A Nature Journal: Life in a Gulf of Maine Estuary.

In early March 2017 I decided to make-public this still-short journal.  I may change my mind later.  Please allow that this will be an evolving story and there will probably be months of no entries at all.  Then there will be months with entries each week.  If you love nature, you will find the entire blog and photo gallery to be fascinating.  I am a 68 years of age, lifelong naturalist, professionally educated and experienced Wildlife Biologist and self-taught Ecologist.  I observe and comment on behaviors or conditions that others usually do not see.  On the other hand, if you simply are not interested in nature, none of my work will hold your attention.

I think I will do the daily posts in reverse chronology, the latest being posted at the top, and working down to the oldest date.  I began this journal on Christmas Day 2017.  

WINTER 2016-2017:

March 18, 2017, Saturday, about 35 degrees F. and winds W at 7 mph, Low Tide @ 9 am.  Was here from for the beginning of the incoming tide; i.e. about 10:30+ a.m.   And stayed until about 2p.m.  Activity was light today.  Relative to others in the past, the groups of Eiders were small and every single Eider on the water gave me wide berth.  The flying ones were an exception and I missed a few flying Eiders that came be me very closely.  Also, the loons were back.  Saw Pat and her brother Mike today. 

March 12, 2017, Sunday:  Meteorologists forecasted about 17 degrees F. and winds WNW at 16 mph.  It was 23 degrees F. and the winds were much milder than the forecast.  Maybe this means they are also off a little on their forecasted Northeaster due to arrive here Tuesday and into Wednesday.  I doubt it.  But if it just tracks a little eastward, we would be spared much of this snow storm.

At times today the wind did gust up to nearly 20 mph on this, the first day of daylight savings.  So we “Spring-forwarded” the clocks 1 hours last night.  The problem for me was that I awoke to the automatically adjusted cell phone alarm but failed to adjust my in-house clocks.  So I was exactly 1 hour later arriving at my shooting site.  I like to be in place at about 4 (preferably) to 2 hours before slack low tide, which today occurred at 6 PM.  Instead I started after 3:30 PM and should have started at about 2 PM.  

It was another wonderful day, though you really have to be obsessive about this pastime, otherwise you would not even venture into the super cold weather.  For me, I relish being alone in it.  It gets me away from being what I perceive what people want me to be and puts me right squarely in thge middle of nature.  I met a very pleasant couple at my site today, Jeremy and Janice.  Just for them to go to this very cold, lonely place that abounds with the struggles of nature is enough for me to know that these two really do love nature.  These are the kind of people I enjoy exchanging with.  We briefly chatted nature and agreed that we are very fortunate to have this place.  And we agreed that it does not come automatically.  We really have to voice our desires to preserve these places 

A significant observation today is that there are still virtually no Common Loons within my sight on the estuary.  I do not know why, but there can only be probably two scenarios.  We know from Loon research that the male Common Loons leave their coastal wintering areas and head inland at the very first possibily that there might be any open waters inland.  They want to be on the pond and lakes they will nest on as soon as they can to stake out territories while awaiting the arrival of their mates.  Common Loons will continue to mate with the same individual each year, unless the mate does not arrive back to the same body of water.   I believe this is the 2nd or 3rd week where I have seen not seen but just one loon in the estuary.   Where are they?  It is probably a full month too early for “ice out” in the freshwater bodies in this latitude.  I can only guess that they are out of the mouth of the estuary, and along the inshore coastline because tto the prevailing NW winds we have had in the last month.  That is only an educated guess.   Here are a few of the images I got today.  Have to work on the white balance setting.

 

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The ice is finally starting to break apart.

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March 5, 2017, Sunday:  The temperature had increased to 30 degrees today, nearly twice what it was yesterday.  But the wind was just as brutal.  So the real temperature when the wind chill factor is included, was -3 to -6 degrees Fahrenheit.  Today I included the packets of handwarmers that you expose to air and shake.  I placed them in my gloves and when I noticed my fingers getting cold, I pulled my fingers from the finger tubes in the glove and into the center of the glove.  There I wrapped them around the toasty-warm heater packets….and it worked….at least down to -6 it worked.

 

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On March 5 I saw just one Common Loon in my field of view. When I consider the wind direction of NW I have to wonder if it becomes more sheltered in the open sea with a wind that has a westerly component on the eastern seaboard.  

March 4, 2017, a Saturday, 30 to 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit !  Just returned.  Today I experienced the most brutally cold conditions I have experienced here and possibly anywhere in my life.  

Air temperature from 2 different sources right at my location: 13 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit

Wind velocity at the closet NOAA buoy was 25.3 knots (29 mph) and gusting to 35.0 knots (40 mph!)

Early in the outing I became concerned for my safety.  I estimated the wind velocity at my location to be close to a sustaind 40 miles per hour!  At times, the wind blowing through the structure I was sitting on sounded like a pipe organ.  The whole scene was spooky today.  Yet, the birds seemed to take it just like any another day, though I believe that during severely cold weather they do stay inshore and within estuaries ; i.e. not in the open seas.    

When today’s  Wind Chill is factored in, the real-feel air temperature was from -30 to -40 degrees Fahrenheit.   That is 30 to 40 below zero!

Very quickly into the outing my fingers began to ache.  And I was wearing very heavily insulated Gore-Tex gloves.  These gloves have been sufficient in all other outings here, though at times I would be forced to tuck both my hands in against my body.  This is something I want to avoid doing because I need my hands to photograph the action.  These gloves were NOT sufficient during this outing.   

I did get some observations and shots today, but it was a very shortened outing.  And when I got back to my truck and began to warm, the left-hand fingers began to ache so severely that for severaly minutes I was wailing in pain.  I am not new to this; it has happend many times in my life.  And as a teenager, I had frost-bitten fingers when walking from school during a blizzard with no gloves.  Duh!

The most interesting observation today was that the waterbirds appeared to simply be taking the hellishly cold winds in stride.   The exception was the loons, because I recall seeing just one, where there are usually 12-30 within view.   The gulls seemed to be completely uneffected by the extreme cold, even enjoying it.  I saw gulls make aerial maneuvers I thought them incapable of.  With the camera gear I have, it is impossible to record these maneuvers.  They ride the howling wind downwind and then, in response to seeing a duck or loon with a crab, they make a turn that is far sharper and more sudden than I had ever seen them do.  

The water conditions were so rough to make it very difficult to impossible for me to keep the focal points on the waterbirds.  I finally left when some sea spray hit the extended lens barrel.  It froze within seconds.  I left the barrel extended and got to some liquid water ASAP and wiped away the ice and salt residue with a damp rag.  When in the house, I dampened a cotton rag with silicone and went over the entire unit and worked the zoom.  It is fine this morning.  

I did record a short, rough video of the conditions but will have to greatly reduce its size in order to upload it to this journal.  

Within the next hour, I will upload the few images I was able to capture of the waterbird action.  And here they are:

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This Old Squaw or Long-tailed Duck paddled right up to me shortly after I arrived.  I was very surprised because the Old Squaw is a very timid, shy duck species.  I wondered if it was because the poor thing was bewildered as to what to do in the incredibly cold conditions.  Old Squaws are gregarious ducks, almost always being found only in groups, and this one was alone.   

 

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For now, this will be the end of today’s entry.  

I believe March 4 and 5 were the coldest days of the 2016-2017 Winter.  

 

The writing below may appear to be somewhat disconnected because it was done over the weeks previous to today, Saturday, March 4, 2017. 

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Before swallowing a crab’s body, the crab-eating ocean birds spend considerable time removing all of its sharp-pointed appendages. _DSC0174 crop

After seeing this poor Common Loon’s eye injury, I now know why.  The Eiders and Loons are dismembering the crabs before they swallow the crab body. Otherwise the sharp-ended appendages are likely to puncture the birds soft tissue. If that happens, an infection is likely and it could be life-threatening.  

So how do these waterbirds remove the crabs legs?  You or I could hold the crab with one hand and twist off the legs with the other hand. The waterbirds cannot do this. They grasp the tip of the appendage with their bill and then, relying on the crab’s body mass, they violently shake the crab until the leg breaks away. Then they have to re-immerse at least their head again, in order to re-capture the crab and bring it back to the air, where they grasp another leg and repeat the violent shaking until the next leg breaks off.

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These bird’s are taking considerable risk of injury and eventual death, when we consider how close the bird’s eyes are to its bill and how many crabs it captures and dismembers in a single day.

Although I have yet to attempt to see under the water while I observe these birds, I doubt the crab makes much progress at reaching the bottom, from which the bird captured it.  I do not think that crabs swim, rather, using their legs, they creep along the bottom.  I had wondered why they shook the crab so much and why they took so long before swallowing the crab.

How many pointed appendages do crabs have…..6 or 4? I forgot that from Invertebrate Biology. :) I assume they are able to remove only one leg each time. So it takes time to prepare the crab for swallowing. 

February 18, 2017:  I almost always photograph here during the outgoing tide.  My belief is that the outgoing tide pulls and pushes (carries) out an abundance of new food from out of the marsh, via the river and at least toward the ocean.  

The gravitational pull of the moon is strong enough to force great movement in the Earth’s oceans:  When the moon is on the other side of the planet from the a sea, it pulls that sea, actually lowering that sea’s level, and thereby causing the waters from all that sea’s estuaries to rush toward the sea.  And on the other side of the planet, where the moon actually is at that time, the level of seas suddenly rises, forcing seawater back up into the vast estuaries, filling them.  The cycle is just 6 hours long….the time it takes for the moon to revolve around the Earth.  It is all so fascinating.

The birds position themselves downcurrent, facing upcurrent and dive.  With this technique they are able to control their approach on the bottom, just as a landing bird or plane lands into the wind.  

The Old Squaws apply this technique strictly enough that once they reach a point upcurrent, they fly or quickly float downcurrent again and repeat the process.  And by the way, ulike the Common Eiders, who dive in sequence, a raft of Old Squaws will always dive simultaneously.   

Air is invisible and airports have windsocks, so that the pilots (on approach) can see what direction the wind is coming from.  And when the seaducks and loons dive facing upcurrent, it is much easier for them to see the booty of crabs being carried downcurrent and toward the sea.   

But today, I did not start untii slack low tide.   By then most of the feeding has ended and so it is usually a much quieter time than during the outgoing tide.  But also today, I stayed as the tide was coming in from the ocean and into the marsh via the river or estuary.  The pattern of bird movement was decidedly different.  I saw just one Common Eider, as all the other Eiders were moving out toward the ocean into the incoming tide.  

Up untll today, the only way I saw that the gull species were able to capture a crab was by hanging close to the Common Eiders and stealing a loose crab from them if they mishandled the crab right when they surfaced with the crab.  Today I saw the gulls capture their own crabs.  It happened far out toward the middle of the estuary, or mid-stream.  Apparently the incoming tide was bringing a lot of crabs and some were being lifted up into the upper levels of the current.  Here, the gulls were able to see the crabs as they reached the surface.  During this incoming tide, the gulls spent considerable time flying in wide circles over the estuary, concentrating mostly toward the mid-current.  It was hit or miss:  When they spotted a crab at the surface they dropped onto the water surface, grabbed the crab and flew off with it.

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Sometimes the gulls are able to spot crabs right at the surface, drop down, grab them and fly off.

Sometimes the gulls are able to spot crabs right at the surface, drop down, grab them and fly off. _DSC1146 CROP:  

 

FEB 20, 2017: Today’s air temperature was not as cold as it has been all winter to this point, during my estuary outings.  But it was windy as it almost always is….and so it was quite cold.  Here, an adult Common Eider and a group of Old Squaw or Long-tails have become conditioned to seeing me in the same spot and learning that I am not going to harm them.  So they are making closer inspections of me.   Old Squaws are particularly shy. 

 

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My next outing, on Wednesday, FEB 22, 2017 was not too fruitful.  I concluded the reason for this was the unseasonably mild temperatures.  Today there there many slabs of ice floating the outgoing tide.  This seems like the first days of Spring.  I believe the sea ducks have ventured out into the closeshore marine waters simply because it is not as cold and they have not been there for most of the cold winter.

And I do love it out there with those sea birds when the wind is blowing and it is cold.  During cold weather there is much more action because the sea birds work much harder for their food.  I do not know why.  Maybe it is to keep the body temperatures up.   And the wind blows the water all over them sometimes.  On a mild winter day they tend to leave, heading right out to the ocean, which is just a mile away.  So the colder weather assures that there are more of them in the estuary and they are much busier than when it is milder.

SATURDAY, FEB 25, 2017:  The temperatures are mild for my second outing in a row and there are also no Eiders for my second outing in a row.  The high today was 51 degrees F and the low will be 36.  Since a week ago tomorrow, I have been telling everyone that winter is over.  It is.  The only birds I saw in the estuary were the Common Loons, the gulls and a handful of Old Squaws.  Most of the most Old Squaws and all of the Common Eiders are gone out to the ocean.

Next will be the arrival of the early spring migrants.

SUNDAY, FEB 26, 2017:  Not so fast!  Today the air temperature dropped down to the high 30′s and barely touched 40 midday.  But the wind was SE 12-18 mph.  And where I was, along the Maine coast, it was very cold.  The wind was steady at 15 mph and sometimes gusting to 20.  With the wind chill factor, it was 10-22 degrees F.  

So I made a decision to go to my honeyhole at a Gulf of Maine estuary.  And that was a good decision!  I got some of the best images to date and learned that the ducks move in and out of the estuary during this time of the year, probably depending on severity of the wind and cold.  

Here are the images from Sunday, FEB 26, 2017:

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