Tuesday, July 21, 2015

rain keeps greenheads away

Saturday July 18
AM Shift North
Coffee of the Day: Tanzania Peaberry
Bird of the Day: herring gull
Weird Wrack Item of the Week: tie between plastic beach anchor and weird earthen mound with green plastic bit
Invisi-bird Status: Refuge: 9 pairs, 1 nest, 18 chicks, 26 fledglings; Sandy Point: 10 pairs, 3 nests, 17 chicks, zero fledglings; Town Beach: 3 pairs, zero nests, 8 chicks, zero fledglings. Number actually seen by me: zero.

Looking South
It was raining when I got up and I wondered if I should bother going to the refuge. After about an hour it stopped so I decided to go. Gatehouse was actually a little surprised any plover wardens showed up. Visitors showed up too, though not many.
Looking North
There were quite a few fishermen and no stand up paddle boarders. The fish are allegedly more likely to bite when it's raining, but apparently nobody told the fish that. Nobody got so much as a nibble while I was there.
An osprey flew over my head several times. It didn't catch any fish either. By far the most common bird was the herring gull. There were tons of them. I lost count at 132. They were mainly roosting on the sand in the closed area. Every once in awhile a few more herring gulls would fly in and the least tern air defense command would scramble to drive them away. The least terns were very active and, yes, they were catching fish.
Raindrops on Gull Feather in the Wrack
All of the visitor questions I answered were about the piping plover nesting. It is amazing how many people think the only species that nest on beaches are sea turtles. BTW, we don't have any sea turtles nesting here. People were genuinely interested in what I had to say about the plovers.
Strange Earthen Mound with Green Plastic Thingie
Minor rain showers came and went. The beach was free of greenheads. I think the rain and the cool temperatures kept them away.
Beach Anchor
I had loads of time to walk along the wrack line and observe different types of seaweed (I did not taste the dulse to see if it really tastes like bacon.) I found a plastic "beach anchor" left behind by some beach goer -- I don't think it washed up from somewhere else. There was a mound of sand and seaweed with a shard of plastic on top that clearly looked like somebody arranged it that way. for a second I thought the plastic matched that of the beach anchor, but on closer inspection it didn't.

Gull Who Stands On One Leg and Steals Bait
It started to rain again around 11:30 so I left the beach a tad early. On my way back to the boardwalk, I noticed the remains of a beach bonfire. Thankfully, it was not still smoldering.

Remains of Fire -- Please, People, No Fires on the Refuge

Monday, July 13, 2015

why are there greenheads?

Saturday July 11
AM Shift North
Coffee of the Day: Ethiopian Yirgacheffe
Bird of the Day: ring-billed gull
Weird Wrack Item of the Week: none
Invisi-bird Status: haven't seen any official numbers this week. Number actually seen by me: zero.

Looking South
This was by far the most crowded I've seen the beach yet this year.  Also the most people I've seen actually in the water swimming. Summer is in full swing. Unlike last week, fishermen outnumbered standup paddle boarders 10 to 2. I did not see anybody catch a striper or a flounder or anything other than somebody else's line.

I had several people ask me about piping plovers, everything from what they look like to where they nest and whether gulls prey on them. Oddly, nobody asked me for a date when the closed part of the beach will reopen. Everybody seems to get it that we open when the last chick has fledged. I did have somebody ask if the beach closure was for sea turtles - which don't nest here.

The most interesting question I had all morning was "why are there greenheads?" I had trouble wrapping my mind around that question. Why are there greenheads? Why is there air? Why is there a planet Earth? I ended up just explaining that greenheads are a kind of horsefly, that they breed in the salt marsh, are eaten by fish and birds, and are only around in their adult form in July and part of August. Oh, and it really hurts when they bite.

The greenheads were indeed out in full force but left me alone 'cause I followed my own advice and wore light colored clothing and sprayed myself with Deep Woods Off. Light colors are key because greenheads are attracted to dark colors and will go right for your butt if you're wearing blue jeans. I ended up offering my Deep Woods Off to a group of people visiting Plum Island for the first time. They didn't bring any kind of bug repellant and one of the women was wearing black shorts. The whole group sprayed on the Off and were much more comfortable. I also advised them to move closer to the water, because there was more of a breeze there and greenheads are clumsy fliers. BTW, these weren't the people who asked "why are there greenheads?"

There was a great article in Yankee Magazine last year talking about the miserable creatures: 
Greenheads: The Beasts of the Northern Wild.

Looking North
I didn't see a single piping plover the whole shift, but I did see a least tern give another least tern a fish. They were both adults so maybe they are the pair that lost their nest to the coyote and they're attempting to renest.

Other interesting bird behavior included a lone redwinged blackbird attacking an osprey and a ring-billed gull successfully evading three herring gulls bent on stealing a morsel of bait that the ringbill had pilfered from a fisherman. The ringbill out maneuvered the herring gulls with fancy flying moves worthy of an air show.

Friday, July 10, 2015

and the days go by

Saturday July 4
AM Shift
Coffee of the Day: Ethiopian Harrar
Bird of the Day: Surf Scoter
Weird Wrack Item of the Week: some weird looking thing with a light on the end.
Invisibird-status: haven't seen an official report. Number seen by me: 1.

The weather was hazy to start off the morning. It was the kind of haze that causes looming. Boats that were actually below the horizon appeared to be flying above the horizon line.  It's kind of a fun thing to try to photograph.

July already? Is time speeding up? This is the key time for plover wardening because there are chicks on the beach who need to feed before they can fledge and this is prime beach time for humans. That said, it was a much quieter shift than I expected for the 4th of July. I answered the usual piping plover breeding cycle questions for a few visitors who were all very nice and genuinely interested.

Stand-up Paddle Boarders
Whether it was the tide, the wind conditions, or just the holiday weekend, the day drew stand-up paddle boarders in droves. They even outnumbered fishermen. At one point there were 10 stand-up paddle boarders and only 3 fishermen within my line of sight. One paddle boarder paddled south from the town beach and landed on the closed area of beach. It's OK if he stays in the water, but this guy walked on the beach.  I called Gatehouse and she got Unit 62. The guy did land again, but by the time 62 arrived on the boardwalk, the paddle boarder was gone.

The incoming tide was bringing in lots of interestingly shaped pieces of kelp. It was a good day for people who like to identify different types of seaweed.

Most of the bird action of the day was least terns chasing great black backs out of their territory. The terns were definitely winning. The most interesting bird sighting I had was two surf scoters just off shore. I usually see them more in the spring and early summer, not so much in July. They're really cool looking birds, but of course they were too far away for me to photograph.

Weird Wrack Item of the Week
The strangest thing I found in the wrack -- between two piles of absolutely normal-looking wrack -- was some kind of long articulated metal thing with what looked like a light on one end. I think it might have come off a boat -- maybe some kind of visibility thing -- but I really have no idea.

Joppa Penguins
The Joppa Flats penguins on their plastic ice floes are back in the Merrimack River just in time for peak kayaking. And yes, kayakers were doing selfies with the penguins.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

life is a beach

Saturday June 27
AM shift

Coffee of the Day: Ethiopian Harrar
Bird of the Day: common tern
Weird Wrack Item of the Week: black thing with holes in it
Invisi-bird Status: haven't seen any numbers in a couple weeks. Number actually seen by me: 1.

Adult Piping Plover in the Haze
The line for coffee at Plum Island Coffee Roasters was out the door and into the parking lot. That's fairly unusual but it's happened a few times recently. Not sure if it's regulars or tourists. In any case, I eventually got my coffee and was only slightly late for my shift.

The day started out really hazy but otherwise a nice beach day. Not too hot. Not too humid. Not too many greenheads yet. No greenheads came anywhere near me and I only saw 2 visitors doing the dance of the greenheads. This is probably the last weekend before the total greenhead onslaught.

Still Hazy to the South
I only had to remind a three people of the boundary to the closed area: one toddler and one young couple walking along the water line focused on the horizon. All were cooperative. A couple of people were full of questions about piping plovers, so I got to do the whole life cycle speech. After that, things were very quiet. I would have expected the beach to be busier as the day grew brighter, but I guess people had already decided where they were going to spend their Saturday and the beach wasn't it.

I saw one adult piping plover, presumably one of the two that I've been seeing regularly.  The most interesting bird of the day was the common tern, even though they are always around. The interesting part was that I watched a common tern try to steal a fish from a double crested cormorant. This was not a small fish suitable for a common tern. The tern failed to get the fish before the cormorant swallowed it, but it did make repeated attempts. I've never seen that before. I've read that common terns do indulge in kleptoparasitism with their own species, but I never heard of them robbing other species.

Weird Wrack Item of the Week
The weird wrack item of the week looked like something that might have come out of the inside of a shoe -- like an insole or something -- but the size and shape were all wrong. I have no idea what it was but it was definitely trash and not something that would normally be on the beach.

off to see the chicks

Thursday June 25

Piping plover chicks are the cutest beings on the planet. Period. They define cuteness. I had the opportunity to ride out onto the beach with refuge biological staff this afternoon (Thursday 6/25) to see chicks and nests. This was supposed to have happened last week, but got rescheduled because of weather.  This turned out to be a fortuitous rescheduling because I got to see some newly hatched chicks still in the "fluff ball on sticks" stage.
Nice Shady Nest In The Beach Grass
I gave up on taking photos fairly quickly as I just wanted to watch the chicks all the time.  Even the tiniest chicks do the "run real fast then stop abruptly" thing. At this stage their legs seem outlandishly long in proportion to their bodies, so watching them run is entertaining.

Some of the chicks I saw were close to 3 weeks old and I could see very clearly how much more defined their markings are starting to look. I'm not nearly experienced enough to tell the age of a chick by its feathers, but I was happy to be able to observe the differences.

Camouflage-- See If You Can Find the Adult Piping Plover in this Photo
I saw two nests, one in the shade of the beach grass on the slope of the dune and one in the open on the flat part of the beach.  Biological staff over the past couple of years had begun to notice plover pairs nesting higher up, some even over the crest of the dune.  The one in the beach grass wasn't quite that high up, but it was higher than some. The one on the flat part of the beach was lined with bits of shell. Plover nests are often just plain scrapes in the sand with nothing added at all but it is not totally uncommon for the adults to line the scrape with either shell bits or tiny pebbles or both.

Nest Lined With Bits of Shell
The adult plovers were being very vigilant, watching the chicks and keeping a lookout for possible predators.
Distraction Display
I also found out what happened to the least tern nests I'd been watching: predation by coyote. The least terns have moved farther south along the beach to renest. Said coyote got some of the plover nests too. They will likely renest, as it is definitely early enough. This means a slightly longer nesting season - into August.

I enjoyed this experience tremendously. I can't believe how lucky I am to get to spend time with the cutest beings on the planet.

There Are Two Adults And Three Chicks In This Picture

catch-up post 2: June 20

Saturday June 20
AM Shift

Coffee of the Day: Tanzania Peaberry.
Bird of the Day: northern gannet
Weird Wrack Item of the Week: a kid picking up trash in the wrack line
Invisi-bird Status: Official: Didn't see a report this week. Number actually seen by me: 1

Looking South
It's Let's Go Outside day. This is the event that used to be Go Fish! or Kid's Fishing Day.  The beach at Lot 1 was set aside for the event.  Some of the volunteer fishing instructors were already fishing in advance of the event and one guy reeled in a 20 pound 40 inch long striper before the event started. That was one cool fish.

Volunteers Setting Up for Let's Go Outside
It took awhile for the crowd of kids wanting to fish built up, but by late morning attendance seemed pretty good.

I  only saw one piping plover, who was feeding mainly at the water line. The least terns that had established themselves near the northern boundary a couple of weeks ago seemed to have moved further south. Not sure if I was wrong about there being a nest/nests or if something happened.

In other interesting bird news, today was the first time I've seen a northern gannet all season. A birder had mentioned to me last week that he hadn't seen any gannets and I told him I hadn't either. We speculated that the fish were all further off shore so the gannets were too far away to see. Anyway, I saw a gannet diving pretty far out near where some fishing boats were anchored. The fish must have come in closer since last week.
Volunteers Showing People How to Fish
I kept waiting for that 20 pound striper to reappear, but it didn't. I did see a kid land a small striper, to much cheering and many photo ops. I'm so glad those kids got to see at least one fish before I went off duty.
A Good Crowd
The best "Let's Go Outside Day" moment for me was not, however, the fish. I spotted a kid methodically walking the wrack line with a bucket and a reacher picking up trash. I told him I didn't know picking up trash was part of the event. He said that he didn't either but he'd seen a volunteer with a bucket and went over to ask if he could borrow it.  The kid had this idea all on his own!
Milkweed -- Save The Monarchs
A bumper crop of milkweed was blooming near the Gatehouse. This makes me feel heartened about the future of the monarch butterfly. Habitat loss is putting the monarch butterfly in jeopardy and milkweed is crucial to their survival. For more info on saving the monarch, you can check out the refuge's Saving Monarch Butterflies page.
Milkweed Blossoms about to Open

catch-up post 1: June 13

Saturday June 13
AM Shift

Coffee of the Day: French Roast Sumatra
Bird of the Day: common tern
Weird Wrack Item of the Week: tangled pile of netting, rope, sticks, and what looked like a base -- that's base as in baseball, not base as in the opposite of acid
Invisi-bird Status:  Official: Didn't see a report this week. Number actually seen by me: 1

Looking South
It was a quiet day at the beach despite the nice weather. I talked to very few visitors and all the questions were relevant. When has that ever happened? No questions about the renovations at the blue Inn (they really lowercase the b in blue but uppercase the I in Inn). No questions about the construction up near the jetty. Only questions about piping plovers and the beach.

Fair Sailing
One piping plover hung around alternating between feeding at the water line and feeding in the wrack line. Didn't see the other member of this northernmost pair. I hope this means there's a nest and I just missed seeing the change of incubation shifts.

Tangled Pile of Trash In The Wrack
Thankfully, there was not a lot of trash on the beach. Probably the most interesting item I saw was this tangled pile of stuff. It looked like parts of a lobster trap and lots of rope attached to a sandbag. I mentally tried to untangle it in order to figure out how all those things came together, but stopped short of physically untangling it.