Friday, July 30, 2010

another busy day on the beach

Coffee of the Day: Ethiopian Yirgacheffe
Bird of the Day: common tern
No interesting wrack items or Coast Guard assets sighted (However, I was wishing I had the power to make Coast Guard assets appear on demand). One refuge biological staff sighted.
Invisi-bird Status: no update this week. The numbers on the white board haven't been updated since July 15. Number seen by me: zero.

The first thing I notice this morning (well, besides the group of RVs camping at the airport) is mass quantities of common terns. There are more common terns flying around the north end of the beach this morning than I have seen collectively all summer. Migration is in full swing.

The second thing I notice is that the crazies are out in full force. All kinds of crazies. You got your disgruntled plover-hating locals, your inattentive parents (Whatever happened to helicopter parents? Do they only hover over imaginary danger?), and your clueless boat skippers. I had forgotten that you don't need a license or a safety certificate to drive a power boat in Massachusetts.

A powerboat comes in dangerously close to shore to pick up a passenger. What the?!?! The passenger is trespassing in the closed beach area, the boat is illegally, and like I said, dangerously, close to shore. Some women fishing for flounder ask me if I've ever seen anything like this before. Nope. Never. Never mind keeping people and boats out of the closed area, which is my actual duty, I'm frickin' worried about injury or loss of life! The boat is aground. The skipper tries to get it out and only succeeds in turning it parallel to the waves. This is not good. A big wave sets the boat up on its side. Fortunately it doesn't capsize. The skipper is in the water trying to push the boat off the sand. I ask if he needs help. "Maybe," he says. I call for help but Gatehouse thinks I am saying "dog" when I am saying "boat aground". I try to hold radio at correct angle to mouth and enunciate clearly but no luck. Nobody but Gatehouse can hear me at all. Adrenalin is flowing as I try to figure out how I and the flounder ladies can rescue these people if the boat capsizes. Finally the idiot gets the boat unstuck from the bottom and perpendicular to shore with the bow facing shore so the engine is free to go into reverse without getting the guy more stuck. They leave and I'm still shaking. I radio Gatehouse that the problem is solved. Unit 61 radios that he only heard Gatehouse's part of the conversation. Gatehouse tells him it's resolved.

I chase down a stray toddler and return her to her Mommy. Y'know, if it was just a matter of trespassing in the nesting area, it wouldn't be so bad, but these stray toddlers wander into the water and have no frickin' clue about the undertow, the rip, whatever you call it in your part of the world. Grrr. The Mommy at least has the class to say she's sorry.

A woman who is impatient for the beach to reopen asks me how many plovers are still here. She's been told all but three have left and "the girl" (plover warden? biologist? random person?) told her they don't know what's taking those last three so long to leave. I tell her I don't know the numbers. The last numbers I had were from July 15 and there were still 15 chicks. I don't know how many of those have fledged.

I try to use the speech that usually works for me about how vulnerable the chicks are between when they hatch and when they fledge. "People are vulnerable too," she says and goes on about how the people need the beach to cool off during this terrible heat wave. Hunh? I have trouble believing that elderly people are dying of heat stroke because they can't access 6 miles of a national wildlife refuge beach. I think the boat aground thing must have scrambled my brain because I stupidly say that people have air conditioning. She argues that not everybody has air conditioning. Of course that's true. I don't argue with her on that point anymore though I'm still internally trying to imagine how opening the refuge beach would save even one life. There's plenty of beach.

The woman keeps after me even after I turn away. She uses the old "Crane's Beach doesn't close the beach" argument. I respond with the official "This is a national wildlife refuge, our mission is wildlife first" argument. I explain that Crane's Beach is privately owned by the Trustees of Reservations. It is not a national wildlife refuge. She then tells me that the reason the piping plovers do better on Crane's Beach than on the refuge is because our closing the beach means there are no people to scare the foxes away. First time I've heard that. I tell her there is no argument I can make that will convince her that saving the piping plover is worth closing a few miles of beach and that if she wants to change the policy of the USFWS, she should contact headquarters in Washington.

I'm fielding questions and chasing toddlers at a pretty pace when ... pause dramatically ... the boat comes back. Seriously. Apparently he is dropping off the woman he picked up earlier. She jumps off the boat into the rip. The flounder fishing ladies are astounded. "He expects her to swim thru the rip!?!" they exclaim. He manages not to run aground. The passenger manages to get ashore, in the closed area again. I tell her to stay out of there and that they are darn lucky nobody was hurt. She shrugs it off and says it won't happen again.

By the time my relief arrives, I am exhausted. Everyone to whom I tell the tale, from Gatehouse to coffeeshop waitresses is astounded that no one got hurt and that you apparently don't need a brain to drive a boat in Massachusetts.

Friday, July 23, 2010

helicopters, haze, the universe, and everything

View to the south. Note how hazy it is.

Coffee of the Day: Sumatra
Bird of the Day: willet
Weird Wrack Item of the Day: this pink plastic handle:

Invisi-Bird Status: no update since last week; number actually seen by me: zero.

A Car in a House

Some days the adventure begins before I even get to the refuge. I don't mean the traffic or the cashier who charges me for 3 scones and 2 iced coffees in addition to my dark roast of the day (actually that was last week). I mean flashing blue lights, emergency vehicles of all shapes and sizes, detours, and general weirdness. The emergency vehicles are blocking Water Street. Said vehicles include a big tow truck -- the platform kind not the hook kind -- so I'm guessing accident. I can't really see what's going on though it appears to involve the building next to Starboard Galley. I'm focused on following the detour and getting to the refuge. No time for rubbernecking. Later on the beach I hear people saying something about a car in a house. On the way back after my shift, the street is open but there's yellow tape around the sidewalk in front of the building next to Starboard Galley. The entire front of the building is missing. Later I find out that, yup, a car hit a house.


At 8:00 in the morning the most dominant sound on entering the refuge has been willets for several weeks now. Lots and lots of willets reciting their pill-will-willet mantra form the background for a lone Savannah sparrow singing its heart out next to the boardwalk from Parking Lot 1. That soundtrack has been so regular this summer that I was thinking I should write a post about how I can tell which parking lot I'm at just by the bird sounds. Not this morning. It's awfully quiet. No willets. No Savannah sparrow. The seasons they are a-changin'. Time for willets to head south. There's a house sparrow perched on the shrub (Prunus maritima, I think) where the Savannah sparrow usually is. About half-way through my shift, a flock of a half dozen willets flies over. They are not calling. Silent willets? Has this ever been seen (or heard?) before? Ain't been seen/heard by me 'til today.

Attempted Kleptoparasitism

Dozens of gulls and cormorants are resting on the beach. Only a couple of cormorants are actively fishing. I watch one dive and come up with a small flounder that it swallows easily. An immature herring gull flies out there from the beach and lands on the water. A few minutes later the cormorant comes up with a slightly larger flounder and it's having trouble positioning it for easy swallowing. The herring gull flies around kind of feinting at it -- like it's trying to intimidate it into dropping the flounder. When that doesn't work, the gull flies straight at it and tries to grab the flounder out of its bill. The cormorant still has the flounder. The gull then lands hard on the back of the cormorant's neck, almost like a mammalian predator pouncing. Not only does the cormorant not drop the flounder, it finally actually swallows it! What a dramatic show of attempted kleptoparasitism!

Not the kleptomaniac

Ring-billed gull

A Shark in the Merrimack?

Common and least terns are flying by with fish hanging from their beaks. A flock of 5 great blue herons passes overhead. I hear a helicopter. It's to the north of me, flying over the mouth of the Merrimack. I get the binoculars on it and notice it's not a Coast Guard Jayhawk, nor is it the small black one that hangs out at the airport. When it circles around I see the channel 5 logo on the side. A news helicopter? What's up with that? Then I see another helicopter, and another, all hovering over the rivermouth. I imagine all kinds of tragic possibilities. I make a mental note to ask Gatehouse. The helicopters are still circling when I leave but I forget to ask Gatehouse because he's busy talking to a visitor about pink sand at Sandy Point (pink? it's purple, what up?). When I stop at Jabberwocky to pick up my specially ordered copy of Pete Dunne's new book, Bayshore Summer, and get an ice cold chai at The Nutcracker, which has free Wifi, I whip out my iPod Touch and post the helicopter question on Twitter (which automatically updates my Facebook status). One of my Facebook friends replies "Shark?" She was joking. Guess what? It really is a report of a great white shark in the Merrimack River. (This counts as a "stuff in the Merrimack" entry.) So here's what the helicopters were doing:


There are a million stories on the beach. This is only 4 of them. There are many more to tell. Oh, and so far I am liking Bayshore Summer very much.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

shorebird migration season already

Hey, look at me! I'm all grown up. Bring on migration! But first I must eat lots of nutritious worms and baitfish and crustaceans and insects, oh my!

Coffee of the Day:
Bird of the Day: piping plover
No weird wrack items or Coast Guard assets sighted today.
Invisi-bird Status (as of 7/15): Refuge beach: 12 pair, 15 chicks, 18 fledglings; Sandy Point: 3 pair, 4 chicks, 1 fledgling; number actually seen by me: 1 fledgling.

Lots of sand exposed at low tide. That spec in the mid-upper right is a great black back.

As you can tell from the above picture, I was south today. First time this season. It was pretty quiet with only 3 visitors and loads and loads of shorebirds. The "great greene flye" didn't bother me much on the beach. I really only had to dodge them on the boardwalk to the beach from lot 6. That wasn't the only thing I had to dodge, as the boardwalk is finally getting repaired. Alas that meant I had to pick my way among newly cut stumps, uncut brush, strategically pre-deployed nails and screws, lumber, and the post-hole digger. And that was all in about the first 20 feet. (Well, the strategically pre-deployed nails and screws were all along the boardwalk and I may have knocked some of them through the cracks by accident, though I hope not.)

The universe rewarded the trek through the boardwalk construction with good looks at a piping plover fledgling foraging along the waterline among sanderlings, semipalmated sandpipers, and other peeps. The peeps are definitely massing for migration. The flock got bigger and bigger all morning, but no other piping plovers joined it.

Peeps gathering.

One fisherman was working two rods and promised me he would show me a big striped bass within the hour. Amazingly he did. Three of 'em actually. The conversation went something like this:
Me: "What are you using for bait?"
Him: "Worms."
Me: "I heard they're taking clams."
Him: "These are magic worms."
Me: "Did you get them at Surfland?"
Him: "Yup, they're personally blessed by Kay."
Me: "Oh, then I guess they really are magic."

Striper about to be returned to the water.

For the uninitiated, Kay has been the proprietor of Surfland for all of recorded history. The movie Reel People features Kay and Surfland and the fishermen of Plum Island (including our own Unit 61). I wrote about it last year. When I sent a DVD of it to my brother in Dubai, I told him I was imagining the customs officials trying to make sense of a magical island where people worship striped bass and are ruled by a woman who sells bait.


The shorebirds weren't the only ones gathering for migration. The tree swallows and eastern kingbirds are forming flocks too. There was a lot of swirling swallow action along the refuge road as I was driving back to the gatehouse. It seems like summer just started and yet here it is time for the fall migration to start. Time goes by so fast.

In other news, I finally got to meet the refuge intern who goes to school with my niece at Barnard. We had a nice family dinner and game of Bananagrams at the Beach Boys' house (the boys were on vacation at Fire Island -- go figure, they live on the beach and they go to a different beach for vacation) with my Mom, both of the local nieces (the Dubai ones are, well, in Dubai, and only 3, and busy plotting world domination), the intern who's friends with my niece, and the other intern (her trailer mate). That was after last week's shift and it lasted late into the night so after a very long day I never got around to writing about the shift. There's not much to say about last week's shift at this point except that I saw Science Fiction Fishing Guy for the first time this season. We had fun catching up. He didn't catch anything except greenhead bites. I did get a great picture of a ring-billed gull eating a tiny crustacean it dug out of the sand.

Oh, and last Friday's coffee was Ethiopian Yirgacheffe again. I still don't know how to spell it. Speaking of spelling, I wish the spellchecker would stop trying to change stripers to strippers. Really.

Thursday, July 8, 2010


Probably the number one thing that comes to mind when one mentions Plum Island is the dreaded greenhead, aka Tabanus nigrovittatus. A tabanid fly, in the same family as horse flies and deer flies, it is commonly found around coastal salt marshes in the Eastern US. The ones on Plum Island and in/around the Great Marsh generally are reputed to be the hungriest and most vicious of all. Folks from New Jersey might claim theirs are worse, but our greenheads' bad reputation goes back to Puritan times.

Early New England colonist William Wood describes greenheads in Chapter 11, Of the Evils and Such Things as Are Hurtful in the Plantations, of his New England's Prospect published in 1634. He has this to say about them:

There are likewise troublesome flies. First there is a wilde Bee or Waspe, which commonly guards the grape, building her cobweb habitation amongst the leaves: secondly a great greene flye, not much unlike our horse flyes in England; they will nippe so sore that they wil fetch blood either of man or beast, and be most troublesome where most Cattle be, which brings them from out of the woods to the houses; this flye continues but for the Moneth of Iune,...
Interesting that in Wood's time they came out in June instead of July.

Wood's book was supposed to be selling the English on the idea of coming here, yet the "great greene flye" features prominently in his list of evils of which potential settlers should be aware. Colonists came here anyway. I'm laughing as I write this because I once made a list of the reasons it is insane to live in Massachusetts and greenheads were right up there with traffic, lack of jobs, the price of avocados, and the unpredictable weather.

The other night I was listening to a podcast of Mark Lynch's interview with Pete Dunne about his new book Bayshore Summer on Inquiry (great show on WICN, Worcester). Hearing the two of them talk about greenheads was the best part of the interview. After listening to that, I put together a short list of greenhead-related links to fill you all in on all things greenhead.

From the news:

From the Rutgers entomology department: The Greenhead and You

On the North Shore, the topic of greenheads pulls ahead of the Red Sox and the weather for the month of July. Just the other night at Salisbury Beach with the family a lively discussion of how difficult it is to kill greenheads broke out among my nieces, two of the refuge summer interns, and my Mom. Ahh, summer.

And remember: no refunds on your refuge admission fee.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

more than you ever wanted to know about flounder

Since I mentioned flounder fishing in Friday's entry, I thought I'd pass on this article about the local comeback of flounder:

Flounder making area comeback

Friday, July 2, 2010

major gull action

Coffee of the Day: Ethiopian Yirgachefe
Bird of the Day: Little Gull
Weird Wrack Item of the Day: half a used band aid
Coast Guard Assets Sighted: 1 Jayhawk helicopter
Invisi-bird Status: Refuge beach: 6 pairs, 8 nests, 20 chicks; Sandy Point: 2 pair, 1 nest, 1 chick; number actually seen by me: zero

Lovin' my hot coffee this morning in the cool breeze by the water. High tide was at something like 3:58 AM so it's still going out at the beginning of the shift. I build a stick fence in the official Big Steve style down to the water line. I keep meaning to ask for rope like we used to have, but the stick fence will have to do. I intercept the usual joggers in an iPod trance who ignore the boundary.

I'm grateful for the breeze because it keeps the greenheads down. Yup, they're back. I see a couple of teenage girls doing the greenhead dance. An older gentleman asks me for advice on how to keep them away. I recommend light colored clothing -- he's wearing black -- and Deep Woods Off. I'm smeared with the refuge-provided insect repellent, wearing a white shirt and khakis, and sitting close to the water. That all works.

I'm sitting thinking that it's really odd that I have not seen a single Bonaparte's gull yet this year when a flock of 10 of them flies directly over my head. Synchronicity? Whatever. More and more of them arrive and join dozens of ring-billed gulls, herring gulls, great black backs, and double crested cormorants in a feeding frenzy just offshore.

As I'm watching a small group of the Bonapartes I see one that's noticeably smaller. It wheels around and I see the dark under wings. Cool! A little gull! I watch it until the whole group of them moves back to the giant gull frenzy.

Major gull action continues, moving steadily to the southeast. I'm betting the bait fish are moving southeast. The human fishermen are not catching anything and one guy deliberately trespasses in the closed area but then moves as soon as I challenge him. Another guy finally catches a flounder too small to keep. The birds are the ones getting the fish today.

I spend a fair amount of time chasing kids who have escaped their parents and run into the closed area. I explain to them that we have some very special birds here and we don't want to bother them. That pretty much gets their attention.

There's a lot of aircraft action today too: a small personal-sized helicopter, a Coast Guard Jayhawk helicopter, and 5 or 6 general aviation craft. It's a gorgeous day for flying whether you are a bird or a pilot.

As I'm leaving, I notice that several high muck-a-mucks have gathered at the new VCS/restroom building. They look like they're doing something official. Maybe it's really going to open this weekend. That would be great as the second most frequently asked question after how to avoid greenhead bites is "when are the new restrooms going to be open?"