Friday, June 25, 2010

summer crowds

Coffee of the Day: French Roast Sumatra
Bird of the Day: ring-billed gull (again)
Weird Wrack Item of the Day: oddly, none
Coast Guard Assets Sighted: none, but I did see a bright red helicopter--just not a Coast Guard one
Refuge Biological Staff Sighted: none
Invisi-bird Status: No update since last report, which was: Refuge beach: 12 pair, 8 nests, 12 chicks; Sandy Point: 2 pair, 1 nest, 1 chick. Number actually seen by me: zero.

The summer crowds are definitely out in full force. The Sandy Point parking lot was full by 9:30 and parking lot 1 by 10:45. By the time I left cars were lined up from the gatehouse onto the Plum Island Turnpike. And today's a week day!

I talked with a ton of visitors, all of whom were reasonable. People asked the usual questions:
  • When will the beach be open?
  • When do the greenheads come out?
  • What are these little black flies biting me?
  • What time is high tide?
  • When will the beach be open?
  • When will the beach be open?
  • When will the beach be open?
You get the idea.

A couple of people were actually interested in piping plovers so I did get to give my piping plover life cycle spiel. One guy thought the plovers nested in the dunes and didn't understand why we had to close the beach if the birds were in the dunes. I explained it all with a smile. All in all I had a much better, far less burnout-inducing, shift than I did on Saturday. The heat was bearable, with lots less humidity. All the toddlers had parents watching out for them so I didn't have to track down stray parents of tiny trespassers.

I was pretty steadily busy, so didn't get a chance to take pictures or do much birding. There wasn't much bird action going on anyway. The most common bird of the day was again the ring-billed gull. I got to see them catch flies this time -- the little black ones that people were complaining about. There were a few surf fishermen who apparently hadn't got the message that the fish are at the mouth of the Merrimack. Not a flounder was to be seen anywhere near me today.

A double crested cormorant rode a wave right up onto the beach. It was the funniest thing. It positioned itself in the curl like a surfer and let itself be washed up on the sand. When it landed it walked up the beach and spread its wings to dry.

A lobster boat was just offshore pulling traps. Lobsters have become a theme lately. Everywhere I go even where I least expect it, people are talking about lobstering. People talking about low lobster prices over breakfast at the Fish Tale I kind of expect but not at the bookstore or the gas station - at least not usually. Same thing for the proposed ban on lobstering. My family got together for dinner in Boston's North End last week and the waiter announced lobster stuffed with lobster as the special for the out-of-towners. This triggered a lively discussion of the proposed ban, the low prices, and how lobster used to be bait and working class people's food and somehow became luxury food. Nobody ordered the lobster.

Hmm, I sense an entry about lobsters looming on the horizon...

Speaking of looming, weather conditions were perfect for looming today. Warm air over cold water resulted in the optical illusion of the Isles of Shoals and the skyline of Portsmouth hovering above the horizon line. I've seen this phenomenon many times but it's still pretty impressive every time I see it.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Plum Crazy for sale

I mentioned in my previous entry that I found out Plum Crazy had closed when I attempted to go there for lunch. Turns out it's for sale. The article is right about the parking challenge.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

we didn't start the fire

Belated entry for Saturday's shift (been tired, away, and too hot).

Coffee of the Day: Kenya AA
Bird of the Day: Ring-billed gull
Weird Wrack Item of the Day: fire
Coast Guard Assets Sighted: none
Refuge Biological Staff Sighted: none
Invisi-bird Status: Refuge beach: 12 pair, 8 nests, 12 chicks; Sandy Point: 2 pair, 1 nest, 1 chick. Number actually seen by me: zero.

It was one of those summer Saturdays when I realize all over again how much human pressure there is on such a small slice of barrier island habitat. When I arrived, Gatehouse told me the Sandy Point parking lot had already filled up by 7:45 AM. Parking Lot 1 was filling up fast. Lot 1 was full by the time I walked from there to the beach and set up my chair.

There were still some fishermen around although the flounder didn't seem to be biting anymore. There was zero seabird action, which usually indicates no bait fish action, etc. The great food chain was chowing down somewhere else. Regular fisher people (and blog readers), R & N, informed me that they had encountered some trespassers who had camped on the beach overnight -- with a fire. There were remnants of two fires, actually: one near the boundary of the closed area and one at the wrack line. I thought the burnt wood smell I was experiencing was from the smaller fire near me, which was not still burning. However, when R&N told me that the campers had attempted to put out the larger campfire only by shoveling a little sand over it (not a good idea on the beach). Bury hot coals only if you want to cook a New England clambake, not if you want to put the fire out -- a shallow layer of sand over the coals could burn some bare feet.

After I finished my coffee and yelled at some kids who were trespassing in the closed area, I walked over to check on the fire. Sure enough, it was still burning. The coals were definitely still hot. I radioed the Gatehouse, who suggested shoveling sand on it. A beach visitor came over with a small plastic shovel and started doing that but I could feel the hot coals through the sand (almost burned myself). Unit 61 heard the radio conversation and chimed in that I really needed to dump water on it. There was a tiny toy bucket next to the fire but I figured that would necessitate dozens of trips to the retreating water line (tide was still going out). I asked the surrounding beach visitors if anybody had a big bucket. A nice gentleman volunteered himself and his large bait bucket. I gave the toy bucket to his son so he could help Daddy. The two of them toted water from the low tide line up to the fire and doused it. I thanked them profusely.

While I was dealing with the fire, more people tried to walk/jog/run into the closed area. The buoys and rope don't extend down to the low tide line so people either don't notice the boundary or think they can get away with it. Anyway, in the heat and humidity it was a long way from the wrack line, where the fire was, to the water line where the trespassers were. I was wishing for a lifeguard whistle or a bullhorn. Several visitors said I should ask for a whistle for next time. Personally, I think I'll just bring some rope. Anyway, I wore myself out covering a ton of territory. I wrote STOP and NESTING AREA in huge letters in the wet sand a few times (the waves kept erasing it). That actually worked. For the first time ever, I saw a jogger with an iPod actually notice the boundary and turn around! Man, they don't even usually notice rope, buoys, signs, and sticks. I wonder what it was about my hand lettered message in the sand...

All in all it was a busy and strenuous day with lots of visitors and high humidity. I'd forgotten the sunscreen in the car so was trying to keep myself shaded by my clip-on beach umbrella, which managed to detach itself from the chair and blow away in the wind just as I was trying to catch yet more trespassers at the low tide line. Fortunately a kind beach visitor retrieved the umbrella while I chased down the visitors -- who did turn back when I got their attention. I think the umbrella is toast though. It blew inside out and bent into a weird shape.

As mentioned earlier, there was essentially no bird action. The only bird (besides the bait-stealing grackle) that came near the open area was the ring-billed gull, actually several ring-billed gulls. I love to watch them because they are beautiful fliers, expert flycatchers, and have lots of interesting behaviors. They actually practice fly catching by tossing beach straw into the air and catching it. They weren't doing that on Saturday but they were doing the gull cooling behaviors: orienting themselves toward the sun and standing with mouth open into the breeze.

I intended to go to Plum Crazy for lunch but found out that it closed. I made an attempt at Mad Martha's but there was no place to park. Headed to Salisbury for a veggie sub at Angelina's instead. Somewhere along the line I downed about 3 liters of water. Yeah, it was hot out.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Mrs. Mallard Visits Riverfest

The Concord and Sudbury rivers celebrated Riverfest this past Saturday. Mass Audubon had a display in the kids' area at the Concord River Greenway in Lowell. This female mallard was lovin' her some duckweed. I took about 5 shots to get her with her head out of the water and duckweed still clinging to her face.

Merrimack River Watershed Council was there too along with many arts and green groups. (For the geographically challenged, the Concord is a major tributary of the Merrimack and flows into it at Lowell.)

Friday, June 11, 2010

busy day on the beach

Coffee of the Day: Kenya AA
Bird of the Day: double crested cormorant
Weird Wrack Item of the Day: half a hot dog (eewww, the gulls wouldn't touch it and even the notorious bait-stealing grackle avoided it)
Coast Guard Assets Sighted: none
Refuge Biological Staff Sighted: one in the distance on the ATV
Invisi-Bird Status: Refuge: 8 pairs, 8 chicks; Sandy Point: 2 pairs, 3 chicks.

Waves Coming In, Sky Clearing

Everything is an adventure lately. At Plum Island Coffee Roasters, the barista tried to fill my travel cup with the lid still on. Oops. The guy ahead of me in line saw that I work on the refuge and asked "what time do the greenheads arrive". I wanted to say "10:00 AM" but managed to answer "July". A couple more greenhead questions and I was out the door. Water Street was blocked off with emergency vehicles: fire, police, ambulance. I detoured down a one way street only to find a truck coming at me the wrong way. I had to drive on the sidewalk. Turns out the police were sending Water St. traffic from the other direction the wrong way on the one way street. Too bad the street was too narrow to handle it. Yikes.

Now we come to the never ending saga of radios, as in none in the box. Also the box is open. Luckily Unit 2 is in front of the Gatehouse supervising the electrical contractors working on the new VCS/restroom building. He successfully locates a radio in the one of the Gatehouse closets. Good thing I had the radio because as soon as I got onto the beach I observed someone fishing in the closed area. Communicated same to HQ. Finally got the guy to move after discussing all sorts of creative excuses. Communicated that to HQ also.

A few northern gannets glided by over the waves, fairly low, almost like cormorants do. No big gannet show this week though. Fishwise: a lot of skates were coming in close to shore. Fishermen seemed to be snagging them instead of stripers. I did see one guy land a very small striper not even close to big enough to keep. Cormorants were all over the place but doing the clumsiest dives I've ever seen them do.

Three groups of middle school kids with teachers visited the beach. They seemed to understand about not disturbing the closed area where the nests are, which is good. However, several kids from the first group went up into the dunes, which are also off limits. I spoke to the teacher, who said she'd told them but they saw the garnet sand and just took off. By the time the third group arrived, I was waiting at the boardwalk and warned them to keep off the dunes before they even set foot on the beach. The kids were examining things in the wrack with magnifying glasses. I hope they didn't examine that half hot dog I saw. I'd hate to see what the magnifying glass would reveal.

Purple Martin House

Meanwhile, in parking lot #1, a house sparrow staged a home invasion in the purple martin house. The purple martins mobbed him and he left the front door but stayed nearby, perching on the roof. He was all puffed up and calling aggressively. So were the purple martins, except the one in apartment 4-1, who never budged during the whole melee.

Rosa rugosa is in bloom all over the place. This one is right next to the purple martin house.

Friday, June 4, 2010

followup news note

I heard last night that some fishermen found a body at the mouth of the Merrimack yesterday, not far from where the woman disappeared. It is believed to be her. I hope the recovery of the body gives the family at least some closure if not comfort. So sad.

gannet show

Coffee of the Day: Kenya AA
Bird of the Day: northern gannet
Weird Wrack Item of the Day: a pair of Crocs of a garish pink color that seemed extreme even for Crocs
Coast Guard Assets Sighted: none
Refuge Biological Staff Sighted: 2 on their way to put up predator exclosures around some of the nests
Invisi-bird Status: 2 nests are hatching! We have chicks!!!! 8 nests on the refuge and 2 at Sandy Point. Number actually seen by me: zero.

Morning started out hazy and everything looked silvery: the waves, the sand, the sanderlings, and the sky. Ring-billed gulls by the dozen were resting on the sand and didn't move when I set up my chair. Another mixed group of gulls, mostly ring bills but including great black backs and herring gulls rested in the sand further south and were only partially visible in the haze. A couple of great black backs were having a tug of war over some kind of fish. Eight northern gannets were diving up a storm just offshore.

For the first two hours I saw only 2 visitors and had plenty of time to watch the gannet show. Every time I looked there were more. I eventually lost count at 50. Some were in bright, pristine, adult plumage. There were a few all dark first year birds and several 2nd and 3rd year birds showing more white. They put on a magnificent show, plunge diving with a big splash then surfacing and taking off again or resting on the surface of the water.

Least terns flew directly over my head dangling fish from their bills. Most of them disappeared into the haze well to the south of where I saw them hanging out last Saturday. However, 3 of them kept going to a spot just south of the .2 mile marker. A few common terns flew over me really low too, only one of them carrying fish. It flew over the dunes toward the marsh, presumably to the salt pannes or thereabouts. After awhile a really large tern, bigger than a common with a thick red bill , a shorter tail, and more white on the nape of the neck. It took me a minute to blurt out to myself: Caspian tern.

Biological staff came by on the ATV headed out to check on the nests and erect predator exclosures around some of the nests (areas where coyote tracks have been seen). They gave me awesome news: 2 nests are hatching! There are chicks on the refuge! I took me awhile to take this in because I had been convinced by one of the other biological staff that only one nest had survived the mid-May high tide. I guess the other one was extremely well-hidden. With chicks hatching and now a count of 8 nests on the refuge, things sound a whole lot less dire than they did a week and a half ago.

The haze started to burn off around 11:00 AM. That was also close to low tide. Now that I had way more beach to cover, visitors started arriving. A large group of teenagers played football in the sand and went swimming. A smaller group played a weird variation of boccie that seemed to involve trying to get the ball closest to the water without losing it.

The buoys that are supposed to extend down to the low tide line aren't in yet -- the volunteers had to stop last Saturday when the tide came in. I had to chase down a couple of teenagers who didn't know where the boundary was, a three year old who didn't understand the concept of a boundary, and one person who had no idea the beach was closed. I picked up a bunch of sticks and extended the Big Steve style stick fence down to the water. That didn't stop the 3-year-old from returning to the closed area again.

With all this action going on after my contemplative early morning of watching the gannet show, I was starting to get really tired. Also hungry. I started to pack up some of my stuff to be ready to leave at the stroke of noon. Hah! Next thing I knew a huge black curly haired dog was running loose on the refuge beach. He joined in the football game with the teenagers. I radioed Gatehouse who promised to send law enforcement. Meanwhile, the teenagers started playing fetch with the dog. One of them threw a stick into the dunes and the dog obligingly fetched it. I started toward the teenagers and the guilty one came up and said he was sorry. I asked them all to please keep the dog out of the dunes and told them I'd called for law enforcement.

I waited and watched. The dog was not wearing a collar this time, so I didn't dare try to grab it. It continued playing football with the teens. One of the teens spotted a similar looking giant black dog on the town beach. There are two of them? Yikes! The teens and the dog ran up to the town beach. I radioed Gatehouse that the dog had left the refuge property with some teens. Gatehouse and law enforcement acknowledged and I headed out.

By the time I got to the boardwalk I was really tired and hungry and a little spacey. I was halfway down the boardwalk when I noticed my radio was missing. I must have said "where's my radio?" aloud because a young woman headed toward the beach asked me what was wrong. She went and found the radio, which I had dropped when I was carting stuff up the stairs. Crisis averted. What a day!