Category Archives: Birds


The avian northward migration is heating up! The following are just three of the fascinating species of wild birds readily seen at this time of year, found all around Cape Ann. Look for Brants, Scaups, and Ring-necked Ducks at coves, bays, ponds, quarries, and marshes.

Currently migrating along Cape Ann’s shoreline is a beautiful brigade of Brant Geese. They usually turn up at about this time of year, late winter through early spring, and I have been looking for them in all the usual places. Brants thrive in Cape Ann coves, devouring sea lettuce while riding the incoming and outgoing waves. I see them eating and pecking for food atop barnacle-crusted rocks and am not sure if they are eating seaweed caught on the rocks or tiny crustaceans.

Brants eating bright green sea lettuce.

In the 1930s a terrible disease devastated eel grass and the Brant population plummeted. Surviving Brants adapted to sea lettuce and as the eel grass recovered, so too is the population of Brants recovering.

Brants are wonderfully vocal, making a funny “cronk” sound. I was walking past a flock of geese off in the distance and wasn’t paying much attention. Thinking they were Canada Geese, I ignored them until hearing their vigorous cronking.

They fight with each too, over rocks and food. Tomorrow if I can find the time I will try to post photos that I took of a Brant scuffle.

Brants feeding on the rocks are knocked off by the incoming tide, but then quickly get right back up again.

Brants migrate the furthest north of any species of goose, as far north as Hedwig territory.

Two Males and a Female Scaup

The Greater Scaup breeds as far north as Snowy Owls and Brant Geese, and Ring-necked Ducks are also passing through, not traveling quite as far, but on their way to the Alaskan and Canadian boreal forests. Greater Scaups travel in flocks, sometimes forming rafts of thousands. You can see why in the photos Greater Scaups are colloquially called Bluebills.

Three male Scaups and a Red-breasted Merganser

The most significant threat to Greater Scaups is habitat loss, oil, and sewage pollution. Nearly eighty percent winter over in the Atlantic Flyway where they are subjected to heavy metals in foods and habitat.

Too many suitors! Lone female Ring-necked Duck with potential mates.

The two species are closely related (Aythya collaris and Atythya marila); both are small diving ducks and both are vulnerable to becoming poisoned by lead from diving for food and incidentally eating the lead shot and lures that continues to cause problems in our wetlands. 


Read more


The Great Auk by Moonlight

A change of pace from thoughts of blizzards and nor’easters. Today while organizing photos for my upcoming lecture programs, I came across this funny random photo never posted. Read more about Nathan Wilson’s Great Auk sculpture and the extinct bird that inspired the installation at the Paint Factory this past summer here.


Our beautiful Snowy Hedwig’s routine hasn’t much changed since she discovered the safety zone provided by hotel rooftops (safe from crows, that is). Hunting during the night, returning at dawn to the roof to various well-hidden niches, and then making her “entrance” at around sunset, she has adapted well to New England coastal living. After preening, pooping, and occassionally passing a pellet, she then scans the neighborhood. Hedwig bobs her head in an up and down motion a half dozen times, then flies east over the sea or west over the Arctic tundra-like golf course.

Snowy Owl Hedwig lifts her head in a bobbing motion to track prey.

Owls cannot move their eyes in the eye sockets. Instead, they employ several techniques to increase their range of sight. An owl can swivel its head a full 270 degrees. Additionally, owls bob their head up and down, a movement that aids in triangulating potential prey.

Dagger Sharp Talons.

Because the forceful impact of the Snowy Owl hitting its prey is so powerful, combined with the vise-like grip of its talons, the animal usually dies instantly.

Hedwig has so far survived three tremendously fierce storms during her stay in Gloucester. Last night, on the eve of the blizzard, she tried to take off several times towards the water. The wind current was strong, but she eventually flew successfully, heading in the direction of Thacher Island. Heres hoping she is waiting out the blizzard in one of her hideaways.

Folks are wondering how long will Hedwig stay. Most Snowies leave Massachusetts by April, although one was recorded at Logan Airport as late as July.



Clear Evidence of the Destructive Force of Global Warming on the Massachusetts Coastline and How This Negatively Impacts Local Wildlife -By Kim Smith

Female Piping Plover Sitting on an Egg

The recent winter storms of 2018 have provided empirical evidence of how global climate change and the consequential rising sea level is impacting the Massachusetts coastline. Whether broken barriers between the ocean and small bodies of fresh water, the tremendous erosion along beaches, or the loss of plant life at the edge of the sea, these disturbances are profoundly impacting wildlife habitats.

The following photos were taken after the March nor’easter of 2018 along with photos of the same areas, before the storm, and identify several specific species of wildlife that are affected by the tremendous loss of habitat.

Barrier Beach Erosion

Nesting species of shorebirds such as Piping Plovers require flat or gently sloping areas above the wrack line for chick rearing. Notice how the March nor’easter created bluffs with steep sides, making safe areas for tiny chicks nonexistent.

You can see in the photos of Good Harbor Beach (top photo and photos 3 and 4 in the gallery) that the metal fence posts are completely exposed. In 2016, the posts were half buried and in 2017, the posts were nearly completely buried. After the recent storms, the posts are fully exposed and the dune has eroded half a dozen feet behind the posts.

In the photo of the male Piping Plover sitting on his nest from 2016 the metal posts are half buried.

Although scrubby growth shrubs and sea grass help prevent erosion, the plants have been ripped out by the roots and swept away due to the rise in sea level.

Plants draw tiny insects, which is food for tiny chicks, and also provide cover from predators, as well as shelter from weather conditions. If the Piping Plovers return, will they find suitable nesting areas, and will plant life recover in time for this year’s brood?Other species of shorebirds that nest on Massachusetts’s beaches include the Common Tern, Least Tern, Roseate Tern, American Oyster Catcher, Killdeer, and Black Skimmer.

Common Tern parent feeding fledgling



Where Have All the Wildflowers Gone?

Female Monarch Depositing Egg on Common Milkweed Leaf

Wildflowers are the main source of food for myriad species of beneficial insects such as native bees and butterflies.

Monarch Butterflies arriving on our shores not only depend upon milkweed for the survival of the species, but the fall migrants rely heavily on wildflowers that bloom in late summer and early fall. Eastern Point is a major point of entry, and stopover, for the southward migrating butterflies. We have already lost much of the wildflower habitat that formerly graced the Lighthouse landscape.

Masses of sea debris from the storm surge washed over the wildflower patches and are covering much of the pollinator habitat at the Lighthouse.

Broken Barriers

American Wigeon Migrating at Henry’s Pond

Barriers that divide small bodies of fresh water from the open sea have been especially hard hit. The fresh bodies of water adjacent to the sea provide habitat, food, and drinking water for hundreds of species of wildlife and tens of thousands of migrating song and shorebirds that travel through our region.

The newly rebuilt causeway between Niles Pond and Brace Cove was breached many times during the nor’easter. The causeway is littered in rocks and debris from the sea.

The causeway being rebuilt in 2014.

The road that runs along Pebble Beach, separating the sea from Henry’s Pond has been washed out.

The footsteps in the sand are where the road ran prior to the storm.

Mallards, North American Beavers, Muskrats, North American River Otters, and Painted Turtles are only a few examples of species that breed in Massachusetts fresh water ponds and wetlands. All the wildlife photos and videos were shot on Cape Ann.

Migrating Black-bellied Plover

Cape Ann is hardly alone in coping with the impact of our warming planet and of rising sea level. These photos are meant to show examples of what is happening locally. Regions like Plymouth County, which include Scituate and Hingham, have been equally as hard hit. Plum Island is famously heading for disaster and similar Massachusetts barrier beaches, like Cranes Beach, have all been dramatically altered by the cumulative effects of sea level rising, and recently accelerated by the devastating winter storms of 2018.

To be continued.

Impassable Road to Plum Island

Snowy Owl Cranes Beach


Our winter resident Snowy Owl Hedwig finds plenty to eat along the backshore. Prior to taking off to hunt in the early evening we see her swivel her head and look out to sea, and then swivel around to scan the golf course. We wonder, is she thinking “Shall I have duck for dinner, or shall I have rabbit?” Here she is yesterday morning, face covered in schmutz, a happy sign to see.


Our beautiful Snowy Owl Hedwig survived, and looks none the worse for wear. She spent the afternoon of March 5th resting in a sunny, but wholly unphotogenic location (and extremely windy corridor, too, I might add). Perhaps a New England Nor’easter is nothing to her, when compared to an Arctic tundra storm. She’s clearly a genius 🙂 And has some mighty good survival skills.

Thank you to Betty G. Grizz for sharing her Hedwig sighting this afternoon ❤


Dave writes, “Saw this Dovekie at low tide Saturday. The gulls were picking it up and dropping it to the side. I chased them away – temporarily and shooed it back into the water.”

Dovekies are easily blown ashore during severe winter storms.  They don’t walk very well on land. If you find a Dovekie on the beach, and it does not appear to be injured, gently pick it up and bring it to the water. And do as Dave did, shoo away interested gulls.

Thank you so much Dave for sharing your photo and for helping the Dovekie back in the water!

Read more about Dovekies here:



Hedwig is the gift that keeps on giving! What a joy to see her awakening in the rising full moon last night. She preened and fluffed, then flew through the moonlight to a nearby phone pole.

The wind was whipping up and ruffling Hedwig’s feathers, making her look extra fine in the glow of the Snow Moon rising.

Dear Friends,

While I am sorting through the challenges of one of the hard drives for my Monarch film crashing, I have been organizing the Snowy footage. Captured in photos and on film, we have her bathing, passing a pellet, pooping, eating, flying, and much more, and is going to make a terrific short film. It’s a mystery to me exactly where she goes when she disappears for several days and I am hoping to document every aspect of her stay in Gloucester. She has been spotted at several locales in East Gloucester, Salt Island, and Twin Lights but, if by chance, she is a regular visitor to your yard, please write and let me know. The best way to keep the information from becoming public knowledge is to email me at I am also looking for a few minutes of footage of a Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) as they are closely related to Snowies (Bubo scandiacus), so please write and let me know if you have a resident Great Horned Owl. Thank you so much for any leads given 🙂Full Snow Moon Rising


A tiny pelagic seabird, the Dovekie, was discovered this morning laying dead in the sand. I think it must have died very recently as it was completely intact. Dovekies are the smallest of the auks (the puffin family) and when on the beach they are in serious trouble because they walk very poorly and have difficulty taking off. Most of us will only ever catch a glimpse of this tiny treasure far away and out to sea and although very dead, it was beautiful to see.

Dovekies (also known as the Little Auck) breed on islands in the high Arctic and move south to the the north Atlantic in the winter. Several weeks ago, one was spotted off the shoreline on Atlantic Road.

Photos of living Dovekies courtesy wikicommonsmedia.


Good Morning Sleepyhead! Actually, afternoon, for you and I. Snowies hunt during the long day light hours of the Arctic summer, but here on Cape Ann, Hedwig awakens every afternoon to begin a night of hunting, returning to her roost at daybreak.

She spends a good deal of time grooming before take off–cleaning her feet, pulling her front feathers through her beak, washing overall, and fluffing out her feathers. Oftentimes she’ll spit up one, two, and even three pellets. Moments before take off she poops, and then off she goes.

A Snowy Owl’s beak and mouth look small, covered in feathers as they are, until you see it wide open. The size of a pellet that is regurgitated from her mouth can be as large as a rat. The beak is covered in small bristles to help detect nearby objects. Snowy Owls have tiny ears and owl’s ears are often asymmetrically set on their head, all the better to hear sound from different angles.

Hedwig was observed everyday this past week in rain, fog, snow, and sun. She’s feasting well on Cape Ann fare!


Mr. Swan is back to frequenting both Niles and Henry’s Pond. He’s reveling in the return of warmer temperatures, which with it bring access to his preferred freshwater nesting sites. As I was walking alongside the pond at twilight, he suddenly flew overhead. I wish I had a better photo, but here you can see he is flying well, and it was wonderful to see him looking so full of vigor in the fading rosy light.

The Young Swan is also faring well this winter. His kindhearted caregiver Lyn has taken to calling him Thomas, after Farmer Thomas Niles, who at one time owned all of Eastern Point, and for whom Niles Pond and Niles Beach are named.


Snowy Owl Hedwig Preparing for Take-off

Several times Hedwig has flown so close that I can feel the swooshing wind around her, but I wondered, why her wingbeats are virtually soundless. I have audio recordings of comparatively tiny Monarchs, whose wingbeats are a thousand times louder than that of Hedwig’s wingbeats.

Snowy Owls, like all owls, have evolved with specially designed wings that enable them to fly soundlessly, a necessary feature for stealth hunting of small mammals such as mice, lemmings, voles, shrews, and rats. Their wings are disproportionately large to their body mass, which allows for slow flying, as slowly as two miles per hour, a sort of glide-flying, with very little flapping needed.

Additionally, comb-like serrations on the leading edge of an owl’s wingtips break up the air that typically makes a swooshing sound, creating a silencer effect. And, too, the streams of air are softened by a velvety texture unique to owl’s wings and because of the feathery combs of the wing’s trailing edge (see illustration below).Close-up images of a Great Horned Owl’s wing. On the left, you can see the leading-edge comb; it’s this width that Le Piane measured for her study. On the right, the trailing-edge fringe. Diagram: Krista Le Piane.

Image of a Great Horned Owl’s wings from Mass Audbon. READ MORE HERE.


Hedwig has been seen daily along the backshore, mostly laying low during the day. She has become quite expert in fooling the crows as to her whereabouts.

Fog, snow, rain, or sunshine, she isn’t deterred much from her routine of sleeping, resting, and grooming during the day, in preparation for an evening of hunting.

Early this week I watched in amazement as Hedwig swooped down from her perch and flew hundreds of feet directly to the rocks and in between crevasses. She resurfaced with a small mammal in her mouth and ate it very quickly–from the time she flew off her perch until she gave a satisfied lick of her beak could not have taken more than three minutes. I felt very fortunate to have witnessed a glimpse of her hunting prowess, albeit all too brief.

Perhaps the tail is too long for a mouse or rat and too short for a vole, but perhaps not. Small mammal caretaker Erin Whitmore wrote with her suggestion. What do you think Hedwig is eating?Hedwig eating a black and white sea duck.

Again, tonight she flew off her perch, this time heading out to sea. In mere minutes she returned with a sea duck of some sort and proceeded to eviscerate, much to the thrill of her Sunday evening fan club. The lighting was low and I was mostly filming, but did manage a few stills. The duck was black and white and as she mostly sat on her catch while eating, it was difficult to determine which species. Without a crow in sight (as they had surely settled for the night), Hedwig ate well into the early evening.

The feathers were flying! Hedwig with feathers on her face but it’s almost too dark to see.

She’s finding the eating here in Gloucester excellent, but with the warm weather predicted for the upcoming week, I wonder if Hedwig will stay or that will be a cue to depart for the Arctic.

Please don’t get electrocuted Hedwig, as happened recently to a Snowy in southern Massachusetts!


In our Rats, Rats, and More Rats: Snowy Owl Hedwig Weekend Update #2, we shared that an Atlantic Puffin may have been seen over the weekend. Karen Piscke adds the following information and photo:

A Puffin was possibly seen at Bass Rocks. “There was a Snowy Owl on the roof of the hotel at the same time, but these birders only had eyes for the Puffin. The Puffin was hard to see, even when you knew it was there. The birder with the keen eye that spotted it said – “if it looks like as aclid, but sits differently in the water, it might be a puffin. Then the orange on the beak confirms it.”   — Karen 

Atlantic Puffins are not often seen so close to our shores. They spend the summer at breeding colonies on Rocky Islands in the North Atlantic and winter out at sea (see range map).

If you see a Puffin and get a good photo, please let us know and we will post it on GMG. Thank you!

Atlantic Puffins images courtesy wiki commons media

Atlantic Puffin Range Map



Hedwig was observed Saturday morning, when repeated harassment by a flock of crows sent her hiding. She reappeared Saturday afternoon, and was again seen Sunday morning in the drizzle, not too far from where she was perched Saturday evening. Later Sunday afternoon she slept and rested in the pouring rain.

Hedwig sleeping in the rain (thank you to Arly Pett for letting me know she was out in the rain!)

That she stays in a highly localized winter territory seems in keeping with known Snowy Owl behavior traits. I read that during the summer season in the Arctic, male Snowies hunt over hundreds of miles, whereas female Snowies typically hunt within a much smaller range. She has been observed eating sea ducks and rabbits and there are plenty of rat holes along the backshore rocks.

Both rats and lemmings (the Snowies super food in the Arctic) belong to the order Rodentia. From wiki, “A lemming is a small rodent usually found in or near the Arctic in tundra biomes. Lemmings are subnivean animals. They make up the subfamily Arcicolinae together with voles and muskrats which forms part of the superfamily Muroidea which also includes rats, mice, hamsters, and gerbils.”

Lemming (Lemmini)

Often Hedwig has been seen flying straight out over the water towards Twin Lights. I wondered, if she is hunting there, does Thacher Island have a rat population. Thacher Island Association president Paul St. Germain answers that question for our readers, 

“Hi Kim, there are lots of rats on Thacher mostly in the shore line rocks. We don’t see them often but know they are there. I discovered a bunch in the cellar of the keeper house making their nest in an old tarp. I would love to see Hedwig out there but we don’t go out in the winter. Have never seen snowy owls in the summer.” 

Great info and thanks to Paul for sharing that! A Snowy Owl has been seen on the rocks in Rockport, across the strait, opposite Twin Lights, and wonder if it is our Hedwig.

Rat and Lemming photos courtesy wiki commons media

This brings up the topic, what to do if you have a rat problem. The absolute worst way to control rats is with rat poison, namely for the sake of beautiful predatory birds such as Snowy Owls, falcons, hawks, and eagles. Birds that ingest rats that have been poisoned with rat poison will generally become gravely ill and die. Secondly, it is a cruel, slow death for the rat. They will usually go back to their nest to die. If that nest is located behind a wall in your home, you will smell that unmistakeable horrendous smell for many months. Thirdly, rat poison is only 60 percent effective. I wonder if the rats that survive rat poison will go on to breed super rats.

The best way to avoid having to kill a rat is to make sure they cannot gain access to your home or business by regularly inspecting soffits and woodwork for holes. Old-fashioned snap traps and live trapping continue to be the most effective way to rid your home or business of rats.

Saturday I stopped to say hello to a group of birders flocked together along the backshore who had traveled all the way from western Mass. They were observing Grebes, Buffleheads, and a Common Murre. And a Puffin had been spotted! I asked if they were planning to go to any of our local restaurants for lunch, but they had packed lunches. One Mom shared that an expert from Audubon told the group that there were at least a “dozen Snowy Owls” on Bass Rocks. Bananas! I have to say that it makes me hoppin’ mad when folks spread misinformation about our local wildlife. I gently told her that no, there were not a dozen owls, but that if she and her group waited until late afternoon, they might catch sight of Hedwig.

Twin Lights from a Snowy Owl POV







Last weekend was a busy one for Hedwig. She is attracting crowds from all around the Boston area. I checked in on her Monday afternoon on my return from Brooklyn and according to a photographer friend she had a very rough day with the crows. One actually hit her hard in the head. She left Bass Rocks Monday evening and I didn’t see her the rest of the week until this morning.

Found this morning with messy face and talons, tidying up from a morning hunt.

A single crow came by to harass her and unlike previous incidents, where I have seen here hold her ground, she left her post immediately and flew to a very cool super secret hiding place. I have never seen her do this before but am so impressed with her ingenuity. She is safe from both crows and crowds in this locale.

Hedwig returned to the railings at the end of the day. After first fluffing and poohing she took off over the water and headed straight toward Twin Lights. I imagine there is good hunting on Thacher Island 🙂

Heading off to hunt late day 

Sleeping in the afternoon sun


My what big feet you have Hedwig! A Snowy Owl’s feet are covered in feathers, providing insulation against Arctic temperatures–just like a pair of warm fluffy slippers.

Hedwig left her perch and walked over to a patch of snow, which she proceeded to eat. She also washes her face and feet in snow patches.


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