Saturday, April 28, 2012

blowing in the wind

Sanderlings and Surf
Coffee of the Day: Tanzania Peaberry
Bird of the Day: Sanderling
Weird Wrack Item of the Week: half a lemon?
Coast Guard Assets and General Aviation Craft: None whatsoever.
Invisi-bird Status: 2 nests with eggs - 2 each, so they're still in progress. Number actually seen by me: zero but I did hear one.

How windy was it? It was so windy that an attempt to take a sip of my delicious Tanzania Peaberry coffee from PICR resulted in coffee on my hat, glasses, and binoculars. It was so windy that my major challenge of the day was keeping my hat on rather than repelling invasive dogs. It was so windy that I actually got blown over while attempting to walk up to the boardwalk to get out of the wind.  The wind kept the birding action pretty low.

Feather in the Water

One thing the wind did provide was another opportunity to observe different species' ways of dealing with it. I've written before that gulls, especially herring gulls and ring-billed gulls tack. This allows them to make progress flying into the wind. For reasons I do not understand, American crows do not tack. They keep trying to fly straight into the wind and keep getting blown back.  Maybe someone from Cornell Lab of Ornithology could enlighten me about that.  The northern gannets seemed unaffected by the wind as they circled and dove into the schools of fish. As I noted last week, fish and gannets seemed to move together throughout the morning.

Awesome Clouds
Another thing the wind provided was a fantastic, ever-changing, cloud show.  The play of light and dark on the sand and on the water was hypnotic. I could have watched it all day except, of course, that I had visitors to talk to and birds to look for. One visitor from Germany wanted to know the name of Charadrius melodus in German. He wasn't familiar with the piping plover and didn't recognize the Latin name. I told him I only know the common name in English and French. It's a North American species, so maybe it doesn't have a common name in German. Something for me to Google in my spare time, I guess.

Half a Lemon Half Buried

Unit 21 came by for a short conversation before he started out on his survey. He told me there are two nests, each with two eggs. It's on! This is kind of early, but that's a good thing. I told him about the pair that I had seen near 0.1 and that His Royal Majesty Tom Wetmore, King of Plum Island (crowned by the inimitable Doug Chickering), had seen a pair just south of there earlier in the day -- he had a scope and was up on the boardwalk so had a much steadier view than I was getting of any bird on the beach with my binocs in the wind. 21 did check out the area I told him about. I don't know if the plovers were actually setting up housekeeping there or just hanging out.

A flock of sanderlings moved slowly north along the beach until they were just about at the boundary of the closed area. By moving north I mean they ran, not flew. If they intend to run to the Arctic to nest, it may take them awhile to get there :-)  One thing the sanderlings did today that I never saw before was to wade deeper into the surf and splash around with their wings. It wasn't the surf overtaking them, it was them going into it. I suspect there must have been small fish in the water.

Inevitable Hooksett Disc
Just when I was thinking "gee whiz, I haven't seen a Hooksett disc today, maybe they're gone," I saw a couple. They are going to be here forever. I'm still waiting for one to wash up on a beach in Europe. There's remarkably little trash on the beach, for which I am thankful to all the volunteers who participated in the cleanup, and all the people who are responsible about their trash. I did see a plastic cup embedded in the dune, tangled in the roots of the beach grass. I also found a plastic army man -- what is it with plastic army men on the beach? The plastic army man went into my pocket for future poetic or artistic use.

Plastic Cup Entangled in Beach Grass
There were no vultures on the roof of the pink house. All aeroplanes at the aerodrome were tied down. I didn't buy any books at Jabberwocky. The raw felafel at Revitalive was delicious. And I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

a quiet day at the great blue heron rookery

I like to check out the progress of spring at some of the local spots and with all the warm weather, it's especially interesting.

In the 95 degree heat on  April 16  (95 in April?!?!?!) the great blue heron rookery in North Andover was very quiet. The herons were on the nests and not moving around much. A lone Canada goose hung out in the reeds. A single tree swallow swooped down after bugs. The fastest moving creature I saw was a northern water snake swimming past. I heard downy and hairy woodpeckers, redwinged blackbirds, and chickadees, but they all remained invisible.

All Quiet at the Heron Rookery
Triple Decker with All Families at Home
Since I took these photos, the heron rookery has gotten some love in the local press. The Lawrence Eagle Tribune had a great article in the April 22 edition about how protecting the beavers has been good for the great blue herons.  The slideshow is spectacular.  The other inhabitants of the Carter Fields area are a pair of great-horned owls. I managed to miss them the last couple of times, but the Eagle Tribune article has a nice photo of them too.

There are tons of eastern painted turtles there too, and with the warm, sunny, days they have been sunning on logs. It's kind of hard to photograph them through all the reeds, but this one is actually kind of visible.


 As with any wetland, there's plenty of skunk cabbage there too.

Skunk Cabbage Unfurled
The rookery is on the North Andover Boxford line. I always think of it as North Andover and then suddenly realize I'm in Boxford on the way home. Boxford, for those not familiar with its unique charms, is the home of Benson's Ice Cream. As luck would have it, due to the holiday and the extreme heat, they were open! I had a nice view of the shadows changing on the barn while I ate my ginger ice cream.

Barn at Benson's in Boxford

Monday, April 23, 2012

air shows - avian and otherwise

Beach -- Looking South
Coffee of the Day: Tanzania Peaberry
Bird of the Day: piping plover
Weird Wrack Item of the Week: a star-shaped balloon inscribed "I wish I was a wiszard" (sic) in a child's hand writing
Coast Guard Assets: None, but the general aviation craft more than made up for lack of awesome Jayhawk helicopters. 
Invisi-bird Status:  Rumors of some laying eggs already. Number actually seen by me: 3! 

High tide, not much of a crowd despite school vacation week, a gentle breeze, and a few lingering long-tailed ducks set the mood for  Friday morning on the beach. Plus I was treated to my own private air show -- actually several different air shows. While I was checking out the long-tailed ducks, I heard an airplane engine. I looked up to see a propeller plane doing aerobatics!  The pilot was putting it thru its paces with barrel rolls, loops, slow rolls, and other maneuvers I don't remember the names for. There were only 3 other people besides me on the beach and one of them was asleep. It really did feel like a private show. At certain points in a loop, the sunlight highlighted the red on the wings and fuselage - really pretty aeroplane. 

There were few birds besides the long-tailed ducks out beyond the surf, two northern gannets in the air, and two herring gulls on the beach, so my attention stayed on the aerobatic aeroplane until I heard a faint "peep-lo" call. I whipped the binoculars off of the air show in the direction of the call just in time to see two piping plovers cruise in over the water onto the beach. A third one flew in, they did a few aerobatic maneuvers of their own, and took off, peep-loing all the way, over the dune at the 0.1 mile marker. My first invisi-birds of the season!

Herring gulls and ring-billed gulls were starting to gather into a sizable roost on the beach just south of the boundary. Northern gannets and double crested cormorants started gaining in numbers too.  There were even two more general aviation craft - nice day for flying.  The plovers didn't come back my way, and the aerobatic aeroplane returned to the aerodrome, but the northern gannets took over the aerial entertainment.  A couple dozen of them, gleaming white with perfect black wingtips, put on a spectacle of plunge diving. There must have been a heckuva lot of fish out there because more and more birds kept joining them.

Even the ring-billed gulls put on a show, first in the air with their drop-and-catch thing using pieces of straw or seaweed, then on the beach with a bobber. That show, I did manage to get some photos of.
An Ordinary Fishing Bobber
A ring-billed gull found a bobber in the surf at the water line.  It probably mistook it for a tasty mollusk of some kind.

Look what I found!
The gull picked it up with its beak and took off south to enjoy the prize. Two other ring-billed gulls noticed and took off after it in hot pursuit.

We're not paying any attention to this, or are we?
 It changed hands, er, I mean beaks, several times. Nobody had any luck breaking it. They kept dropping it close to the water line.
Maybe we can play soccer with it?
They started kicking it around like a soccer ball. The one that finally ended up with it flew even further south and I lost sight of it.

It's all mine!

The fun didn't stop when I left the beach either. As I drove along the Plum Island Turnpike I saw a turkey vulture circling overhead. Then I spotted two more turkey vultures --perched on the roof of the empty pink house next to the aerodrome!  They looked ridiculously large and out of place. Birders and non-birders alike were pulling off the road to look at them. Had it been a Saturday instead of Friday, there would have been a major traffic jam.

Vultures on the Pink House
You never know what you might see on Plum Island. Ever.

All these exciting sights, and I still had time to get lunch at Revitalive, buy a copy of Fenway 1912 at Jabberwocky, and start reading it over a second cup of coffee at PICR before heading home to watch the 100th anniversary festivities and less than satisfying Red Sox vs. Yankees game.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Daffodil Days at Blithewold

The daffodils peaked right on time for Daffodil Days at Blithewold along with all kinds of flowering trees and other natural beauty. Redwinged blackbirds, chickadees, robins, and brown-headed cowbirds were all over the place too. Words are pointless. Here are the photos.

Daffodils by the Fountain
Loved the Yellow Ones with the Darker
Yellow/Orange Centers

White Ones Contrasting with the Forsythia

The Wind Was Coming in off Narragansett Bay Shaking the Tree
Closeup of the Tree

Saturday, April 14, 2012

quiet day with horned grebes

Looking South

Coffee of the Day: French Roast Sumatra
Bird of the Day: horned grebes in breeding plumage
Weird Wrack Item of the Week: the inevitable Hooksett disc - they're never going to be all gone, ever
Coast Guard Assets: none, but there were some cool vintage aeroplanes from my favorite historic airport to make up for the lack of exciting Coast Guard things to watch
Invisi-Bird Status: They're being reported on the south end of the island. Number seen by me: zero.

What a New England kind of day! I scraped ice off my car in the morning and layered my fleece Red Sox jacket (in honor of Opening Day at Fenway) under the USFWS logo jacket for a 4th layer to start the shift. By 10:00 AM I'd shed the fleece. By 10:30 I'd shed the USFWS logo jacket (don't worry, I had my PRNWR sweatshirt on).  It turned into a stunning beach day.

There Really is an S on There
The tide was going out (low tide at like 2:00 PM or something). Fortunately, there was a stick fence already in place that I could add to. I recognized the handiwork of Big Steve.  Later on Big Steve showed up and told me if I looked closely I would see an S on his stick fence. He signed his work! Sure enough I found the S. I did add to the fence as the tide went out but  I had a hard time finding additional sticks to add to the fence because there was hardly any wrack of any kind on the beach.

I don't think these lobster traps can be salvaged.

The absolute highlight of the day was the horned grebes. Several horned grebes in breeding plumage were bobbing around close to shore. The sun glinting off the red-and-black breeding feathers and the yellowish "horns" was a spectacular sight. All the birders were exclaiming over the grebes, including Big Steve, who's not even an birder. BTW, it was a "Steve trifecta" kind of day with Steve Haydock and Steve Grinley also in evidence. Back to the grebes... toward the end of my shift the mating plumaged grebes started doing the mating dance! Alas, the Steves and other birders were all gone. Horned grebes aren't quite as spectacular as western grebes, which are known for their amazing display, but they do go almost vertical on the water. I wish I'd been equipped to photograph the display.  I was awed.

The grebes weren't the only show worth watching though. About a half dozen northern gannets showed off their plunge diving skills. Throughout the morning they moved around to different spots, seemingly following the fish. I noticed that at times the flock of cormorants would take off at the same time that the gannets shifted spots.

The absence of much wrack meant it was really easy to watch the sand hoppers jumping around in and out of their holes and burrowing new holes. The slow trickle of visitors and welcome lack of dogs meant I had time to watch all these large and small wildlife activities on the beach. I did have several visitors ask if they could see the piping plover nests so I think I set a new record for use of the word cryptic in a 4 hour period. The best question of the day was somebody who asked "What's that?" and pointed. They meant the land they could see to the south. I said "Ipswich". Rarely do I have a question to which the answer is Ipswich when I'm on the north end of the beach. There's a first time for everything.

Hey look, I wrote a whole entry about not seeing piping plovers yet again!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

great blue heron

I never thought of great blue herons as being particularly well-camouflaged. After all, they're huge and prehistoric-looking. This morning I saw this one standing stock still in the mill pond behind the East Mill  and realized it is the exact color of the water in the mill pond. Great camouflage!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

windy day with long-tailed ducks

Long-tailed Ducks
Coffee of the Day: Ethiopian Sidamo -- really tasty
Bird of the Day: Long-tailed Duck
Weird Wrack Item of the Day: the inevitable Hooksett disc
(otherwise the beach was really clean from the March 31 cleanup)
Coast Guard Assets: 1 Jayhawk helicopter
Invisi-bird Status: they're around here somewhere. Number seen by me: zero.

The Friday morning shift was my first plover warden shift of the season. Beach closure started April 1. It was very windy and cold so my delicious hot Ethiopian Sidamo coffee from PICR was especially welcome. The wind meant constantly changing skies too. I could've spent the morning taking photos of the sky and not had the same cloud formation twice.
Beach and Dramatic Sky
The most predominant bird was the long-tailed duck. There were tons of them. I lost count at about 55 because more would surface from their dives or another group would land. Watching long-tailed ducks land is a spectacle. They are so awkward coming in chest first like doing a belly flop. Alas it was too windy for me to get any good action photos. The best part of having so many long-tailed ducks so close to shore is the noise. They're probably the noisiest ducks along the New England coast and spring is when they're noisiest. They sound like they're talking in a kind of hectoring or scolding voice. (Hmm, must work on my natural history descriptions -- I'm sure I can do better than "hectoring".) A huge harbor seal spooked a group of about 30 of them amid spectacular noise.

Sun on the Water
Besides the long-tailed ducks, I saw many brant plus horned grebes and a common loon or two further out on the water. In the air, a single northern gannet cruised over my head, two sharp-shinned hawks skimmed by low over the beach and then took an abrupt turn to the northeast over the water.  It's hawk migration time and there was a major movement of  kestrels. I saw at least three kestrels and a peregrine falcon but I think I missed a lot of kestrels while doing my actual job of talking to visitors and scaring away dogs.

Actually it was a pretty easy day, all the visitors were cooperative and the two dogs who intruded on the refuge had humans nearby so all I had to do was look official and walk toward them -- the radio scares the humans and direct eye contact intimidates the dogs. Presto, dogs gone.

The best question of the day was from a couple from North Carolina. "Do you work here? Are you a member of the club?" I didn't quite know what to make of that. I answered that I volunteer here and this is a National Wildlife Refuge, not a club.  They asked about the people with cameras on tripods (actually they were scopes) and whether they were a club. It took me awhile to realize they meant the hawk watchers at lot 1.

On my way back to the gatehouse, I stopped at the VCS to use the restroom and talk to the hawk watchers. They confirmed there were tons of kestrels. They had not seen any sharpies and asked where and when I had seen them. I realized they could not possibly have seen the sharpies over the dune. The sharpies were flying really low. I mentioned to the hawk watchers that I had seen sharpies behave like that last year too. On the way home I started wondering if sharpies are routinely under counted because of that.

Brant in the Merrimack River
There were way more brant in the Merrimack River than in the ocean. There's clearly a major northward movement of brant going on too.

I thought I saw a snowy owl in the Great Marsh, but it turned out to be a white bucket. I think I fell for that same white bucket another time this winter. It does a good snowy owl impression.

I headed back to PI CR for another cup of Ethiopian Sidamo and bought a pound of beans for the weekend. Can you tell I really liked the Ethiopian Sidamo? I birded the Salisbury Beach campground, browsed for books at Jabberwocky, ran into my brother-in-law at Angelina's -- he had the perdue wrap and I had my usual veggie sub with tons of hot peppers -- and checked various spots along the river for eagles. A fine day.

Haystack in the Great Marsh