Friday, October 25, 2013


My brother Joel is coming to town next week to photograph oceanside birds in their fall migration. We had a grand time last summer in a canoe on the Essex River Basin. He has the kind of camera that can make full-frame pictures of osprey fledglings in their nest from sixty yards away.

We are advised that Andrews Point offers optimal conditions in the coming weeks for intersecting the year’s greatest concentration of birds on the coastal flyway. One day last week I headed over to scout the terrain, the morning sun angles, and early migration movement. Other than eiders along the shore there wasn’t much that I could see. But the balmy day soothed away concerns about bird absence. I met a new friend.

Lois is well versed in natural history topics local and global. As she warms up to the subject you realize that local and global are one thing, like changing perspective with the focus ring on your binoculars. In the unseasonable warmth she speculated on whether the bird migrations were delayed by climate change.

“Let me tell you about something else to look for,” said Lois. “Murmuration. You know about the ability of shorebirds to maneuver wingtip to wingtip, swerving as if with one mind in tight formation? In the spring migration we saw clouds of sandpipers flocking by in perfect coordination. Nobody knows how they do it.”

Murmuration. We don’t understand it but are comforted to have a word for it. I get that feeling at the doctor’s office sometimes, or at weighty thoughts like love and war.

On the way home to Lanesville I turned in to Folly Point, the western shoulder of Halibut Point. A distant view of ‘murmurating’ birds quickened my scramble over the ledges. I don’t have the kind of camera equipment that enables Joel to immortalize images crisply. But I managed this snapshot souvenir of an aerial ballet obligingly performed for me, to illustrate the concept. I’m a visual learner.

At the tip of Folly Point are the remnants of an old quarry. The gyrating flock disappeared behind its rim. I crouched low, running behind the grout pile to approach as close as possible without being seen, more bent on  speed than safety. But rounding the final probable screening I was greeted by mere cormorants. The ‘sandpipers’ had moved on.

The rocks were flat and dry enough to permit passage around the next corner where I got my reward. A cormorant in wing-drying mode stood like a conductor directing the assembled shorebirds. I worried that each closer picture would be the last. 

The cormorant swam off when its sense of safe space was violated. The shorebirds stayed on as though they’d earned that spot and needed a rest. I aimed for d├ętente, perching where we could all pursue our interests amicably. As we watched each other they relaxed onto ‘one stilt.’

Without a field guide I wasn’t sure what species I was looking at, especially since fall plumage is often less distinctive than at breeding time. I postponed the left-brain satisfaction of identification to enjoy a grand moment with creatures who had made their arrival on wings.

Sanderling and black-bellied plover, fall plumage
One of the birds looked smaller than the others in the gathering. Back home I consulted the website gallery of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to authenticate the caption above. It confirmed that both species had just returned from their arctic tundra breeding grounds. The plovers may winter anywhere from here to South America. My little sanderling, whether outnumbered, mellow-natured, or momentarily sated was more companionable than in some situations, according to the article:
Sanderlings are easy to find on sandy beaches from fall through spring. Pick a beach with a low, gradual slope and walk along the water’s edge. Look for small shorebirds running back and forth in sync with the waves—these are likely to be Sanderlings. While other shorebirds such as plovers and Willets may feed alongside Sanderlings on these outer beaches, this is truly the Sanderling’s domain; these plucky birds often aggressively defend their feeding territories at water’s edge from other shorebirds.
Halibut Point seen from Folly Point
With a new word and a new bird for the day, both hemispheres of my brain were gratified. And we had a new angle on Halibut Point, revealing even more impressively the grout pile of quarry waste. Birds have their genius but our enterprise leaves the bigger mark.

Saturday, October 19, 2013


We ended last week in a tempest, searching the horizon for offshore birds blown closer in heavy weather. It’s time to enjoy calm waters. We’ll draw our eyes down from panoramas to tableaux floating at our feet.

In late summer the yellow pond lilies began to tire. Delicate currents experimented with pollen patterns around their pads. Was there a breath of movement in the air, or were the swirls transmitted from the waterfall that freshened the reservoir at the far wall?

Birch leaves and gull feathers, having finished their job, detached and realigned en route to the mud. Are we the only sentimental creatures? Is all beauty rooted in utility, in the respiration of life and death?


The sea reabsorbed its waves as they flicked bits of foam over the turmoil. It required the audience to show up promptly before these confections could be dispersed by the busy wind that sent the waves crashing to shore.

In a quiet corner of Folly Cove a grebe relaxed from its exertions. A flier, a floater, a deep-water swimmer. Look at the massive propellers that counter its buoyancy to give chase to fish! A speck on the sea, a masterwork of proportion.

This is an advent photo, a change of state from water to ice and from fall to winter. In solidifying the water lightens and floats on itself. The accomplishment prods it to self-adornment with a crystal fringe. Same chemistry, different physics, a tease for science and art alike.

In Halibut Point recreation we experience the continuous re-creation of its constituent parts, including the visitors.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

History and Geography

Wanting to invite you to Halibut Point, I ask myself is it a place? a name? a thought? To be a destination it must be all those things.

Latitude and longitude can get you precisely to a point on the globe. These days that’s handled for you by satellites, GPS, and a gadget phone that can return you to the very footprints where you  stood to take a picture. If you’re a bit behind the curve just give MapQuest a place, Google a name, or your consciousness a thought.

You have to wonder if the birds that famously navigate around Halibut Point have any of these advantages. They distribute themselves according to their needs as well as to the elemental forces of Nature. Over time their activities form a history in response to geography. Birdwatchers improve their odds of success by studying the patterns.  They organize solitary or group field trips to Halibut Point to coincide with expected migrations as well as with the prayer of a rare sighting. They gravitate to nearby Andrews Point for its superior observation conveniences.

Halibut Point is the boldest assertion of the continent into the sea in its area. When you stand there it resembles a head on two shoulders that complete a geographic whole. The adjacent curls in the coastline, Andrews Point and Folly Point, share in defining Andrews Cove and Folly Cove as the relatively sheltered waters beside Halibut Point. Within this proximity, within eyesight of bird and man, exist greatly variable conditions that can improve or challenge the life pursuits of creatures from miniscule to manly. It is fun to speculate on this whole spectrum’s reasons for locating themselves here at a particular moment.

Is Halibut Point a rim or a realm? How deep is its claim to the land and the sea? If it includes a panorama and a hinterland, then constellations of stars and human settlement engage your attention. The Coves are hospitable eddies to vast waters. The Points are extensions of terrestrial complexities.

Boundaries limit reality but help us devise destinations where we can meditate on improvements to our circumstances. They help us get a grasp on things that we or someone else may value at one time or another. In fact, boundaries are a pretty good indicator of value. If you’re in a finite frame of mind boundaries influence behavior.

Take a look at the map prepared by Allen Chamberlain in 1940, reprinted by the Sandy Bay Historical Society in Pigeon Cove, Its Early Settlers & Their Farms 1702-1840, 2nd edition 1999. The geographic facts begin to come into focus along with some teasing historical data that will take us meandering later on. For now notice the unitary logic of those shouldering Points, projected into currents of water and air. 

Rockporters acknowledge a self-conscious enclave of citizens in the northern reaches of their municipality, Pigeon Cove, inhabited by ‘Covahs.’ Halibut Point lies beyond their village. And many but not all Gloucester folks are aware of northern brethren in Lanesville. By traveling through Lanesville (where I live) a bit further one arrives at Halibut Point.

All these communities exist on Cape Ann which is itself a peninsula, sometimes island, attached by bridges to Massachusetts. Route 127 from the mainland finishes in a circular flourish within the Cape giving access to Halibut Point equidistantly clockwise or counter-clockwise from the drawbridge. Dogtown takes up the middle where Marsden Hartley nourished his own interior.

Early roads through Dogtown, like spokes, connected colonists on the perimeter of the Cape to each other before the coastal route was completed. Commerce between some of those settlements was shorter by boat than by road. Scenic ravines and outcrops that delight today’s traveler interrupted the mobility of their carts and carriages. How the needs were substantiated to commission those roads illuminates the economic history of Cape Ann. As our research proceeds, will we find explanatory details tucked into the journals of bygone times?

Among our reasons to envy birds is their ability to fly over our topographical obstacles. Most birds, that is. Some consider terra firma to be terra incognita. In migration they hug the shoreline for dependable food or navigation features. They would rather fly around than over land. Since Halibut Point butts out into their coastal flyway it’s a prime spot for avian encounters.

Other birds that can barely walk shy away from land entirely. Ocean-dwelling pelagic species eat and sleep at sea. When a really nasty nor’easter drives them shoreward stalwart birders hope to catch a glimpse of them by peering into the gale. For that kind of amusement you need hard-earned expertise or a knowledgeable companion who can confirm that among the furious blurs of weather and waves is a particular kind of alcid beating frantically toward the horizon.

Sunday, October 6, 2013


At the close of a long season of gathering energy from sunlight many plants are packaging their seeds of increase. Succulent layers give nourishment to the seeds and a bargain to the creatures enlisted to disperse them, as noted last week with the hickory and the tupelo. For some species a passage through the acidic digestive tract of a bird actually prepares the hard seed casing (endocarp) for germination.

Plants with fruiting strategies want to make them delicious and visible. The seeds may comprise only a tiny portion of the edible prize, the greater part sometimes going to the harvester. But the result is more plants.

Nightshade, a relative of the tomato, potato, and eggplant which are all berry-producers
Virginia creeper
Crabapples and bittersweet elegantly entwined
Walking along the seashore this week I found two native species, the grape and the cranberry, that have always interested foraging people. They are tasty enough to have been brought into cultivation where human industry coaxes them to high-stakes production. These specimens pioneered improbably among the rocks of Halibut Point, a tribute to the success of far-flung propagation.

This Concord grape vine ranging out over a grout pile has emerged from a scruffy thicket that evidently added enough humus to the stone dust ‘soil’ to support the vine. From that base it’s tricky going: a top-of-the-canopy occupant enjoys limitless light but suffers first the desiccations of wind, salt and drought.

Cranberries carpeting a ravine in the moors found enough steady moisture to flourish.
Fruit satisfy the appetites not only of the hungry but also of the systems of botanical classification that organize our knowledge of the plant kingdom. In fruit the masterminds of taxonomy find their most dependable keys to order. Finding fruit is the ultimate prize for the explorer, collector, and gestalt-minded sleuths of the natural world.

My horticultural encyclopedia assures me that “…the seed-bearing organs of plants vary much less than the foliage. Upon this relative stability of the form and structure of fruits and the flowers that produce them depends the classification of plants into families and genera, and sometimes even species in the same genera have decidedly different fruit.”

Botanically speaking peas, wheat and pepper corns are also fruit. The fleshy fruits we have encountered so far on Halibut Point are all true berries, drupes (tupelo), or pomes (crabapple). Nuts – the hickory – comprise another category. Some plants that would attract us earlier in the season, such as strawberries and blackberries, produce aggregate fruits that develop from single flowers with multiple ovaries in contrast to the single ovaries of berry-producing flowers. Such are the paths of science and progress.