Tuesday, August 30, 2016

signs of fall

The Great Marsh
All the beaches and parking lots opened on Friday. The plover chicks are all fledged.  Bio staff roped off the areas with the late blooming least tern chicks. I figure the least tern air defense command can easily convince any visitors who get too close that it's really not a good idea. The swallows are doing their amazing gathering into huge flocks ballet over the dunes and the road and the parking lots. Shorebird migration is happening. It looks like the fall hawk migration is starting too. It's amazing how fall really kind of starts in August.

Shed Horseshoe Crab Shells -- Lots of Them
I took a side trip over to the Nelson Island part of the refuge in the hopes of spotting some shorebirds. In the past I've encountered loads of least and semipalmated sandpipers as well as greater and lesser yellowlegs feeding in the mudflats around this time. Alas, I spotted exactly one semipalmated sandpiper and one greater yellowlegs. Mostly what I found was lots of cast off horseshoe crab shells, really tiny ones. I know they molt a lot when they're juveniles, so maybe some of the shells of different tiny sizes were shed by the same individual over the course of the summer. Who knows? Anyway, they're cool looking and they lead me to believe that the marsh was a happening place this summer. It's still a happening place as I could see lots of small silvery fishes just under the surface of the water along both sides of the trail.
Two Horseshoe Crab Shells Closeup
Signs of fall were evident in the marsh as well. I spotted patches of glasswort starting to turn red, although most of it is still green. Glasswort is a really cool succulent as it loves salt, doesn't need much water to survive, turns vivid crimson in fall, and is edible. Oddly I've never tasted it. It stores whatever water it needs in its stems and is the first plant to establish itself in bare spots in really salty marshes. The reason it's called glasswort because its ashes were used in glass making. Evidently burnt glasswort contains lots of potash. I've heard it's also used in soap making.

Fall Already? -- Glasswort is Turning Red
Visitors, except for duck hunters, often miss this side of Parker River NWR, which is too bad because it's gorgeous. I know salt marshes are not as appealing as beaches, but I love to visit this spot and the adjacent Rough Meadows Mass Audubon sanctuary. 
Nelson Island

Monday, August 22, 2016

the heat goes on (but without flies)

Friday August 19, 2016
Bird of the Day: tree swallow
Coffee of the Day: French Roast
Weird Wrack Item of the Week: power cord
Invisi-bird Status: Official: 1 active pair, 2 chicks, 72 fledglings! Number actually seen by me: zero

72 fledglings! 72 fledglings! 72 fledglings! I think this might be a record for our beach. The remaining two piping plover chicks should fledge by Monday.  The least terns are taking their sweet time this year, especially the ones near the north boundary. I had a couple of grouchy people asking "what's taking them so long?" and other grouchy people insisting that "the web site" said the beaches were all open. I'm not clear on what web site they were talking about.  Grouchy people were in the minority this week. The greenheads are long gone and the small mean flies that aren't greenheads are also gone now, so nobody was complaining about flies. I talked to a lot of people and most of them were nice -- even the trespassers.
Beach - Looking South
Yes, there were trespassers. As soon as I arrived on the beach I spotted a couple in the closed area, walking along the lower wrack line (there are multiple lines of wrack right now) collecting shells. I called out to them, waved my arms and gestured for them to get out of there, yelled as loud as I could ... etc. Other beach goers (obviously fans of piping plovers and least terns) tried to get their attention as well. Finally, they began to stroll north, so I settled in and sipped on my coffee until they reached the boundary of the closed area.  Once they were out of there, I told them they were in a nesting area (mind you they had to walk past the signs and also past crowds of people obeying the signs -- gotta wonder how they didn't consider that there might be a reason none of the other beach goers were in there) and explained the whole thing to them. They were very apologetic. They are staying at Blue, the luxury inn, and are clearly from out of town. Guessing from their accent and from the fact that they thought the least terns looked like fairy terns, I'd say they're probably New Zealanders. They asked lots of good questions about least terns and were really very contrite.
Beach -- Looking North
So many people asked what was taking the least terns so long to fledge, I started making jokes about them. I mean, if your Mom and Dad brought you fish all the time, would you bother learning to fly? :-) Visitors picked right up on it and we started bantering about how the terns are like the Millennials living in their parents' basements. I'm picturing them playing video games on the couch while they wait for the next fish. They're not actually refusing to fledge, at least one family of chicks is only 2 weeks old. I don't know if the parents lost a first brood and renested or if they just laid a second brood for the heck of it. Anyway, I don't know any way of speeding up the fledging process -- unlike with Millennials where we could start a Go Fund Me campaign to pay off their student loans :-)
Heat Haze -- Not Sure Why the Center is in Focus
The sand was shimmering with heat haze making for a few optical illusions like cormorants the size of turkeys and great black backs the size of humans. Somebody actually asked if those dark birds were turkeys. Another person asked if people were working on the beach or doing something involving moving sand around. I didn't go into the whole scientific explanation of looming, just explained that the heat shimmer makes things look larger. I tried to capture some of the distortion in a photo (above) but it doesn't fully convey it. The dunes do look very distorted, but most of the birds don't. Another weird optical phenomenon in the heat haze is that Crane Beach and Ipswich look continuous with the island -- and also look weirdly flat. A visitor looking south along the beach asked me how far the road runs. I answered "to Sandy Point, about 7 miles", but that didn't satisfy her. She kept asking if the road ran "all the way to the end." Finally she gestured toward the Gloucester wind turbines and then to the east of that and I realized that "the end" meant the tip of Cape Ann. I explained that there's a lot of water between the tip of Plum Island and the southernmost land she could see. Heat haze and looming are very confusing.

Weird Wrack Item of the Week
Continually moving my chair back up the beach as the tide came in gave me different perspectives on the contents of the wrack line. I spotted a skeleton of something that clearly had a lot of vertebrae, but I'm no good whatsoever at identifying fish species by their bones. The strangest thing I spotted was a power cord of some kind wrapped around one of the fence posts. It looked old fashioned, not the sort of thing that Millennials would have in their parents' basement, but it didn't seem to be corroded at all. Go figure.
Normal Wrack Item of the Week
The cargo cult airplane is entirely gone without a trace, but a genuine flying machine of roughly 1940s vintage flew really low over the beach. Oddly, the least terns did not attack it. They seem to get most bent out of shape by state police helicopters.

Vintage Aeroplane
The biggest avian skirmish of the day came when a herring gull got hold of a juicy chunk of bait from one of the two fishermen on the beach (the fish aren't biting -- it's too hot -- so I'm surprised there were any fishermen) and flew up toward the dunes. A flock of at least 8 other gulls took off in pursuit and tried various techniques to steal that gull's prize. Remarkably, it hung onto the juicy morsel.

My Name is Herring Gull and I'll be Stealing your Bait Today
As I walked toward Lot 1 at the end of my shift, a huge swirling flock of swallows flew in over the dunes and surrounded Lot 1 -- and me. It's that time of year when you can't tell the swallows from the air. I walked through swallows to my car. Fortunately, they have not gotten to the point where they land on the road and tie up traffic yet. My camera was in my backpack, so no photo of the swallows. They'll be doing this for another couple of weeks and it's quite the show. Summer is definitely winding down.

This just in: As I was writing this, I saw the official post from Ranger Matt that the beach is open from Lot 3 to Sandy Point as of today.  Visitors will be happy. Now if we can just get those lazy Millennial least terns between Lots 1 and 2 to fledge ... :-)

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

a bad day for beach umbrellas

Friday August 12, 2016
Bird of the Day: semipalmated plover
Coffee of the Day: Clipper City Roast
Weird Wrack Item of the Week: a really beat up shoe
Invisi-bird Status: Official: I don't have the new numbers yet. Number actually seen by me: zero
Gulls Loafing -- Mostly Ringbills

It's too darn hot. The beach is a little cooler than the other side of the dunes and there is a breeze. The greenheads seem to be mostly gone but the "small mean flies that aren't greenheads" (lots of people call them that, including my family members -- I have no idea what they're actually called) are biting and are not as deterred by the wind as greenheads are. Beach-goers seeking relief from the heat are extremely angry about the flies. They're also angry that the beach isn't open yet.  Sigh. One guy started singing Tom Doyle's "Fifty Ways to Kill a Plover". No, I am not going to link to it.  Anyway, the most common question today was "exactly when is the beach going to be open?" It drives people crazy that I can't give an exact date.  At the south end, Lot 7 is open and the beach to the north of that for about a half mile is open now.
Semipalmated Plovers
The "fall" shorebird migration is definitely in progress. Flocks of semipalmated sandpipers are continuing to arrive. This week they are joined by flocks of semipalmated plovers, the sleeker, darker cousins of the piping plover.  At one point a flock of about 20 landed on the beach just below the wrack line and all faced into the wind. It was pretty impressive. I lost count of how many semipalmated plovers there were because they just kept arriving in groups. I had fun watching them. I dreamt about dunlin last night, but did not see any of them -- maybe soon.
Ring-billed Gull
The wind was keeping most of the gulls loafing on the beach.  Again, it was all ring-billed, herring, and great black gulls -- no Bonaparte's gulls and no laughing gulls. The ringbills are pretty good at flying into the wind and tacking, but even they were pretty much taking it easy except for one mass flight out to a spot where lots of common terns were fishing. After the sudden frenzy they all returned to the beach. Also, the gulls are still molting. The breeze was so strong at one point that it blew feathers off of a ring-billed gull in mid-flight.
Lots of beach-goers means lots of beach umbrellas. Lots of protection from the sun, right? Well, yeah, if you can keep them from becoming airborne. The wind seemed the strongest just above ground level, so in addition to molted gull feathers, trash, hats, and bits of seaweed blowing around, it was a bad day for beach umbrellas. Umbrellas were blowing over, turning inside out, and, yes, becoming airborne all over the place. One umbrella flew over the heads of bathers and landed well offshore. It sank fairly quickly. This prompted some people to furl their umbrellas and secure them. Other people just kept chasing their umbrellas and catching them before they became airborne. I saw one umbrella blow over three times, bending one rib each time. That became one mangled umbrella. Chairs were blowing over too, but none of them took flight.

In the Water It's Cooler and No Flies
The flies and the flying umbrellas drove a few people to pack up and leave. Other folks sought refuge from the flies in the water.  I've never heard so many complaints -- even during greenhead season -- about a "relaxing day at the beach" not meeting expectations.
Weird Wrack Item of the Week -- Beat-up Shoe
There's currently not a lot of trash on the beach, which is a relief. The strangest item I saw was a really grubby beat-up shoe. It had clearly been in the water a long time and it looked like it had settled into the beach for a long stay. It was in the closed area, so I couldn't remove it.  In other trash/wrack news, all traces of that cargo cult airplane are gone. No cargo has appeared.

Monday, August 8, 2016

quick update from the beach

Friday August 5, 2016
Bird of the Day: semipalmated sandpiper
Coffee of the Day: Sumatra Mandeling
Weird Wrack Item of the Week: feathers, lots of 'em
Invisi-bird Status: Official: 8 active pairs, 19 unfledged chicks, 55 fledglings. Number actually seen by me: zero.

It's not as hot on the beach as on the other side of the dunes. There's a breeze coming in off the water cooling things down a little and also keeping the remaining greenheads off of me. That said, it's still pretty darn hot.
Looking South
Loads of people were seeking relief from the heat on the beach. One would've thought it was Saturday. Sandy Point was already full before I got to the refuge and even when people left, it filled up again quickly. At one point Lot 1 was almost full too.

Looking North
Beach-goers grumpy with the heat wanted to spread out into the closed area. One guy with an Australian accent was grumbling loudly about "the stupid birds". I don't think piping plovers or least terns are particularly stupid.  Maybe someday people will understand that it is worth it to share the beach with the birds. I think some of the grumpy beach-goers are among the folks who think beaches should be totally free of seaweed and only have white sand too.

Some visitors really were interested in the piping plovers and were happy to hear we have so many fledglings this year. There were even a couple of people interested in least terns. However, mostly I spent my time intercepting people attempting to walk past the boundary into the nesting area.  The tide was coming in and the waterline was well above the sand berm/dropoff , so they couldn't claim not to see the boundary. One little kid (about 7 years old) kept chasing gulls into the nesting area and also just crawling through the sand into the closed area even when he wasn't chasing anything.  Speaking to him 4 or 5 times (I lost count after 3) had no effect. His mother wasn't too interested in keeping him in check either. With loads of other kids running around right on the boundary I ended up having to abandon my chair and just stand on the boundary line right in front of them for an hour or so.  A couple of big waves soaked my shoes, socks, and jeans when I couldn't back up fast enough so I was kind of a mess by the time I left.
Gulls Galore
Dozens of gulls were lounging around on the beach. Every once in awhile some of the ringbilled gulls would take off and fly around, but the herring gulls and great black backs stayed put. Oddly there were no laughing gulls or Bonaparte's gulls in the huge crowd. Many of the gulls were molting. Some of them looked pretty scruffy. Every once in awhile a few feathers would blow across the sand in the breeze. A little ways south of the boundary there was one long line of wrack that was almost entirely gull feathers.  It's not weird for there to be feathers in the wrack line at this time of year, but it is weird to have an entire line of feathers. In other weird wrack line news, part of the cargo cult airplane sculpture is still there, but it doesn't look as airplane-like. I doubt it will attract any cargo :-)

Remains of that Cargo Cult Airplane Sculpture
The shorebird migration season has definitely begun. Little flocks of semipalmated sandpipers started arriving from the north. They landed in the wrack line and then some would take off over the dunes to the marsh. I'm guessing there was a lot more for them to eat in the marsh.  Semipalmated sandpipers are only one sign of migration season. The other prominent sign is the gathering of tree swallows. They are assembling into cloud-like flocks that swoop over dunes, marsh, and fields. At one point a huge flock of them sailed over the beach and ascended really high above the water, where they were joined by a flock of least terns. It was a pretty cool sight.