Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Daily News article about the PIPL nest on PI Point

The Daily News seems a little spatially challenged in this article: Unexpected arrival » Local News » NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA. PI Point is at the north end of the island.

Otherwise it's a good story with good quotes from Jean. It is extremely rare for piping plovers to nest successfully on the north end of the island. Here's hoping the chicks fledge.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

this just in

Just got an update from Jean re the plover numbers:
Refuge Beach: 18 pairs, 9 nests, 22 chicks
Sandy Point: 5 pair, 1 nest, 12 chicks
Newbury Town Beach: 1 pair, 2 chicks

This is shaping up to be a terrific season.

BTW, I don't have any official data on the Least Tern colony at Sandy Point. I only know there are a way wicked lot of them and much courtship behavior was still going on as of yesterday.

same willet, different day

Rainy Friday continued...

Late in the afternoon, the rain let up and I was suffering severe shorebird withdrawal from being rained out of working the south boundary this morning.  So, I took a quick trip to the refuge. Of course, the rain hadn't really stopped ...

I paused at the North Pool Overlook to check for bobolinks because I have not seen nearly enough bobolinks this year and I need my summer dose of them. While there I had a great far-ranging conversation with a visitor from Holland about everything from managing wild areas for the wildlife vs. managing them for people to how big storms bring red phalaropes and how upscale Plum Island has gotten since his last visit 20 years ago. From the overlook, I spotted the official willet of the town marker. Same willet, different day. Misty rain plus digital zoom made for a really atmospheric shot of the willet. I think I nailed the feeling.
Willet on Town Marker in the Rain
I walked along the Sandy Point Beach past the Least Tern colony. There was much courtship behavior. Zillions of least terns were giving each other small fish. I tried to stay as far from the colony as I could without being in the water. Big waves, high tide, noisy terns, rain ... very New England.
Least Tern
A first year Great Black Back busy eating what was left of a dead fish snapped at a Least Tern in flight multiple times. I tried to get a photo but both the gull and the tern were moving too fast. The tern escaped repeatedly and then finally gave up buzzing the gull.
Dining Al Fresco in the Rain
Bonaparte's Gulls (62 or more) were hanging out in the wrack. They really do act like shorebirds. I didn't see any Little Gulls among them but it was getting harder and harder to see with the rain coating both the binoculars and my glasses.

Bonaparte's Gulls in the Wrack
A big flock of Common Terns (about 45) was resting on the sand near the tip of Sandy Point. I think I examined every one in detail in the hopes of finding an Arctic Tern with no luck. A pair of Common Terns were copulating on the beach. Isn't it a little late for that?

Common Terns
Just beyond the Common Terns I spotted a small flock of Black-bellied Plovers and four Piping Plovers. Invisi-birds sighted - day complete. Another invisi-bird landed on the beach in front of me as I was walking back the the parking lot.

And to think, I was originally going to write about flowers today.

Dead Fish in the Rain

Friday, June 24, 2011


Boohoo. It's raining so I'm not at the refuge guarding piping plovers today. Maybe I'll go there later and do some birding if it stops raining. Darn.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

willet on the town marker

I'm guessing willets are nesting somewhere in the town marker field on the refuge.  There's been a willet perched on the town marker off and on for a couple of weeks now.  It was there this afternoon.

willet on the town marker
I stopped to take a picture and scan with binocs for any sign of nesting activity. A couple of people on bicycles asked me if it was a sea bird because of the long legs and wondered why it wasn't on the beach. I told them it was a willet. It then obligingly called pill-will-willet a few times.  A small flock of about a half dozen willets erupted from the grass near the north pool and mobbed something I couldn't see. Whatever it was must've gotten out of there quickly because they all settled down immediately.

lot 5 boardwalk
I parked at lot 5 and walked up to the overlook.  Four semipalmated sandpipers foraged at the water line. A whole bunch of great black backs and herring gulls sat loafing in the sand. After about an hour or more, I saw a piping plover fly down to the water from the edge of the dune. Nice bird for the first day of summer.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

rainy day, a new nest, chicks are hatching

Shift: Friday AM, South

Coffee of the Day: Panama
Bird of the Day: piping plover
Invisi-bird Status: Refuge beach: 19 pairs, 18 nests, 11 chicks. Number actually seen by me: 2.
(Note -- numbers are unofficial - got them from conversation with biological staff on the beach).
Weird Wrack Item of the Day: an umbrella attached to a lobster trap.
Refuge Biological Staff Sighted: 1.

On my way to the refuge, I noticed people camping at the Plum Island Aerodrome, aka my favorite historic airport. Turns out there's a jet rally there this weekend. See flyer (pun intended). These are model jets in case you were picturing much larger and louder aircraft. :-)

The tide was out when I got there, providing plenty of interesting tide pool creatures for a Mass Audubon tide pool program -- a much smaller group,not all kids, and not from Sudbury this week. A group of Moms with small children began assembling. Most of them were the same as the ones who were there last week. One of the kids remembered me - the little girl who didn't want her periwinkles to be lonely in the bucket. I heard the kids telling each other to be careful not to cross the boundary into the nesting area so they wouldn't bother the baby birds. Maybe I had some effect last week after all :-)

The tide was coming in so I had to keep moving back from the water line. I could see and feel weather coming from the southwest. Sure enough it started to rain lightly. When it didn't stop immediately, some of the Moms started packing to leave. For some reason several people -- kids and Moms -- seemed to have misplaced their shoes. I found a dip net belonging to one of the kids and reunited that with its owner. I found a shoe and located its owner, but failed to help a woman whose flip flops had disappeared.

Besides the "families scrambling for belongings on the incoming tide" frenzy on shore, the turn of the tide brought a feeding frenzy of seabirds just offshore. Herring gulls, great black backs, least terns, common terns, and double crested cormorants dove frantically after small fish. This went on for close to an hour.

The rain stopped shortly after most of the families with little kids left. With only a few people to watch, I did manage to watch birds. Three black-bellied plovers -- 2 in breeding plumage, 1 not -- foraged along the water line, moving up as the tide came in. Two piping plovers joined them. One of them was doing the foot trembling thing to stir up the intertidal zone organisms.  That aggrieved killdeer (I'm sure it was the same one) was making a lot of noise again. An eastern kingbird was catching flies in the wrack. It was also tyrannizing an American robin.

I'm still getting as many questions about the Hooksett discs, of which there are still tons around despite cleanup efforts, as about the piping plovers - even from locals, whom you would think would would've heard about the whole flood thing...

Biological staff was checking out a new nest just north of parking lot 7, so I hung around until he finished so I could chat with him. He described a nest with 2 eggs and active parents near the edge of the dune -- a pretty steep area for the birds to walk, but far enough from the high tide line to be immune to washover if we get anymore storm tides.

The rain picked up again as I was leaving.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

tweeting about the Birds of Essex County

So, readers may ask, what's with these random tweets about Birds of Essex County?

Charles W. Townsend's Birds of Essex County was published in 1905 by the Nuttall Ornithological Club. At that time it was the most extensive monograph on the bird life of such a small geographic area of North America. It was on my want list back when I used to collect "antiquated" books, but I didn't manage to snag it when Phil Person of Domino actually had it in stock at the late lamented Olde Port Books.

Awhile back, I found that it had been scanned in to Google Books. Alas, the page images were really hard to read. I downloaded it to my iPod Touch using the Google Reader. Way too hard to read on the small screen. Then a couple of months ago, my dear friend, the Hermit Potter, gave me a Kindle for my birthday. After the initial excitement of buying new books in Kindle format, I started looking around for old books that are in the public domain. Much to my delight, I discovered that Birds of Essex County had been converted into mobipocket format and was thus readable on the Kindle. So, I've been going through the species accounts, particularly for birds that frequent Plum Island -- my summer favorites, winter favorites, and local phenomena -- and comparing it to today's data.

As I read, I keep coming across passages that describe species and behaviors that are exactly the same today -- like the passage about Eastern Kingbirds on the beach that I tweeted tonight -- or amazing one-of-a-kind occurrences like the massive flight of Great Gray Owls in 1890-91 that I tweeted yesterday. I'm enjoying being able to share insights from 100+ years ago using recent media technology.  I hope it gives the blog more of a feeling of continuity with the amazing birding history of my local patch.

Light on Leaves

Light on Leaves by Captain_Peleg
Light on Leaves, a photo by Captain_Peleg on Flickr.

There are a lot of leaves down since the recent thunderstorms. It's almost like autumn except that the leaves are still green. I spotted this oak leaf in the evening light near the North Andover heron rookery last night.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

way busy at the south boundary

Coffee of the Day: Boatyard Brew (both choices today were blends, not specific origins)
Bird of the Day: Willet
Invisi-bird Status: Refuge beach: 17 pairs, 11 nests, 7 chicks. Sandy Point: 6 pairs, 5 nests, 4 chicks. Newbury town beach: 1 pair, 1 nest. Number actually seen by me: zero.
Weird Wrack Item of the Day: either the chair legs or the dead skate.

looking north
Traffic coming off I-495 onto 110 in Amesbury was so heavy that it seemed more like a Saturday than a Friday.  That set the tone for the day -- busy and crowded. As I waited in line at PI Coffee Roasters, the guy in front of me asked how the plovers were doing. I was overjoyed to tell him we have 17 pairs on the refuge and 7 chicks have hatched already. He was excited to hear it.

Once I got my coffee and made it to the refuge, I picked up my new name tag (finally), which has the blue goose logo on it (this figures later in our story). Gatehouse pointed out that south would be very important today. Boy was he ever right.

The drive south featured birders stopping abruptly in the S-curves, suicidal mourning doves, common terns diving in the salt pannes,  gray catbirds all over the place (way more than I've seen all season so far), 2 willets behaving strangely perching on the town marker (it's not really big enough for 2 willets) and others perched on top of shrubs, and a pair of wild turkeys in the field by the Pines Trail. Imagine the list if I'd actually been able to stop to bird.

looking south
As soon as I arrived at the boundary, a group of mothers with kids all roughly in the 3 to 6 age group began to arrive. I pointed out the boundary and explained why that side of the beach is closed. Kids ran in there anyway. I explained again and gave the mothers pamphlets about the piping plover. More and more and more of these families arrived. Kids all over the place -- including the closed area.  I need to practice explaining to 3 and 4 year olds -- I managed to get through to the 5 1/2 and 6 year olds with the "very special birds are having their babies and we don't want to disturb them" pitch.

After chasing kids for a bit, I decided to place wood along the boundary  from the sign down to the water line so the kids could have a more concrete boundary. I felt like I was playing pickup sticks. I dragged logs and sticks from way up in the wrack. It took so long to drag big pieces of driftwood to lay end to end along the boundary that I figured the tide would be back in before I finished laying them down. I kept having to stop to speak to kids or other visitors, so never managed to reach all the way to the waterline.

Many of the kids were staying on the correct side of the beach and having a great beach day. Kids building a fort from driftwood and rocks, other kids playing in tide pools with toy trucks and other non-digital toys, a little girl collecting live periwinkles in a bucket and when she leaves the bucket she worries that they'll be alone -- do snails bond with people?  The only Internet-enabled device I saw was one iPhone belonging to one of the mothers. The kids were playing in the real world.
A peeved killdeer was making a racket near the wrack line. Some of the kids wanted to know if it was piping plover.  I told them they're cousins. Since they couldn't see the plovers, one of the boys wanted to know if the plovers are real birds. Didn't know how to answer that. What is a real bird to a 5 year old? Gulls are real because they're big and obnoxious and highly visible.

a real bird

As I was telling one of the little boys more about piping plovers at his mother's request, I noticed he was not really listening. Suddenly he asked if the logo on my new name tag was a pyramid. "No, it's a goose." He looks at me like "yeah,right".  I reply "I know. It's a weird looking goose." That didn't seem to satisfy him so I'm not sure how much credibility I have on piping plovers if I can't tell the difference between a pyramid and a goose. :-)

There was another huge group from Sudbury Odyssey School with Mass Audubon escorts. It was funny to watch so many kids exclaim about the purple sand as soon as they got onto the beach. Wow! Purple sand! I remembered that last week the field trip people went ga-ga over a dead skate so I pointed out a dead skate in the wrack but they were not as interested this time. It was dead low tide so they had perfect conditions for finding crabs and starfish and all kinds of tidepool creatures. Nobody asked about the Hooksett disks this week but I'm still finding them in the wrack.
Kids who pick up their lunch trash and plastic water bottles rock. Kids who leave plastic water bottles all over the Sandy Point parking lot do not rock. That said, it is awesome to see kids outdoors in the real world noticing the real world. Saturday is National Go Outdoors Day, so I hope those Sudbury Odyssey kids got enough taste of the awesomeness of nature that they go outdoors on their own -- and pick up their trash. :-)

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

updated numbers

I love it that the refuge staff has gotten way more communicative about the piping plover status this year.

Matt posted updated piping plover numbers on the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge Complex Facebook page this morning:

 "There are 17 pairs, 11 nests with eggs, and 2 nests that have hatched chicks (one with 4 chicks and one with 3 chicks). There might be even more nests out there that we haven't found yet!"
This is very exciting news, especially since we had some washovers earlier in the season.  It also makes me wonder if the invisi-birds are getting better at hiding their nests.

I hear tell that the least terns I've been seeing are indeed nesting on the island -- dunno if they're on the refuge or at Sandy Point -- so if true that's great news too.

Friday, June 3, 2011

shorebird extravaganza

Picture it: Friday morning. First time at the south boundary this season. Bright sun. Fierce wind off the water.

Coffee of the Day: French Roast (they didn't say origin, but I'm guessing Colombian)
Bird of the Day: Ruddy Turnstone
Invisi-bird Status: Refuge beach: 11 pairs, 9 nests, 3 chicks!. Sandy Point: 6 pairs, 6 nests.  Newbury town beach: 1 pair.  Number actually seen by me: zero.
Weird Wrack Item of the Day: a huge truck tire -- about 6 feet in diameter

tide pooling
No sooner had I finished my coffee than clouds of shorebirds started landing along the water line.  The tide was out and just starting to turn so there was plenty of wet sand for them to forage in. The wrack was alive with bugs too, so there were buffet options at the migrant shorebird restaurant. The first group was mostly black-bellied plovers and sanderlings with a half dozen Bonaparte's gulls. I've written before how Bonaparte's gulls really act like shorebirds. They tend to hang with sanderlings and they walk along probing the sand -- very different from ring-billed gulls, not to mention herring gulls and great black backs. One bonie had the full black hood, very elegant looking.
looking north
Another, larger, flock arrived and started feeding. This one was mostly semipalmated sandpipers with a few semipalmated plovers. Pretty soon they were joined by more black-bellieds and a ruddy turnstone. A killdeer flew in over the dunes and landed on the beach. It gave up on the group feasting at the water and went after the flies in the wrack instead. A couple of eastern kingbirds joined in the flycatching too. A couple of great black backs were finding interesting things to eat too, one had a crab and one had what looked like a dead skate.

One of the most encouraging sights of the day was a large school group doing a tide pool field trip. They had guides from Mass Audubon's Joppa Flats sanctuary. It really lifted my spirits to see kids enthusiastic about being outdoors and learning about the beach ecosystem.  It took me back to how much I loved the outdoors and nature when I was that age.

My one challenge of the day was a toddler, not quite 3 years old yet, who ran onto the closed beach area as soon as he arrived. I tried my usual gentle "We have some very special birds here having their babies and we can't bother them."  He ran deep into the closed area screaming. The mother asked me what kind of birds, so I explained piping plovers. The kid came back and I asked him if he knew what endangered meant -- fairly young kids often do know about endangered species.  Kid did not want to talk to the mean, scary, old lady at all.  I thought the mother had him under control. The next thing I knew he was booking it north at alarming speed for a toddler, in the closed area of beach. The mother ran after him and caught him. As you can see from the picture, looking south, it's pretty rocky where we were so naturally he was going to go for the flat open beach in the closed area. Trying to be helpful, I suggested that they move to Sandy Point where there is a lot more open beach for him to run around.  The mother and her friend decided to leave. The kid was not going along with this. He pitched a violent tantrum, stomping on the wrack, crying, yelling, screaming, and refusing to follow the adults. I tried to encourage him to follow them but that only set him off more. One of the Mass Audubon people who was with the school group started towards us to help. Finally the mother came back, picked up the kid, and carried him off, literally kicking and screaming.  This goes into the report as "number of visitors in closed area: 1".
looking south

Most of the shorebirds had moved on north, except for the killdeer. More eastern kingbirds arrived as the flies got thicker. A couple of mallards surfed on the incoming tide.

I greeted a group of people who were looking for a good spot. It took me a couple of minutes to realize, hey,  this is a minister, a couple, and two witnesses, a wedding! I suggested they go down toward the end of the point past the school groups.  By time they finished the ceremony, the school groups had gone back to their buses for lunch. A couple of the Mass Audubon folks were still there and I pointed out the happy couple to them. It was the total feelgood vibe for the day.

I congratulated the happy couple  and they asked me to take a picture of the wedding party with the ocean in the background. Despite the sun glare, I got a nice picture with the camera of one of the brides (this is Massachusetts). Then one of the witnesses gave me her camera to do the same.  The wind blew my hat off but I managed to catch the hat with my left hand and snap the picture with my right hand. The wedding party was impressed.

The Audubon people congratulated the happy couple as they were leaving the beach.

Back at headquarters, Jody was assembling the fishing gear for Saturday's kid's fishing day -- an impressive array of surf rods in the back of the pickup truck.

The oystercatchers that one of the Mass Audubon folks had told me about were no longer at Joppa Flats, as the tide had come in, so I missed the rare sighting.

This just in (Saturday morning as I write this), we have chicks! Got email from Jean this morning and also saw a Facebook posting from Matt -- the latest check yesterday (after I left) found that one of the nests is hatching-- 3 chicks, 1 egg to go!

Have I mentioned lately that I'm in love with Massachusetts? :-)

Thursday, June 2, 2011

dunes and mist

Where does the spring go?  May has gotten away from me. Anyway, here's the entry for this past Saturday (figured I'd better do it before tomorrow's shift -- I switched to Friday for June).
Coffee of the Day: Ethiopian Yirgacheffe
Bird of the Day: Common Tern
Invisi-bird Status: Refuge beach: 10 pairs, 7 nests. Sandy Point: 6 pairs, 6 nests. Newbury town beach: 1 pair, 1 nest.
Weird Wrack Item of the Week:  see photo below of odd thing constructed out of wrack

looking south -- very misty
It was really foggy and misty, but on Memorial Day weekend that doesn't keep people off the beach. Apparently this sign does not keep people off the dunes either. I wish I'd been able to take a picture of the woman leaning against this sign taking a photo of her three kids digging in the dune.  Seriously. If I were really unprofessional I might have suggested that she back up a little so she could get the sign in the photo with the kids tearing up the dune. Instead, I politely and professionally asked them to move down onto the beach, explaining that the dunes are really fragile. They took their shovels and moved.
keep out of dunes
A family group playing catch managed to stay out of the closed area and stay out of the dunes and even to avoid stomping on this strange construction. One of the kids asked what it was. Maybe it's art.

weird wrack item of the week
Tons of common terns were diving just offshore, leading me to believe that there was a big concentration of small fish. A couple of least terns got in on the action too. It was wonderful just to hear all the terns.

Among the fishing folk were regulars Nancy and Rick. Nancy mentioned that I'd missed seeing some plovers earlier. From her description, they sounded like semipalmated plovers. Indeed, she sent me a some photos later in the week and they are semipalmated.

Finally, as I was leaving I saw a photographer step off the boardwalk into the dunes to take a picture. He was tromping right on the beach grass.  OK, I hardly ever have to kick people out of the dunes, and now it happens twice. Must be a holiday weekend thing. This guy at least had the class to be embarrassed.