Saturday, June 25, 2016

life on the beach

Friday June 24, 2016
Bird of the Day: glossy ibis
Coffee of the Day: Ethiopian Yirgacheffe
Weird Wrack Item of the Week: the space shuttle (OK, it was an inflatable toy, but still)
Invisi-bird Status: Official:  42 pairs, 20 nests, 17 families, 51 chicks.  Number actually seen by me: 2

I'd heard reports of the first greenhead of the year so wore light colored pants and a long-sleeved white shirt in addition to carrying a brand new can of Deep Woods Off. Thankfully however, not one greenhead came anywhere near me. It is after all still June, so the real season of the winged jaws is still to come.

Loafing at Low Tide
The tide was out and most of the beach bird life was just hanging out on the sand. All three usual gull suspects (oddly I have not seen any Bonaparte's or Laughing gulls lately), least and common terns, piping plovers, and the inevitable common grackle seemed to be loafing for most of the morning. The common terns did get stirred up when there was a sudden influx of bait fish just offshore and went into a brief frenzy of plunging head first into the water and coming up with fish. A few of the least terns joined them, but mostly they sat around in the sand.
Gull with Reflection
The influx of bait fish attracted stripers of course (yes, spellcheck stripers is a word) and one guy caught a huge one that attracted kids running from all over the beach to check it out. The fisherman took his obligatory selfie with the fish as did a couple of his buddies. I guess catching it was a group endeavor.  Remember the days when you had to get a friend with a camera to photograph you with your striped bass and you yearned to be on the wall of fame at Surfland? I wonder if there's a hashtag equivalent of Surfland's wall.
Piping Plover
The plovers weren't putting on a show for me either. I didn't see any chicks this time. I did see one adult foraging in the wet sand and then shortly before I left, I saw another one way further down the beach so I intuit that it's not the mate of the one nearest me.
Looking North
This seemed to be the biggest beach day of the summer so far. Sandy Point was already full when I got to work and Lot 1 was filling up by lunchtime. They didn't have to close the gate while I was there, but it was starting to look like it could be one of those days.
Least Tern
I didn't have much time to take photos because there were loads of visitors, but I was lucky enough to have least tern plop down on the sand close enough for me to get a long telephoto shot of its classic least tern pose. It's funny how sometimes you can tell what species is hanging out on the sand just from its body language.
Looking South
There was an influx of standup paddleboarders launching from the Newbury town beach. Nobody got caught up in any currents and nobody did any standup paddleboard yoga (which I still don't understand). Bathers were all behaving rationally and when the tide started coming in, I noticed that not a single one of them turned their back on the waves. Why are 7-year-olds so much smarter than fashion models?
Standup Paddleboarders
For once there was not much trash in the wrack. I did get a kick out of a little kid carrying a handful of shells in one hand and an inflatable space shuttle in the other. I suspect that he'd brought the space shuttle with him, not found it on the beach. The kid did not look old enough for there to have been a space shuttle flight in his lifetime. Odd to think of that.
Space Shuttle
Finally, in honor of #NationalPollinatorWeek I stopped at the patch of milkweed near the gatehouse for a few photos of the emerging flowers. I know when most people think about pollinators they think of bees, but Monarch butterflies are pollinators too (they pollinate many kinds of wildflowers) and they depend on milkweed where they lay their eggs. It made me happy to see the milkweed blooming. If you want to know more about monarchs and milkweed, here's a recent article: Common Milkweed Plants Needed to Sustain Monarch Butterfly Population.
Milkweed in Bloom


Monday, June 20, 2016


Friday June 17, 2016
Bird of the Day: Joppa penguin (Eudyptes joppaensis plasticus)
Coffee of the Day: Brazilian
Weird Wrack Item of the Week: watermelon rind
Invisi-bird Status: Official: 37 pairs, 65 chicks. Number actually seen by me: 2 adults, 2 chicks.

Piping Plover in the Intertidal Zone
What a gorgeous beach day! Not too hot, not too cold, just right. My first adventure of the day was getting my coffee. The line at PICR was literally out the door. People were ordering complicated drinks so the line was moving slowly. A couple of very businesslike women arrived and went right around the line to the register. That struck me as strange until I realized they were there to do some sort of promotion. When I got to the register and Bruce handed me my coffee, the two women said "It's on us today." They were from Eastern Bank and were handing out brochures about their bank and paying for people's coffee. What a neat thing to do!
Least Tern in the Wrack Line
When I finally got to the refuge with coffee in hand, my first bird sighting of the day was a northern mockingbird doing a perfect least tern impression. That cracked me up. I've heard mockingbirds do robins, cardinals, car alarms, phones, creaky screen doors, but I have never heard one do a least tern. Other mimics on the refuge do terns and shorebirds. More than once I've looked up at the call of a common tern and spotted a catbird in a tree.  Least tern was by far the dominant sound all around Lot 1, so I guess the mockingbird was just fitting in.
Looking North Just before It Got Really Busy
I spotted a piping plover feeding at the edge of the water as soon as I arrived and within an hour I spotted two chicks! My close personal friends -- the northernmost pair --  are now a family of four and were feeding together. They kept a close watch on their chicks.  When they felt threatened by a gull or something, they would go to the dry sand and flatten down to become invisible.   At one point a great black back flew in and I got to see the whole arsenal of defensive moves. There was the broken wing display to distract the gull and of course the chicks invoked the cloak of invisibility. I couldn't distinguish them from sand with my binoculars. The gull was closer and has better vision but was paying attention to the distraction display. One of the adults charged the great black back in that bossy plover way.  As the plover was going after the gull twelve least terns rose up from the sand calling kzzreeeep kzzreeeep and mobbing the gull until it finally took off for parts south.  Wow! The allied least tern air defense command to the rescue!
Weird Watermelon Rind
The open part of the beach started to get really busy around 11AM with lots of families with kids. One kid was about to launch a kite, so I had to go talk to kid and parent who obviously missed the big sign at the entrance that says "no kite flying" (among other things like "no drones"). Beach nesting birds mistake kites for aerial predators and muster their defense mechanisms.  Given the proximity and agitated state of the least terns, I was actually a little worried that the adorable little girl with the kite was about to get pooped on by a dozen least terns. Anyway, I told the parent they could take the kite up to the town beach but couldn't fly it on the refuge. Everybody was cool with that and it was the only law enforcement type thing I had to handle all day.
Wonder Where the Rest of This Tire Is
A walk along the wrack line to stretch my legs, yielded a couple of interesting trash items: part of a blown tire and a shriveled watermelon rind. The watermelon rind was weird because by the amount of sand and salt on it, it looked like it had been there awhile, but the colors still looked fresh.

As I was walking along the beach I overheard two teenage boys who had just arrived talking about the beach closure. That wouldn't normally be unusual, but what one of the kids was saying was "I did an MCAS response on that -- whether it's more effective to enclose the nests or close the beach."  Piping plovers on the MCAS? Who knew?
As I was heading off the refuge for lunch I had to get around some large trucks and tractors from the haying operation on the Amelia Little Salt Marsh (the Essex County Greenbelt property that abuts the refuge).  I had to stop and take a photo and I cracked up laughing because the idea of cutting hay with tractors and baling it into rectangular bales is just soooooo at odds with the "quaint New England" trope of hay stacked on staddles in the marsh as painted by Martin Johnson Heade. Somehow, my tractor with hay bales photo just isn't that artistic.
Joppa Penguins
What's that I spy in the Merrimack? Penguins? Yup. It's that time of year again. The plastic penguins on their plastic ice floes have appeared off Joppa Flats. They were getting at least as much attention as any Hudsonian godwit has gotten over the past few weeks. This more than makes up for the lack of tall ships this week :-).
Great Egret Headed Upriver to Check Out the Penguins

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

it's all happening on the beach

Friday June 10, 2016
Bird of the Day: piping plover
Coffee of the Day: Clipper City Roast
Weird Wrack Item of the Week: a dead skate
Invisi-bird Status: Official: 41 pairs, 18 active nests, 7 families, 20 chicks. Number actually seen by me: 4 adults.

Exceptionally Bright Day
Bright blue skies and cool temperatures made for an unusually comfortable shift. I answered a bunch of questions for a bunch of different people and gave a short talk to a school field trip group. The only question that stumped me was "What happened at Sandy Point? Was there flooding?" Not having been down there, I had to answer that I didn't know but that there had a coastal flooding alert at the beginning of the week (Sunday night/Monday morning). I wasn't even sure exactly what she was asking about as I hadn't heard about any kind of disaster on the island.
You Can't See Me, I'm an Invisi-Bird
Both piping plovers and least terns were very active all morning. I was starting to feel a bit like a plover, constantly running down to the water line (OK, so I didn't exactly run, more of a brisk walk) and back endlessly. The water line might as well be at the bottom of a cliff. I got in a pretty good workout. There has to be some way to communicate where the boundary line is at low tide when people walking/jogging can't see the signs above the berm. I couldn't find enough sticks to make a Big Steve style stick fence, so I just scratched the word STOP in big letters in the wet sand, which made me feel more effective but didn't really reduce the number of trips down to the water.
Oh, Hi!
The most interesting thing that washed up on the beach was a dead little skate. For some reason the gulls were ignoring it. I've seen them peck at dead skates before, but today only one ring-billed gull approached it, gave it a peck, and then took off.  A couple of beach goers tried to push the skate back into the water without actually touching it with their hands. They must have thought it was still alive. I checked it out, and it was really most sincerely dead. Anyway, I'm sure it washed back out when the tide came in.
Walking back to my spot on the boundary from the skate's location, I found a northern moon snail in its shell with its operculum tightly closed. That's their major protection mechanism. What they do in response to a threat is to pump all the water out of the shell, pull their entire body in, and seal the entrance with the operculum.
Moon Snail

Working the Waterline
On the way back to my car, I saw a seaside sparrow in the beach grass near the boardwalk. It was the first one I've seen this summer.

No new tall ships appeared in Newburyport harbor this week.

Monday, June 6, 2016

a plant theme emerges

Friday June 3, 2016
Bird of the Day: least tern
Coffee of the Day: Sumatra Mandeling
Weird Wrack Item of the Week: black rubber spiral
Invisi-bird Status: Official count: 47 pairs, 32 active nests. Number actually seen by me: 2
Leave Me Alone!
Before I even set foot on the beach, I had a group of birders asking me questions about plants. Seriously, they were looking at the dune vegetation from the boardwalk and said "Oh, there's the plover warden, let's ask her." I had my beach chair in one hand and my coffee in the other, and had as yet only consumed one sip of coffee. I was not on my sharpest plant name game. They pointed to the Hudsonia tomentosa and said they couldn't remember the name of it. I said I couldn't remember either because I hadn't had my coffee yet. Of course, even fully caffeinated I can never remember whether the common name is beach heath, beach heather, sand heather, false heather, or wooly something-or-other anyway. Even when I'm fully awake I just call it "Hudsonia".  Fortunately, I was able to identify a willet for them and describe the piping plover life cycle all without benefit of coffee.
Hudsonia tomentosa
A pair of willets that had been hanging around in the dunes landed on the beach and were proclaiming their name loudly in the wrack line. I don't usually see willets on the beach, so that was sort of cool. The least terns are back and in the midst of creating nests, bringing fish to each other, and establishing the boundaries of their colony. The least tern air defense command launched several attacks on a great black back and a pair of herring gulls that kept encroaching on the territory they had decided was theirs. Mostly they worked as a team mobbing the intruders, but one intrepid least tern went full tilt after a great black back all by itself. It pecked at the great black back relentlessly and eventually drove it far down the beach.
Driftwood, Seaweed, Shells
I drank my coffee, answered the usual visitor questions about when exactly the beach would reopen ("when the chicks fledge" is not exact enough for some people),  answered a few more questions from the birding group (this time about birds, not Hudsonia), and watched fishermen not catching anything while keeping my eyes open for dogs, trespassers, etc. I constantly scan the waterline for walkers and joggers who are not paying attention and are about to stray into the closed area. I also look behind me for people more brazenly attempting to walk past the signs.  Those are the usual scenarios.
Weird Wrack Item of the Week
Suddenly a group of 4 people materialized on the beach from over the top of the dune in the closed area. Seriously, there was nobody on the beach and suddenly there they were on the slope between the dune and the upper wrack line walking further down onto the beach. People do not usually just magically materialize on the beach. This came as such a shock to me that it took me several seconds to radio Gatehouse and commence yelling and waving the people away from the wrack line. Gatehouse said he'd check on who they were/what to do.  I managed to communicate enough to get them away from the nearest nest and got them to walk toward me out of the closed area.  Just as they got to me and their leader started explaining that they were from the New England Wildflower Society and had a permit to collect plants in the dunes, Gatehouse got back to me confirming that they really did have a permit but it didn't entitle them to be on the beach. I explained to them that they were in a nesting area and that the upper wrack line is a very sensitive place. I managed not to disclose how close they got to my favorite pair's nest. They were kind of embarrassed and assured me that I was right to have called them on it and that we're all on the side of conservation.
Boss of the Beach
Biological staff was out on the beach doing the nest survey and spotted what was going on with the plant people. By the time she got to me on her ATV, the plant people had gone up over the boardwalk back to where they were supposed to be. Bio staff listened to the whole story and commiserated with my startle response at their materializing over the dunes, not your average beach occurrence.  It took a while for my adrenaline level to go back down though.
The Wrack Line is my Favorite Restaurant!
And y'know, where was the least tern air defense command when needed to poop on a few botanists, eh?
Beach Pea
The piping plovers resumed feeding in the wrack line and occasionally wandering outside the closed area to feed a few yards from me.  The least terns resumed bringing each other fish and chasing off gulls. I finally took off for lunch, and to my delight discovered there was another tall ship visiting Newburyport. This one is the Lynx, a privateer out of Portsmouth, NH.  Is this going to happen every week now?
The Lynx in Newburyport Harbor

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

invasion of the flying ants

Friday May 27, 2016
Bird of the Day: least tern
Coffee of the Day: French Roast Sumatra
Weird Wrack Item of the Week: plastic bag pinned down by stick
Invisi-bird Status: Official count: 42 pairs, 22 nests (not differentiated by refuge vs. Sandy Point). Number seen by me: 3.
Piping Plover at Low Tide
Flying ants are all over the place. So are common grackles. I've noticed this phenomenon in years past. When the huge flying ant hatch happens, the grackles are all over it. There are plenty of birds that eat ants, but for some reason this is a notable event for grackles.
Beach -- Looking South

The slope of the berm is so steep that it's difficult to see people walking along the water line at low tide and it's equally difficult for them to see the boundary signs, so I had a bit more dashing back and forth to the water line to intercept people than usual. Even one of the leaders of a school group, who was well aware of the beach closure, walked right past the boundary into the closed area even as I was walking toward him. Sigh. Anyway, nobody got near the northernmost nest. BTW, as promised, staff moved the signs further north to give the nesting pair more room.

Beach Art Installation
As might be expected with the holiday weekend starting, there were a fair number of visitors. I met one couple from North Andover who asked a lot of questions about birds, which of course I was able to answer. Somehow we got from the piping plovers here on the beach to the nesting great horned owls in North Andover (there are at least 2 great horned owl nests that I know of there). Some visitors asked about the ants, but not as many as I would have expected.
Creepy Crab
The least terns are back in full force and the long-tailed ducks are gone. Must be summer. The least tern air defense command took on an aggressive herring gull that was near the plover nest and drove it away easily. I love least terns nearly as much as I love piping plovers. They are feisty little beasts.

Fortunately, I Already Drank the Coffee
While I was running around intercepting people down by the water line, the winged ants took over my coffee cup. Fortunately I had finished the delicious French Roast Sumatra. (Also, when I went back to PICR for a refill, the kind folks washed the cup for me when I told them about the ants.) I saw one huge ant without wings dragging around a couple of dead winged ones. I don't know enough about ants to understand what I was seeing. I googled flying ants but the first 10 pages of results all had to do with getting carpenter ants out of your house. I had to laugh, because I had an invasion of tiny sugar ants in my house a few weeks ago and was desperately googling how to get rid of them (vinegar and then caulking the crack they came in through). My partner pointed out to me then that if the ants were on the beach I'd be studying their behavior, not being creeped out by them and trying to get rid of them. Anyway, my handy Insects of New England and New York, informed me that there are 51 species of carpenter ants but offered no clue as to which ones swarm on the beach.

Somehow, I Don't Want to Know What's in the Bag
The strangest beach trash I spotted was a plastic bag with who knows what in it pinned down to the sand by a stick. If someone could take the time to pin it down like that, why couldn't they take the time to carry the bag off the beach to a trash can?

Common Grackle

Herring Gull
By the time my relief arrived, I was definitely ready for another cup of coffee and some lunch. I headed into downtown Newburyport to obtain same and to check out El Galeon, the tall ship in town for Maritime Days.

Sailboat Looking All Summery
El Galeon was impressive. So was the crowd lining up for tours. And never underestimate the racket that dozens of kids with souvenir bosun's whistles can make.

Meanwhile in Newburyport