when dozens and dozens of Least Terns were pairing up in an elaborate dance of courtship and mating. It was fascinating to observe their courtship feeding and I was so curious to learn more.
That very same afternoon, the “Rosetti’s” Piping Plovers were mating, too. Well known to the area is a pair of Plovers that nest every year directly in front of Café Rosetti’s, a fabulous Italian restaurant located on the main boulevard that runs along the beach. The Rosetti’s Plovers are very successful and each year they fledge a clutch of chicks. This year was no exception!
For the past several months I have been documenting through film and photographs the Rosetti’s Plovers and the Rosetti’s Terns, along with a family of PiPl at Revere Beach (more about the Winthrop and Revere Beach’s PiPl in future posts). Both species of birds are on the state and federal threatened species list. Piping Plovers and Least Terns began nesting on the area’s urban beaches as a direct result of the Boston Harbor cleanup, a wonderful, and very surprising to all involved, turn of events. In some regions, both species share the same habitat, as is the case with Winthrop Shore Reservation.
The more we learn about how and why Plovers (and other species of threatened shorebirds) successfully nest on other north of Boston much loved and much utilized beaches, the more we can help our Good Harbor Beach Piping Plovers successfully nest in years to come.
During the breeding season Least Terns perform courtship displays in the air and on the ground. In dramatic aerial display, a fish-carrying male is chased by the female, sometimes up to four females.
On the ground, the male parades his fish to a prospective mate. With fish dangling from his bill, he bobs his head from side-to side, then opens and closes his wings over the female.
The male mounts the female, still with fish dangling. During copulation he passes the fish to the female.
The funniest thing is, when the female allows the male to mount, she sometimes snatches the fish and flies away before mating has occurred.
No privacy, and lots of piracy!
The male continues to feed the female throughout the incubation period. Both parents incubate the eggs however, the female does about eighty percent of the brooding, while the male provides most of the fish for she and the chicks.
When one adult Least Tern feeds another, whether during courtship when the pair are first becoming established, or during the incubation period, this behavior is called “courtship feeding.”
The courtship feeding display perhaps provide the female tern the assurance that her male mate will be a good provider of fish for both she and the young. Both male and female Least Terns feed the chicks for the first several months after hatching; the better the fisherman, the stronger the chicks. Studies have shown too that courtship feeding provides the female with considerable nutritional benefit. The number of eggs, and weight of the eggs, are determined by the female’s nutritional status and how much food is fed her by her mate.
In Massachusetts, Least Terns primarily eats fish, including Sand Lance, Herring, and Hake. They also eat insects and crustaceans.
You may be asking, “where are the Good Harbor Beach Piping Plovers now?” Surprisingly, they are still around! After the night the last chick was killed (tracks point to a skirmish with a dog and several people in the nesting area), two Piping Plovers were reported at Cape Hedge Beach the following evening. Rockport resident Gail, who first reported the sighting, and PiPl volunteer monitor Laurie Sawin and I, found one at Cape Hedge the next morning, and by the next day, two had returned to the roped off area at #3 boardwalk!
Everyday since, either Greenbelt’s Dave McKinnon, my husband Tom, Deborah Cramer, or myself have spotted at least one in the cordoned off #3.
Recent PiPl sightings at the Good Harbor Beach nesting area.
Our thoughts are to leave some part of the roping up as long as the Piping Plovers are still using it as a sanctuary during high tide when the beach is crowded. For a second and even more important reason, many of us would like to see part of the cordoned off area stay in place for the simple reason it is helping with dune recovery.
You may recall that during late winter we had back to back nor’easters, which had a devastating effect on Good Harbor Beach in that much of the beach’s sand was washed away. The beach dropped about ten feet, which now causes the tide to come up high to the edge of the bluff. Beach grass and beach vegetation will help prevent future washouts. Because the area around #3 has been roped of since mid-April, a fantastic patch of beach grass has begun to take hold!!! If we leave a narrow strip roped off from the public, about ten to fifteen feet wide, running the length of the beach and around the creek bend, this simple step alone will have a marked impact on the overall health of the dune habitat.
Beach plants help prevent erosion while also providing shade and shelter for tiny shorebirds.
A pair of one-day-old Least Tern chicks finding shade.
“I live in Winthrop. One pair nested on Winthrop Beach about 6 years ago. Now there are 7 nesting pairs. 80% of the beach is now roped off for the plovers. They are rarely successful and keep trying to breed until August. Gloucester needs to determine whether it would like the income from parking or a successful plover population on one of its nicest recreational beaches. I was at Good Harbor the other day and it appears that there is not much of a sandy beach left to use. I realize the birds are endangered and federal law protects them. Gloucester may have to by law pay for 24 hour security like they do in Plymouth.”
Just like the towns of Gloucester and Revere, Winthrop has a beautiful beach (officially named Winthrop Shores Reservation), which within the last decade has become home to nesting shorebirds. Both Revere and Winthrop beaches are managed by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) and both Revere Beach and Winthrop Beach have been on my to do list of places to visit to learn how other communities in Massachusetts manage their nesting shorebird populations.
Least Tern Nesting
Revere and Winthrop Beaches are relatively narrow at high tide, similar to Good Harbor Beach, and both beaches run adjacent to densely populated urban neighborhoods. I have been making good use of my commute from Cambridge and Boston to Gloucester this spring by regularly visiting Revere Beach, and have now added Winthrop Beach. I am so glad that I did! Go to Winthrop Beach if you have never been, or haven’t been in recent years. It is a delight in every way. Visitors sunbathe, picnic, windsurf, paddle board, ride bikes, hold hands, walk their babies, and do all the things visitors do at our Gloucester beaches. You don’t need a sticker to park, and parking is free, if you can get a spot along the main thoroughfare.
Winthrop Beach wasn’t always beautiful. Over the course of the past one hundred years, the devastating effects of pollution and erosion had washed the sand off shore, causing the beach to dip twenty feet below the seawall in some areas. This meant that every time there was a major storm, the waves were not slowed by a gradually inclining beach, but instead slammed into the seawall, flooding streets and homes, and further eroding the foundation of the seawall.
Despite this, in 2008, two pairs of Piping Plovers began nesting at Winthrop Beach. Not only has Winthrop Beach become home to nesting PiPls, at least ninety pairs of Least Terns (Sternula antillarum), a similarly threatened species of shorebirds, have also begun to nest there. The endangered Red Knot (Calidriss canutus), along with a locally nesting pair of American Oystercatchers (Haematopus palliates) forage at Winthrop Beach as well.
One half of Winthrop’s resident American Oystercatcher breeding pair.
Winthrop Beach is in the midst of a 31 million dollar restoration project. To renourish the beach, 500,000 cubic yards of sand have been distributed along the one-mile stretch, the seawall has been rebuilt, improvements to beach access and amenities have been made, road repairs to Winthrop Shore Drive completed, sidewalks widened and made handicap accessible, and gorgeous new lighting is being installed.
During the Winthrop Beach major renovation project, care was taken to protect the Piping Plovers and by 2017, the population had quadrupled. Unfortunately, despite the community’s best efforts, 2017 was an unusually bad year. No chicks fledged due to predation by a male American Kestrel. The Kestrel was subsequently captured and moved to the western part of the state.
Massachusetts holds about 30 to 40 percent of the world’s population of Piping Plovers. It is a testament to our clean beaches and water. The Piping Plover’s diet consists of invertebrates and insects, and both require a clean environment.
From my observation during the past several weeks, there are only two roped off areas; one small, similar in size to GHB nesting area #3, and the other, about three times larger. The thing is, the large area is comprised of a restricted dune restoration project and the other part is filled with popples and cobbles, not in the least an ideal location to sunbathe or picnic. There is a wide sandy area in the center of the beach for recreation. Each time that I have been there, including the Saturday afternoon of Memorial Day weekend, there were very few people on the beach. The only people I had a free moment to speak with, a group of young women that live directly across from the cordoned off area, said they LOVE that their beach is home to the nesting shorebirds. The point is, just as exists at Good Harbor Beach, there is plenty of room to share the shore.
The shorebird nesting area is pebbly and part of a dune restoration project.
The “Five Sisters” breakwater area is well loved by windsurfers and paddle boarders as well as a favored habitat by foraging shorebirds.
Beautiful Beach Pea (Lathyrus maritimous) growing in the restored dune/shorebird nesting area.
Access to Winthrop Beach is restricted by what appears to be a complete lack of public parking. Even with no one on the beach, it has been difficult to find a spot to park on the main drive along the beach, and it is not yet summer time.
On my first visit to Winthrop Beach, the timing could not have been more perfect. Least Terns and Piping Plovers were mating like crazy. It was wonderful to observe both species mating dances and rituals, and both are unique to each other. I’ll post more about the Least Terns courting, essentially “sex in exchange for fish,” as it was so terribly funny to observe.
Least Terns Mating. Males offer a minnow to a prospective female. She will allow him to mount her while simultaneously taking the fish although, sometimes the females take the fish before mating and fly off.
I’ve been back several times since and have seen some courtship displays, but nothing like the free for all of the first visit. There was however a newly hatched Piping Plover family of four tiny little chicks. And one of the pairs of Piping Plovers that I had observed mating is now nesting!
Piping Plovers Mating 1) The male’s high stepping dance, asking the female if she is interested. She says yes by positioning herself with her rear end tilted upward. 2) He dances on her back. 3) The Plovers join cloaca to cloaca 4)Invariably, love making ends with a not too nice sharp nip from the male.
The mating pair are now nesting, with at least three eggs in the nest!
Camouflaged! Can you spot the four birds in the above photo?
Just south of Winthrop Shore Reservation is Winthrop’s Yirrell Beach and it is home to several nesting Piping Plover pairs, as well as a pair of nesting American Oystercatchers.
Point Shirley and Crystal Cove with views of the Boston skyline