Thursday, March 15, 2018

Singing for Spring

Safety Officers at the head of our street
Feeling cabin-bound but with our Lane blocked by fallen trees and wires Kay and I walked to Halibut Point during the most recent northeaster. There were also pragmatic reasons to make the trek now.

The Babson Farm Quarry in falling snow
We expected the sticky snow and blustery wind would put a short-lived glaze on the quarry walls. The dreary light might render details with subtlety that sunshine would later discriminate into brights and shadows. 

Shrubbery beside the quarry
Every surface was receiving the confectioner's touch as a compensation of the vexatious weather. 

Mallards rising
Overall, however, the storm was disrupting the seasonal progress toward spring. Quarry ice had gone. Ducks were paired affectionately. It's mid-March when shamrock green should tune the landscape. 

Red-winged Blackbird on frosted cattails
The next morning, the Lane still blocked, we walked again toward Halibut Point. The roar of wind and surf had moderated. We could hear Red-winged Blackbirds in the marsh across Granite Street sweetly summoning good order back into the season. 

Great Cormorant on a quarry ledge
At the quarry the unusual sight of a Great Cormorant awaited us, perhaps a consequence of the storm. That species appears on the winter shoreline but rarely ventures to fresh water, unlike orange-cheeked Double-crested Cormorants common at other times of the year. 

Female Red-breasted Merganser on the quarry

Then we had another first-time sighting on quarry waters, a Red-breasted Merganser which also frequents the ocean perimeter of Halibut Point but not the interior. 

She enjoyed a fresh water bath and perhaps a few minnows before departing.

Undaunted by the quirks and hardships of meteorology songbirds were keeping pace with their relational advertisements in the treetops. Cardinals, titmice, chickadees, sparrows contributed familiar nuptial calls. Even crows and bluejays seemed to warm the edges of their croaks and screeches. On the walk home a series of old tunes came unbidden to my mind. How can I keep from singing?

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Three Scoters and a Scaup

During fall and spring migrations waves of dark-colored ducks fly past Halibut Point that to the distant or casual eye may appear to be identical. Most likely they are scoters, three different types in which the males' distinctive markings help keep the species organized amongst themselves. For us observers the contrast of those blazes deepens the birds' essential blackness, their intrigue and their charm.

A mixed flock of all three species of scoters
Scoters commute between wet tundra breeding grounds in summer and open coastal waters for the winter. Most fly past us in the fall for an easier life further south on the Atlantic seaboard. During March and April their numbers will resurge, northbound.

Male and female Surf Scoters
Surf Scoters earn their name from an ability to dive through turbulent waters in search of food on the ocean floor. They pry shellfish from rocky crevices with strong outsized beaks.

Those beaks display a candy-corn motif. How and why such a pattern developed on nature's canvas stimulates conjecture on the origin of design. Evolutionists collide with Creationists. Strategic minds jostle with whimsy. The Surf Scoter peers back through dotted off-center eyes inadequate, from a painterly point of view, to anchor the vivid features to the rich black body, giving the effect of an abbreviated work of Surrealism. Yet the species thrives.

Black (formerly American) Scoters are the least adorned of their clan. The male's neon orange bill stirs affection in its female counterpart as well as in birdwatchers along the bleak winter shoreline.

Male and female Black Scoters
The Blacks are the most common scoters now on the rim of Halibut Point. They ply the breaking waves along with Eiders and Harlequin Ducks.

Female White-winged Scoter eating mussels
White-winged Scoters forage for mussels right against the ledges. Their wing bars may be obscured in swimming birds. Females in all three species have a duskier hue than the males, charcoal as compared to coal. 

White-winged Scoter pair in flight
In addition to being blacker than the female the White-winged Scoter drake sports an arabesque eye liner and an orange-red tip to its bill.

Migration medley
Last November as I followed this group of ducks with my camera it became apparent that the white in their plumage increased markedly from left to right. The White-winged Scoter pair had joined with something unfamiliar to me. It was my first sighting of Greater Scaup, which prefers fresh water or protected salt water bays such as Gloucester Harbor when ponds freeze.

Greater Scaup,
drake in the lead, female next, then sub-adult or eclipse drake
(as identified by Chris Leahy)
These Scaup must have been passers-by at Halibut Point. The novelty put a live spark in my day.

Greater Scaup drake
Lo and behold in February a solitary Greater Scaup drake swam along the shoreline within portrait range. I admit to deserting the scoters for the finery of its plumage, curves, and proportions. But mainly, I suppose, it was a seduction of newness. If my bailiwick had been a marshy realm replete with scaup and a scoter chanced by, no doubt the scoter's exotic blackness would have enthralled me on first appearance.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

A Gull's View of Seals

An airborne gull looks opportunistically at seals diving for fish in the waters around Halibut Point. 

Harbor seal
On shore seals appear lumpy, unsuited to the submarine chase.

Immersion transforms them for sleek sprints in the business of fishing.

In their foreparts seals are well endowed for the underwater hunt. All their sensors have been realigned proportionally, positionally, purposefully for success.

Seals face an awkward moment when they capture a fish too big to swallow whole.

A canny gull will jab not just at the fish but at the seal's head and eyes to get it to relinquish the meal.

An interwoven chain of predation is under way. Each link pursues its survival in the constant adaptations to available energy and intelligence that at any moment portray the biosphere.

Biologists apply the term 'kleptoparasitism' (stealing + freeloader) to the gull's behavior toward the victimized seal. But unlike the fish the seal gets another chance. And parasitism unfairly suggests a creepy, invasive siphoning of assimilated life juices. 

Seal pup and gull
No, the gull has no part in considerations of what might have been. It consumes with a level gaze on the twists and turns of an organic parade. 

Seal pup with herd
The seals meanwhile concentrate on the welfare and occupations of their own province.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

A Gull's View of Cormorants

Herring Gulls, juvenile and adult
Toward the end of summer adult gulls know it's time for their offspring to become self-reliant. They begin weaning the young ones from gratuitous meals.

The deprivation provokes a chorus of juvenile anguish. The parents hold firm. They take the neophytes to sea to learn the craft of independent living. They introduce them to superior fish finders, the cormorants.

A Herring Gull harassing a cormorant while its youngster,
 and a Great Black-backed Gull, look on

The young gull takes the lesson. Its hunger and its genetic code confront the cormorant. It tests its advantages.

The cormorant dives, for safety and for food.

When it resurfaces with a fish in its beak, the young gull dashes in.

The cormorant flips the fish around to swallow it head first while dodging the inexpert attack.

Then it pivots to deliver a sharp lesson of life beyond the nest.


When gulls and cormorants retire from the contested waters of the ocean to the shelter of the Halibut Point quarry they leave animosity behind.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

A Gull's View of Gannets

Gannets soar eye to eye with gulls, searching out schools of fish. Their bright white silhouettes pointed at front and rear, long tapering wings at the middle of the body, and stiffer flight mechanics distinguish them from gulls. The 5 to 6 foot wingspan helps them glide efficiently for a life at sea, ranging seasonally from the North Atlantic to the tropics.

During their fall migration moving south past Cape Ann gannets use the prevailing winds to circle around Massachusetts Bay. Their peregrinations bring some of them close enough to Halibut Point for us to witness their spectacular fishing methods from shore. Eyes set far forward close to the beak afford them better binocular vision than most birds, for calculating distances and pinpointing prey.

A gannet will plunge-dive from heights over one hundred feet to surprise fish under water. Air sacs within special bone structures absorb the surface impact. Its nostrils are located protectively inside the beak.

As it nears the water a gannet takes on an increasingly ballistic shape, wings reduced to aerodynamic guidance fins, muscle mass pulled in tight. It hits the water in an arrow-like profile with a minimal splash as aspired to by Olympic divers.

The gannet propels itself to chase fish with webbed feet and 'rowing' wings. It usually swallows its prize before surfacing. Gulls may be waiting to take advantage of its fishing prowess in depths that they cannot reach. 

Gannet hastily swallowing a fish
Here in New England we are at the northern edge of the gannet's winter distribution. Next month the population will begin migrating back to nesting sites on rocky islands and inaccessible cliffs of the North Atlantic rim, all under the close eye of gulls.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Gulls and Fish

Three types of gulls claim niches on the Halibut Point shoreline in winter. They have developed overlapping approaches to mastery of the air, land, and sea. Every day, balmy or stormy, they contend with each other for the necessities of survival.

The Great Black-backed Gull

The largest and most territorial of the gulls can give an eagle-like impression in size, plumage, and demeanor, particularly given both birds' proclivity for scavenging at the water's edge.

In the receding tide Great Black-backed gulls use their strong beaks to capture shellfish in rocky crevices. They defend these prizes vigorously.

The Herring Gull

Grey-winged Herring Gulls have an occupational presence similar to their larger relative, patrolling the shoreline and the ocean surface for anything edible.

Being smaller and more maneuverable than the Great Black-backed, they have their own edge in the search for food.

This one spotted a crab in water shallow enough for a plunging grab.

The Ring-billed Gull

Although they both have black-tipped grey wings the smaller Ring-billed Gull differentiates itself from the Herring Gull by spending most of its time on or over the water, with distinctive buoyancy.

Tern-like it stays alert for the opportunity of hunting fish on the wing. Better than its brawnier relations it can hover, twist and dive.

When big fish drive little ones to the surface the bird's moment materializes.

Within reason, a Ring-billed Gull will go where the fish are.

It may have only a split second before an overhead pirate tries to grab its prize. The pirate will undoubtedly be another gull.