Sunday, July 19, 2009


Every once in awhile I'll talk to a refuge visitor from out of state or out of town who tells me "I'm staying at the hotel." There's only one hotel on the island so I know they mean Blue. Now Blue has been named one of America's top seaside inns in the July issue of Travel and Leisure. I love how the write-up starts out with "Unlike Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, this 11-mile-long barrier isle off the state’s North Shore has remained relatively undiscovered." Undiscovered by Travel and Leisure readers maybe, but definitely very much discovered by birders and striper fishermen. Birders come from all over to add to their lists during spring and fall migration.


PI may not be "destination birding" the way Cape May or Point Pele or some of the other famous spots but it's up there. I've run into birders from the UK who came specifically for shorebirds during the fall migration. And when there's a rarity like a black-tailed godwit or a fork-tailed flycatcher, the traffic jams on the refuge's one road are legendary. That's why I laughed my ... off when I read in Mark Obmascik's The Big Year that when one of the competitors comes to tick off the fork-tailed flycatcher at Parker River NWR the cars lined up at the gatehouse are there for the "white sand beaches" and not for the fork-tailed flycatcher. As I wrote in my 2004 book list back when I read it: PI does not have white sand and those traffic jams at the gatehouse during the fork-tailed flycatcher's visit that year were definitely people who came to see the bird."


And if PI is not "destination birding" it is certainly "destination fishing". Yesterday when I was watching the "kids fishing day" activity, I remembered visiting Plum Island in the 1950s and dodging around the poles and lines of surfcasters. My childhood memories of the island are very hazy because I was very young and we didn't stay there -- just drove up from Boston to visit my uncle who rented one of the funky little cottages and fished there. I mainly remember being car sick and thinking this island was impossibly far from Boston. It's not. It only seemed that way.

I bought a DVD of Reel People, a documentary about the fishermen of Plum Island, at Surfland to give to my brother Bob The Ex-Pat for his upcoming birthday. I had to watch it first, of course. It was totally worth it to see Unit 61 talking about the biggest fish he ever caught. Yes, everything comes back to life on the refuge. 61's 15 minutes of fame rocks. My other favorite part is about the scientist tagging schoolies in Plum Island Sound. Just after I watched the movie, I read an article in the Daily News of Newburyport about the research.. (Mass Audubon has an article about the acoustic tagging of schoolies project in Sanctuary.)


So now that Plum Island has been discovered by the quaint seaside inn Travel and Leisure crowd, I can only wonder where they're all gonna park.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

foggy fishing

Coffee of the Day: French Roast Colombian. Mmm, mmm, good.
Bird of the Day: ring-billed gull
Invisi-bird Status: Still no new update in the box. Last one was from 6/18. Unit 3 reported that there was one from 6/26 at the Visitor Center. That's the one quoted in the Daily News article . Number actually seen by me = zero. I think the northernmost pair have moved on.
Strange Wrack Item of the Day: part of a boat name plate with a Mass. Vessel registration sticker on it.

There was another kids' fishing event today, this one at the north end of the refuge. It seemed like a much smaller event than the last one. Poles and bait were ready when the kiddos arrived. The weather was not so welcoming. The fog was so thick you'd a thought the world ended a hundred yards south of the 0.1 mile marker and a few yards north of the island "center". Somebody commented that it was too bad the kids didn't have nicer weather for learning to fish. I pointed out that this is realistic fishing weather.

Besides the fog, there was a steady breeze. That kept both birds and greenheads down. Almost nothing was flying except least terns and common terns. Vast numbers of gulls roosted in the sand just south of me. Most of them looked like they were asleep. When the fog lifted a tiny bit, I was able to distinguish the mix of species in the roost -- mainly herring gulls and ring-billed gulls but also a few Bonaparte's and laughing gulls, all ruled over by a few great black backs, the burgomeister gull.

Most of the ring-billed gulls were in various stages of molt or of immature plumages but a trio of them who landed basically at my feet had the most perfect pristine plumage (say that three times fast) I have ever seen. Bright white. Crisp blacks and grays. Seriously, they looked like they were specially imported for a ring-billed gull photo shoot. Beautiful birds.

While I was gathering driftwood to extend my stick fence down to the water as the tide went out, I noticed something strange in the wrack. It was a white plastic rectangle that looked like it had broken off from a much longer piece of plastic. On it was the letter U in black and an orange Mass. Vessel registration sticker. I picked it up and handed it in to the Gatehouse on my way out just in case it had anything to do with the boat that crashed into the jetty.

There were very few visitors today. I only had to intercept 3 people. Two of them were together and actually wanted to hear what I had to say and were impressed by the effort to protect the plovers. The other one was grumpy but compliant. The fog kept the visitors in line I guess.

Then it was off to lunch at the Fish Tale. No fish tales were being told at the counter but the food was great.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

updated numbers

So, as I mentioned, the latest update in the lockbox at the gatehouse where we go to pick up our radios is from 6/18. However, the intrepid reporter from The Daily News of Newburyport not only talked to biological staff but found an update posted at headquarters from 6/26. I don't think the article counts the pairs at Sandy Point, just the refuge.

Whaling Museum blog

Whaling Museum blog

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Monday, July 13, 2009

saturday's shift

Coffee of the Day: French Roast Sumatra. Earthy and full-bodied. Very tasty.
Bird of the Day: eastern kingbird.
Invisi-bird status: No update in the lockbox since 6/18. Number actually seen by me: zero. I neither saw nor heard nor even heard tell of the northernmost pair, who I thought based on behavior had re-nested. Oh well.

Saturday turned out to be a beautiful summer day, something in short supply 'round these parts nowadays. I met Unit 61 in Lot 1 as he was coming off the beach and I was heading onto the beach. He was amazed there were only three people there. I told him it would be jam-packed by 11:00 AM. I was about an hour off. The beach was jammed and the parking lots all full by 10:00.

Few people were fishing, none of them catching anything. Some folks were having a kid's birthday party with lots of families. They gave me a bagel and a birthday cupcake. That went well with my French Roast Sumatra and my lemon ginger scone.

I wore a path to the water line chasing kids and adults out of the closed area. Amazing numbers of people did not know about the beach closure. I contacted at least 25 people of all ages and attitudes. The piece de resistence was a jogger who boldly jogged into the closed area even after he saw me coming toward him. When I told him the beach is closed, he said "I'm not swimming, I'm running." He repeated the "I'm not swimming" response when I tried again. I finally said "The sand is closed too." He wasn't interested in anything I had to say but he did turn back once he realized I was going to get backup if he didn't leave. After he was gone I muttered to myself, within earshot of a couple of other beach goers "I hope the red tide eats him." Realizing I said it out loud and it was stupid, I laughed and added "Well, technically he'd have to eat the red tide for it to affect him I guess."

Bird activity was very very slow. The wind was keeping everybody down except a few least and common terns and some very low flying tree swallows. The wind picked up a little as the morning went on and lots of leaves, pieces of straw, and trash was blowing around. A white gull feather blew past me and two eastern kingbirds swooped on it from different directions apparently both under the misapprehension that it was a flying insect of some kind. One of them caught but dropped it. They started skirmishing with each other and forgot all about the feather, which probably wasn't edible anyway.

The parking lots were all full and there was a line of cars waiting to enter the refuge by the time I left. On the way out I suggested to 61 that they start a lemonade stand.

Sunday, July 12, 2009


What's the rarest bird you've ever seen?

The question has been on my mind since I read the July 8 Boston Globe article on how birding brings couples together. It's evidently been on other minds since then too, because Steve Grinley's Words on Birds column in the Daily News of Newburyport yesterday tackles the rarity question. Steve picks it up from the same angle that's been bugging me: Is it rare in the whole world? North America? Massachusetts? Merrimack River Plastic Penguins aside, a King Penguin would be alarmingly rare in Massachusetts but common on South Georgia. So what is is rare?

Rarity is relative. I guess that doesn't take away from the question's usefulness as a pickup line. After all, I might prefer someone who answered "rare relative to what?" than "orange-breasted falcon" whereas Peter Alden (see Globe story mentioned above) clearly prefers the orange-breasted falcon answer. I wish the story mentioned where the attractive woman had seen the orange-breasted falcon. If it was at Great Meadows, that would be rare indeed.

So what's the rarest bird I've seen? In the world? I'm still not sure. How many great bustards are left in the world? The European population of the Great Bustard is estimated to be between 35,600 and 38,500. The species is regarded as being in decline, maybe doomed. But that's practically a common bird compared to the piping plover, which numbers very roughly around 3190 in the Atlantic Coast population. I'm not counting the inland PIPL population because I don't have numbers at my finger tips but I'm sure even if you added that in the total would still be in the thousands, not the tens of thousands. I saw the Western Reef Heron when it showed up in Portsmouth, NH a couple years ago and it was only the 3rd North American record. How many Western Reef Herons are in the world? What about all the endemic finch species I saw in the Galapagos? Is one of them my rarest bird?

I could spend all day and most of next week researching the population statistics of every bird I have ever seen and their relative rarity in their own habatits and still not have a really good answer. All I know is how my heart soared out on the Hungarian puszta when I saw my first Great Bustard and how privileged I feel whenever I see a piping plover on the beach at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge during a Saturday plover warden shift.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Volunteer Opportunity at Parker River

A Volunteer Opportunity is available at
Parker River National Wildlife Refuge!

Position Description:

Parker River NWR offers free interpretive programs to the public (primarily but not limited to children ages 3-15) covering a large variety of subjects relative to the local ecosystem and its inhabitants. We also offer several environmental education programs to schools and other organizations in the area at no charge. We are currently trying to expand our program and want your help. As a volunteer you would begin by aiding our rangers in leading these groups and then progress on to running some independently! This is a great opportunity to become more knowledgeable about your local ecosystem and help the community. All training is free and extensive. Those volunteers with more experience will be encouraged to help develop curriculum for and run future programs. No commitment is too small so please help us develop and grow this community-enriching program!

Preferred Volunteer Qualities:

- Experience working with people.
- Enthusiasm and a passion for the environment
- Good communication skills
- Flexibility
- Any knowledge of natural science or our local ecosystems a plus

To express interest or request more information, please contact:

Mary Carpenter
Park Ranger – Visitor Services Specialist
Parker River National Wildlife Refuge
Or e-mail us at
Please put “Volunteer Opportunity” in the subject line.

Friday, July 3, 2009

bird baths in the road and other anomalies

Coffee of the Day: Kenya AA. Nice deep flavor.
Bird of the Day: unidentified species of plastic penguin.
Invisi-bird Status: no update posted in the box since 6/18. Number actually seen by me: zero.
Strange wrack item of the day: tie between television and roses.

Everything is topsy turvy today: It's Friday and I'm South. Penguins are floating down the Merrimack on an ice floe and there's a television in the wrack. Strange daze indeed.

The south boundary is just north of Lot 7 right now. Despite the outdated note in the lockbox saying that Lot 7 was not open and plover wardens should hoof it from the Sandy Point lot, I ascertained that Lot 7 was indeed open and the reserved plover warden spot was there. And it's not raining, though when I arrived it was very very dark. It lightened later when the sun peeked through the clouds looking blindingly white and strange. After awhile we even got blue sky.

The first thing I saw when I got to the beach was a big old Magnavox television. I walked over and looked at it, shaking my head in bewilderment. Many people who arrived via the Lot 7 boardwalk had the same reaction. I can barely imagine where that washed up from.

There's not much bird activity and not much human activity for most of the morning. Human activity picked up as the tide was going out and I found myself wearing a trail to the water line to intercept people who didn't see the sign. I kept moving my chair closer to the water line but that left a gap behind me, so I just kept walking back and forth. Most of the visitors were nice and cooperative. One family even came over to ask what piping plovers look like, where they nest, etc., so I got to do my schtick. One couple in full hiking gear came barreling towards the boundary and were very surprised when I told them the beach was closed for nesting. They were quite disappointed. I'd been pointing other people looking for a long walk toward Sandy Point and told them about the trail that goes up over Bar Head but these two were not interested. They wanted to know where else they could hike on the beach and all I could suggest was to hike north from Lot 1 -- not exactly a wilderness hike.

Bird activity stayed pretty quiet on the beach. There were a few eastern kingbirds catching flies in the wrack and a couple of Bonaparte's gulls. That was about it except for some very distant sanderlings and cormorants.

Shortly before the end of my shift, I was so frustrated with the lack of rope and signage that I commenced building a Steve Mangione style stick fence. As I walked along the wrack line looking for suitable sticks I started to find white roses in the wrack. I started to wonder if they had been part of some kind of memorial service for the missing boater from the latest north jetty tragedy. I don't know. I suppose there could be lots of reasons people throw cultivated white roses into the sea or the Merrimack. As I'm writing this, I just checked the Daily News again and discovered that there's an update on the story now that the boat has been recovered.

Enough digression about the jetty of death. Back to birds.

The most interesting bird activity of the day was all on the drive back to the Gatehouse from Lot 7. The dirt road is full of puddles. Each puddle seemed to be functioning as a bird bath, with a different species in each puddle: gray catbird, eastern kingbird, brown thrasher, common grackle, American goldfinch, American robin, several species of sparrow. All in the middle of the road. Oh, and suicidal mourning doves too -- although they didn't seem to be bathing, just hanging out in the middle of the road. It was quite a show. Needless to say it took me a long time to get back to the Gatehouse.

On the way back into town, I stopped to photograph the penguins who have been hanging out on an ice floe in the Merrimack. Earlier this morning, the ice floe was visible and they were not so deep in the grass. They kind of remind me of when I visited the Falklands and saw penguins marching across a grassy slope down to the water. Except of course, these rare Merrimack River penguins are made of plastic.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

science journalism 101

This story from the Scituate section of shows how little people know about the piping plover -- even the people who are supposed to be protecting them. In general, piping plovers nest on the beach, not in the dunes. The preferred nesting habitat is between the wrack line and foredune near dunes that are sparsely vegetated. Putting symbolic fencing around the dunes without knowing where the nests are does little good. The places that have successfully hatched nests and fledged young put up the symbolic fencing around the nests, not just marking off some area where they hope they will nest.

This situation could be avoided: "If someone accidentally steps on a nest that is not between the makeshift fence and the dune because the birds have laid eggs outside the boundary, Jones shrugs and says so be it, although he slowly walks the beach trying to avoid nests and eggs."
If he's out there looking for nests, why can't he put the string fences around the nests?

Reporting like this perpetuates the dangerous (to the plovers) myth that piping plovers nest, live, and feed on the dunes. This leads to sad situations like what happened on Wells beach in Maine last year. A well-meaning rescuer placed a piping plover chick in the dune grass where it was unable to get food. It died.

I wish the Boston Globe could be a little more responsible in science journalism and get their facts straight. I wish someone could explain plover protection to the Scituate conservation people. How 'bout Mass Audubon lending a hand?

Sorry if I'm ranting. I get upset over stuff like this too easily.