Wednesday, April 28, 2010

stuff in the merrimack & on the beach at Plum Island Point

Sooner or later the junk that gets dumped or washed into the Merrimack ends up on Plum Island. Like much of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, Plum Island is still cleaning up from the "rain event of 2010" (not sure what the correct term for a violently windy northeast storm followed by two back to back hundred year floods). So here it is time for another "stuff in the Merrimack" entry.

This week:

Centuries ago:
  • Vikings
    Did the Norsemen sail up and down the Merrimack? The article does some kind of mash-up of the Vikings with the Westford Knight. If the Vikings did cruise the Merrimack, it was well before the Westford Knight. The article makes no mention of the supposed Viking colony at the mouth of the Merrimack that was reported in 1948. Y'know, the explorers who passed by the Merrimack in search of the Northwest Passage should have taken a closer look. In those days they would have been unimpeded by the Lawrence Dam. Some of those Vikings from the 1948 story made it inland as far as Minnesota. They could easily have found routes west from the Great Lakes. (Note, if your irony and sarcasm meter is not registering, please have it re-calibrated.)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Reel People in season again at Firehouse - Newburyport, MA - The Newburyport Current

If you haven't seen Reel People, here's your chance:
Reel People in season again at Firehouse - Newburyport, MA - The Newburyport Current

Posted using ShareThis

Who can resist a movie about an island where people worship striped bass and are ruled by a woman who sells bait? :-)

Oh, and check out our own Unit 61 describing the biggest fish he ever caught.

Friday, April 23, 2010

why yes, there actually are piping plovers here

Why yes, I am the color of dry sand. You can only see me because I'm posing on wet sand for contrast.

Coffee of the Day:
French Roast
Bird of the Day: Piping Plover
Weird Wrack Item of the Day: soy sauce
Coast Guard Assets: 1 boat
Invisi-bird Status: 2 cavorting on the beach at the north boundary - no sign of nest scrapes, but they're clearly enjoying each others' company

Have no fear, this has not turned into an airplane blog. I actually got to be on the beach on Friday doing my job keeping people (and their dogs) and piping plovers apart. Here's how it went:

Life seems vivid and active all over. In the Fish Tale parking lot a herring gull chases a crow who has a beak full of something worth stealing. Inside the Fish Tale people are all talking about the flood - comparing Merrimack River level to past storms: the Mother's Day flood, the flood of 1987... good old-fashioned New England storm talk. Out the window of the Fish Tale I see guys loading ice onto boats. They must be expecting to catch some fish.

At Plum Island Coffee Roasters the boat yard is very busy. The big lifts at Hilton's are all moving around. There are fewer boats in the boat yard and more boats in the water. And it's only April.

On the beach I notice the trademark stick fence handiwork of Big Steve along the boundary. It's high tide so I don't have that much ground to cover until the tide starts going out. Hundreds of longtailed ducks are streaming by, low over the water. They go north. Then they come back south. Back and forth. Back and forth. They're still in the cool-looking funky alternative plumage. I think there are a few black scoters out there too. Lines of double crested cormorants start streaming by also. Visitors are scarce to start off. It's cold and windy.

The first visitor is a guy I've talked to before. We're talking about how the refuge used to be before they paved the road (the northern half of the road -- from Hellcat south is still unpaved) and then he gets on to restaurants and bars that used to be on the island ... how anybody could be nostalgic for the Beach Coma is beyond me :-) ... and how the old summer shacks have been replaced/are being replaced with year round luxury homes and how it's a much bigger deal if year round luxury homes fall into the sea... and that brings him around to the ever popular rumor that Montel Williams wanted to build a heliport for his luxury home on the island. "What would he need a heliport for when there's an airport right over the bridge?" he asks. That gets me talking about the history of the airport and how it was too bad they weren't able to have a vintage airplane flyover for the 100th anniversary.

I was talking to a visitor about the airport and as if on cue this cool airplane flew over.

The tide is going out. A couple of common loons are diving close to shore. A red-throated loon still in winter plumage shows up too. Tree swallows start arriving in a mathematical progression: 4, 8, 12, 16... seriously, do they only add numbers by 4? Visitor numbers start to increase. It's school vacation week in Massachusetts and a lot of families are coming to the beach.

Common Loon surfaced and dove again. I'm lucky I got any kind of picture.

A family with a dog on a leash walks boldly past the no dogs sign onto the refuge from the town beach. When I explain to them that dogs are not allowed on the refuge and point out the sign, the guy tells me he thought that only meant the dunes and that dogs are allowed along the waterline. No dogs are allowed on the National Wildlife Refuge period. Ever. It's not that people with dogs can't read. It's that people with dogs think no rules specifically apply to them. Ever.

A big black unleashed dog runs onto the refuge. It takes me awhile to slog through the wet sand toward him, but I successfully chase him off back to his person on the town beach. Dogs can't read. That is why they have people.

All has calmed down and I'm walking back to my chair by the boundary when a pale speck moving around just to the south of the stick fence catches my eye. Can it be? OMG! It's an invisi-bird! Oh wait, there's one in the wrack too! A pair! Both of them stick around for some time, cavorting, feeding, doing plover behaviors. I'm psyched.

Piping plover running along the waterline.

I notice a couple of birders up on the board walk and ask "Do you see them?" I don't even have to say which "them" I mean. One of the birders turns out to work at the NEAQ shorebird exhibit. They have two male piping plovers there. She wants to know if the ones we're looking at are a pair. I think so. Females don't have as bright an orange color on the bill. I describe it to her as less-saturated color.

One of the piping plovers leaves the closed area calling peep-lo. It comes closer and poses for a picture, nicely contrasting with the wet sand. The invisi-birds have made my day.

It's been windy and cold all morning. It warmed up a little, but by noon it's getting colder again. The plovers are out of sight again, my shift is over, and I'm ready for lunch someplace warm.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

a little more history type stuff

The Newburyport Current had a good article about the aerodrome, the Herring-Burgess flight, and the Burgess Museum in Friday's edition. The sidebar gives a little bit of background on Ted Russell. It also highlights the contributions of Bartlett Gould to preserving the history.

I didn't turn up anything in the Daily News or Globe North even though both papers had reporters at the aerodrome yesterday. However, I am very glad I checked because until I read today's Globe North I did not realize that Newburyport had finally decided to honor John Marquand. I've been saying for years that Newburyport ought to have a John Marquand festival. I went on a Marquand reading binge about 10 years ago - no make that 11 years ago - after coming across mention of his Newburyport connection in a book about the Merrimack River. Some of my ancient entries dealing with this topic are:

Alas, I don't think I'll be able to go to the Newburyport Literary Festival this year (other commitments) but it's still very cool that they're acknowledging a great writer who has been unfairly neglected.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

not exactly VFR

Robin perched on a tie-down at the Plum Island Aerodrome

Coffee of the Day: French Roast Sumatra (mm, mm, gooooooodddd!)
Bird of the Day: American robin
Weird Wrack Item of the Day: actually, none -- I wasn't on the beach -- too rainy
Invisi-bird status: no info today

Yup, it kept raining last night and this morning. I went to the refuge anyway. I think Gatehouse thought I was insane. She told me to go home. I went birding (mostly from the car). For some reason, American robins were walking in the road all up and down the refuge. None perched in trees. None flying. Everybody walking in the road. Robins have suddenly started acting like mourning doves. Weird.

No fly-in at the aerodrome but I went to the 100th anniversary festivities anyway. Ted Russell gave excellent history. Lots of folks, mostly pilots and/or history buffs, showed up. The historical signage that will be placed on the refuge was on display. The diorama of the original airfield is really cool. So is the time line of Daily News headlines about the airfield that surrounds the diorama.

Pilots and history buffs in the museum looking at the new diorama

Ted Russell (right) and the new historical info signs

The upper sign will be placed at the current Plum Island Aerodrome (2B2). The lower one will be placed on the refuge near parking lot 2, the site of the actual first New England flying field.

Cool flying outfits on teddy bear and cardboard guy

Aeroplanes at the Aerodrome

The centennial event was covered by the Daily News and by the Globe North, so I suspect y'all will see stuff about it in those papers tomorrow. I had great airplane geek and photography geek conversations, one of which was with the coolest elderly woman who had trained as a Navy pilot at the end of WWII (she said the Japanese heard she was coming and surrendered :-)). Another woman pilot I talked to was looking to buy a plane for herself and her husband, both up there in years way beyond me. Cool people. I talked to so many cool people today that I wish I'd recorded it all.

After the airport festivities, I hit the art show at the refuge visitor center. It was not as well-attended as the airport thing. I found myself talking up the airport to the artists, many of whom did not know the historic significance and had no idea there is a wonderful museum in there. Maybe I should've gone back to the airport and talked up the art show to the pilots.

Friday, April 16, 2010

things that fly

It's raining right now and supposed to continue raining tomorrow -- possibly changing to snow. I scheduled myself for the AM shift tomorrow partly so I could be on the beach for the flyover of vintage airplanes commemorating Augustus Herring's first flight from the Plum Island airfield. Many people think that the present Plum Island Aerodrome (2B2) on Plum Island Turnpike was the first airport, airfield, flying field, whatever you want to call it, in New England. However, the original Plum Island airfield was actually located on the island near refuge parking lot 2. Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of the first flight there.

I've been interested in airplanes about as long as I've been interested in birds. I remember doing a project on flight for my 6th grade science class. Both the math/science of flight and the history of aviation fascinated me in those ancient days. I vaguely recall writing a book report on a biography of Glenn Curtiss around that time too. Herring worked with Curtiss before he worked with Starling Burgess so I know I'd read about him long before I associated him with my favorite tiny historic airport. Once I visited the tiny museum at the tiny airport, it clicked in my head that the wicked famous Augustus Herring (to me anyway) who flew before the Wright brothers had made a little bit of history right here on the island. That is just so cool.

Lately, it seems like I can't get away from vintage airplanes. Nancy gave me a wonderful new book for my birthday, Insectopedia by Hugh Raffles, about the relationships between humans and insects. The first section is titled Air and is all about studying (and collecting) insects that fly at high altitudes. So I open the book and the first illustrations I come to are photos of the vintage airplanes they used to collect insects in the air column over Louisiana in the 1920s. Apparently there are streams of insects moving along the migration corridors. A British entomologist, J.W. Tutt, witnessed millions of noctuid moths flying east-west alongside migrating birds (see The Migration and Dispersal of Insects in Google Books).

Vintage aeroplanes studying migrating insects alongside migrating birds... it just doesn't get any better than that.

Sure hope the rain/snow thing doesn't prevent my birding among the vintage aircraft tomorrow.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

last Friday's shift, lack of

Coffee of the Day: French Roast
Bird of the Day: Chipping sparrow
Weird Wrack Item of the Day: wrack
Invisi-bird Status: rumors

Yes, I'm just now getting around to blogging last Friday's rain-abbreviated shift. The intermittent light showers turned to steady rain shortly after I got to the beach. There was nobody on the beach and no reason for me to stay, so I put the radio and backpack back in the lock box and went birding in the rain. Hey, at least I got to pick up my new hat.

Brownheaded cowbirds were all over the place. On the dike at the North Pool overlook, this robin was hanging out with the cowbirds. I could hear several killdeer calling in that area but didn't see any of them.

Further down the road, I encountered three chipping sparrows -- first of the season. Northern flickers were all over the place too. I first noticed their arrival on Wednesday afternoon. Then I counted 3. On Friday but there I counted 8. The flickers were so active that it was hard to make sure I wasn't double counting, so I think I ended up under-counting.

While I was counting flickers in the field I thought I heard a tufted titmouse followed by a whippoorwill. Since neither of those species was likely (or even possible), I scanned for a mimic. Sure enough, a brown thrasher was holding forth on a tree top. That was a first of the season too. The other first of the season notable was a hermit thrush near the Pines Trail.

Then it was over to Salisbury for breakfast/lunch whatever meal of the day at The Fish Tale to fortify myself for more birding in the rain. The Salisbury Beach campground was completely taken over by a huge mixed "blackbird" flock: redwinged blackbirds, starlings, common grackles, brownheaded cowbirds, robins, and even a brown thrasher. I couldn't count them all. I wrote down "infinite" in my notebook. As if the mixed blackbird flock wasn't enough, the chipping sparrows staged their own invasion: a flock of 6 of 'em materialized on the side of the campground road. OK, so not as infinite as the blackbirds, but still kinda cool.

The beach parking lot held one more surprise. Or should I say mystery? In with a flock of herring gulls was one slightly stockier gull with a much darker gray mantle and very pink legs. I didn't get a good look at eye color. I tried to take a picture but the whole flock of gulls took off in several directions. I drove around looking at all the gulls in all the parking lots there, but did not see the darker one again. Darn it. I didn't write down enough (or observe enough) field marks to tell whether this was a Vega Herring Gull or possibly a Slaty Backed Gull. It will have to remain a mystery.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Tree, Lack of

The Plum Island equivalent of Motif #1 has got to be the 2 trees by the North Pool: one tall and skinny, one short and round. It took me by surprise last Wednesday when I saw that the taller one had fallen. The landscape looked so different, kind of like when a building gets torn down from a familiar city skyline.

Even though I noted its absence and took a picture to commemorate this change, I had no idea it was a big enough story to make the Boston Globe: Torn Asunder they called it.

The Daily News of Newburyport covered it too, of course.

It looked even more weird and dispirited on Friday in the rain.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

memory lane

I've been trying to push myself to take advantage of being unemployed and get out there to realize some of my birding dreams. So this morning I was looking for birding tours to the Danube Delta in Romania. That's been on my list for ages. That and the fact that I've been tracking down obsolete MacIntosh parts for my Hungarian dendrologist friends, reminded me that I'd lost the email address and URL for the wonderful Hungarian ornithologist who guided me to my life great bustard (Otis tarda). Looking them up started a reverie down memory lane: Otis tarda, Peteri Lake, ferruginous duck, my ongoing inability to ever see a black woodpecker...

So, for nostalgia sake, here are two memorable past entries worth a second look:

April 29, 2001 Endurance Birding

April 30, 2001 Extreme Birding

Monday, April 5, 2010

dog catcher

looking south from the northern boundary of the refuge

Yes, it's April already. I did my first plover warden shift of the season on Friday (too busy to blog about it 'til Monday).
Coffee of the Day: French Roast
Bird of the Day: long-tailed duck
Weird Wrack Item of the Day: a tube of 212 brand skin cream.
Invisi-bird Status: vague rumors of one sighted at Sandy Point.

The storms (were there 2, 3, or just one continuous month-long storm?) did quite a job on the beach. I was there at low tide, so my photos may create an illusion that "beach" exists. Take a closer look at where the wrack deposited by the high tide is relative to the dunes. The dunes look like a monster took a bite out of 'em. Quite impressive.

the sign is up, the beach is closed

Friday's weather was the most glorious spring weather there has ever been or ever will be in Essex County. Many schools were closed for Good Friday, and many people had guests in town for the Easter weekend. This combination made for a very busy day. I lost track of how many people I talked to after about 18. Many people were surprised the beach closure had started already. I think they were actually surprised it's April because March seemed like an eternity.

The storm deposited a lot of stuff on the beach in addition to the normal wrack items: logs, branches, sticks, building materials, and both identifiable and unidentifiable plastic items. One visitor kept complaining to me that the beach was dirty. "Why is the beach so dirty?" she asked. I started to wonder if she had been living under a rock for the past month. "We had some big storms recently," I said. That didn't really satisfy her and she kept complaining about it. She seemed more annoyed with the harmless stuff than with the plastic though. I guess she was picturing walking barefoot in soft white sand.

A flock of long-tailed ducks bounced around in the waves for the whole shift. They are cool-looking and I love to watch them dive. A mixed flock of black scoters and surf scoters joined them for awhile too. Other than that the bird life around me was mostly herring gulls with one or two great black backs. A couple from Michigan and their son who goes to BC, were all excited about birding on Plum Island for the first time. They wanted to know what specialties to look for. I pointed out the long-tailed ducks and the scoters to them and they were very excited. That felt good.

My big accomplishment for the day was catching a dog. Literally.

Dogs aren't allowed on the refuge at any time. They are allowed on the town beach until May. A woman out walking on the town beach with two dogs (well, I thought they were both hers), a medium-sized brown one and a huge fuzzy black one, breezed right past the no dogs allowed sign on the refuge boundary with the dogs racing ahead of her. I spoke to her. She left. Both dogs followed. A few minutes later, the big black one returned. Apparently it wasn't her dog. It was running loose unsupervised.

The dog was running all over the place, playing with the kids of the woman who complained the beach was dirty, checking out everybody who was walking along the beach, dashing around in circles. I walked toward it and was about to call law enforcement when dirty-beach lady offered to walk the dog back to the woman we originally thought it belonged to. She walked it to the refuge boundary. It came back.

I chased it down and grabbed it by the collar at the water line. I called Unit 61 but couldn't manage to talk clearly on the radio while handling the dog so he wasn't clear on the nature of my need for back up. Fortunately he was in lot 1 so I wasn't holding the dog for long. "Look at you, Janet, you're a dog catcher!" "Good work!" 61 was clearly pleased with my dog catching skills. Turns out the dog was a repeat offender. The owner had an outstanding unpaid ticket.

Unit 61 took hold of the dog's collar and tried to walk it off the beach. The dirty-beach woman started giving 61 a hard time about taking the dog away and her kids started crying because they thought the dog was being hurt. The dog balked, tried to knock over 61, and tried to get away. At one point 61 had the dog between his legs. I'll bet he's glad I didn't get a picture of that. Clearly dragging the dog by the collar wasn't going to work. I looked around for some rope in the wrack. Normally there's tons of yellow plastic rope amidst the wrack, but I found none. 61 radioed Gatehouse to ask for rope. Gatehouse arrived with rope and with one of those long poles with a loop on the end that they use for catching predators. That was sheer genius. The two guys led the dog off with the pole.

Flush with my success at dog catching, I had no trouble handling a surly preteen boy who was trespassing in the closed area. All other visitor contacts were great: an in depth discussion of the pros and cons of beach re-nourishment, several chances to give my piping plover life cycle talk, and some reminiscences of fishing there in the 1950s.

Lunch at The Fish Tale, an upland sandpiper, and some glossy ibises across from the airport rounded out the day.