Saturday, July 12, 2014

royal terns, sandwich tern, and weird happenings on the beach

Coffee of the Day: Tanzania Peaberry
Bird of the Day: Royal Tern
Weird Wrack Item of the Week: plastic sea horse
Invisi-bird Status: haven't gotten the report yet. Biological staff confirmed the two fledglings I saw last week. Number actually seen by me today: Three adults or fledglings at a distance in the heat haze.

Tree Swallows and Several Species of Gulls and Terns Roosting on the Beach
What a gorgeous day! Bright sun, low humidity, and just enough sea breeze to keep the greenheads away.  When I arrived at 8 AM, the public area of beach was empty of visitors except for a couple of fishermen. The closed area of beach was covered with roosting birds. I have never seen this many swallows sitting on the ground in my life. I've seen millions of them swirling in the air, but never on the ground like this. They did fly around -- very low over the sand -- a bit, but they seemed to mostly walk around and peck at some form of insect life on the sand. The usual gull roost was more populous and more varied. I spent a couple of hours trying to get a good look through the heat haze at a couple of unusual looking terns in their midst.

Blue Sky Over Lot 1 Boardwalk
My first few visitors only had questions about fish, as in "where are the stripers?" Even my first bird question was really about stripers, as in "is that an osprey that just caught that schoolie?" I don't know where the fish are. My usual clue to where the fish are is where the birds are. The birds were mainly on the beach, not fishing. That indicates to me that the fish are somewhere else. As for the osprey, yes! It was a very dramatic catch. The osprey was fairly close to shore and made a perfect catch. The fishermen and I got a great look at the osprey and the fish, which was indeed a juvenile striped bass. (For those not from this region, "schoolie" is the local word for "juvenile striped bass".) The osprey, with fish, flew off over the dunes, presumably back to the nest. Quite a show.

Orange Plastic Seahorse
I was too busy with visitors and tern identification to spend much time walking the wrack line, which may be the reason why for the first time in history I did not see a single Hooksett disc. Someday I need to write a book about the Hooksett discs but can't figure out how to make it as compelling a story as either the rubber duckies or the sneakers (famous marine debris stories).  I did spot a few plastic objects, almost all of them orange. Seriously, shovels, buckets, toys, fireworks/shotgun shell casings, rope ... all orange. My favorite was a plastic sea horse. Very orange.

Biological Staff about to be Dive-Bombed by Least Terns
The least terns were at their feistiest, calling constantly and attacking anything that moved. I witnessed one single least tern strafing a roost of hundreds of tree swallows. The tree swallows rearranged themselves a little but did not leave.  A lone least tern took on a great black back and drove it off the beach. Very impressive. The black back did return with a very obvious white stripe of you know what on its black back. The least tern air defense command won all subsequent confrontations too. I don't envy biological staff having to census the least tern colony.

Great Black Back
The tree swallows eventually moved on and the gull/tern/cormorant roost grew in numbers. I think what had attracted all those swallows was a recent hatch of winged ants. There were still plenty of winged ants around and the ring-billed gulls moved in where the swallows had vacated.

Low-Flying Plane
Flying conditions for general aviation craft were perfect and there were a lot of them. I need to get a general aviation craft field guide :-). I watched one plane do barrel rolls and another doing some kind of stall turn. One plane made a very low pass over the waterline that attracted much attention on the beach.

Crowd of Birders Scoping the Royal Terns and the Sandwich Tern
In between visitors, I narrowed down the ID of 2 of the odd terns to either Caspian or Royal. With the heat haze and without a scope (I stopped bringing my scope to plover warden shifts several years ago -- too much to carry) I couldn't be sure. I noticed a birder on the beach behind me with a scope so walked over and asked him about the terns. He gave me a look through his scope (this is very generous because 99.999% of birders are way taller than me and have to lower the tripod for me to take a look). We agreed that the two very large terns were indeed Royal. The other odd one was roosting in a depression in the sand behind a herring gull, so we couldn't get a good enough look at it for positive ID. This was my first Massachusetts sighting of Royal Tern (and obviously first Plum Island sighting too)! I tried to to tweet the sighting but didn't have a good enough connection.

Later on, I noticed that many birders had gathered on the platform at the Lot 1 boardwalk and were all pointing their scopes at the gull/tern roost, so word had gotten out about the "odd" terns.

The Weapon
The beach filled up with tons of visitors, including lots of unsupervised children. A couple of boys were throwing balls of seaweed at gulls. They got close to the boundary and were throwing things (not always seaweed) into the closed area so I casually said "hey guys..." I thought I'd gently gotten my point across, but soon they were back. One boy threw a stick, which I immediately noticed was about to hit me in the head. Completely reflexively my hand, with Moleskine notebook still in it, went up to protect my face. The stick bounced off the notebook, thus saving my left eye from a really nasty injury. The kids ran away before I even recovered from the shock. Nearby visitors made sure I was OK.  They wondered where the parents of said kids were, but we were unable to track them down.  There was no point in calling law enforcement, since the kids had taken off and I was uninjured. This incident is definitely one of the strangest things that has ever happened to me during a plover warden shift.

The Moleskine Notebook that Saved my Eye
Several people have pointed out that it's lucky I still keep my bird notes in a real notebook as my iPhone would not have saved me -- imagine a stick in my eye AND a broken iPhone -- shudder.

Now back to the uplifting good parts of the day.  A low flying helicopter buzzed the beach, but did not disturb the roosting birds. What is it with everybody flying so low?

As I was leaving the beach, the guy who had let me look through his scope earlier was now up on the boardwalk and called out to me that the other mystery tern was a Sandwich Tern.  Cool! When I got up onto the boardwalk, I observed both the "King" and the "Prince" of Plum Island (Tom Wetmore and Doug Chickering) had joined the scrum. Doug generously let me look through his scope at the Sandwich Tern. The view was unobstructed by gulls so I could be certain of the ID. Wow! Two awesome Plum Island records for me! Royal Tern and Sandwich Tern. What a great day!

Serious Looking Gull

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"famous Petersen Identification System applied to man-made world"

Tom P.