Summer Time Wetlands – 1

Please consider all images to be copyrighted and ask permission to use or copy. Thanks. DEClapp

Here in the northeast of the US we have all sorts of weather; cold winters, hot summers, comfortable springs and autumns and (like everywhere else these days) surprising weather of all sorts. This summer has been mostly warm and wet in much of the region. Out here on Cape Cod we have has only a little bit of rain but 50 miles to the west they have been inundated. My rain gauge shows a few drops over one inch for the summer where many places to the west have between eight and ten inches. The summer rains are most often in bands of thunderstorms that come (generally) from the west or southwest. Our clearing weather is usually from the northwest. Much of that weather falls apart as it reaches the coast.

I mention the summer weather not only because it is getting weirder and weirder around the world but because it impacts our wildlife and especially the migratory birds. I will spend a bit of time looking at what our birds do in the early summer, through the breeding season, and into the fall. Our spring migration here is mostly in the month of May but birds are moving north both earlier and later. We also get some birds in June that are the young-of-the-year from Florida and other southern locations. Many of our neo-tropical migrants head northward into the Canadian boreal forest and many of our sandpiper-types head even further north to nest in the tundra regions of both Canada and Alaska. The same thing happens in Scandinavia and Russia. The southward migration is spread out as there are waves of birds heading “home”; first we get those birds whose nests have failed (as early as mid-July), then we get the successful adults heading south after breeding and now leaving precocious young behind (mostly August and September), and finally the birds of the year who now migrate southward on their own without experience or leadership (usually September and October).

We’ll take a look at some of these migrants over the next couple posts (and months) as they come and go from eastern Massachusetts. Long distance migrants are strong flyers with a penchant for flying. They can appear most anywhere. We see oddities every now and then, some of them from way down south and others that must have crossed the ocean. Each story is different and each species in not really homogenous in its planning and execution.

There was a recent post on Night-Herons. This is a rather young Black-crowned Night-Heron. This is a species that can be found through the continental USA but is mostly a coastal breeder. They seem to follow crab populations and as coastal waters warm and crab populations expand northward we are seeing more and more up here in New England. They roost and nest in loose colonies often with other herons and egrets.
The Great Blue Heron is a large bird and a strong flyer. They are also found well offshore on island chains, like the Galapagos, are often seen well out to sea in migratory flight. This is a rather common bird and is found from coast to coast. They nest colonially in stands of dead trees, often over water. A single large tree can hold several nests. They stand over four feet tall with a six foot wingspan. Young birds are grayer and have a mottled front to the neck and they lack the white and black pattern on the head. There are only a few nesting colonies up here in New England but the birds are common in both fresh and salt marshes. Our resident population is augmented by a northward post-breeding dispersal of birds that nest earlier in the southern part of the country. (This is the same reason we get Osprey and Bald Eagles moving through our region in the summer – they are birds of the year, or nesting adults, from southern states.)
One of our nesting (though in smallish numbers) egrets is the Great Egret. This is a very common bird in the southern tier of states and a species that we are seeing in larger numbers here in the north. None of the herons are musical or even melodic – as a matter of fact they are often gruff, squawky, grating & gravelly (Sibley), hoarse, rasping, or some other nonmusical appellation.
The Great Egret is a few inches shorter than a Great Blue but with a shorter wing span. The bill is yellowish, the legs and feet are dark. The lack of yellow feet and the larger size separate it from the Snowy Egret, In our area they are easiest to see in a swath of salt marsh but they are also found in freshwater wetlands.
Another heron that we are seeing annually is the Little Blue Heron. This is a bird of our southern coastal states and often shows up in New England in mid-summer. It is quite common to our south and has even joined a few of our local heron colonies on occasion as a breeding bird.
The little Blue Heron will often use the same pools and marshes as the Snowy Egrets (more common by far) but will not join the group. They are almost always off by themselves, even when other Little Blues are in the area. The young of the year are white with a two-toned bill. At about 7 or 8 months, when their first spring arrives, these young will still be white with blue-gray patches. The will not be fully adult-plumaged until their second spring. The bill remains two-toned.
Here on the Cape we usually see Little Blues in salt marshes but they are very comfortable in fresh water fields and marshes. This image shows a Little Blue in a tidal pool, probably with a lot of fresh rain water in it, associating with a Great Egret and a couple Snowy Egrets.
Another of our tall wading birds is the Glossy Ibis. This bird is found east of the Rocky Mountains and is not uncommon in its breeding range; primarily the very south coast of the USA. We see them more and more but they have been recorded annually since the 1940s. In the 1970s they extended their breeding range into Massachusetts and for a while there were more than 150 pairs breeding in the Commonwealth. Though we see them annually the breeding numbers have dropped significantly.
The Glossy Ibis has a very close relative, the White-faced Ibis. We do see them also, maybe annually in the state. The glossy has a very dark eye, blackish face, and modest white lines on the face.
As I started with migrants and migration and shorebirds as well as herons and egrets; I think I’d better stick a shorebird in this post. This is an Eastern Willet. Twenty years ago it was an uncommon breeding bird along our beaches but now it is by far the most common (and loudest) of our coast nesters. The first nest in 100 years was found by Dick Forster in 1976 out on Monomoy Island. It is a “sandpiper” of a size similar to a Greater Yellowlegs (almost pigeon sized). It is a solid looking bird and displays a large white flash in the wings when flying. As mentioned, they are noisy and obvious.
Just to prove it is a breeder here are a couple somewhat gawky, flightless, young teenage willet chicks. The nest was along a main road into a large and well-visited public beach. They seem to have settled in to our region with great confidence.

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