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I am usually looking for, and at, birds. But they live amongst trees, shrubs, ferns, mosses, algae, lilies, insects, fish, reptiles, mammals, fungi by the tens of thousands and bacteria and viruses yet to be named. They are part of our complex world – as are we. In my time birding I am always struck by the number of dragonflies and damselflies and just plain flies. There are plants flowering or growing leaves or shedding leaves. A pond or a forest or a field may seem static as we wander through but in fact these habitats (micro-ecosystems) are dynamic and full of life and death, action and relaxation, growth and pause.
It is with that in mind that I deviate a bit from the migratory bird scene and insert a few things that popped into view this week. Snakes, turtles, beetles, and carnivorous plants to name a few. But there is always something to admire or enjoy; for instance, I like the tiered growth pattern of Tupelo trees, and the sandy nesting bowls made by sunfish and bass, or the seemingly overnight arrival of dozens of Common Whitetail and Twelve-spotted Skimmer dragonflies, or, yes, the surprise arrival of Monarch Butterflies and migratory sandpipers.
So, below I am inserting an array of images from this week – next week’s array would likely be somewhat different – to stimulate you to look at not just the birds but the pond edges and the trees and the summer flush of insects. Oh, by the way the lead image is just a reminder that the wonders of summer will have to tone down as winter approaches and the world or each species changes dramatically. Here we go.
There is an underwater bank just off Provincetown, Massachusetts called Stellwagen Bank. It is a raised plateau under about 65 feet off water where most of the whale-watching boats go. The water varies down from 65′ to more than 600′ in a few places but closer to 300′ on average in the region. The moving water, our water moves from the south to the north and then east, hits the walls of the bank and rises, bringing nutrients from the deeper water to the surface. The waters off Provincetown are green with photosynthetic algae and then teeming with little creatures that eat the algae. Then of course there are things that eat the small stuff and larger things that eat those creatures – on and on until you become a bit afraid to fall overboard. Some of our summertime predators are Sand Lance, Striped Bass, Blue Fish, Tuna, Gray Seals, and several species of whales. The Sand Lance are about the size of a pencil and occur in shoals of many thousands. They are a forage fish for many predators including the whales.
The header image of a speckled seal belly-up shows what is likely a youngish female Gray Seal. When the shark boats come in with their load of Atlantic Spiny Dogfish Shark the animals gather to grab whatever gets thrown over. There can be large, up to 600+ pounds, males and some smaller, sleeker females. There are lots of seals in the area and lots of dogfish as well.
Big males will have a horse-like head. Females are smaller and sleeker and the head is more typically seal-like; that is pointed and maybe even funnel shaped. A large bulk Gray Seal will approach 3 meters (10′) in length and weight more than 600 pounds. Females can get to 500+ pounds but are often smaller. In Maritime Canada as well as Maine and Massachusetts there were bounty placed on seals as they were perceived as “thieves” stealing the fish that belonged to humankind. In Massachusetts the bounty persisted until the 1960s. The Cape Cod population has gone from about 2,000 in 1994 to about 16,000 in 2011 and now in 2021 the estimated population (by some accounts) is over 50,000. They wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t enough food. However the fisherman that enjoyed surf casting now see a lot more seals along shore than they see Blue Fish or Striped Bass.
The Striped Bass is too small to be a keeper and the fisherman himself is a representative of a very small group of surf fisherman that persist in Cape Cod’s seal-rich waters. Most fishing now seems to be from boats or with fly rods in tidal shallows.
This boat is loaded with the sharks as it comes in from retrieving its long lines. The lines are put out and then hauled back in almost immediately. There are sharks on most every hook. They have been harvested in huge numbers around the world. In the US fisheries management is presumed to keep the harvest on an even keel, but time will tell. In much of the world the Spiny Dogfish Shark is considered to be threatened from over fishing.
In order to leave Provincetown Harbor one has to get a feel for the last glaciation as well as today’s erosion and shoaling. The boat is boarded at MacMillan Wharf and then you head south and turn west and then turn north in order to escape the inner hook of Cape Cod. Once on the Atlantic side of this great sand bar it is a run of a few miles to Stellwagen’s southwest corner. You pass three lighthouses along the way; Long Point as you start to turn to the northwest and Wood End as you head off to the northwest and away from land and a look over your right shoulder will give you a look at the Race Point Lighthouse back along the beach a bit to the south on the Atlantic side.
Long Point Light Station is on the last curve as you return to Provincetown Harbor. It is a long walk to this location but some intrepid paddlers get there on stand-up or paddle boards and small boats are pretty common as well..
As you leave the shore and head for the Bank there are lots of private boats trying for the thrill of a lifetime – the hooking and boating of a tuna. It is a hobby for many and few of the cast from Wicked Tuna are here – but everyone has a dream. Cape Cod Bay will have Bluefin Tuna in it during the periods of warm water, June through September. These are migratory fish that make the trip across the Atlantic or up from the Caribbean to eat our summer fish stocks. Yellowfin Tuna are also here but stay pretty much in the warmer waters south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. Our forage fish include pogey (menhaden), mackerel, herring, as well as the small Sand Lance. Tuna will also chase down and eat the stripers and blues.
A day in Provincetown will be interesting on many many levels. The commercial boats are in and out with fishermen and fishing gear, a bit gnarly and truly work boats. The clean and shiny charters are out looking to make the tourist-fisherman happy. The whale-watch boats run in and out all day. But in addition to these somewhat expected activities will be a research boat or two. Some of the research will be centered on our newest big fish; the Great White Shark. There are now all sorts of monitoring buoys to catch the “ping” of a tagged shark as it passes by. When this happens a scene from Jaws occurs and everyone on shore enjoying a day at the beach is told/asked/cajoled/ordered to get out of the water. The devices in the image are not rockets they are listening devices that hear the beep from a tagged shark. Dozens of sharks have been jabbed and a device implanted. Nothing is perfect but this mechanism has been helpful in following and identifying sharks and in clearing beaches. The Cape Cod Great Whites start off as fish eaters but as they grow and become stronger and faster they can hunt and kill seals. Cape Cod has a large Gray Seal population at the moment; probably well over 30,000. Fishermen think that is many many thousands too many, but neither the sharks nor the seals would be here if the ocean wasn’t providing enough food. In one way the seals are an example of a rich and teeming ocean. And that is good.
“Portuguese women faced the sea in many ways: as mothers, wives, sisters, friends and family of fishermen, as cooks, laundresses, nurses, teachers and telephone operators. They kept the culture alive, sang the songs, danced the dances, buried the dead, gave birth, cooked and kept the church at the center of their lives. Above all, they were resilient through good times and bad, their strength and courage easily matching and supporting that of their male seafaring counterparts.” See for more information. This quote is from their website. http://www.iamprovincetown.com/PortugueseWomen/
The two ladies pictured on one of the walls of a wharf side storage barn are Almeda Segura and Bea Cabral. Eva Silva, Mary Jason, and Frances Raymond also appear. It is a touching, and fitting, representation of the weave and complexity of a working persons life. The idea was from Ewa Nogiec and the photos by Norma Holt.
In the winter our Whitetail Deer population hunkers down in a sheltered patch of woods. But in the summer, with food everywhere, they might be found at fresh or salt water or in a field or woodland. This doe was wandering along the edge of a saltwater bay as I happened by. We were both a bit surprised.
While driving in Maine a couple weeks ago we came upon a rather surprising reptilian form. Nicely done! We have a boulder near home that someone has drawn over in a “Snoopy” face. But the snake is pretty good.
To my surprise the warm weather has real snakes out and about. The other day I stopped by a shallow pond looking for Solitary Sandpipers along the now muddy shore and there was a nice, heavily keeled, water snake on the mud. As I turned back to get the camera I saw this Black Racer along the edge of the water. The Black Racer can be found throughout eastern USA from Maine to Florida and Wisconsin to Texas. It favors an open habitat and around here the woodland cutting for the passage of high tension electric lines makes for perfect habitats.
The Water Snake eluded me but the racer paused and posed. This species will grow to about 60″ if given enough food and time. The scales are smooth, not keeled. The white under the chin is usual and the belly could be gray or black. In early summer they can be territorial and will sort of bluff you away – I have had them vibrate their tails (sounding a bit like a rattlesnake I suppose) and rear up in an offensive posture.
This summer has been dry out here on Cape Cod for the most part and the ponds are warm and lower that usual. These little grayish silver critters are a water bug called Whirligig Beetle or Gyrinidae. They gather in groups on the waters surface if things are safe and they are not panicked but they will dive underwater and swim away if something threatens them. It is probably surprising that they have eyes that are half and half; designed to work above the water in the air and the other half designed to work underwater.
One last thing that caught my eye the other day was the yellow flowers of the carnivorous plant Bladderwort. The plant is not rooted but has floating roots. The roots have small bladders or little suction bags on them. The bladders can capture a food item (usually some small crustacean or insect larvae) so fast that it seems magical. There are a few U-tube videos that are slowed down and you can see the plant suck in the passing item. The very idea that a plant’s suction system can be triggered by and then inhale a passing creature implies that the plant has sensory nerves and muscles. There is a lot to learn. The genus Utricularia contains more than 220 species of carnivorous plant – through you rarely hear of them.