Tag Archives: ocean ecosystem

Spring watch

A few of us went up to a gospel concert in Norton yesterday, and as we were walking back to our cars after the concert, we could hear the spring peepers singing away in the swamp next to the parking lot. We all agreed that the spring peepers haven’t yet started singing down along the coast, presumably because it’s cooler next to the ocean.

Most of the waterfowl have left the harbor, but I did see six pairs of Buffleheads this afternoon. I suspect these are not birds that wintered over here, but rather birds that are migrating north and just happened to stop here for a day; perhaps they got stranded due to the strong north winds that were blowing the past two days.

Standing at the end of State Pier today, I saw two Harbor Seals surface quite close to the pier. They stayed quite close to one another, and at one point they twined their necks together, then slipped under water together. I’ve never seen seals behave in quite this way. I don’t know anything about the mating behavior of Harbor Seals (the only reference work I have on mammals covers land mammals, including order Sirenia but leaving out pinnipeds), but I wonder if what I saw was mating behavior.

The light of the sun hanging low over the western side of New Bedford harbor practically blinded me; when I got closer to the water, it reflected up off the flat surface of the water, and I had to look down. Down at the asphalt pavement littered with broken shells left when the gulls dropped a quahog or a mussel to break it open and reveal the tender mollusc body inside. Broken shells and some bones, picked clean, probably bones of a small gull — that bone looked like a humerus, that one perhaps an ulna — and the tail end of a fish skeleton, left by returning sport fisherman, and picked clean by the gulls.

Out on the still surface of the water, sea ducks dove underwater to catch small fish. The fish in the harbor are filled with toxic waste, PCBs, which will accumulate in the fat of the ducks. The fish in the harbor are evolving to become tolerant of the toxic waste, although it took many generations of fish and lots of death to get there. The same will probably happen to the ducks.

A breeze riffled the surface of the harbor. I turned away from the sun. Three gulls flew away at my sudden movement. One immature gull, too stupid to know when to fly away, stayed, facing the sun behind my back. No haze to soften outlines or hide sharp edges: I could see each feather on its head.

The ducks aren’t bothered by the traffic on the highway. They see me and fly low across the water, their wingtips tapping its calm surface. On Pope’s Island, I can see every detail of a Lark Sparrow hiding in the bushes, even though I have forgotten my binoculars: the harlequin pattern of its head, the clear breast with a dark spot in the center.

Walking west, the sun blinds me and forces me to look away. Then it dips behind the city, the few last rays lighting up the top of the old New Bedford Hotel dimmed by clouds moving in from the west, and the sun sets for the last time on this year.

Eagle Island

The weather hadn’t cooperated all week: fog, wind, rain storm. Some of us had hoped to paddle out to Eagle Island, but the weather had made it impossible.

Tonight at dinner, I realized that finally the weather was perfect: calm, no big swells coming into Saco Bay from the Atlantic, no chance of fog. I asked around, and Rebecca, who is from Arizona, said she’d be willing to paddle out with me. Just as we were about to carry the canoe down to the beach, Jon came walking along. He’s been waiting for the weather to break all week.

“We’re going out on the bay,” I said to him. He looked at his wife. “Go,” she said, “if you don’t, you’ll be miserable.” He ran and grabbed his kayak, and walked down with us.

We walked way down the beach to meet the low tide. We waded out, floating the canoe until the water was up over our ankles, then jumped in and started paddling.

About halfway out, a big fish jumped completely out of the water, and fell back in with a splash. It must have been four to six feet long. As we paddled along, Jon laughed and said, “I needed this.”

The water started getting darker. The sand ended, and the bottom dropped away to deep rocks. We passed a few lobster buoys. The island was getting closer: dark jagged rocks, long points or spurs exposed by the low tide, little specks of birds perched here and there, the highest part of the island covered with green (nettles and grasses) above the reach of the highest tides.

We got close enough to see rafts of eider swimming and diving around the island. They flew away when we got too close. Jon saw a seal slip into the water from off one of the rocky points.

Great Black-backed Gulls seemed to control most of the island, with a few Herring Gulls and Double-crested Cormorants. We could hear the keening cries of the baby gulls, saying, Feed us.

We slipped around one of the points of the island, out from the lee side. Low swells from the Atlantic slowly raised and lowered our boats. It’s a lonely, rugged little island.

The sun was getting low. We didn’t have time to go all the way around the island, so we turned around. “What a magical place,” I said.

On the way back, a Common Tern dove down close to our boats, pulled back four feet above the water, hovered for thirty seconds, and flew low over our heads. “Wow,” said Jon. “Amazing. Imagine being able to see that.”

The setting sun was off our starboard bow. Further to the right, thunderheads were building up over Casco Bay, the next bay to the north. We talked about other outdoor trips we had gone on, until at last we rode some waves in to the beach.

Rebecca and I put the canoe on my car, and Jon dumped the water out of his kayak. We looked at each other. “That was great.”