Tag Archives: beach ecosystem

Microblogging 2008-07-06

  • Fog rolling in off the Atlantic. I hear other people, but all I see is sand, waves, a few gulls. #
  • When in fog, you have a circle of visibility that depends on the density of the fog. Right now in that circle swim about 80 eider ducks and chicks. #

Eight things I noticed on the beach yesterday evening

Ferry Beach, Saco, Maine

A Herring Gull swooped down onto the beach a hundred yards in front of me, carrying something large in its bill. Through the binoculars, I could see that the gull was carrying a fish, maybe a flounder, that looked too big for it to swallow. A young gull stood nearby, watching and hoping the older gull would drop the fish. The adult gull tossed the fish in the air, dropped it several times, tried to maneuver it so the fish’s head was pointing down the gull’s throat, and then, so quickly I didn’t see it, swallowed the fish. I could see a bulge in the gull’s throat. It swallowed hard a couple of times, then flew away.

A light rain shower passed over the beach, leaving the sand pockmarked with tiny craters where the big raindrops had hit.

I looked out over Saco Bay as the rain showers passed. The sun broke through the clouds in the west, and lit up Eagle Island, which is a mile or so out in the bay. The island stood out, bright and green, against the dark blue clouds and the dark gray sea. More sun came out, and picked out the tops of waves as they broke against the beach, turning them from a dull color to brilliant white.

Bits of a rainbow appeared in the sky: two short, bright bands at the horizon, marking out the north and south points of the bay; and pieces here and there against the dark clouds, so faint that at times I wasn’t sure if I was seeing them or not.

A Common Tern hovered over the water. I managed to get my binoculars up in time to watch it break out of its hover, plunge into the sea, and emerge with a small fish in its bill. It flew up, tossed the fish back and swallowed it, and shook itself dry as it flew off looking for more fish.

Halfway out to Eagle Island, fifty or sixty white specks appeared in a sudden ray of sun, circling around, hovering, and plunging into the sea.

Through some odd optical effect that I don’t understand, broad rays of alternating light and dark appeared in the clouds, radiating out from Wood Island; or perhaps I should say, converging down towards Wood Island. If I wasn’t aware that the sun was almost directly behind me, I would have thought that the sun must have been behind Wood Island, as if somehow the sun were setting in the east southeast, instead of in the west.

A dozen Bonaparte’s Gulls stood on the beach, keeping an eye on me now and then, but mostly doing nothing. They were all molting, losing the crisply-defined black heads of their breeding plumage, losing the odd tail feather, looking rather bedraggled. Presumably, these were first-year birds that never made it all the way up to the breeding grounds in Canada, and so here they sat on the coast of Maine, molting and waiting for the fall migration to begin in earnest. It was a poignant sight, an anticipation of the end of summer.

Posted two days after the fact — I’m a little behind in posting due to spotty Internet access here in Cambridge.

Piping Plover photos

Ferry Beach Conference Center, Saco, Maine

This evening, I managed to take some photos of the Piping Plover nesting up the beach from the conference center. I know some regular readers of this blog might be interested, so I uploaded the photos to Flickr.

View six photos as a slide show.

View thumbnails of the photos, better for slow connections.

I’ve placed these photos in the public domain, use as you see fit.

On retreat: Autumn watch

Wareham, Mass. I was sitting at the breakfast table talking to some ministers whom I hadn’t seen in a while, when Rachel, the program chair for this retreat, came around and said the morning’s program was about to begin. The other ministers filed in to hear the rest of the presentation by Connie Barlow and Michael Dowd. Even though I strongly disagreed with Dowd’s presentation last night, where he described an eco-theology grounded in a grand narrative of the universe, I felt that I should keep an open mind and go hear more. Then I thought to myself:– Would I rather sit indoors and listen to someone talk theology, or would I rather go outdoors to take a long walk? I went quietly upstairs to get my coat and binoculars, and slipped out the back door of the retreat center.

Cloudy and cold this morning, a real mid-autumn day. Birds filled the bushes along the edge of the retreat center’s lawn: Gold-crowned Kinglets, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Song Sparrows, catbirds, cardinals, and even a Hermit Thrush. I bushwhacked to the edge of the little estuary. As I came down to the edge of the salt marsh, a Great Blue Heron squawked, crouched, and leapt into the air, tucking his neck back and slowly pulling his long legs up against his body. Some of the trees surrounding the salt marsh were already bare of leaves; one or two maples still covered in brilliant red leaves; the white oaks shone dull gold in the subdued light; a few trees were still green. The tide was quite high, and I skirted the high water through the salt marsh hay. One high bush blueberry, a bush about five feet high growing right at the edge of the marsh, was covered in deep, glowing red leaves; I only noticed that small bush because the trees around it were already bare and grey.

After a long walk, I wound up on the Wareham town beach. A fisherman stood at the far end of the beach, where the sand ends in a little spit sticking out into an estuary winding up through extensive salt marshes.

“Catching anything?” I said.

“Not today,” he said. “Caught a little striper yesterday.”

I said that was pretty good; it’s late to catch a striper this far north.

He was feeling talkative, and we chatted idly for a few minutes. “What are you looking for?” he said, noticing the binoculars hanging around my neck.

“Ducks,” I said. “The ducks should be here by now. But I’m not really seeing any. Maybe because it’s been so warm, and they’re just not moving down onto their wintering grounds yet.”

“Yeah, that’s what they’re saying about the stripers this year,” he said. “They should be gone by now, but it’s still warm so they’re staying up here.”

Every year, the story is a little different. The fall migrants generally move on at about the same time, but a Hermit Thrush might stay a little later than usual. The striped bass run south, but one year that might leave a little earlier or later than another year. Some years a few maple trees hold their leaves a little longer, or a blueberry bush turns a particularly bright red. The same story is told year after year, and it’s always the same but always different. That’s the only grand narrative I care about, a grand narrative that’s not told in words.

Winter beach

Drove to Horseneck Beach for a long walk today. I had a desire to walk down the beach and pick up a few shells and not think about anything but sun and sand and waves. A brisk westerly breeze kept me walking quickly until I drew near to the Westport River where the beach was somewhat protected by a low rise of land to the west. I slowed down and started looking at the beach.

A different mix of shells from the beach at Fort Phoenix: Most of the clamshells appeared to be Atlantic Surf Clams, and I don’t think I saw any quahogs. (I saw one clammer working the beach, and I would have liked to have asked her what she was raking in, but she was too busy.) I also found a good number of Blue Mussel (Mytilu edulis) shells, which we haven’t found at all at Fort Phoenix. I picked up two or three clamshells that I couldn’t identify; after looking at the “Marine Organisms Database” on the Web site of the Marine Biological Laboratory at Wood’s Hole, I believe the shells are either Transverse Ark (Anadara transversa) or Blood Ark Clam (Anadara ovalis), both of genus Anadara. It must be a somewhat different ecosystem along Horseneck Beach.

At one point, I saw a Great Black-backed Gull floating on the sea with something quite large in its mouth. I looked through the binoculars to see what the gull was carrying. It was a sort of pinkish color; the gull had to open its bill quite wide to hold onto whatever it was, and at one point it dropped the thing into the water, but quickly snatched it up again. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what it was, and the gull’s eye glowed a brilliant, mysterious red in the setting sun. At last the gull flew ponderously up into the air, and I could see that it was carrying a Horseshoe Crab with the long tail dangling down. Off the gull flew, presumably to drop the crab onto something hard to break it open.

But mostly I just walked, and didn’t think of anything at all.


Walked to Fort Phoenix in Fairhaven yesterday.

Waves from Wednesday’s storm must have hit the beach at Fort Phoenix. Big rolls of seaweed, mixed with seashells and grains of sand, lay at the high tide mark. Most of the seaweed appeared to be Knotted Wrack (Ascophyllum nodosum), and true to its name its six-inch strands were knotted together, the bulbous ends impossibly tangled.

The seashells, as usual at Fort Phoenix, were thick between the low-tide and high-tide marks. The vast majority of the shells are always Common Slipper Snail (Crepidula fornicata), usually open and empty. But yesterday there were lots of live Common Slipper Snails clinging tightly to empty Northern Quahog shells (Mercenaria mercenaria).

Aside from the slipper shells and clamshells, the beach had the usual sprinkling of Common Jingle Shells (Anomia simplex) and Atlantic Bay Scallops (Argopecten irradians). I saw two Whelk shells, one which was a good seven inches long and was probably a Knobbed Whelk; the other I think is a Channeled Whelk. I found one Eastern Oyster shell (Crassostrea virginica), and one well-preserved shell of an Atlantic Horseshoe Crab (Limulus polyphemus). I did not find any of the delicate Ribbed Mussel shells (Geukensia demissa), although we found some there just last week.

I would estimate that there were twice as many gulls as usual at Fort Phoenix, many of them in the air: carrying shellfish in their bills, dropping shellfish until the shells cracked, harassing other gulls to steal a cracked shellfish away, or gliding along looking for more shellfish to pick up. The gulls use the summer parking lot, now empty of cars, as another rock on which to drop clams, cracking the hard shells open so they can eat the soft mollusc inside; although most of them still use the rocks at the edge of the sea.

I walked through the parking lot looking at the broken empty shells. Nearly all of them were clams, but I saw an occasional scallop, and one or two slipper shells. I watched as one Herring Gull dropped a clam; I heard it crack; the gull dipped into the broken shell with its bill, snatching out the soft inside, gobbling it down, all the while keeping a fierce lookout for nearby gulls who might steal its treasure.


In the late afternoon, I drove down to the hurricane barrier for a walk. A damp chilling breeze blew down the Achushnet River, and I walked along the outer side of the barrier to stay out of the wind. Out of the wind, the day was pleasant even if it was gray. The Martha’s Vineyard ferry went out through the barrier, scattering ducks and gulls as it picked up speed once in the outer harbor.

On the walk back, I walked down on the windward side of the hurricane barrier. The tide was quite low, low enough that you could walk out to little Palmer Island. As I got onto the island, over a hundred Brant took off together and flew low over the water up the harbor. Ducks were scattered everywhere over the water; a couple of Long-tailed Ducks bobbed in the water up near the Palmer Island lighthouse. The interior of the north end of the island was covered with trash; there was not a square foot that wasn’t covered with trash: a computer monitor without any glass, a square plastic bin, a chunk of foam padding, a worn two-by-four with rusty nails, styrofoam cups, plastic bottles, trash that can’t be identified. In the junipers near the lighthouse, half a dozen Yellow-rumped Warblers flew about cheerfully eating juniper berries. Invasive bittersweet and phragmites, dominated the vegetation of the upper end of the island, along with poison sumac; brambles and thorns grew here and there; a small remnant of salt hay grass clung to the east side of the island.

I scrambled off the island before the tide could cover over the mud and sand that connects it to the hurricane barrier; passed a dead horseshoe crab, stepped on a squishy bit of yellow foam, curnched over broken shells and bits of broken glass. I was cold, and hurrying back to the car, but something made me pause and look at one waterbird through the binoculars: a Barrow’s Goldeneye, close enough to see every detail; an uncommon duck that I just didn’t expect to see in the heart of the city.


At a minister’s retreat, Narragansett, Rhode Island

By three o’clock the rain had stopped, and I even saw a spot of blue sky, just for an instant, among the scudding clouds. I put on my rain coat, tied the hood under my chin, and walked down Hazard Road towards the ocean.

I started to feel rain, but realized it wasn’t rain. The wind was blowing hard enough to kick up drops of seawater and drive them a hundred yards inland. Over a fence and across a carefully manicured lawn, I caught a glimpse of gray ocean, and white waves crashing against light gray rocks.

At the end of Hazard Road, I scrambled down among the Japanese knotweed mostly stripped of leaves, and some of the stalks broken off, by the force of the wind. I came out of the knotweed down onto the rocks, and stopped there. That was close enough. Upwind, I saw a young woman with a camera crouched in the lee of an rock outcropping. The wind drove spray into my face. I quickly turned to face downwind. Bits of sea foam blew across the rocks, and now and again sheets of spray followed. There was little regularity to the waves; they came and went and boiled over the rocks and ebbed back again and bits of them blew off and hit my face, covering my glasses with tiny droplets of saltwater.

Yesterday, four of us has clambered over these same rocks, the ocean quietly moving to and fro just below our feet. Jan, the avid sport fisherman, was talking about stripers and how they’re migrating south down the coast right now. He said, They’re probably crossing over here from Cape Cod right now, and we discussed the comings and goings of the striped bass, and how sea squirts are taking over parts of the coast, and how little we understand ocean ecology. He said of himself, I should have been an oceanographer. We stood looking out over the sea for a moment, and then he added, We only understand the tiniest bit about that — pointing to the sea. Anyone who says otherwise, he said, is in for a rude awakening. We don’t understand it at all. I nodded, and thought about ships going down in Atlantic storms.

A wave crashed over the rock where yesterday I had seen someone surfcasting. The ocean beat against the rocks where yesterday we had walked in safety. Spray and seafoam and waves broke twenty feet into the air, covering that huge rock out cropping, draining down in white rivulets. I stood just watching, and then became aware of someone behind me. Imoved so the young woman could climb down the rocks.

“Quite something,” I shouted over the wind. “It’s amazing,” she shouted, pointing behind us, “I was out there taking pictures.” “I know, I saw you,” I shouted, “you won’t catch me out there.” She said something I didn’t quite catch, something about “beautiful.” “It’s beautiful,” I shouted back, and she climbed up to Hazard Road.

I walked around some, and at last I couldn’t resist; I climbed out to where the young woman had been taking photographs. It was actually quite sheltered, and she probably had been telling me how beautiful it was, that I should try sitting there. A tiny bit of sun broke through the clouds, lighting up the verge of the water down the rocks until it lit up the brilliant white of wavetops at the little point across the cove. Another bit of sun lit up a line of mysterious white wavetops far out at sea. The wind and waves and sun kept up with no discernable pattern except the randomness of power and beauty. I thought about what Jan had said: Anyone who thinks they know anything about that ocean is setting themselves up for a rude awakening.