Tuesday, July 26, 2016

random observations

Friday June 22, 2016
Bird of the Day: Eastern kingbird
Coffee of the Day: Sumatra Mandeling
Weird Wrack Item of the Week: nothing really interesting this week
Invisi-bird Status:  Official numbers(as of 7/22): 17 pairs, 1 nest, 16 families with chicks, 39 unfledged chicks, 46 fledglings. Number actually seen by me: zero

Beach from the Lot 1 Boardwalk

Random observation 1: Eastern kingbirds don't seem to be hanging around the beach as much this year. I used to observe them perched on the mile markers and the signs. Today, a drive down the road all the way to the end revealed a ton of eastern kingbirds perched mainly on trees and shrubs, but also a few on fence posts. There seem to be as many of them as there usually are. They're just not hanging around the beach.

Least Tern
Random observation 2: Least terns are so conspicuous that people constantly ask "Are those the plovers?" I think I achieved a new record answering that question today simply while standing on the boardwalk looking for least tern chicks. I wasn't even on duty at that point, just watching terns with my binoculars. You have to be practically unconscious not to notice least terns on the beach, whereas you have to put a lot of effort into seeing piping plovers on the beach. On the other hand, piping plovers are mad cute. They have it all over least terns in the cuteness department.

Greenhead Trap -- Diagram of Greenhead Lifecycle
Random observation 3: The new greenhead signage and the see through (or see into -- I don't know the word for this) greenhead trap are both a big hit. Kids were very curious about it. There was a bee in it at one point and a little girl was very concerned and wanted to know "Why is there a bee in there?" I had to say I don't know, but it can get out and the greenheads can't. The bee did get out.

Greenhead Trap -- Transparent Side so You Can See Inside
Random observation 4: It's cooler on the beach than on the other side of the dunes, but it's still wicked hot. And humid.

Looking South
I know I promised a post on the Massachusetts Division of  Fisheries and Wildlife (DFW) Habitat Conservation Plan for Piping Plover. I'm rereading it again and trying to summarize what the differences are from the current rules. My general opinion is that it's a good thing for the Cape Cod beaches -- improving relations with the off road vehicle users and the general public while still protecting the growing piping plover population. The population has grown enough in Massachusetts that a new plan was definitely due. Most of the stuff this plan deals with doesn't apply to federal land anyway, so doesn't affect our little (or not so little) patch of habitat. More later.

Monday, July 18, 2016

at the greenhead festival

Friday July 15, 2016
Bird of the Day: least sandpiper
Coffee of the Day: Sumatra Mandeling
Weird Wrack Item of the Week: the same cargo cult airplane thing I saw last week
Invisi-bird Status: Official: 21 pairs, 3 nests, 18 families, 46 chicks, 44 fledglings. Number actually seen by me: zero.
Greenhead warnings in full effect.

Hot, humid, and hazy weather makes for interesting loomings, my favorite type of optical illusion. I was lucky enough to spot a sailboat floating above the horizon just after I arrived on the beach. For once, I got a photo that captures the illusion.  Later on I saw two lobster boats and a huge barge with attendant tugboat all floating above the horizon also.  No sign of Star Island floating though -- the haze was too thick for that.

Weird Airplane in the Wrack - Week 2
The second thing I noticed was that most of the weird airplane thing I commented on last week was still there. A friend who read last week's post pointed out to me that the airplane was a cargo cult airplane and reminded me of the (very old) movie Mondo Cane. Aha! The airplane in the sand is a decoy to attract a real airplane bringing wonderful things. I doubt that there is an actual cargo cult on Plum Island but the island is just weird enough that I would believe somebody was deliberately referencing cargo cults with their sculpture.

Beach Life
I did not see my personal piping plover family. I know the chick was about to fledge any minute last Friday, so I was not surprised that they weren't there. If I could fly, I'd forage somewhere else for a change too. :-)

Many least tern chicks have hatched and are being ministered to by their parents. Much bringing of fish to the young is occurring. Unlike piping plovers (which are precocial), least terns are altricial. Piping plover chicks leave the nest and forage for food as soon as they hatch. Least tern chicks need their parents to feed them.  The least tern chicks are pretty well hidden in the wrack line, so I often don't see them til they are almost fledged. However, careful observation of where exactly the adults were repeatedly delivering fish revealed a nest near a piece of driftwood. I got to watch the adults feed two chicks several fish. This was my first spotting of least tern chicks this season.

Least Tern Air Defense Command Interfering with my Photo
The beach was not as crowded as I might have expected with the extreme heat. Maybe the word is out that the greenheads are extremely active. I saw two women go into the water for a dip and then lie down to dry off. They immediately got mobbed by greenheads who love wet skin. I don't know why they love wet skin, but they do. They also like dark colors so dark beach clothing is not a good idea.  I had sprayed all exposed skin and much of my clothing with Deep Woods Off and was getting complacent, especially when  a light breeze came up. Then the breezed died down and I felt one bite my upper arm just under my sleeve -- that must be the only spot I missed with the Off. I exclaimed curse words and swatted it away. The bleeding wasn't too bad, but it sure hurt like heck. First greenhead bite of the season - check. When my relief arrived he greeted me with "I've come for the Greenhead Festival!"  I almost doubled over laughing. I responded that I'd only gotten one bite, to which he answered, "Well, two and you'd have to go to the ER!" I hope the beach goers realized we were exaggerating. Those things do draw a lot of blood though.

Y'know, maybe a festival celebrating Plum Island's mean, bloodthirsty greenheads would draw tourists :-)

Monday, July 11, 2016

and the days go by

Friday July 8,2016
Bird of the Day: the Franklin's Gull I didn't see
Coffee of the Day: Ethiopian Harrar
Weird Wrack Item of the Week: assemblage of beach trash in the shape of an airplane
Invisi-bird Status:Official: 40 pairs, 15 nests, 22 families, 58 chicks. Number actually seen by me: 1 adult, 1 chick.
Impressive Clouds to the South
For an overcast and windy morning, there was still a fair amount of visitor action on the beach. All the visitors were cooperative and interested -- including two women who asked a lot of questions about least terns (maybe I should change the name of this blog to the Least Tern Diaries -- just kidding). Another woman asked me where was the best place to find sand dollars. I told her Sandy Point, but she didn't want to go there so she wandered north along the water line onto the Newbury town beach. There weren't many shells of any kind near the water, so I have no idea whether she found what she was looking for.
Incoming Tide
The tide was out and it was a long walk to the water line, but I didn't have to sprint to catch people this week. Someday I will figure out a tide proof, water proof, safe solution for marking the boundaries at low tide. If you're a long term reader of this blog, you'll know we've tried all kinds of things with rope, buoys, concrete blocks... and of course the ever popular trademark Big Steve stick fence. Where's the app for this? :-)
Weird Wrack Item of the Week
I'd only been there about 15 minutes when I spotted a piping plover chick running around. It looked big enough to be able to fly, but I didn't see any evidence that it actually did. I suspected this chick belonged to my favorite pair, and sure enough I did see one of the parents shortly thereafter. Later on when bio staff came by to start the survey, I mentioned it to her and she confirmed that was the only chick left from my favorite pair. She counted it as a fledgling because as of today (Friday) it reached the age that is technically considered fledged.
Maybe It's Supposed to be a Plane?
My glasses, my binoculars, and my camera kept getting all covered in sea spray as the wind was coming in over the water. That and the low cloud cover made it really hard to identify the birds that were flying by out on the horizon. It also made it not much fun to take photos. My only photo fun was with the strange construction someone had made out of pieces of wood, pieces of wire lobster traps, a concrete block, rocks, and fishing gear. Once I positioned myself correctly, I realized it was supposed to be an airplane. The other fun moment involving the pile of beach junk was when the funky looking gull who has been hanging around for several weeks, discovered some mussels on it and started trying to pry them off. 
Gull Eating Part of It
Speaking of gulls, a couple of birders had reported a Franklin's Gull seen off Lot 1 early in the morning. By the time I was on duty, it had left the Lot 1 beach area. Later in the morning (around 9:30), another birder reported it on a sand bar in the mouth of the Merrimack.  Sigh. I am nowhere near as good as Doug Chickering at writing riveting stories about the bird I missed. As for the birds doing the flyby way out on the horizon, I am guessing they were some species of shearwater too far away to identify -- other birders had reported a movement of shearwaters of various kinds visible off Lot 1.

In other piping plover news, a couple of regular readers have asked my opinion on the new Massachusetts statewide piping plover plan announced in this press release today (Friday). I really feel like I need to read the whole plan in depth before I offer my opinion, so I'll hold off and do a separate blog post on that. Meanwhile, you can find the plan and supporting documents at https://www.fws.gov/newengland/

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

the least tern air defense command strikes!

Friday July 1, 2016
Bird of the Day: least tern
Coffee of the Day: French Roast Sumatra
Weird Wrack Item of the Week: a weird thing I can't identify
Invisi-bird status: Official: Have not seen official report yet. Number actually seen by me: 6

A Long Way to the Water Line
Much schedule confusion involving disappearing emails, too many plover wardens scheduled at the same time, and stuff like that there, resulted in my taking the mid-day shift at the south boundary. I haven't done south in like two years because chasing toddlers whose parents are not watching them was much more of a problem there than at the Lot 1 beach.  Luckily the toddlers of yesteryear or their successors were not around this week.

The tide was out and there was a lot of territory to patrol. A small group of chicks have been running around at the south boundary so keeping people away from them was my main mission.  There is also a huge least tern presence at this end and my position was much closer to them. I have yet to see a least tern chick this year though.
Out for a Run
I spied the plover chicks and their parents right away and got to watch them do all the cute things plover chicks do. Believe it or not, in all my years of watching piping plovers, I had never seen a chick eat one of those clam worms that live in the wet sand. I'd seen adults do it and seen other people's cool pix of chicks with clam worms, but never seen it myself. So guess what? Not only did I see a chick eat a clam worm, I saw it repeat the action three times. It pecked, pulled up the worm, swallowed it, ran a few steps, pecked again and did the same thing. What amazed me was that it didn't come up empty-beaked. It got the worm every time.
Weird Wrack Item of the Week
At one point I stood up from my chair to reapply sunscreen and spotted out of the corner of my eye a least tern coming directly at my head. Just as my mind processed that it was about to dive bomb me, I felt the least tern poop hit me. I am officially part of the life of the beach! The least tern air defense command evidently coded me as some kind of predator. By the way, least tern poop does not mix well with sunscreen -- attempts to clean it off my arm resulted in smearing it all over.
Thinking About Flying?

With the chicks running around so much, especially choosing to run around outside the refuge boundary, teens with smart phones thought they could just follow them and take photos. One couple in particular following two chicks and getting way too close. I was a little brusque with them the second time I explained that it was NOT OK to chase them. If you want a photo, fine. If you stand still they will probably come close enough for you to get your Instagram shot. If you chase them, they will get stressed out and run like crazy instead of feeding. This is not good. I was kinda hoping the least tern air defense command would go after the teens. Anyway, the teens grunted at me and went to take pictures somewhere else.

Speaking of photography, a serious photographer with an expensive camera and tripod materialized in the closed area up by the dunes while I was down at the water line dealing with people who couldn't figure out where the boundary is because it's hard to see the signs from down there. Said photographer was already headed around Sandy Point by the time I got back up, so I never actually spoke to him. I love photography. I do it a lot. It is not necessary to trespass or to chase threatened species to get good photos. I wish more photographers respected the wildlife and the environment.

Gulls and Barnacles Hanging Out on the Rocks