Around Town

Please consider images to be copyrighted and ask permission to reproduce. Thank you. DEClapp

In the olden days I would travel and blog; The Galapagos, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Tanzania, Zambia and so on. It was exciting for me to both travel and relive the travels in the blog. The past couple years have been pretty awful. I have been waiting and waiting to do something that streams the adrenaline through me and then write about it. It isn’t happening and it may never happen until this virus fades away. With that in mind I am going to dive into the marvels that I live amongst; ocean birds, marine mammals, salt water fishes, deciduous forests, and so on.

Most of the images that I have been taking recently are birds and they get posted on eBird. If you have never looked at eBird, please do. It is a huge free data base on bird sightings around the world. You can join for free and then search by country, by state or province, by county or parish and then by (very) local hotspots. It provides endless bits of information and keeps all your data in a personal file as well. Look at it and marvel. It its really cool.

I am going to stick in a few images every now and then and hopefully develop some sort of rhythm and pattern to these pages. Let’s look at a few recent sightings.

Heading for the coast from our house offers me the choice of the southern waters of Nantucket Sound, the constrained waters of Cape Cod Bay, or the colder water of the North Atlantic. Each has its own character and wildlife despite considerable overlap. The time of day, the tide, and the wind all feature into planning a day. But in almost every scenario you can find gulls, sea and bay ducks, and a few surprises.

We will see three mergansers in the winter: Hooded Mergansers are found commonly in fresh water ponds, Common Mergansers appear in the large lakes as winter sets in, and the Red-breasted Mergansers (above) are common in shallow salt water including salt marshes and most open salt water. Mergansers are diving birds with a narrow beak, quite unlike a duck’s beak. They will swim after fishes under water and the serrated bill will “hook” the prey. The males of all three mergansers are quite flashy and the females are exquisitely dull. This is a very attractive group of birds.
This image and the two below are of a bird that may or may not be a species – it is a Willet. But that may not be enough. It is a “western” Willet in that it is uniformly gray and a bit larger that our noisy breeding Willet. Perhaps this different looking bird with different habits is actually a separate species. Our resident/breeding Willet are long gone to the south. Our western Willets are likely to be from populations in North Dakota or Montana but possibly from southern Alberta, Saskatchewan, or Manitoba. A flight of nearly 2000 miles is a piece of cake for large shorebirds – the record holders (godwits) fly about 7,500 miles non-stop from Alaska to New Zealand. Oh yes, these 10 ounce birds, then return to Alaska (or Siberia) via China and North Korea – a bit of a longer route but allowing for feeding stops along the way. China’s coastal development of seaports has impacted the feeding areas greatly. But North Korea’s coastline is still very much undeveloped.
We see Western Willet every year here in Massachusetts in the late summer and fall. Sometimes, like this one, they linger into the winter. Though they breed in south central Canada and western USA they winter along both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. The nesting preference is in prairie pothole habitat and the wintering preference is tidal flats, especially those with seaweed wrack lines deposited by tidal action. This one is exploring a wrack line of Codium, a green algae (a seaweed Genus with about 50 species) that is scoured up by our fall storms. It is not eating the seaweed but the creepy/crawly things that make a home in the wrack
Not a great picture – but I wanted to show the surprise that this rather large dull gray shorebird is hiding as it walks the beach. It has a very splashy wing pattern that seals the ID once you see it.
One of the oddities of birding is that weird still happens over and over. That is the fun of birding in part. In this case the uncommon Lesser Black-backed Gull(LBBG) has been frequenting the same 100 meters of beach in the winter for at least three years. Where it goes to breed or what it does when not around here is a mystery. There are few breeding LBBG in North American and most of those are up in the Canadian Maritimes. Perhaps our bird its just a pure and simple loner who has no breeding place to go each spring. Or, more likely, it heads back to its annual breeding area and, perhaps, finds that same mate and raises a youngster or two – and then bids them all good-bye and heads south again to our winter beach as they watch and wonder.
Gulls are a northern hemisphere feature. There are gulls worldwide for sure but the northern hemisphere has the majority of the species. Many of them look like this bird, a Ring-billed Gull (RBGU). The Herring Gull (HEGU) in similar and larger and the Great Black-backed Gull is similar but both larger and blacker (instead of gray). Then there are kittiwakes, Ivory Gulls, Ross’s Gull, and an array of European gulls as well. They all look like gulls; but they are all different and adapted to specific habitats and specialized ways of life. Gulls have been around a while and when the most recent glacial epoch arrived it reached fingers of ice down (or up as well) from the poles and separated the land mass in fragments. The gulls in each fragment could die off, move somewhere else, or adapt to the new circumstance. I am sure all three things happened and our gull species (and sub-species) are the result.
In the winter the Canadian barren lands might become snow covered, very cold, windy, and perhaps empty of small mammals called lemmings. When this happens the Snowy Owls of the area will move south. In most years they arrive in tundra-like areas and hang out. They are from a treeless region of the planet and so are quite happy in our salt marshes, dunes, and airports. Each of these locations is a bit barren and the owls settle in. However when they are at Logan Airport in Boston they can be deemed a threat to aircraft and the powers that be allow them to be live-trapped and relocated. It is thought that moving them south during the first half of migration and north from Boston in the second half best mimics what the birds would normally be doing. The fellow that has done this trapping (for 40 years or so now) has probably handled more Snowy Owls than anyone else in the world. It amazes me that these birds can sit around an airport full of jet noise and still hear and hunt with ease.
On the Massachusetts Coast we see Snowy Owls from the New Hampshire state line on down below Cape Cod. Some years there are a few and other years there are dozens. They tend to sit out all day and feed at dawn and dusk. The wintering birds are more likely to eat bay and sea ducks though mammals (rats to a large extent) are still sought out where they are common. One year one of the Logan owls roosted near a small fresh water pool that had about two dozen Black Ducks in it. Every evening he would capture a duck and feast as the sun set and then sit until the next night when he would again catch a duck from the pool. This went on for three weeks. The Snowy Owl has been know to capture Great Blue herons and cormorants as well as mammals and ducks.

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