Thursday, May 28, 2015

Ed's World

Ed Jylkka, who had built the nesting boxes for the Halibut Point bird families we looked at last week, invited me over for a walk behind his house on Pigeon Hill Street. Pigeon Hill - named for the most plentiful of American birds that was hunted to extinction in the generations following John James Audubon.

Two of the three novelties Ed wanted to show me were right on his property. When he tapped on a 'bird' nesting box by the vegetable garden out popped a flying squirrel. It darted right back inside to its newborn brood. I had a momentary glimpse of the outsized black eyes and 'wings' that enable it to glide through the trees at night when it's out and about unseen by most of us.

Flying squirrel
On the way into the woods we passed Ed's prize wildflower. For years he'd been searching the environs for a white ladyslipper. This one materialized right beside his driveway.
White ladyslipper

Just a bit up the trail an exquisite trilling added to the other-worldly atmosphere. "American toad," Ed identified. "Wonderful to hear, especially if there's a pond with a lot of them joined in chorus. Each one seems to have its own unique voice. It's amazing how such a pretty sound can come from a toad that's not so pretty, unless you're another toad. The hermit thrush is my favorite songster. It's even more beautiful than the American toad."
Hermit thrush
We walked deeper into the woods. A haze of little white flowers carpeted the emergent groundcover. Ed noticed a starflower among the Canadian mayflowers.
Curiously this plant doesn't seem to grow at Halibut Point. But then neither do ladyslippers. Different ecologies only a mile apart. 
Pink ladyslipper
The forest opened at Steel Derrick Quarry, an industrial act of man that has healed artistically.

Steel Derrick Quarry
Ed says it's the best warbler spring he can remember. The birds may help slow down the invasion of winter moth caterpillars that are defoliating maples and oaks. Insect hunters are feasting in the treetops.

Winter moth caterpillars
Trees leafing out, caterpillars hatching, and warblers migrating are interconnected events. The pleasure to birdwatchers is complicated by the difficulty of seeing warblers clearly up in the canopy. The trick is to develop an ear for their distinctive vocalizations. Ed points to the zoo-zee, zoo-zoo-zee from a nearby black-throated green warbler as an easy song to identify.

Black-throated green warble
Ed's base line for recognizing certain bird songs is the robin. I listened closely as he discriminated between a robin up the street and the red-eyed vireos trilling non-stop above us. Later I concentrated on the difference from recordings on the Cornell Ornithology website. The vireo strings together endless warbling riffs, sweet, clipped, higher pitched than the robin's fuller, rounder, more resonant notes. That's the way I hear it.

Ed scanning for scarlet tanager
We turn up the road to Johnson's Quarry where Ed wants to show me an indigo bunting that's been singing there. Along the way he hears a call from another robin sound-alike, a scarlet tanager. He quotes a field guide description, "a robin with a sore throat."

Ed says "the indigo bunting - just like the scarlet tanager - people don't believe they're here. It's just that they're not that easy to see. The bunting is usually silhouetted near the top of a tree so the bright blue doesn't look like it. But you'll know the song. And the tanager usually spends its time inside the canopy. You could walk right by its velvety black and beautiful red."
Scarlet tanager
Sure enough, Ed homes in on a tanager in the thicket of branches. He congratulates me on my unobstructed photo of a tanager at Halibut Point earlier in the week.

Scarlet tanager at Halibut Point
We fail to find the indigo bunting to complete the desired trinity. "Too windy," Ed concludes, "but two out of three isn't bad." Especially when he serves coffee and home-made rhubarb-blueberry pie back at his house, the pie crisp and tart, wonderfully sweetened by an allotment from the one quart of maple syrup Ed distilled last winter on a burner in the back yard.

Indigo bunting
Ed Jylkka photo
Ed's pretty good with a camera too. He didn't want us to be skunked on the bunting. He didn't want his credibility, or my pleasure, to be tarnished. We made another date for a sure sighting. An inducement photo was waiting in my email inbox when I got home.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Watchers at the Nest

Chickadee scouting
In mid-April, with all but the dregs of snowdrifts melted, interest picked up in the nesting boxes on Halibut Point. The chickadee ultimately preferred to customize a nearby birch stump.

My friend Alicia put her hopes and sympathy with tree swallows. She recalled their bygone success. "In those years when they regularly nested in the boxes in the meadow they would scout it out in April and build the nest and all summer I would watch it. I would stand on this rock and very quietly I would watch how, once they were settled in, I would see the male in the tree guarding and the female in the box."

Tree swallows scouting
As things developed this spring, a pair of tufted titmice won roosting rights in this particular box.

Tufted titmouse
Alicia kept her fingers crossed as swallows examined another box.

"I love the tree swallows. They fly with so much joy. You can feel it. They do it because they love it. That's what I think. They swoop, and they chitter, and they chatter. They fly over the quarry and they eat the bugs off the water."

After the initial interest we didn't see much of the tree swallows except high overhead. Alicia feared the worst as building activity proceeded in a nearby box.

House wren
"House wrens used to nest on the other side of the quarry. I watched them, I thought I liked them. They weren't bothering my birds over here. Then one year as my swallows were getting started, the next thing I know I can hear the song of a house wren. A wren shows up, it dives into the box, and it pecks the eggs. The tree swallow nest was gone. That was the end of that. Those wrens nested in every single box in the entire park."

"They're messy. They get their twigs and they fly in. They're smart, I give them that. Because one day I saw one trying to get it in the nest box, and the twig was this way, and she's looking at it trying to get it in, and she turned it around. So I give them that."

"They're brainy. But they're messy, so there'd be twigs hanging out the bottom. Whereas my guys, their nest is gorgeous, it's got feathers, and it's beautifully woven. I looked it up in a field guide for nests."

Early one morning this month came the possibility of good news, just like years ago.

"She would stick her head and shoulders outside the box. They'd sing that funny bubbly call. He'd be right here, and she'd be right in the box. Then they'd switch, and he would go in. It was so magical. And they'd swoop over the box."

At a time she needed to convalesce from illness Alicia came out to sit beside the quarry. She takes the CATA bus from Gloucester.

"It was like going to the ballet. There they were, dancing over the water, taking their bugs. All the kids had been born by now. All the family was swooping and flying, barn swallows and tree swallows everywhere. One landed right near me. I think they're poets of the sky. They give us some kind of music. They hover. They're a nice bird."

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Spring Heralds at Halibut Point

Song sparrow
Boundary diplomacy and  love songs fill the air, as immense and powerful as the earth is tiny and delicate.

Trout lily
Woodland flowers bloom before tree leaves close off the sunlight.
Arrowhead violet

Red columbine
A butterfly flutters by.
Mourning cloak
Juvenile orchard oriole
A young oriole has found his way back north.  A chickadee has endured the winter.

Goldfinch in apple tree
Newness freshens the world. Birds and flowers sustain each other. Morning light favors all the busyness.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Swamping on Halibut Point

Spring evenings, strolling down the path into Halibut Point State Park you're going to be greeted by the peeper frog chorus promoting procreation in wetlands everywhere. Occasionally out of the blackness may come a quacking sound, to my ear more like a crow mutter, indicating wood frogs. That justifies a call to the Cape Ann Vernal Pond Team (CAVT).

CAVT members Rick Roth and Martin Basch came out to see about certifying possible vernal pools. I wasn't sure how their walking sticks fit into the outing since the first pool was only a couple of hundred feet up the path.

Confronting cat brier and sudden depth drops
Rick uses the stick as a depth gauge, and to part the cat brier. From experience he attests that it's better to try to find the bottom with his stick than his body. This is quarry country where water holes can be deep.

Rick wears polarizing sunglasses to help spot amphibian egg masses below the water surface. He collects them onto a floating tray.

Spotted salamander egg mass attached to twigs in pond
Photographic evidence of five egg masses suffices to certify a vernal pool. Since most of the parent species are nocturnal, finding the egg masses in the daytime is an "easier" way to provide evidence. But day or night, all CAVT expeditions are spectacular.

Five qualifying salamander samples
After being photographed the egg masses are returned to the pond to develop into larvae with gills. Like all amphibians salamanders eventually develop lungs for their terrestrial adult life. They can succeed if the pool retains water long enough, at least a couple of months, for the youngsters to get legs and crawl off into the forest.

Life in this niche avoids fish predation. By definition vernal pools preclude fish because they lack moving water from inlets or outlets, and they dry up seasonally. 'Vernal' means 'spring.'

Martin Basch taking a GPS reading
GPS coordinates locate the pool within twenty feet for a map maintained by the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. Certified pools receive State protection of a 25-foot buffer zone, which may be enlarged by local ordinance. Rockport voters have authorized a 50-foot buffer. All of this differs from areas designated wetlands by the Department of Environmental Management with more stringent rules and usage implications, which typically don't apply to vernal pools.

Most vernal pools are tiny, but Rick believes they feed more forest wildlife than any other wetland. The high mortality rate of eggs and newborns means that creatures higher up the food chain are feasting.
Vernal pools are also defined by the presence of  'obligate' species, creatures such as salamanders and wood frogs that breed nowhere else. Peepers, because they breed in many kinds of wetlands, are often present in vernal pools are not  specific indicators. Peepers reproduce with a different strategy, laying singular eggs that drop into the muck bottom to avoid detection while they gestate.
On another occasion Rick highlighted the allure of the hunt, the vibrancy of a forest night in spring and the mostly unseen relationships that briefly come into focus.

Yellow-spotted salamanders swimming
"I'm a salamander guy. To me it's just totally normal....This is ultimately about the health of the planet. To me, it's just makes perfect sense that not only is there this wonderful thing called Nature that includes all these delightful plants and animals but it's also necessary. So to me it's not eccentric at all."

"Look at all these people showing up on a rainy night, and with kids! What's going on? It's a vernal pond field trip!"