Friday, April 29, 2016

first tern of the year

Friday April 29, 2016
AM Shift
Coffee of the Day: Ethiopian Harrar
Bird of the Day: common tern
Weird Wrack Item of the Week: large plastic barrel
Invisi-bird status: no official update and no encounter with biological staff so status is same as last week: 25 pairs. Number actually seen by me: zero.

Looking Northwest

It was pretty quiet for most of the shift. I basically had the beach to myself until almost 11:00AM. Even after that it was pretty slow with a couple of people asking questions and two people walking a dog boldly strolling from the town beach onto the refuge. They didn't get anywhere near the closed area because I intercepted them and politely explained that dogs are not allowed on the refuge. They were embarrassed that they hadn't noticed they were on the refuge. They were well past the sign on the boundary with the town beach but they were so engrossed in whatever they were talking about that they never saw the sign. Anyway, the dog was on a leash and the people were very cooperative, so no problem.
Lots of Lobster Gear
A few hundred long-tailed ducks were bouncing around on the waves well offshore but they were not noisy at all. You wouldn't even notice them if you weren't looking. That was a big change from last week.

The most notable bird sighting was the first common tern of the year. I was surprised to see it, because they don't usually arrive until May is well underway. It did a perfect plunge dive and came up with a fish (no I couldn't identify the fish) then flew off.  I didn't see any more terns after that so maybe he was an "early bird". The other first of the year sighting for me was tree swallows. I'd been hearing they were back, but hadn't seen them yet. Other than that, there wasn't much bird action on the beach. Not much birder action either.

Sea Gooseberry
Once again the weather was windy and cold. It was considerably colder on the beach than on the other side of the dunes. With so few visitors and so few birds, I had plenty of opportunity to walk the wrack line.  I found a sea gooseberry, which I first thought was a salp except that salps always appear in large numbers. It's missing the long filaments used to catch prey, but otherwise looks like the sea gooseberry. Come to think of it, those usually occur in swarms too. I don't usually have this much time to look this closely at marine invertebrates.

Knotted Wrack (I think)
I watched a bunch of seaweed washing up and then back out again as the tide was going out. It finally ended up on the beach. So yes, there is actual wrack in the wrack line :-)

Plastic Barrel
Trash items included the usual plastic bottles, Hooksett disks (OK, I only saw one, but still, that spill was years ago), a lot of lobster gear, and one large plastic barrel.

Moon Snail Shell
In today's episode of CSI Wrack Line, I found a moon snail shell with a perfect countersunk hole in it.  The northern moon snail preys on bivalves like clams by engulfing the prey with its foot and drilling a hole in the shell. Clearly this moon snail was eaten by another moon snail. That does happen.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

of seal antics, noisy ducks, and missing radios

Friday April 22, 2016
AM Shift
Coffee of the Day: Tanzania Peaberry
Bird of the Day: long-tailed duck
Weird Wrack Item of the Week: small black plastic mystery bottle
Invisi-bird Status: Official count: 25 pairs!!!!! Number seen by me: 4 total -- 1 pair and 2 unaffiliated adults
View to the South with Long Piece of Driftwood
The forecast was for scattered showers and sure enough it was raining when I got up, but it cleared up in time for a pleasant shift. 

There was no radio in the box when I signed in, and Gatehouse wasn't on duty yet, but I decided I could use my phone if I really needed to. Naturally, I spotted a trespasser in the closed area walking south very rapidly and already way too far down the beach for me to be able to do anything to get her attention. I called it in and left it up to staff. Eventually the trespasser reversed direction and then headed off the beach at Lot 2. That was the exciting trespassing incident for the day. All other visitors were law-abiding, friendly, and concerned about piping plovers.

Looking North
The most dominant bird of the day was the long-tailed duck. Hundreds of noisy ducks made quite a racket. Every time I looked there were more. I lost count somewhere over 500. A visitor came over to ask what they were eating, specifically she wanted to know if there was some large dead thing out there that was attracting so many long-tailed ducks. The thing is, they eat mostly marine invertebrates and some fish. I speculated that maybe some kind of bait fish were running and that was what attracted them. It probably wasn't a specific food phenomenon attracting them. This is a convenient place for migrating ducks to stop and refuel anyway.

In addition to the long-tailed duck extravaganza, there was a seal putting on a show. Usually the seals just kind of poke their heads up, look around, and dive. Not normally dramatic. Today's seal was jumping out of the water, splashing back down and stirring up the water with its flippers. A couple of visitors asked if it was really a seal because they interpreted it as acting like a dolphin.  The seal's antics got more and more dramatic, rolling over in the air and splashing with its tail, until it finally swam further out and resumed the more usual sticking its head up and surveying the scene.

Weird Wrack Item of the Week
A big group of birders from Mass Audubon materialized on the boardwalk, scanning the ocean with scopes and enjoying the long-tailed duck show. One of them came down to the beach to ask me about the piping plovers. At that point, biological staff was still out there counting but had told me they had counted 15 pairs on the southern leg of their survey and expected to find several more, so I was able to give the Mass Audubon person up to the minute data. She also wanted to know what kind of predators go after piping plovers here, and had a few other plover nesting questions, so I felt all relevant and meaningful (not that dealing with questions about noisy ducks and seal antics isn't meaningful :-)).

The Mass Audubon people got all excited about seeing "purple sandpipers on the jetty". They must have amazing optics if they can see sandpipers hunkered down on the south jetty at the mouth of the Merrimack. Then it became clear that they were referring to a pile of rocks off the town beach. I couldn't detect anything resembling a bird on those rocks either, but my binoculars are not nearly that powerful.  Purple sandpipers are a cool sighting, so I'm happy the group got to see them. Meanwhile, I had to get back to other visitors so didn't get a chance to ask for a peep through one of their scopes.
Birders from Mass Audubon
The invisi-birds generously showed themselves to me. I spotted a pair doing the parallel run display, a lone piping plover catching insects in the wrack, and later in the shift another loner flew in from the direction of the town beach and landed just south of the boundary. I even got a photo of one from a distance. That's a nice full day in the invisi-bird department.

Piping Plover on the Beach
My relief arrived expecting that I had a radio to hand off to him along with the backpack.  When I told him there had been no radios in the box when I arrived, we started to wonder if the south warden had both radios or whether the south warden didn't have a radio either or what all was up with the radios. We agreed that on my way out, I'd let Gatehouse know that north didn't have a radio. The mystery deepened. Gatehouse found one radio in the gatehouse. Hmm, why was it in the gatehouse and not in the charger in the box? And what about the other radio?  Neither of us knew whether south had a radio. I headed home to transform myself from bird person to tree person for a board meeting of the International Dendrological Research Institute and left Gatehouse to solve the radio mystery.
Boardwalk without Birders
By the way, dear spellchecker, dendrological is really a word whether your dictionary believes it or not. :-)

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

another extremely windy shift at the beach

Friday April 15, 2016
AM Shift
Coffee of the Day: French Roast Sumatra
Bird of the Day: piping plover!
Weird Wrack Item of the Week:  a vaguely steam punk-looking thing so weird I have no idea what it is
Invisi-bird Status: no official report today and no chance encounter with biological staff. Number actually seen by me: 3!

Looking North
Just when I thought I'd experienced the windiest day of April, I got over the dunes onto the beach and discovered just how much windier it could be. The tide was going out so the waves were not as gigantic as last week's. I spent a lot of time walking down to the water line and back up to where I had anchored my beach chair with a couple of huge pieces of driftwood to keep it and my backpack from blowing away. Visitors were few and far between, mostly disappointed birders as the wind was keep bird action down.

Weird Wrack Item of the Week
There were several wrack lines mostly made up of shells and small bits of reeds, not a lot of seaweed. I saw less trash than usual and most of it was rope or parts of lobster traps. The weirdest thing by far was a rubber thing that looked like some kind of steam punk bathing cap or diving gear -- either that or some kind of plumbing supply. If anybody knows what it is, please feel free to let me know in the comments.
After repeatedly scanning the beach with binoculars and finding zero shorebirds of any kind I finally heard the peep-lo call penetrating through the wind and spotted two piping plovers running down to the inter-tidal zone from somewhere just below the dunes.  They hung around feeding in the wet sand just above the water line for quite a while. They were clearly a pair so I figured they must be the northernmost pair spotted by biological staff last week. I loved watching them stir up the wet sand with that foot trembling"plovering" motion. Whatever they were chowing down on was too small for me to identify.

The most interesting bird behavior of the day was a duel between a common raven and a red-tailed hawk. Corvids attacking red-tails is a common sight, but it's usually a mob of crows. This was a raven going at it one-on-one. The raven was very aggressive and drove the hawk to land on the ground several times. The hawk would then almost jump back up and chase the raven, with talons extended but the raven would quickly become the pursuer again. This went on for quite a while before both of them disappeared to the other side of the dunes. I have no idea who won or what they were fighting over.

As I was packing up to leave, a third piping plover came flying in over the dune making the peep-lo call and landed in the wrack line. It seemed to be catching some sort of insect that I couldn't make out with binoculars. I'd say three piping plovers and a raven vs. hawk show made up for the weather.


Tuesday, April 12, 2016

big waves

Friday 4/8/16
AM Shift North
Coffee of the Day: Clipper City Roast (a Colombian dark roast)
Bird of the Day: bald eagle
Weird Wrack Item of the Week: a hat
Invisi-bird Status: Semi-official: 5 pairs & 4 unpaired adults for a total of 14 -- as reported by biological staff fresh off the beach. Number actually seen by me: zero.

My best bird sighting of the day happened before I even got to the refuge. I spotted a bald eagle soaring over the Merrimack River. It may be one of the pair that has been hanging out at the refuge lately. I know "real birders" don't get excited about bald eagles, but those of us who live in Massachusetts have waited many many years for nesting bald eagles to be a not so uncommon thing here. Anyway, it made me feel good. Shortly after that I had a turkey vulture and an osprey, also satisfying sightings.
Early Morning Waves
As for the weather: The day started out windy again, like last week, and got windier as the day went on although the temperature was not as balmy as last week. I gave up trying to keep my hat on after about half an hour. I just stuffed it in the backpack and put up with the glare and my hair flying in my eyes.
Looking South
Things started out pretty quiet, but got busy for about the last hour of the shift. The tide had been coming in all morning so by 10:30 or so I was having to move my chair back from the waterline every few minutes. All of a sudden there were lots of visitors but not a lot of beach. A group of Russians were taking selfies with the big waves, but they seemed to know enough not to completely turn their backs on the waves (unlike certain fashion models I have encountered awhile back).  It was extremely challenging to explain to them why they couldn't walk down the beach past the signs though.  One of them understood enough English to get the basic idea, so they were cooperative.
Looking North
The rest of the visitors spoke English and didn't attempt to enter the closed area. The most common question was "why aren't there any surfers with the tide this high?" I had to admit I was surprised not to see surfers too. One guy insisted that if the water comes up that high on the beach that was as bad for the plovers as him walking on it so he should be allowed to walk on it. I managed to explain that they haven't established nests yet so the extremely high tide wasn't a threat yet and that he still had to stay out of the nesting area lest he disrupt feeding or mate selection activities. Everything worked out and he did his walking on the town beach. The best visitors of the day were a couple from Billerica with a little kid. They wanted to know all about the piping plovers. By the time I answered all their questions, the guy asked if he could volunteer as a plover warden. Wow. I told him to stop by headquarters and talk to them about volunteering. It would be really cool if I got somebody so excited about piping plovers that they decided to volunteer.

Big Waves
There was still beach left when biological staff went out to do the survey, but by about a half hour before full high tide there was almost no beach between the water line and the dunes. I moved back to the bottom of the stairs at the base of the boardwalk and managed to stay dry.

Major Spray
The most interesting line of wrack was high up on the beach. It was mostly normal organic stuff that makes sense, but there was a fair amount of trash like bottles and cans. The weirdest thing I spotted was a hat that had clearly been in and out of the water several times. Before I got a chance to pick it up, it had washed back out. It looked like there were barnacles growing on the plastic strip at the back. Couldn't get a really good photo of it, but it qualifies as weird wrack item of the week.

Weird Wrack Item of the Week
My relief arrived on time and I left. I got to the parking lot just as biological staff was arriving on the ATV. As I had suspected, there was not enough space for her to drive back on the beach so she had go out to the road and drive back that way. So lucky me, I was the first to get this week's numbers: 5 pairs, 4 unpaired adults. They're here. They're pairing off. It must be spring.

Normal Wrack Items of the Week

Saturday, April 2, 2016

a windy start to the season

AM Shift North
Coffee of the Day: French Roast Sumatra
Bird of the Day: long-tailed duck
Weird Wrack Item of the Week: red rubber glove standing tall
Invisi-bird Status: Biological staff reports seeing a dozen on this morning's survey. Number actually seen by me: zero.

The piping plovers are back at PRNWR and so are the plover wardens. I spent Friday morning on the beach in the wind. The wind and the generally unsettled weather were enough to keep most people off the beach, so there were very few visitors.  I spent most of my time scanning the beach with my binoculars in the hope of seeing my first piping plover of the year. I did periodically scan the ocean as well and was rewarded with a few northern gannets and a large flock of long-tailed ducks.  A whole flock of long-tailed ducks coming in for a landing in their trademark splashy belly flop style makes quite a spectacle.
Looking North
The wind was blowing so hard that I couldn't keep my hat on. Every time I stood up, my chair blew over so I had to weight it down to prevent it from becoming marine debris. The clouds were putting on a show too. Observing the sky was almost as dynamic as observing the birds.

Looking South
A walk along the wrack line yielded a few interesting things. I spotted something red sticking up from the sand and headed over to check it out. Yup, it was a glove sticking up as if someone were deep under the sand waving for help. Somebody must have propped it up like that as some kind of April Fools joke.

This old and faded View-Master looked up from the sand like some kind of pinkish alien wearing goggles. Hmm, maybe it was somehow related to the glove. Or not.

Herring gulls and great black backs were resting on the beach. Once in awhile a herring gull would attempt to fly into the wind, but for the most the gulls seemed to be avoiding flying. The only shorebird I saw all day was a killdeer at the airport, not on the beach. Come to think of it, even the planes weren't flying. Too much wind. Have I said that enough?

The Dunes
I could see biological staff making their way up the beach doing the survey. It was easy to tell it was them and not trespassers because trespassers don't usually drive ATVs and because they were getting out and scanning beach and dunes with binoculars. Once they arrived at my end of the beach I chatted with them about the plovers -- there are a dozen out there so far -- and about how much warmer (although wicked windy) it was than on my first shift last year. Last year I was wearing three jackets and there was still snow on the beach. This year I was wearing a sweatshirt over my t-shirt feeling quite warm despite the wind.