Wednesday, June 21, 2017

another cold rainy friday among the least terns

Friday June 16, 2017
Bird of the Day: turkey vulture
Coffee of the Day: Clipper City Roast
Weird Wrack Item of the Week: blue plastic thingie
Invisi-bird Status: Official:Refuge Beach:48 Pairs, 25 Nests, 16 Chicks; Sandy Point: 9 Pairs, 6 Nests, 4 Chicks; Town Beach: 4 Pairs, 2 Nests, no chicks yet.  Number actually seen by me: 1.
Beach - Looking South
Somehow I wasn't expecting the cold rainy weather until later in the day, and following the usual rule of  "if it's not raining at my house ..." I headed to the refuge for the AM plover warden shift. Got stuck in a traffic jam on Bridge Road -- no, the drawbridge wasn't open, there was construction, go figure -- but managed to get to to PICR, obtain coffee, and not be that terribly late.
Stick Fence -- What's that blue thing in the wrack?
The weather wasn't too bad at first, windy and cold but not raining. Visitors were few: a couple of fishermen who were just leaving when I arrived and a group of three birders visiting from Austria who left not long after that.
Weird Blue Plastic Thingie
One of the plovers did a brief flyby and that was it for plover action for the day. The least terns were still doing their fish-presenting thing, but not as much as last week. They drove off a northern harrier and a red-tailed hawk in quick succession.
Least Terns At the Water Line in the Rain
The most interesting bird behavior of the day was a turkey vulture who landed on the beach to check out a dead fish. I often see them circling over the marsh or over the dunes  but I can't remember the last time I saw a turkey vulture land on the beach. It hung around for a long time, intermittently picking at the fish. Then a great black back flew in and tried to chase the vulture off. The great black back took over eating the fish, but the vulture didn't exactly leave. It stood on the sand about three feet away and just watched. It seemed to be waiting for the great black back to leave. This went on for well over an hour. I kept watching through binoculars.  I have no clue how to identify dead fish at a distance through binoculars and didn't get a chance to walk up to the town beach where this was going on for a closer look, so the fish ID will remain a mystery. The vulture did get another turn at it when the great black back had finally had its fill.
That Crab Doesn't Look Big Enough to Satisfy the Herring Gull
It rained off and on, but every time I thought I should leave, it stopped. When the rain let up, a few more visitors appeared. I saw a family group read the signs and then head out for a walk along the water line toward the town beach. They were photographing each other and picking up shells. No problem, right? The woman who appeared to be the matriarch of the clan carefully noted where I was and where the boundary line was. I saw her watching me, but didn't think anything of it. When I turned my back to deal with something else, she ran into the closed area, grabbed a huge clam shell and ran back out before I could do anything. I was pretty far up from the water line at that point, so I couldn't catch up with her. None of the birds were disturbed, so I just made a note of what happened and left it at that. 

Quite awhile later the group returned to the refuge beach and sat in a circle picnicking and taking more photos. Suddenly the woman stood up holding some kind of food -- a potato chip, Cheetos, I don't know -- straight up over her head.  She posed like that for several minutes before I realized she was trying to bait the least terns to come closer for a photo. Did she really want the least tern air defense command anywhere near her head? I've seen people use food/bait to lure birds for photos -- which is strictly forbidden on the refuge -- but this just seemed weird. Whatever snack food she was holding was not appealing to the terns, nor to the great black backs or the turkey vulture.  Since she wasn't actually feeding any birds or doing anything untoward except holding food over her head, I decided not to approach her.  She finally went back to sit in the circle with the group, and then they all left. 
Least Tern Hiding in Plain Sight
I'm not sure which was the stranger behavior: the turkey vulture standoff with the great black back or the woman trying to lure the terns.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

birds, fish, the tide and an app

Friday June 9
Bird of the Day: least tern
Coffee of the Day: Sumatra Mandehling
Weird Wrack Item of the Week: a silk flower
Invisi-bird Status: Official: Refuge Beach: 50 Pairs, 15 Nests, 9 Chicks; Sandy Point: 9 Pairs, 8 Nests, no chicks; Town Beach: 5 Pairs, 3 Nests; 3 Chicks. Number actually seen by me: 2

My personal plover pair -- that is, the pair closest to the boundary -- seem to have re-nested after losing their nest to predation. They were taking turns leaving wherever the nest is hidden to dash out for food.  I got good looks at each of them, so I was sure I was seeing two different individuals. 
Piping Plover Checking out the Wrack Line
The least tern show continues. Between courtship displays and defense of the territory they are pretty busy right now.  The action is taking place mostly between Lot 1 and Lot 2 so they're the first birds you notice when you come onto the beach.  The courtship involves lots of elaborate flying and calling by the male who then swoops down to offer the female a fish. This goes on for like 3 weeks, it seems.
I Don't Think She Wants That Fish
The male comes up behind and slightly to one side of the female and kind of waves the fish around. I have no idea what criteria the female uses to choose whose fish she will accept. There was one male who was directly behind the female and frantically waving the fish with no reaction from her at all. I was wondering how she could even see the fish. I would've thought he'd be more off to the side so she could get a good look at it.
Please Take My Fish!
When a great black back flew over and attempted to land near the least terns about 15 of them went after it, dive bombing it, pooping on it, and making a racket. Interestingly, once the great black back got to just about the refuge boundary, all but one of the terns decided their work was done and returned to their territory. One tern kept chasing and attacking the great black back, pursuing it north above the town beach until I lost sight of it. The tern did eventually come back.
The Least Tern Air Defense Command
Meanwhile, the humans were not having having as much luck at fishing as the least terns were. As one couple were setting up their fishing rods, I heard the guy say "I forgot the measuring tape." I just had to get in on this, so I responded: "There must be an app for that." After a quick search of the app store he found one, but it measures only in centimeters. His wife laughed and suggested that there must be an app that converts centimeters to inches. Sure enough he found one. Despite all the technical support, they never caught anything to measure.
You Can't See Me I'm Pretending to be Wrack
The tide was coming in and I had to keep moving my chair back. A fisherman who'd been on the beach all morning with no luck came over to talk to the measuring app couple. They advised him that the fishing is usually better on the incoming tide, which is why they had started much later than he had. This seemed to confuse him. Him: "What? Is the tide coming in? Did it just turn?" Me and measuring couple unison: "It's been coming in! High tide is at 12:30."  Strange conversation. And yeah, there's a tide app -- in fact there are tons of them. My favorite is Tides Near Me.
Weird Wrack Item of the Week

As I was walking along the wrack line, I spotted what I thought was some kind of flowering plant. When I got close enough to it, I realized it was made of some kind of cloth, possibly silk. It certainly reached a new beauty level for beach trash.

Looking South

Thursday, June 8, 2017


Friday June 2
Bird of the Day: least tern
Coffee of the Day: Clipper City Roast
Weird Wrack Item of the Week: an UnderArmour sandal
Invisi-bird Status: Official: haven't seen the report. Number actually seen by me: zero.

Looking South
The day was all about least terns. I lost count of how many there were because they were in constant motion, either flying or running or having sex with each other.  This was clearly a big day for least tern mating.
Least Tern
Some pairs were getting it on just above the water line on the wet sand and others were doing it in the wrack line behind piles of driftwood. The most interesting sight was a female running at top speed along the water line with the mail on top of her flapping his wings. He managed to stay on top for what may have been long enough. It was quite a feat of balance.
Besides watching the least terns have sex, I answered visitors' questions and intercepted a dog. Usually dogs get onto the refuge beach from the Newbury town beach, but this one came in over the Lot 1 boardwalk with a family. They let it off the leash but I managed to catch up with them and explain the rules before it got near the closed area. I asked how they got past the gatehouse with the dog in the car and they said she probably just didn't see it in the back seat. The people were completely unaware that dogs are not allowed on the refuge. They were also completely unaware that they were even on a national wildlife refuge. They insisted that the "no dogs" rule only applied to the closed area of beach. It took me several tries to convince them that dogs are not allowed anywhere on the refuge. Not the beach, not road, not the trails, not the clam flats. I managed to explain to them what a national wildlife refuge is and convince them that they would all be a lot happier on the town beach.  That was the only weird visitor encounter of the day.
Wonder Where the Other Sandal Is
The tide was going out and the beach got steeper and steeper until I felt like I was climbing a mountain walking back up from the water. It was so steep that it was actually hard to see people walking along the water line unless I was just below the crest of the sand berm. When my relief showed up, the first thing he asked was "what happened to the beach?" It's a different beach every day, every tide, and some days the difference is more dramatic than others.
Least Tern with Pine Cone
I kept hoping a plover or two would show up, but no such luck. The show was all least terns all the time.
Least Terns
For once the sky was blue with no rain in sight. The wind was out of the northeast but not nearly at the speed of last week's northeast wind. I still had trouble keeping my hat on.

Blue Sky over the Dunes

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

northeast wind

Friday May 26
Bird of the Day:Bonaparte's gull
Coffee of the Day: I forget
Weird Wrack Item of the Week: umm, there's a wrack line in the Black Cow parking lot, that's weird enough
Invisi-bird Status: Official: haven't seen the report yet. Number actually seen by me: zero.

Following the "if it's not raining at my house, my shift is not rained out" rule, I headed off to Plum Island. I stopped at PICR to get some coffee and noticed that the exceptionally high tide and the storm winds had clearly caused the Merrimack to overflow its banks. One does not normally expect to see a wrack line in the parking lot at the Black Cow or in the boat yard behind PICR.
Least Tern in the Wrack Line
By the time I got to the gatehouse, it felt like it was fixing to rain again. Hmm. Gatehouse said South was already out there and it wasn't really raining yet, so I went for it, betting that there would not be many (if any) visitors so it would be just me and the birds. That's pretty much how it worked out. I spoke to exactly one visitor.

The wind was blowing hard and cold from the northeast. Mostly I watched least terns try to fly into the wind. They are not as good at it as ring-billed gulls, but better at it than many of the gull/tern types of birds.
Looking South
The wrack line probably should've been called the foam line. Big blobs of sea foam covered a lot of the seaweed and other wrack. Flying globs of foam bounced around on the beach.  The wind blew my hat off several times, so I packed it away and let the wind tangle my hair so I looked like some kind of ex-hippie Medusa.
Least Tern Air Defense Command on the Beach
By the time I finished drinking my coffee, the rain came back in earnest.  There was nobody on the beach but me and the least terns. Not even a single piping plover from the northernmost pair. I figure they were hunkering down in the wrack line.
Looking North
I hung around on the Lot 1 platform for awhile hoping the rain would stop again.  Two Bonaparte's gulls flew past me and out over the beach, tacking the way ring-billed gulls do. Must research which gull species do that and which don't and why. Someday when I have nothing else to do.

Shovel Handle -- New Dimensions in Plastic Beach Trash
The rain and the cold wind finally drove me off. I headed over to Salisbury for a second breakfast and more coffee at Pat's Diner, where I talked up the tall ships to customers visiting from out of town.  Sufficiently refueled, I headed back into downtown Newburyport and took a walk in the rain along the waterfront to check out the tall ships Alabama and Adventure in town for Maritime Days. I kind of liked taking photos of the ships  in the rain.

Newburyport Harbor in the Rain
Several school groups were touring the ships. The kids from Amesbury were outfitted in plastic rain ponchos donated by a bank. I didn't manage to catch a good photo of the kids with their ponchos billowing in the rain, but it was fun to see. A couple of kids coming off the Alabama were saying that they were disappointed at not having been thrown overboard. I guess a nice cold swim in the Merrimack was looking good to them.
Tall Ship Adventure

By the time I got done with gawking at the tall ships, my fingers were numb and my hair resembled one of those tangled rafts of vegetation that transported life forms from mainland to island in all the books I've read about evolution.  Clearly time to go home, take a shower, put on dry clothes and take it easy.
Tall Ship Alabama

Monday, May 22, 2017

least terns are back and louder than ever

Friday May 19
Bird of the Day: least tern
Coffee of the Day: Clipper City Roast
Weird Wrack Item of the Week:

Invisi-bird Status: Official: Refuge beach: 53 pairs, 23 nests; Sandy Point: 9 pairs, 4 nests; Town beach: 4 pairs, 3 nests. Number actually seen by me: 1.

Piping Plover
The least terns are back! I heard them making a racket before I even got to Lot 1. Once I got onto the boardwalk I could see them flying around. I ran into Unit 62 on the boardwalk and he commented on the least terns also. I counted at least 17 identifiable without binoculars -- it's kind of easy to id them when they're right above your head :-) I witnessed a lot of presentation of fish and bowing to each other, but no actual mating. There was one tern that kept flying around with the same fish dangling from his beak for over 15 minutes. He must have been holding out for the perfect match before even trying to present a fish. My duties distracted me from continuing to follow that particular drama, so I don't know how it turned out.

Looking South
The least terns were not the only ones having a busy day. The hot weather brought loads of visitors to the beach, especially parents with little kids.  Lots of visitors plus low tide means a busy day for me. There's way more territory to cover at low tide.  Most of the people I talked to were really interested in the piping plovers and one even asked about the least terns, so I felt pretty useful at the information communication part of the job.  The keeping people and plovers apart part of the job was a little tough because little kids are hard to intercept, especially if they're at the water line and I'm up at the wrack line answering a question. One little girl in a pink bathing suit took off into the closed area of beach, but I was able to get her mother's attention, so it all worked out.

Looking North
Other birds of interest besides the piping plover and the least terns were a least sandpiper hanging out with a couple of semipalmated sandpipers, a few common terns, an osprey, and a flock of brant. It struck me as kind of late in the season for the brant, but maybe I only thought that because of the heat.  Hot for May, feels like June, therefore brant should be further north ... whatever.

Same Dead Fish Only Further South and More Decayed?
I think the dead fish I saw several yards south of the boundary was the same dead goosefish I saw last week. It looked it had collapsed a little more, but the way the bones were sticking out of the tail looked like last week's fish.

Plover on the Run
Didn't see anybody catch any cool fish. By the time my relief arrived, I was definitely ready for lunch.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

it's happening on the beach

Friday May 12
Bird of the Day: piping plover
Coffee of the Day: Tanzania Peaberry
Weird Wrack Item of the Week:  a wheel or caster from some piece of office furniture
Invisi-bird Status: Refuge beach: 48 pairs, 20 nests; Sandy Point: 11 pairs, 5 nests; Number actually seen by me: 1.
Piping Plover Stood Still for a Minute
The rain showers stopped just as I was leaving PICR with my coffee. By the time I got onto the beach I could see the sky clearing. Yay! A lone piping plover spent most of the first 2 hours running back and forth along the water line in and out of the closed area. I got plenty of close looks and enjoyed watching the cutest bird on the planet maneuvering at high speed. It finally did stand still long enough for me to get a quick photo. And of course by the time a group of birders showed up on the platform at Lot 1, the plover was nowhere to be seen.
Sky Clearing
It was still kind of chilly but not nearly as windy as the last couple of Fridays have been.  There were a few people fishing, all of whom were wearing winter jackets. One guy was wearing a blanket wrapped around his shoulders over his winter jacket.  The stream of visitors was slow and steady.  Everybody was genuinely interested in piping plovers, and one couple wanted to know how Hurricane Matthew had affected our particular piping plover population. I had to say I don't really know. Although many of the Atlantic population of piping plovers winter in the Bahamas and hundreds went missing after Hurricane Andrew hit Andros and Joulter Cays, it's not clear how many were actually lost nor how many of those were from Massachusetts. Anyway, I was kind of impressed that visitors even asked about it.
A Little Darker to the South
I noticed that a lot of walkers were stopping to look at something in the wrack line, so I figured it must be interesting. When I got a chance, I walked over to look at it. Sure enough it was a really interesting dead fish. It had been dead quite awhile and looked like it had been picked at by birds or crabs or whatever, but that wide head and kind of tadpole-looking shape made me think goosefish immediately. That's a fairly unusual beach find, but not totally unknown. They do occur around here.

Dead Goosefish
I was going to name the goosefish as my weirdest wrack item of the week, but later in the morning a caster that looked like it had just fallen off the leg of a desk washed up on the incoming tide. Sitting there all by itself on the sand, it looked even more alien than the goosefish. After all, desk parts are far less common on the beach than dead goosefish.

Weird Wrack Item of the Week
While I was staring at the weird wrack item of the week, I heard a "kee-arr" call and looked up to see my first two common terns of the season. One was carrying a fair-sized fish in its beak. Haven't seen any least terns yet, but have been told that others have seen a few near Sandy Point.

Wrack Lines Converging
Near the end of my shift, the fisherman wearing the blanket over his winter parka ran up  to me exclaiming excitedly that he'd caught a fish.  He whipped out his phone to show me the photo. Sure enough, it was a striped bass, not nearly big enough to keep. He was really happy, practically jumping up and down.  I got a kick out of his excitement. 

Monday, May 8, 2017

rainy day

Friday May 5
Bird of the Day: kestrel
Coffee of the Day: Boatyard Brew
Weird Wrack Item of the Week: arrangement of driftwood
Invisi-bird Status: Official: Refuge beach: 47 pairs, 11 nests; Sandy Point: 9 pairs, 3 nests; Town beaches: 5 pairs, no nests. Number actually seen by me: zero

Lot 1 Ocean
Another rainy Friday morning. The forecast was for drenching showers, but each report kept pushing them back to later in the day.  I applied the "is it raining where I am right now?" test. It was not raining at my house at 7AM so I headed out to the beach. Of course, by the time I stopped to fill my coffee cup at PICR and got to the refuge it was starting to rain lightly. I decided to drink my coffee on the platform at Lot 1 and see whether the weather would clear.
Looking North
While walking along the Lot 1 boardwalk toward the beach, a gorgeous America kestrel landed on the railing about 5 feet from me. We looked at each other. When it finally occurred to me that I should document this moment and I tried to fumble in my pocket for my phone (my camera was in my backpack requiring way more fumbling), the kestrel took off northward.

Looking South
From the platform, I scanned the dunes with my binoculars but found very little bird action. There was a large flock of some kind of sea ducks fairly far out from the town beach. I couldn't identify them as anything other than dark duck shaped beings. A guy who had been fishing on the town beach noticed them too. On his way back to the parking lot, he asked if I knew what kind of ducks they were. He said their numbers had been increasing all morning.  We never did figure out what they were or what was attracting them all to that particular spot.  Whatever bait fish the ducks were after was not attracting any larger fish.

Another fisherman asked me about the plovers and was thrilled when I told him we already have several nests.

I Don't Think It Washed Up Like This
The rain stopped so I stuck around for awhile. A few (very few) birders and fishermen came by, but mostly the beach was deserted.  My favorite encounter was a birder there with his grandson. He explained to me that his grandson is crazy about ospreys, so that was the focus of their visit. They stopped at the Lot 1 beach for a look at the ocean before heading for the osprey platform at the Pines. 

In the Dunes
It started to rain again in earnest so I took off, but not without stopping several times along the boardwalk to photograph all the flowering plants in the dunes. Somehow, white flowers look particularly beautiful on overcast days.
Subtle Colors
The subtle yet beautiful colors in the dunes and the calls of willets somehow made it a great day to be outdoors.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

quick update

Random Mussel Shells and Stuff
Bird of the Day: turkey vulture

Coffee of the Day: French Roast Sumatra

Weird Wrack Item of the Week: Stay tuned for weird beach trash next week. Due to the rain yesterday, I did not go to the beach.

Invisi-bird Status: Official: Refuge Beach:  29 pairs, 9 singles; Sandy Point: 6 pairs; Town Beach: Newbury: 1pair, Newburyport: 2 pairs. Number actually seen by me: zero because I wasn't there.

My personal turkey vulture has returned to its traditional perch near the parking lot of my condo. The dark-eyed juncos are gone. The world's loudest tufted titmouse is making a racket on my patio. Many red-winged blackbirds are hanging out by the brook (or do you call it a creek) that runs into the Shawsheen along the edge of the condo property.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

less windy, more dogs, one plover

Friday April 14, 2017
Bird of the Day: American kestrel (again)
Coffee of the Day: Tanzania Peaberry
Weird Wrack Item of the Week: plastic lobster
Invisi-bird Status: Official: "They're here." Number actually seen by me: 1

Blue Sky to the South
It was a beautiful day to be on the beach, so there were lots of visitors. It was less windy than last week and the wind was coming in off the water instead of from the southwest. The wind direction meant poor conditions for hawk-watching. There wasn't a whole lot of bird action on the beach or offshore. I did finally see one piping plover foraging in the wrack line. Conditions for foraging in the wrack line were extremely good as there has apparently just been a hatch of winged ants. Normally, the purple martins would get excited about the winged ants, but the only purple martins I saw were the decoys at the nesting gourds.
Blue Sky to the North
The radio was not working so I left it in the box and left phone messages for HQ and Gatehouse that I'd be using my phone if I needed to communicate. Fortunately, I really didn't need to communicate with them.
Interesting Arrangement of Debris
It was a big day for dog walking so I wore myself out walking back and forth along the waterline to intercept them at the refuge boundary rather than at the boundary of the closed area. Dogs are not allowed on the National Wildlife Refuge with the exception of seeing-eye/service dogs and duck retrieval dogs during hunting season. One guy tried to convince me that no dogs rule is no longer enforced at PRNWR. He said he was told that by a family member who lives on the island. I managed to convince him that is not true. Whatever the town of Newbury decides to enforce or not enforce on the town beach is something else.  The other dog owners were much more cooperative.

Another Interesting Arrangement of Debris
One visitor asked about volunteering to be a plover warden and wanted to know if we'd still need volunteers in July. I explained that July is the most crucial time to have good plover warden coverage because the chicks haven't fledged yet and are running around on the beach. I directed her to headquarters. I hope she volunteers.
Weird Plastic Lobster=Weird Wrack Item of the Week
My favorite bird of the day was an American kestrel perched on the 0.1 mile marker. With the general lack of raptor action I was surprised to see a kestrel at all. I loved that it perched on the marker, where I usually see red-winged blackbirds, eastern kingbirds, or the occasional common grackle. I should start keeping a list just of the species that perch on the mile marker.
Tiny Crab with Coffee Cup for Scale
There were lots of shells around, more so than last week. Mussels were the most common, but there was some variety. It was low tide, so lots and lots of wet sand was exposed. 
All in all, it was a pretty day. I worked really hard and I survived without the radio. On to next week, when I hope to see more piping plovers.