Tuesday, July 25, 2017

crowded crazy beach

Friday, July 21, 2017
Bird of the Day: black tern
Coffee of the Day: Ethiopian Harrar
Weird Wrack Item of the Week: moon snail sand collar
Invisi-bird Status: Official: Refuge Beach: 27 Pairs, 3 Nests, 70 Chicks, 14 Fledglings. No report on town beach and Sandy Point. Number actually seen by me: 4 (3 chicks, 1 adult).

Plover Chick Looking for Food in the Sand
After a long streak of cloudy, rainy, cold, or otherwise non-beach-weather Fridays, this one was a typical hot beach day. I knew as soon as I got up that it was going to be a busy, strenuous, potentially stressful day. And indeed it was. Lots of people, lots of greenheads, lots of questions, confusion, radio difficulties, and heat made for an interesting day.
Another Cute Chick
The first half hour was actually fairly quiet visitor-wise and I spotted my favorite chicks right off the bat. I watched one of the chicks flexing its wings, not quite fledged yet, but getting close. It looked like it was trying to get used to having wings. I also saw, for the first time this season, a least tern parent feeding its chick.
Looking South
The beach got really crowded around mid-morning. There were lots of family groups, lots of swimmers, and a few fishermen. You know it's deep into July when the most common questions are about greenheads, not about the plovers. People wanted to know what kind of repellent I use (Dak's GreenHead) and when the greenheads will go away (early August). The oddest question was from a woman who asked whether I'd seen any needles on the beach, because she'd heard  that vast numbers of needles were washing up on beaches. The news has been full of needles in the Merrimack River, needles on the beaches, needles in playgrounds, and other places. I told her I had not seen or heard of any on the refuge beach.
Sand Collar
My favorite question was from a kid who spotted a sand collar upside down at the waterline. He asked what it was and his grandfather replied that it was a coffee cup from a sunken ocean liner. The kid was not buying that answer and exclaimed "But it's made of sand!"  He liked my explanation of how the female moon snail lays her eggs in a structure made out of sand and mucus and sometimes they wash up on the beach. The kid put it back right side up.
Least Terns on Nest
My most frightening moment of the day came when I spotted two people walking in the closed area very close to a least tern nest. I stopped them before either of them stepped on the tern nest. The least tern air defense command rose up and shrieked at them but for some reason did not poop on them. Anyway, I guided them over to the boundary away from the nest. They told me they were looking for Ranger McKenzie's program on piping plovers, for which they were late, and that Gatehouse had told them to try to catch up with the group from the Lot 1 beach.  My radio was getting no signal whatsoever where I was standing, and after moving around a little, I finally gave up and called Gatehouse on my phone (which oddly, did have somewhat of a signal). Gatehouse didn't know where McKenzie was and couldn't reach her. Nobody had told me about any program on the Lot 1 beach, and I'd been on the beach since 8:30 and had not seen any refuge staff or group, so I was very confused. I found a better spot for radio and called Gatehouse a couple more times, but by the time Gatehouse contacted McKenzie and determined that she was at Lot 7, the people had left the beach. The whole thing was weird, but fortunately I prevented them from harming the least tern nest. A couple of other visitors who saw/heard all this came over and said sympathetically "I wouldn't want your job."
Piping Plover between ATV Tracks
A couple of windblown beach balls and a guy landing a stand up paddle board on the closed beach were dealt with much more easily. Things calmed down.

There was a great flurry of tern activity offshore, mostly common terns, diving and coming up with fish. As I was watching them, I noticed a smaller dark tern in among them. Once it came in closer, I could see it was a black tern! Birders have been reporting a black tern on the refuge for a few weeks so I'm guessing this is probably the same one. First time I've seen one on Plum Island.
Meanwhile in the Milkweed Patch
By the time I left, I was wilting from the heat and feeling really dehydrated, but that didn't stop me from noticing the status of the milkweed patch. Some of them have already formed seed pods. Others are still flowering. I did not see any monarch butterflies but did see bumblebees.
Milkweed Flowers

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

plover chicks, pollinators, and a cold day on the beach

Friday July 14, 2017
Bird of the Day: piping plover
Coffee of the Day: French Roast
Weird Wrack Item of the Week: plastic thing that looks like a thumb drive or a cigarette lighter
Invisi-bird Status: Official: Refuge Beach: 28 Pairs, 13 Nests, 47 Chicks, 14 Fledglings. Sandy Point: 7 Pairs, 0 Nests, 22 Chicks, 0 Fledglings. Town Beach: 2 Pairs, 1 Nest, 4 Chicks. Number actually seen by me: 2 adults and 3 chicks for a total of 5 plovers.

Hello, I am a Plover Chick and I Can't Read
What can I say? A cold breeze kept the greenheads away.  The three chicks were very active, but not showing any signs of trying to fly yet. I tried to catch a photo of all three of them, but every time I'd see them near each other they were running like crazy. Those little guys run really fast. What few visitors there were in the cold overcast weather all commented on how fast the chicks run. They are just so darn cute.
Hmm, What's All This Trash in my Home, the Wrack Line?
The least terns were really quiet and hunkered down on their nests. I'm guessing some of them will be hatching next week. Meanwhile, having overheard the King of Plum Island, Tom Wetmore, discussing identification of a mystery tern with some other birders up on the Lot 1 platform, I started paying particular attention to the common terns. The mystery tern was supposedly either an Arctic tern or a Forster's tern.  I kept scanning for either species but kept on just seeing leasts and commons, not even any roseates.
Can You Find the Least Tern in this Picture?
My tern-watching was interrupted by my noticing a couple with an unleashed dog on the town beach heading toward the refuge along the waterline. It was low tide, so I practically had to jump off a cliff to get down to the waterline and then start walking toward the refuge boundary. Fortunately, my dog-staring-down technique still works. Just as the dog and its humans entered the refuge, I communicated to them that they had just crossed the boundary without my having to say a word. Low tide is often tough because the way the beach is configured right now, people at the waterline are below a steep berm of sand and really can't see the refuge sign so have no way of knowing where the boundary is. (Same deal with the boundary of the closed area, that's why we're always trying new methods of trying to mark off the closed area with sticks at low tide.) Anyway, the dog and the humans went back onto the town beach with no trouble.
I'm Outta Here
Meanwhile, all three chicks and one of the adults started foraging in the open area of  the beach. I kept an eye on them until they headed back into the closed area, just in case any visitors approached. I think the pickings were probably better further south anyway as there is way more wrack to harbor way more insects, etc. In fact a small cloud of tree swallows swooped down looking for bugs in the area of the least tern colony, so I suspect that's in fact where the insect life was.
On the Move
In my wanderings along the wrack line, I found a strange plastic thing that looked like it could have been part of a thumb drive or a cigarette lighter. It had electrical contacts on one end. Weird.

Weird Wrack Item of the Week
A pair of common terns landed on the beach and did a little dance involving neck stretching, fish presentation, and circling each other. Or maybe they were mystery terns. I started questioning my tern identification skills. Are those legs orange or red? How forked is that tail? How much does the tail extend beyond the wings? Who knows? They were extremely cool to watch.
Common Terns Looking Cool

When I stopped at the gatehouse to sign out and drop off my report, I was thrilled to spot my first monarch butterflies of the season landing on the milkweed. Yay, pollinators! Yay, milkweed! That little milkweed patch is an important part of the refuge.
Monarch on Milkweed
Monarch Taking off from Milkweed

Monday, July 17, 2017


Friday July 7, 2017
Bird of the Day: piping plover chick(s)
Coffee of the Day: Ethiopian Harrar
Weird Wrack Item of the Week: a hair roller?
Invisi-bird Status: Official: Refuge Beach: 31 Pairs, 19 Nests, 31 Chicks. Sandy Point: 9 Pairs, 0 Nests, 23 Chicks. Town Beach: 2 Pairs, 1 Nest, 4 Chicks. Number actually seen by me: 3 Chicks, 2 Adults for a total of 5 of those invisible little guys!
Somebody Found Something Good To Eat!
Chicks! Chicks! Chicks! Cutest thing on the planet! Yup, I finally saw the offspring of the northernmost pair today. Three of them. They hung around being cute for most of the morning, so when visitors asked me if/where they could see those piping plovers I could point at them. The absolute best thing to convince people the beach closure is worth it is to show them the chicks.  One visitor was sitting on a log next to the boundary recording video of them for quite some time. She was impressed that I got a still shot of a chick with an adult.
Plover Parenting
Can You Spot the Plover Chick?
There's Nobody Hiding Under Me, Don't You Believe Me?
All the visitors were well-behaved, so I didn't have to do much beyond answering a few questions and showing people what these babies look like.  There was a long stretch when there was hardly anyone on the beach, so I got a bit of chance to photograph some really weird trash in the wrack line: multiple pairs of sunglasses, something that looked like a hair roller, a plastic knob, pistachios ... just plain weird stuff.
More Sunglasses
Hair Roller, Plastic Knob, and Pistachios
The only reason I knew those things were pistachios and not some more local and more plausible plant matter was the heap of pistachio shells nearby.

Great Black Back Surveying the Scene

quiet day on the beach, wild ride home

Friday June 23, 2017
Bird of the Day: lesser black back (maybe)
Coffee of the Day: Ethiopian Harrar
Weird Wrack Item of the Week: a Hooksett disk
Invisi-bird Status: Official: Refuge Beach: 46 Pairs, 31 Nests, 15 Chicks. Sandy Point: 9 Pairs, 7 Nests, 4 Chicks.  Town Beach: 3 Pairs, 2 Nests, 0 Chicks. Number actually seen by me: 1

Changeable Skies
Another Friday, another iffy weather forecast. What is it with Friday's this summer? The skies looked ominous offshore, but the rain held off for the whole morning. The air was humid and full of no see ums. Seriously, I think I inhaled some.  There was almost no bird activity when I arrived. It was literally quiet -- no calling of least terns or common terns or anything.

The King of Plum Island, Tom Wetmore, was on the Lot 1 platform with his scope trained on the gathering of terns, gulls, and cormorants all resting on the beach just south of Lot 2 so I asked if he'd seen anything interesting. He mentioned a lesser black back and a black tern, two species I have not seen on Plum Island. I decided to keep a lookout for them as the morning went on.
Hooksett Disk -- They're Still Showing Up!
Just walking from the boardwalk to my spot near the edge of the closed area yielded a number of "trash in the wrack line" photo ops. The most surprising thing I found was a Hooksett disk. I can't believe they're still showing up. The Hooksett waste water treatment plant incident was in 2011!
These Glasses are Missing Something
I spotted some sunglasses that had clearly been on the beach for some time. One lens had migrated pretty far away from the frame.
Lens Missing from those Glasses?
Another oddity in the wrack was a small red plastic ring. Later, I picked up several of them while walking up to the refuge boundary to make sure the kite fliers stayed on the town beach.
Red Plastic Thingie
I had a chance to scan the roost of gulls and terns south of Lot 2 and saw one gull that could could have been a lesser black back but with the haze and shimmer I couldn't really make out the color of the legs or other definitive field marks. Bird action continued to be really quiet until two different groups of visitors arrived with kites. The least tern air defense command did not like this.

Scary Kite
Kites are not allowed on the refuge. They are allowed on the town beach. Beach nesting birds such as the aforementioned least tern air defense command mistake them for aerial predators. I politely and professionally asked people to move to the town beach with the kites, which they did. Alas the most predator-looking kite was still pretty close. After then initial least tern ruckus, the nesting area went very quiet and stayed quiet. Few birds were visible. They were all hunkering down in the wrack line in the most camouflaged places.

Lobster Boat at Work
As I was chatting with a fisherman from Lowell, a woman from Westford came over to ask about the plovers. The three of us had a good chat about the birds and about the return of various Merrimack River fish. Then the woman asked the fisherman what he thought about the downtown vs. Cawley site for the new Lowell High. He was very pro-downtown. I went off to chase another kite flyer and they settled in for along conversation about the LHS site -- both of them favoring downtown. There's something about the Merrimack Valley that makes it completely normal and unsurprising that fishing conversation turned to Lowell politics.
Stand-Up Paddle Boarders
And then there was this:

The predicted bad weather hadn't come up at all the entire time I was on the beach although I did see ominous clouds to the west. Little did I know what I was in for. The wind picked up and the rain started coming down as I hit Rowley on the way home. Before I knew it, it was raining so hard that I could barely see and Rt. 133 was turning into a river. Branches were flying all over the place and I had to dodge a few. Then it got worse. There was a huge branch, I guess you'd call it a limb, down in the road in Georgetown. Only one lane could get past it. The rain came down harder and harder. The wind was swirling around like crazy. I had to stop for a downed tree in Boxford and wait my turn as cars squeezed past it. Once I got past that, the storm got so much worse that I started looking for a spot to pull off the road but with no trees near enough to fall on my car. I spotted an area next to a farm field that looked fairly clear of lethal trees. A couple of other cars pulled off at that same spot. I sat there until the wind let up some and proceeded to continue through Boxford. Just before West Boxford Village, there was an even larger tree down in the road, with larger vehicles trying to get around it. I finally got around it and fortunately that was the last obstacle of the journey.  What a wild ride!