Monday, July 30, 2012

A Rainy Weekend Along Long Island Sound

This past weekend I was lucky enough to spend a little time exploring a salt marsh and beach along Long Island Sound  in Clinton, Connecticut. From my previous trip to the area I knew that I would likely encounter a number of different coastal species, including Osprey, Double-crested Cormorant and Terns. Although the weather was cloudy and there were occasional thunderstorms passing through, I still managed to get outside and found the birds to be as active as ever. On my first night there I walked out to the beach to take a look at the moon rising over Long Island Sound.

The moon rising over Long Island Sound, Clinton, Connecticut.
The next morning I woke up early and headed back to the beach to have a look. The sky was gray, but the rain held off for a little while as I watched Double-crested Cormorants fly back and forth, low over gentle waves,  as half a dozen Common Terns swooped and stabbed the air, diving and dashing into the water to pick up small fish just below the surface. My next stop was a salt marsh, where in addition to European Starlings, Northern Cardinals and an Osprey, I also spotted a Great Egret, my first in Connecticut.

A salt marsh in Clinton, Connecticut. Salt Marshes play a vital role in the overall health of marine ecosystems and provide key resources for a wide variety of birds, fish and other animals.
Soon after I left the salt marsh it began to rain, and the wet weather stayed with us for the rest of the day. Fortunately, on Sunday my girlfriend and I went back to the beach, where we both managed to get a few phone photos of the Common Terns perching and fishing along the edge of the water. While I'm sure I must have seen these birds many times while fishing on Cape Cod when I was younger, this was the first time I had recorded them since I started biring, bringing my list for the year to 83, and my life list to 191.

A Common Tern perches on a piling in Clinton, Connecticut, with Long Island Sound in the background. These birds can be seen regularly along New England beaches where they search for small fish.
Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

An Afternoon on Stellwagen Bank: Humpback Whales and Two New Life Birds

A number of small islands and beaches stand guard at the entrance to Plymouth Harbor, providing habitat for both wildlife and people to enjoy.
When my girlfriend told me back in April that she wanted to take me on a whale watch for my birthday I have to admit I was pretty excited. I enjoy whales and dolphins, and back when I was in college I took a particularly good course on marine mammals which taught me a lot about these amazing animals, but of course being an avid birder I was also very excited by the prospect of adding some new birds to my year and life list. For our whale watching adventure we went out of Plymouth Harbor on a Captain John whale watch, and we had amazing weather with excellent visibility. During the 4 hours we were on the boat ( and a little time spent by the dock prior to departure) I was delighted to add 3 new species to my year list, two of which were new life birds for me. Shortly after parking I added species number 80 to my list for the year when I noticed a group of 3 or 4 Laughing Gulls circling overhead.

A Laughing Gull perched near the waterfront in Plymouth Harbor.

 As the boat headed out of the harbor there was plenty to see, including a wide variety of working and recreational boats, small sandy islands dotted with summer homes and an array of navigational markers, lighthouses and buoys.

In the foreground, a channel marker buoy lets boaters know where the channel lies and how to navigate it, in the background summer homes can be seen resting on a narrow, sandy island.
I have fond memories of going on whale watches as a kid, so it was great to be out on the water for the afternoon, scanning a vast sea open expanse of blue water, looking for whales and whatever else we might encounter. As it turned out, we had a very successful trip, sighting  some 7 Humpback Whales and half a dozen Minke Whales. One group of Humpbacks actually surfaced quite close to the boat a few times, giving everyone on board a great look at these impressive animals. The naturalist on board, who was a specialist studying Humpbacks, told us that scientists can tell individual members of the species apart based on the patterns visible on their tales - each whale has a design as unique as a human fingerprint, she told us. In the photo below, I was lucky enough to capture an image of the tale of a whale which researchers have named "Eruption."

Individual Humpback Whales can be identified by marine biologists based on the pattern shown on their tales. This Humpback has been named "Eruption" by scientists studying whales in massachusetts, and is a regular visitor in the summer to the waters of Stellwagen Bank,
One of the major highlights of the trip for me was seeing two new birds - Wilson's Storm Petrel and Great Shearwater. The Petrels were very fast and difficult to capture with my camera, but at least on Shearwater was cooperative enough to land relatively close to the boat, allowing me to take the photograph below.

A Great Shearwater rests on the surface of a fairly calm sea out on Stellwagen Bank in July.
A Laughing Gull flies past the boat on a clear summer day.

Being out on the water and watching whales and birds was a terrific way to spend a beautiful summer day,. Seeing these two pelagic species (Wilson's Storm Petrel and Great Shearwater) has definitely whetted my appetite for more pelagic birding and coastal exploration in general. In the next few months be sure to check back as I go afield with camera and binoculars to explore Long Island Sound, Martha's Vineyard and other natural treasures along the New England Coast.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Cicadas and Raccoons on A Summer Evening

I find that one of the great pleasures of being outdoors is that the the more time I spend in nature, the more I begin to experience and appreciate the subtle changes that come over the landscape between seasons and at different times of day. The past few days in eastern massachusetts have been uncomfortably hot and humid, but I did manage to get outside for a little while this evening and to take in the sights and sounds of dusk as it settled over a park in Newton, MA. One of the first sights that greeted me were several Chimney Swifts flying high overhead - in fact I heard them before I saw them, but they soon made appeared, wings beating at a breathless pace as they hunted for insects on the wing. Chimney Swifts may not be brightly colored or make a strong initial impression, but they are a bird I have come to associate with summer evenings, their high-pitched chattering call an integral part of the warm weather chorus.

The Chimney Swifts were joined by American Robbins, some searching for food on the grass, others perched in trees, their squeaky calls (reminiscent of dog toys, in my opinion) came from all quarters in the lengthening shadows. Soon a Killdeer caught my eye, foraging on the grass and then taking off in two short bursts of flight, before disappearing into the darkness. As I made my way over a stone footbridge I stopped to inspect the wetlands below, near a place where I have seen many ducks and not a few muskrat in the past, and was surprised to see a raccoon amble out of some tall grass, slowly cross a muddy stream of water and melt into the vegetation on the other side. Meanwhile the cicadas had begun to sing, filling the humid air with their own unique music.

As it got darker I made my way around to another footbridge and came across a small rabbit at the edge of a line of short trees and shrubs. Above it, an Eastern Kingbird dashed out of the thick, green canopy, catching what looked like a dragonfly, in the air, before returning to an exposed peach where it swallowed its prey. As I scanned the sky for signs of bats I noticed large steel-gray splashes of cloud moving in the darkened sky, and watched as birds and insects continued their elaborate rituals and dance, receding from the human eye.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Close Encounters of the Toothy Kind

There has been much discussion in the media lately about the sighting of sharks along Cape Cod beaches, with a noticeable increases in media attention following the sighting of a large shark over the weekend, which had decided to check out a kayaker, causing a minor panic among beach goers. Since the first reports came out  about this encounter between man and (rather large) fish, there has been some speculation that what was at first deemed a Great White Shark, may in fact have been an equally large but considerably more docile and relatively harmless Basking Shark, as was noted in this AP report published on the Washington Post website. It remains to be seen exactly what kind of shark was following the kayak (and we may well never know for sure) but all of this press coverage of sharks in New England waters has gotten me thinking about how often these important predators are feared, maligned and generally misunderstood.

So, in the spirit of trying to better understand sharks, I thought I would devote a post to discussing some interesting online resources where people can learn more about them. My own personal experience with sharks (and their relatives) is pretty limited - when I was a kid fishing from shore on Cape Cod we would occasionally catch a Dog Fish and during middle school I recall a field trip to some local harbor or bay where we dredged the bottom and came up with harmless skates that allowed themselves to be lifted gently out of the water for a closer inspection.

As I trolled around the web a bit  (pun intended) one of the first websites to catch my eye was a site maintained by a group called Cape Cod Shark Hunters - an organization involved in shark research projects on Cape Cod, where they are working with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute to help protect both the sharks who call the waters off Massachusetts home for the summer, as well as tourists visiting the cape's beaches. For a little more in-depth look at local shark populations I enjoyed reading the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, which offers a nice overview of shark natural history on this website, featuring information about several different species known to spend time in Massachusetts waters.

If you would like to get a close-up view of sharks and rays you can also head on over to the New England Aquarium which offers a shark and ray touch tank that gives visitors the opportunity to interact with these animals. As they note on their website:

"Visitors to this new exhibit can reach out and gently stroke cownose rays, bonnethead sharks, Atlantic rays and epaulette sharks as they swim gracefully through the crystal clear water. The exhibit presents these incredible species in a way that highlights their importance in a healthy ocean ecosystem. It also emphasizes the value of conserving essential coastal habitats, such as mangroves and lagoons."

The site also features some great pictures and videos of what visitors can expect to see if they visit the touch tank at the aquarium.

Many websites also offer important advice about how to avoid encounters with sharks such as Great Whites, perhaps most importantly noting that swimmers should be careful not to get too close to seal colonies, which often attract large numbers of hungry sharks. While caution is certainly the order of the day when venturing into the water (and not only because of sharks, of course) I personally find these apex predators to be incredibly fascinating, so it's good to know there are people out there working to help protect sharks and other pelagic fish which play such a crucial role in the marine ecosystem.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Gulls on The Prowl, Ospreys at Rest: A Snapshot of Bird Life Along the Connecticut Shore

I recently had the chance to spend a little time watching birds along the Connecticut shore of Long Island Sound. The weather was fairly hot and humid, and so not overly conducive to standing out in the sun for long stretches of time, but I still managed to see many birds in at least three different kinds of habitat: beach, suburban lawns/patches of forest, and salt marsh. In and around houses, yards and narrow roads I encountered many of the usual summer New England birds: American Robbin, Song Sparrow, House Finch, Mourning Dove, Northern Cardinal and Common Grackle. But it was in an around a large salt marsh that I saw some of the more exciting birds, including various Swallows, Terns (not sure which species, they were far out and I don't have a lot of experience with these birds) and Red-winged Blackbirds.

A male Red-winged Blackbird perches on telephone wires beside a salt marsh in Connecticut.
Salt Marshes play a vital role in the health and well-being of the overall marine ecosystem, and provide crucial habitat for a wide variety of animals.
One of the coolest things I saw while birding near the salt marsh was an Osprey nesting platform which was clearly being used by these amazing birds. Each time we drove by this part of the marsh I looked out the car window and invariably saw 2 or 3 of them perched on the platform or an adjacent pole which was sticking up out of the water. I was also lucky enough to see a number of Osprey pass overhead along the beach and late one afternoon I saw one fly past clutching a fish in its talons. It's great that people in Connecticut have taken the initiative to help support this important marine predator. Ospreys are defintiely one of my favorite raptors and one of the most enjoyable birds to watch in and around the shoreline. When I was in graduate school I was lucky enough to have nature writer David Gessner, author of Return of the Osprey  as the instructor for an environmental writing course I took, and since then I have been fascinated by these aerial acrobats.

There are a number of great resources online if you'd like to learn more about Ospreys, including this website, maintained by the Connecticut Audubon Society and this website maintained by the group Long Island Sound Study offers some more technical data on the natural history and overall health of the Osprey population in Long Island Sound over the last 60 years.

While the salt marsh was full of bird song and offered a cool expanse of bright green grass and rich black mud, not very far away I was also lucky enough to have the chance to wander along a sandy beach, to see which birds might be feeding in the surf and along the shoreline.I saw a number of terns feeding and flying by, including one which was rousted from its perch by a large Greater Black-backed Gull. In fact, it was another Great Black-backed Gull which gave me some of my better photos for the day, as I watched it attempt to pull apart and eat a fish it had found. I couldn't tell what kind of fish it was - if anyone has suggestions from the photos below I would love to hear them.

A Great Black-backed Gull tries to pull apart a dead fish on the beach.

The same bird as in the photo above takes the dead fish with it out in the water.

I watched this gull for quite a while as it first tried to pull the dead fish apart on the beach and then took to the air with it in its bills, before landing about 20 feet from shore where it resumed its efforts. At one point it even seemed to be trying to make use of friction, as it grabbed one small corner of the fish in its bill and then tried to life up and back, flapping its wings hard and tugging on the fish. In the end it managed to get at least one bite-sized piece down. Double-Crested Cormorants were also a constant by the water, flying back and forth along the beach and landing occasionally to fish in the surf.

Double-Crested Cormorants are a fairly common sight along the New England coastline in summer.

Throughout my time at the shore I had many chances to look out at the water and marvel at the beauty of Long Island Sound, feasting on the sights, sounds and smells of the Atlantic, from the graceful flight of terns and Osprey to the steady, gentle rhythm of the waves. I look forward to returning and seeing more of this amazing place.

Thanks for reading.

All is quiet as evening falls on Long Island Sound.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Grackles Gathering at Dusk and Other Evening Birds

Evening can be a great time to look for birds - many species are active later in the day and can be observed hunting for food or returning to communal roosts. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Many people think that in order to see birds its necessary to get up very early in the morning, and while it is true that rising early will definitely produce some great sightings, it's also very possible to head out in the later afternoon or early evening and see plenty of birds as well. This can be an especially good option for people who can't devote a lot of time to birding and might only be able to get out in the field on occasion after work. This 4ht of July day was pretty warm and humid in Boston, so I decided to do a little evening birding myself in Newton, MA. There were many species out in the open and easy to see, and even more activity hidden in the thick vegetation where I have no doubt other species of  birds were going about their business on this summer day.

A Common Grackle in a tree in Newton, MA. Copyright image Daniel E. Levenson 2012.
In addition to a Red-tailed Hawk, several Eastern Kingbirds, American Robbins and Mallards, I also saw a large group of Common Grackles, a species which often gathers in large communal roosts in the evening. Red-winged Blackbirds and American Crows also exhibit this behaviour, and with some careful observation it shouldn't be too hard to spot large flocks of these three species forming at the edge of fields and at the tops of tall trees. Grackles are fairly resourceful birds which draw on a wide variety of food sources, both plant and animal. The folks at Cornell's e-bird project have put together a great web page on the natural history of the Grackle, which you can view by clicking here.

Evening is also a fantastic time to view various kinds of Swallows and Chimney Swifts in the northeast - these amazing acrobatic birds can be seen swooping and diving through the air over fields, wetlands and ponds as they hunt dragonflies and other winged insects.Even if you're not an early riser (which, for the record, I'm personally not) there's no reason that you can't enjoy birds and other wildlife. With a little effort, some binoculars and some practice (not to mention insect repellent) anyone can spend an hour or two in the late afternoon and early evening watching a wide variety of avian life.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.