Categories
Pelagic

Brookline Bird Club Pelagic (Part 1)

Although I had gone on a Brookline Birding Club pelagic trip out of Hyannis before, my trip in late August was the first time doing it not as a birder, but as an all-around naturalist. Being interested in more than just the bird life we would see on the trip unlocked dozens of potential new species I hadn’t even noticed before. 

The trip started off slow. Leaving the harbor we were almost immediately surrounded by thick fog, making it very difficult to see any birds at all. We were lucky enough to spot both Common and Roseate Terns feeding just outside the harbor, but they were few and far between. Not long after reaching the open ocean, we had our first exciting species. “Get on that Cory’s!!” As soon as I heard that announcement I knew what the spotters had found. A Scopoli’s Shearwater! While currently considered a subspecies of Cory’s Shearwater, many scientists believe this to be a distinctive species making it a major target for birders on the East Coast. Just as we were getting over the excitement of the shearwater, a Parasitic Jaeger flew right over the bow of the boat! While I had seen many of these birds from shore on Cape Cod, it was a lifer for many onboard and a cause for celebration.

Cory’s Shearwater

The next few hours were not as exciting. The constant pitching and tossing of the waves had me laying down on a bench with my eyes fixed on the horizon. Luckily I didn’t miss much. The best sighting was an Atlantic Manta Ray, which I was able to get poor but identifiable photos of before collapsing back on the bench. Just as I was starting to feel well enough to head back up to the front of the boat, someone yelled out “WHITE-FACED STORM PETREL!!” I immediately jumped up and rushed to the bow, surrounded by other anxious birders scanning the horizon, hoping they didn’t miss this incredibly rare species. After 15 minutes of searching, we finally caught up to the storm petrel. These storm petrels have a wingspan of just over 7 inches long, yet spend their entire lives on the open ocean, only coming to land to nest. They traverse the waves by pushing off from the water with their feet and using their stiff wings to glide a few feet before repeating the process again and again for hundreds or even thousands of miles. This distinctive way of movement gives them the nickname “sea kangaroos” and is what makes them one of my favorite animals on the planet. It took nearly half an hour for everyone on board to get over the excitement of seeing this amazing bird. Just imagine what everyone was feeling when we started seeing many, many, more.

White-faced Storm Petrel
Categories
Pelagic

Whale Watching and Seabirding

As a young child, going on whale watches was one of my favorite summertime activities. Something about being out on the open ocean and seeing these majestic creatures was magical to me and it still is to this day. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, among other factors, I hadn’t gone on a whale watch in several years.

We set out from Plymouth at 9:00 am and quickly began to rack up some of the more common seabirds. Inshore species like Double-crested Cormorants and Great Black-backed Gulls flew past the boat, distant shearwaters glided effortlessly over the waves, and Barn Swallows darted through the air. I had to quickly relearn how to use my 400mm lens as I had been focusing more on macro photography over the past few months. It was a struggle at first, but I quickly got the hang of it and started photographing some of the fantastic birds that flew close to the boat. 

After about thirty minutes of travel, we began to make it out to the deeper waters of Cape Cod Bay. While not quite the open ocean, it was a much better habitat for the many varieties of seabirds that hunted for food in its warm waters. While most of our group decided to stay on the upper deck to get a better vantage point for the seabirds, I decided to venture out to the front of the boat. Although the wind prevented me from getting the best photos of the dozens of shearwaters that flew past the boat, the birds themselves did not disappoint. I had never seen seabirds as close as I did that day and it was amazing. At one point, a Cory’s Shearwater flew only about twenty feet from my head and I was able to observe all the tiny details that made this species so beautiful.

As we neared Stellwagen Bank, the number of seabirds continued to increase. Sooty Shearwaters joined the already present Great and Cory’s that made up the majority of the flocks earlier in the trip. The birds aren’t the only animals that call Stellwagen Bank home. As soon as we passed Race Point, a large group of Humpback Whales was seen in the distance. As we neared the pod, everyone who was at one point sitting inside sheltering from the wind was suddenly pushing up against me at the very front of the boat hoping to get a glimpse of the whales. As much as I wanted to keep my spot and try to get some national geographic level photos, I had to let some other people get a chance to see these majestic creatures for what they truly are. Among those that joined me up in the front were two kids who had traveled halfway across the country and had just seen the ocean for the first time in their lives the day before. I tried my best to answer all of their questions but even I was left just as curious about what was hidden in the deep waters of Stellwagen Bank.

Of all the whale watches I had ever been on, this was by far the best. At least seven whales surrounded the boat in all directions including a couple of recently born calves who were very curious about their visitors. These calves often swam so close to the boat that my 400mm lens wouldn’t focus on them and I had to rely on my phone for photos. Not long after we stopped to observe the whales, they began to feed. Humpback Whales rely on their baleen, a hair-like structure in their mouths, to sift out the small fish and invertebrates that they feed on. They begin this process by creating a “net” of bubbles around a school of fish scaring them up to the surface. The whales quickly ascend, continuing to create bubbles before breaking the surface of the water and scooping up as many fish as they can. Whales aren’t the only animals that benefit from this. Huge flocks of gulls and shearwaters surrounded the feeding cetaceans, trying to scoop fish out of their mouths and even sometimes landing on their backs. This was truly amazing to witness in person and I was smiling throughout the entire experience. At some points, I was so in awe at the pure majesty of these whales that I completely forgot to take photos.

This whale watch was a completely unforgettable and life-changing experience. All my previous time spent with these animals could not compare to the show they put on that day. It was a perfect opportunity to see just what the ocean had to offer before I departed for the desert of Arizona, far, far away from the sea. 

Categories
Botany

Exploring Ponkapoag Pond

While the Black Pond Swamp is still a great spot to find unique wetland plants, there is one other place in Eastern Massachusetts that beats Black Pond in almost every category. I have always wanted to visit Ponkapoag Pond and yesterday I finally got my chance. While I had already seen many of the unique species that called the pond home, there was still much I had yet to find.

My walk started better than I ever could have expected. Not five minutes had gone by before I had found several new and interesting fern species, most of which I had never heard of before. I continued making my way down the narrow boardwalk, occasionally having to jump over small streams and waterways. I kept my eye out for tiny sundews and interesting mosses on the side of the path but had no luck with them so far. Dozens of damselflies darted around my head, difficult to make out in the poor lighting and moving too quickly for me to take a photo. Sphagnum Sprites and Violet Dancers were among the species I was able to identify at the time but many others were mixed in. After a few more minutes of walking, I discovered my first patch of Round-leafed Sundews blending in perfectly with the sphagnum mosses that covered the sides of the trail. While I see these plants all the time at Black Pond Bog, these were much larger and more abundant than the ones in Norwell. 

Striped Hairstreak

As I neared the end of the wooded area of the boardwalk and made my way out to the open boggy area closer to the shore of the pond, everything changed. The Sphagnum moss turned from a deep green color to shades of red and orange, the damselflies switched to dragonflies, and many interesting plants covered the sides of the path. My first Halloween Pennants of the year sped through the sky temporarily landing on dead bushes or trees before taking off again. I methodically searched the bogs for my most important target of the trip, the Tuberous Grasspink, a small stunningly pink orchid that specialized in habitats like Ponkapoag Pond. I had recently become increasingly interested in orchids after learning about the many species that call Massachusetts home over the winter. These grasspinks were one of my biggest targets and this was my first attempt to find them. It wasn’t long before I spotted my first of several Tuberous Grasspinks of the trip. They were so much more beautiful in person and seeing them in such pristine habitat made me appreciate the species even more.

Tuberous Grasspink

As I made my way back down the boardwalk, I noticed many things that I hadn’t on my way out. A Spotted Turtle rested on the moss just inches from the side of the path, and a likely Banded Hairstreak fluttered past my head, landing on a nearby shrub to rest its wings. My trip to Ponkapoag Pond had been an amazing experience. I had gained a new appreciation for the unique bog habitat that it was home to as well as the amazing species that lived there.

Spotted Turtle
Categories
Tidepooling

Egypt Beach Tidepooling

After an unsuccessful tidepooling trip to southern Maine, I needed to redeem myself with another journey to the intertidal zone. This time instead of 8thdriving two and half hours to the rocky shores of Maine I decided to try a spot much closer to home. Egypt Beach has always been one of my favorite places to explore at low tide. It is likely the best tidepooling spot on the south shore and is home to many very interesting species.

I arrived at the beach just after low tide meaning I had a lot of time to find my target species. The first few rock flips were pretty uneventful hiding just a few crabs or amphipods here and there. After about fifteen minutes of flipping rocks, I had my first exciting find of the day! A patch of chain tunicates stuck to the underside of a large rock hidden behind a wall of wrack. While tunicates might just look like an orange blob of jello from a distance they are actually made up of hundreds of tiny organisms living together in large colonies. Although these creatures are relatively common on the Massachusetts coast they’re still some of the most interesting to observe. I continued searching through the tidepools to find a few interesting animals but continued to have no luck with nudibranchs or sea stars, the two families I had missed out on in Maine.

As I continued my search, I came across many more interesting marine organisms. Chain Tunicates covered the undersides of some rocks, aquatic worms crawled through the sand, and Baltic Isopods swam around in the seaweed. This expedition was already much more successful than Maine and there was still much more to come. While Chain Tunicates are by far the more common ones in Massachusetts, Star Tunicates also inhabit the tidepools of New England. These organisms tend to be larger than the microscopic Chain Tunicate and are covered in intricate patterns. Although these were not a life for me, I was able to find so many beautiful and amazing patterns throughout my search. Unfortunately, we had missed low tide by a couple of hours and had to call the expedition off before finding either of our target species.

Unfortunately, I cannot find the photos from this day but they are viewable on my Instagram @jacksonfrost0

Categories
Butterflying

Mothing in New Hampshire

I can’t write much now because I’m in the middle of an inaturalist biobltiz competition but I still wanted to post some photos from observing moths a few days ago up in New Hampshire

Rosy Maple Moth
Virginia Tiger Moth
Waved Sphinx
Smith’s Dart
Hickory Tussock Moth
Categories
Butterflying Tidepooling

Tidepooling in Maine

The ocean has always been one of the most fascinating natural ecosystems to me. Unfortunately for myself and many others, it’s just not accessible enough to regularly explore. The one way to interact with the amazing creatures that call the ocean home is by exploring rocky beaches at low tide. Although we have some pretty decent tidepools in southern Massachusetts, Maine is on another level. Nudibranchs, Sea Stars, and Urchins all reside in Maine’s intertidal zone.

Low tide was at 8:10 in the morning and we had to maximize our time out on the rocks. Unfortunately, that meant waking up at 4:45 and driving the two and a half hours to Biddeford, Maine. We arrived at Biddeford Pool at around 7:30 and began our trek out to the eastern most point of the peninsula. It started off slow, but we quickly began finding many unique New England tidepool species. Common and Flat Perriwinkles littered the barnacle covered rocks, and Tortoiseshell Limpets hid in plain sight with their amazing camoflauge. In one of the first major tidepools we checked, my sister netted a small rock shrimp taking shelter under a rocky ledge!

Although we had been finding plenty of the more common species, our target sea stars, nudibranches, and urchins continued to evade us. At one point, we found a dried up and dead Green Sea Urchin in a small tidepool pretty far from the ocean. As I picked the urchin up to photograph, it crumbled to dust in my hand and the remnants slid back into the tidepool where the urchin had met it’s demise. We continued searching for at least another hour but with no more super interesting finds. So as the tide slowly crept up on us we decided to begin our journey back.

Instead of going back along the rocks as we had on the way out, we decided to take a narrow trail that led through a meadow filled with wildflowers and tons of other wildlife. Almost immedietly a pair of small butterflies darted in front of my face! They danced together in the air, one flying in circles around the other and pausing before the roles switched. It was amazing to watch for the thirty seconds they remained cooperative before one darted into the field and the other landed at the ground beneath our feet. As I crawled closer with my camera aimed at the beautifly patterned insect, I was able to identify it as a Common Ringlet. Although relatively common in Southern Maine, it was still a major target for this trip. In the past few weeks, I had grown more appreciative of the smaller butterflies that I had once ignored. Although they tend to be less elgantly patterned as the larger swallowtails and Monarchs, watching them dart through the sky provides relief from the heat on a hot summer day.

Categories
Botany Butterflying Dragonflies

Black Pond Swamp

Black Pond Swamp is one of the most unique habitats in Eastern Massachusetts. Its acidic bogs provide the perfect environment for many rare and sought-after plants, many of which I was hoping to see today. Filled with sphagnum moss, sundews, pitcher plants, and much more, Black Pond Swamp is probably the most interesting spot to observe nature on the South Shore.

I started off by walking down the boardwalk that headed into the swamp itself. The sides were covered with sphagnum mosses and crane flies moved slowly through the air. It didn’t take long for me to find some of my target plants. Round-leaf Sundews covered the ground growing on and around the mosses, and pitcher plants grew in small patches on the side of the path. As I approached the end of the boardwalk looking over Black Pond, I saw an Eastern Garter Snake resting on a rock out in the bog, warming up in the early morning sun. Green Frogs called from the reeds and Painted Turtles basked on a log resting in the water. I noticed a tiny damselfly hovering around my head and quickly realized it was something I had never seen before. I quietly snuck up to where it had landed and began taking photos, a Sphagnum Sprite! These bright blue damselflies are highly specialized and only live in acidic bogs such as Black Pond Swamp. 

Sphagnum Sprite

Although the swamp is mostly known for its unique bog habitat, it is also home to a powerline cut that has tons of amazing species. I’ve always enjoyed walking up and down through the dense patches of ferns searching for hidden snakes, moths, and other shade-dwelling creatures. Today my goal was to locate a few hard-to-come-by plants for the eighteen-day bioblitz that begins on Friday–specifically Hickey’s Tree Clubmoss, Blue Clubmoss, and some very unusual fern species. I began the second half of my walk by photographing some of the grasshoppers that call the powerline cut home. They come in all shapes in sizes, ranging from dark brown to bright green, and from tiny crickets, to the larger Sulphur-winged Grasshoppers that flush from the path. 

After watching the grasshoppers leap through the ferns, I began walking down the hill towards a wetland that is home to many dragonfly and moth species. More Sphagnum Sprites hovered around the marsh plants, and Painted Skimmers darted through the sky chasing mosquitos and other small insects. Dragonflies weren’t the only things out and about today, butterflies were abundant as well. A Spicebush Swallowtail danced over my head, darting in between the giant ferns, periodically landing on the ground and taking off again just before I was able to get a photo. After I finally managed to get a photo, albeit not a great one, I started on my way back to the parking lot. On my return trip, I decided to focus more on birds which I hadn’t done in a while. Eastern Wood-Pewees and Red-eyed Vireos called from the trees, Chimney Swifts zoomed through the sky, and Ovenbirds crept through the underbrush. It was an amazing last ten minutes walking through the pine forests of one of the most unique locations in Massachusetts. 

Spicebush Swallowtail
Categories
Arthropods Butterflying

Turkey Hill Butterflies

I arrived at Turkey Hill at 11:30 in the morning and the butterflies and dragonflies were already abundant. Eastern Pondhawks were zipping around the parking lot and dozens of birds were singing in the forest. It was my mission that day to see as many butterfly species as possible at Turkey Hill and the surrounding farms and I was already off to a great start as a pair of Eastern Tiger Swallowtails danced together above my head. 

As I slowly made my way up the hill, I noticed a shadow fluttering above my head. As I looked up I spotted something new, a Canadian Tiger Swallowtail! These gorgeous butterflies are very similar to their more eastern relatives but are uncommon in this part of Massachusetts. This individual was only the fourth Plymouth county record on iNaturalist! As I watched the swallowtail quickly ascend into the sky, I knew that today would be great. For the next hour, there were no major surprises or rarities but the sheer number of insects was amazing in itself. Zabloun’s, Hobomock, and Essex Skippers, tons of Cabbage Whites, and dragonflies hunting the thousands of tiny insects zooming around the sky. 

Nearing the wooded section of the trail, I noticed a small butterfly fluttering close to the ground landing on blades of grass. I immediately dropped to the ground and slowly crept up on the butterfly hoping to get a better look. As I peered through the viewfinder of my camera, I immediately recognized it. A Red-banded Hairstreak! Although they are not very rare in Massachusetts it was still a species I had been trying to find for a while with no success. As I watched the Hairstreak move from flower to flower, I was able to fully appreciate its beauty. I had never noticed the subtle patterning on the edges of its wings or the mesmerizing black and white stripes on the legs and antennae. I followed the Hairstreak for a while until it disappeared into the woods and I continued down the trail in search of more butterflies. 

Red-banded Hairstreak

Throughout my walk, I had been noticing an unusually large amount of Six-spotted Tiger Beetles flying around and landing on the path. With their bright green bodies and fierce personalities, tiger beetles have forever been one of my favorite groups of insects. Unfortunately, they are incredibly hard to get good photos of. Whenever I tried to get close enough to photograph them, they would take off from the ground and vanish into the grass. I had been trying to photograph them all day with no luck when I stumbled across one right in front of me. I slowly crept up on the shiny green beetle and began taking photos. Although my photos were far from perfect, I was elated. I had waited so long to be able to get close up to a Tiger Beetle and it was not letting me down. With my new photos of the beetle and a lifer Hairstreak under my belt, I was ready to call it a day and head home. 

Six-spotted Tiger Beetle
Categories
Arthropods

May Heatwave Nature Walk

On the third day of a mid-May heatwave in Eastern Massachusetts, many insects that had been hidden away for the past 6 months had finally emerged. Dragonflies and Damselflies zipped around bodies of water and open meadows, skippers fluttered high into the sky, and moths darted under leaves hiding from the burning sun. 

I woke up at the crack of dawn on May 15th hoping to track down some of the more elusive late spring insects and arachnids that had suddenly appeared just days earlier. My biggest target for the morning was the Baltic Isopod, an aquatic species that made its home in seaweed on the edges of rocks in the intertidal zone. Over the past few months, I had become obsessed with seeing as many isopod species in New England as possible. Beginning with the basic Common Rough, Shiny, and Striped Woodlice that lived under old and rotting logs, and more recently discovering such species as the rare Eastern Driftclinger that took shelter under discarded pieces of driftwood in open saltmarshes. Beginning about a week ago, I had been focusing on finding the more aquatic isopods that made Massachusetts their home. I identified Eastern Waterslaters using a microscope at 400x zoom and found at least one species in the complex Jaera albifrons hiding under submerged rocks in tidepools.

As I made my way to the first spot I had scouted, I noticed many small arthropods sitting on leaves. Whether they were resting, drinking, or searching for food, they didn’t seem to mind my presence and allowed me and my macro lens to get quite close letting me get some great photos. As I closely examined some sort of click beetle slowly chewing on the leaf of a blueberry bush, I noticed a small light shape dart into the moss beside me. I immediately crouched down on the ground in search of whatever this creature might be, after a solid 30 seconds of searching I noticed one of the most amazing spiders I had ever seen. It wasn’t brightly colored, it wasn’t a super interesting shape, but something about the contrast between white and tan, as well as the long fuzzy legs and fluffy head, made this previously unknown to me species quickly become one of my favorites.

I slowly clambered down the slippery rock face towards the ocean, net, and cameras in hand, trying as hard as possible not to fall into the waters below. Once I finally reached the lowest point on the rock I extended the net and began slowly and methodically dragging it between large clumps of seaweed growing on the side of the cliff. My first few attempts did not bring up much, a few amphipods here, some sort of snail I have yet to identify, but no isopods. Then, on my fourth attempt, I hit a jackpot. I had pulled up seven Baltic Isopods in just one netful not only accomplishing my goal but allowing me to observe some of the amazing diversity this species has to offer. While most of these isopods were solid brown or black, a couple of them had bold white lines down the sides and one was covered in red and white spots! It was amazing to me how diverse one local population of a relatively poorly known species could be this incredible. I knew I couldn’t keep these aquatic creatures out of their element for a long period of time without harming them so I quickly examined some of the more interesting individuals noting the similarities, and many differences, to their land-dwelling cousins. As the sun slowly crept up towards the middle of the sky and the temperatures rose to the 80s, I gently put the isopods back where I found them and headed back home. 

Categories
Photography

Best Birds/Photos of 2022 So Far

I think the first one of these types of post went pretty well so I’m going to start doing them more regularly. From now on, I will share some of my best bird photos and sightings of the previous two weeks

Horned Lark drying off in the rain
Northern Mockingbird
Very distant Snowy Owl in Duxbury
Northern Shoveler in Plymouth
King Eider in the fog on January 1st
Mute Swans