Tag Archives: Chris Leahy

piping plovers on Coffins Beach: intertidal mile and they’re holdin’ on.


20160715_143652Gloucester’s Coffins Beach is a long, long stretch of wide open sandy seashore framed by dunes, sea and sky. Growing up, we called it the private side of Wingaersheek. I could hear piping plovers and saw two ‘in the zone’– the intertidal bit that is still wet at low tide and well under water at high tide. I didn’t see birds in the safe retreats by the upper part of the beach, but heard the melodious chirps that inspired their nickname.

Listen to the piping plover




Essex County Greenbelt protective measures in concert with  MA Wildlife


dog prints by the rope fence


saw 5 dogs on the beach

FHL coffins beach mfa

Fitz Hugh Lane, Coffins Beach, MFA


Piping plovers have quite a story. In Massachusetts, the vast majority are south, Cape Cod and the islands. By the close of the 19th century, these birds were near extinction. They rebounded successfully by the 1950’s.

I spoke with Dave Rimmer of Essex County Greenbelt, Marion Larson with Ma Wildlife, Deborah Cramer and Chris Leahy. All of them have updates for GMG which I’ll add next. First,

Chris Leahy, MA Audubon, explained that a second age of precipitous piping plover decline occurred in the 1960’s and 70’s. What do you think it was?

Read on to find out.
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Author Deborah Cramer asks were there plentiful horseshoe crabs in Gloucester? Leads to Winslow Homer, John Bell, and Cher Ami

Deborah Cramer thanks Good Morning Gloucester for mentioning her book and asks for photographs and stories about horseshoe crabs, otherwise known as the nearly scene stealing co-stars from her inspiring book on sandpipers, The Narrow Edge.

“I’m in the midst of a project right now trying to uncover the almost forgotten history of the whereabouts of horseshoe crabs in Gloucester.  I’ve heard some fantastic stories, like one from a man who used to go down to Lobster Cove after school and find horseshoe crabs so plentiful he could fill a dory. Do you think there’s a value to putting up a few pictures on GMG and asking people to send in their recollections of beaches, coves where they used to see them in abundance?”

We do. Please send in photos or stories if you have them about horseshoe crabs in Gloucester or the North Shore for Deborah Cramer’s project. Write in comments below and/or email cryan225@gmail.com

Here’s one data point. Look closely at this 1869 Winslow Homer painting. Can you spot the horseshoe crabs? Can you identify the rocks and beach?

Winslow Homer Rocky Coast and Gulls (manchester)

Winslow Homer, Rocky Coast and Gulls, 1869, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, installed in room #234 with so many other Homers (Fog Warning, All’s Well, Driftwood, …)

zoomed into horseshoe crabs (detail )

(zoomed into horseshoe crabs)

cr 2015 mfa


While reading The Narrow Edge, and looking at Kim Smith’s Piping Plover photographs, I thought about Raid on a Sand Swallow Colony (How Many Eggs?) 1873 by Homer and how some things change while much remains the same.When my sons were little, they were thrilled with the first 1/3 or so of Swiss Family Robinson.  As taken as they were with the family’s ingenuity, adventure, and tree house–they recoiled as page after page described a gorgeous new bird, promptly shot. They wouldn’t go for disturbing eggs in a wild habitat. The title ascribed to this Homer, perhaps the eager query from the clambering youngest boy, feels timeless. Was the boys’ precarious gathering sport, study, or food? What was common practice with swallows’ eggs in the 1860s and 70s? Homer’s birds are diminutive and active, but imprecise. Homer sometimes combined place, figures, subject and themes. One thing is clear: the composition, line and shadow are primed and effective for an engraving.


Homer watercolor 1873

Harper’s Weekly published the image on June 13, 1875. Artists often drew directly on the edge grain of boxwood and a master engraver (Lagrade in this case) removed the wood from pencil and wash lines.

Winslow Homer


2016. Wingaersheek dunes and nests 140+ years later.




Besides Homer, Deborah’s book had me thinking about Chris Leahy, where I first heard about the history of Ma Audubon and our state’s bragging rights. It had me dig out photographs of a visit to Harvard where reproductions of the dodo and auk skeletons made us as sad as Swiss Family Robinson, and to wonder about Deborah Dickson’s documentary on sculptor Todd McGrain, which I haven’t seen yet.


“Gone and nearly forgotten in extinction, the Labrador Duck, the Great Auk, the Heath Hen, the Carolina Parakeet, and the Passenger Pigeon leave holes not just in the North American landscape but in our collective memories. Moved by their stories, sculptor Todd McGrain set out to create memorials to the lost birds—to bring their vanished forms back into the world.”

I must thank Deborah Cramer for another Gloucester prompt. Last year while visiting Mass Moca for business, I happened upon the ECLIPSE exhibit by Elizabeth Kolbert, the New Yorker writer, in collaboration with the duo, Sayler/Morris. It was a gorgeous, elegiac passenger pigeon multi-media tribute. Coincidentally it was Earth Day. I immediately wrote John Bell, because he had spoken with me about Gloucester’s Cher Ami, which I promised to write about.

Does anyone remember Cher Ami and homing pigeons of Gloucester? Let me know.

For more on Deborah Cramer, and to listen to her being interviewed by Meghna Chakrabarti, please continue:

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Message from Chris Leahy about the Mass Audubon Bird-a-thon

Spring has finally returned to New England! It is arguably the most exciting birding season of the year, when it is possible to find over 100 species in a day with relative ease – many of them in stunning breeding plumage!  And each year I organize a small group here on Cape Ann to bird for conservation as part of Mass Audubon’s Bird-a-thon. It’s great fun, involves some friendly competition, and supports bird conservation.

Here’s how it works.

This year Bird-a-thon takes place May 11-12 and consists of having as much birding fun as we can stand in the 24 hours between 6:00 PM Friday until 6:00 PM Saturday. Back in 2004, I thought it would be fun to see how many species we could find without leaving Cape Ann (Gloucester, Rockport, Essex and Manchester). In addition to the geographical challenge, this reduces birding time lost to driving (one of our team birds by bicycle!) and of course shrinks the team’s carbon footprint. In the 7 years that Cape Ann has fielded a team, we have ticked 183 species total with an average of 132 species per year –dragged down by monsoon rains in two years! In our best single year we found 156 species.

The Cape Ann Bird-a-thon team is back this year with its (catchy?) nickname, “Twitchers with a Purpose” to emphasize the fact that all funds raised will go to specific bird conservation projects. The conservation dollars that can be raised can be significant. For example, last year, Drumlin Farm’s team won the prized Hathaway Cup for raising the most money ($34,820) and a dedicated individual on that team was the statewide top fundraiser with $15,309 raised. My team is trying to hit the $5,000 mark this year.

This, as you’ve probably guessed, is where you come in by pledging to my team as generously as you can. You can either pledge an amount per bird ($1/species @ 132 species = $132) or just pledge a set amount. Pledging is a snap. Just go to my webpage:http://www.firstgiving.com/fundraiser/chrisleahy/bird-a-thon-2012 , click on the green DONATE button and just follow the simple pledging instructions. OR you can just send a check made out to Mass Audubon and designated for the Bertrand Chair (that’s me), attn: Ellen McBride, Mass Audubon, 208 South Great Rd., Lincoln, MA 01773. No gift is too small (or too large!) and all are eligible for a charitable deduction.

I hope you can help. Remember, your pledge will be dedicated to specific bird conservation efforts undertaken by my colleagues and me at Mass Audubon, such as the recently publish and authoritative State of the Birds report. I can assure you on the best existing evidence that our birds need all the help you can give them.

Thank you Chris for all you do to help the birds of Massachusetts!

Gray Catbird 

In looking through my photo library for an image for this post, I am reminded of when the Catbirds and Mockingbirds began to call our garden home–when our first batch of blackberries ripened! Catibirds dine on fruits and berries and are year-round frequent visitors for the feast we provide, including blueberry, Juneberry, winterberry, and holly berry. As the fruits of our magnolias approach their ripening time, the Catbirds noisily guard the trees in anticipation of the ripened fruit.

For more information about the Gray Catbird:

Mass Audubon: Gray Catird (Dumetella carolinensis)

All About Birds: Gray Catbird

The Cornell website has excellent crisp, clear recordings of the Catbirds “mew” sound. Anyone who has heard the repetitious male catbird vocalizing at daybreak knows exactly why they are called Catbirds. From Cornell, “The Gray Catbird belongs to the genus Dumetella, which means “small thicket.” And that’s exactly where you should go look for this little skulker.”

Love the beautiful shade of blue of Catbird eggs!

Gray Catbird Eggs image courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Solutions for Protecting Birds from Hitting Windows

Every year, in the United States alone, over 1,000,000,000—yes, that is one billon—birds are killed from flying into windows. Chris Leahy quoted this statistic at the talk he gave last week at the Sawyer Free Library. Coincidentally, earlier that day I had been speaking with my friend Kate who has this very problem of birds hitting her windows as her home is sited on a beautiful seaside meadow in Tiverton, Rhode Island. She wanted to share with my readers about spider web decals for glass windows.

I found a website that offers a range of innovative solutions to protect birds, for both the residential home and the commercial property, TONI Bird Control Solutions. Although based in Germany, the solutions are universal.

Spider webs reflect light in the UV spectrum and are a visible barrier to birds. When you think about it, we don’t often see birds entangled in a spider’s web. Taking cues from nature, the spider’s web is the basis for TONI’s ultraviolet bird pen, bird glass, and UV decals. TONI’s solution #2, the ultraviolet Bird Pen, is well suited for residential properties. Also, check with the Essex Bird Shop. I believe they carry ultraviolet decals, not visible to the human eye.

American Robin 

If so many birds are killed, why don’t we see the dead bodies? The answer is simply, scavengers. Migrant songbirds fly at night, hitting the glass in the dark and the very early morning hours. Scavengers like gulls, vultures, crows, magpies, rats, and cats know where to look for injured and dead birds. At city skyscrapers, building maintenance daily sweep up bags of, and sometimes during peak migration, barrels full of, dead birds every morning at dawn. The high death rate around skyscrapers is also due in part to the bright lights left burning all night.

Another solution is perhaps not wash your windows quite as frequently, or wait to wash until after the spring and fall migrations. Fortunately, we do not have the problem of birds hitting our windows because of our many weathered and wavy window panes dating back to 1851. We have a different problem. During warmer months, I like to take advantage of the harbor breezes and usually have the windows wide open, and without screens (until mosquito season begins). We’ve had finches and sparrows and hummingbirds flying around my home office, but then again, none fatally injured.

State of Massachusetts Birds

Chris Leahy spoke to a packed house at the Sawyer Free Library last night.

As is usually the case with Chris, his talk was brilliant and depth of knowledge inspiring. Aren’t we fortunate that he resides in Gloucester and always gives so generoulsy of his time and knowledge. Thanks, too, to the Sawyer Free for hosting this event. Chris gave out to our community twenty-five copies of the beautiful and densely illustrated 60 page seminal report on the avifauna of Massachusetts. If you did not receive a copy last night, it is available to read in convenient online magazine form here: State of the Birds: Documenting Changes in Massachusetts Birdlife. 

From the forward of State of the Birds, written by Edward O. Wilson, University Professor Emeritus in Entomology Harvard University. ”

Dear Friends,

It is with tremendous enthusiasm that I mark the release of Mass Audubon’s seminal report on Massachusetts avifauna, State of the Birds 2011. Though our Commonwealth is one of the smallest, most populous states in the union, it is blessed with spectacular landscapes filled with an astonishing biodiversity. The Berkshire Hills in their autumn splendor, Bald Eagles soaring over the Quabbin wilderness, the majesty of the sea at any season from Cape Ann to Cape Cod—these and many other treasures inspire our imagination and lift our spirits. These landscapes are home to birds—birds that can show us, when we watch and listen, how our environment is faring and how it is changing.

…Birds inhabit our myths, appear in our poetry, and inspire our music. Since ancient times, birds have been used in auguries to make critical decisions or predict the future. Now science rather than superstition is interpreting what the birds are telling us. We need to listen carefully.”


Edward O. Wilson

Chris Leahy at the Sawyer Free Library

Chris Leahy is a fantastic speaker and I am looking forward to attending his lecture next Thursday night at the Sawyer Free. Chris holds the Gerard A. Bertrand Chair of Natural History and Field Ornithology at Mass Audubon. He has been a professional conservationist for more than thirty years and served as Director of Mass Audubon’s Center for Biological Conservation. His interests in natural history are comprehensive, and he is a recognized authority on birds and insects. His published works include Birdwatcher’s Companion to North American BirdlifeThe First Guide to InsectsIntroduction to New England BirdsAn Introduction to Massachusetts Insects, and The Nature of Massachusetts. He grew up in Marblehead and has lived in Gloucester with his family since the 1970s.  ~ Information found on Mass Audubon website.