Foggy morning on the beach

I love a good foggy morning. Good thing, because we get lots of them in the spring as the air on land heats up faster than the water….

We get awesome views like this one

003and this one

030We get to see gulls strutting their stuff in puddles in parking lots

007and geese hanging out to rest and preen

035with their new best friend, a laughing gull–one of the first of the year for me!

034All photos taken in Hyannis, between Kalmus and Veteran’s Beaches on Ocean Street.






Snowy owl bonanza

If you’ve been anywhere on the Cape this winter chances are someone’s been talking about seeing a snowy owl. Some years many snowy owls head south from the arctic and this is called an irruptive year. We are having an amazing irruptive year with hundreds of snowy owls being seen not just here but almost everywhere in the northern US.

Haven’t seen one yet? Here’s what to look for.

010Snowy owls are diurnal, meaning they are out and about during the day. Their white coloration helps them blend in to a snowy background but when they are in an area like a salt marsh they sort of stand out. See that white dot in the background? That’s what you want to look for. You’ll come up with some white trash bags, old buoys and other such things but you may also come up with a snowy owl.

017I am showing these distant pictures because I think a lot of people see the close ups people are taking with big zoom lenses and they don’t realize that the owls are not going to be just hanging out a few feet away from you. Having said that, every now and then one does exactly that but most owls you will see will be in the distance so bring binoculars.

013You want to respect the privacy of these birds. They are not used to people and most are not afraid though if you get too close they will fly away. Remember that these are tough times for birds out there and even birds like snowy owls that are used to the cold are under duress. Please don’t make them waste energy flying away from you. They need all their energy to hunt and survive through the frozen nights.

What do snowy owls eat? Pretty much anything they can eat. I think most of us know they eat lemmings up north. We don’t have lemmings here though we do have mice and voles. Snowy owls also eat birds, especially ducks. Look for them in areas resembling the tundra such as salt marshes, dunes and even the outer beaches.

Who knows when we will ever have another year like this? Get out and see one while you can. They will soon be heading back north.



Great Horned Owl Nest

First, I can’t take credit for finding this Great Horned Owl and its nest–a friend of mine found it purely by chance this week and sent me some photos. She offered to take me there but I cannot give up its location. I’ll just say it is on private property in the mid Cape area.

Two young owls are still in the nest.

011They cannot fly yet though they can scramble around the branches of the tree a bit. You can see some of what remains of the nest beneath them. Great horned owls do not make their own nest but take over other nests, especially those made by red tailed hawks. We found another older nest in a tree not too far away which may have been used last year.

005In the above shot you can see that the young owlet is growing its feathers and will soon be ready to fly.

We knew mom couldn’t be too far away and we were right. She had been watching us but when I tried to take her picture she turned away.

015Eventually she turned and gave me a good owly glare…

016She then took off….heading out over a nearby field, arousing the suspicion and ire of neighborhood jays and crows….Check out those round wing feathers that help this big bird fly silently through the night…



We went back to watching the owlets who were also watching us…


and before we left we had to check out the pellets beneath the tree, of course. These owls are still being brought food by their mother and I will not share them all here but the pellets showed a well rounded, high protein diet that included small mammals and birds. ‘Nuff said, as my grandmother would have said.





Just Ducky Around Here

Winter is a great time to dust off your bird books and learn a little more about the ducks that we see here each winter. In the summer we have very few kinds of ducks here, mostly mallards, black ducks and a few wood ducks. But in the winter we have lots of ducks, both the dabblers, which, well, dabble and mostly for vegetarian fare and the diving ducks that dive for fish or shellfish. These winter ducks nest much farther north than here but come south for open water, warmer air and a steady food supply.

One of the more common birds we see here each winter is the  common eider. They arrive in huge flocks and settle into various areas around Cape Cod Bay wherever they can find good eating, which for them means good mussels. Smaller groups hang around the south side and in some of the protected harbors but you can find thousands and thousands of them in the bay, often around the canal entrances.

Another common winter visitor that can be found in both fresh and salt water areas is the red breasted merganser. They are often sporting punk “hair-dos.” These are fish eaters and if you get a close look you can see they actually have serated bills, all the better to catch quick moving fish.

Buffleheads are some of my favorite ducks. They are small and perky and have the amazing ability to silently disappear and reappear without warning. Now you see ’em, now you don’t….They can easily be found in ponds but also in protected salt water beach areas and marshes.

One of our most lovely winter visitors is a dabbler called a gadwall. These ducks are shy, as you can see in the photo–they are trying to leave me behind as quickly as possible! They have an elegant plumage, almost like a tweed coat. Look for them in large flocks of ducks in ponds or marshes. Not uncommon but shy, so you have to be quick to see them.

I’ll add more ducks over the next few weeks but this will get you started if you haven’t already been enjoying the winter duck show.

Winter Feeder Fun

Do you feed the birds? This winter has been such a fun one for seeing all sorts of fun birds….such as this little red breasted nuthatch. They are all over the place this winter but believe it or not, they are unusual visitors here on the Cape, especially in these numbers.

White breasted nuthatches are much more common here–a little larger than their cousins but just as much fun to watch.

There’s the downy woodpeckers….

and the cardinals…

but this year there have been other fun visitors as well…such as these pine siskins (one is not a siskin but a house finch)

and this lovely lady evening grosbeak…her mate was with her but he did not stay still for a good photo…

but my favorites are the flickers–they are so bossy out in the world but so timid and jumpy at the feeder. Check out the expression on this girl….

These are just some of the regulars that keep me company every day…in the future I’ll post some of the others….like my favorite chickadee friends….

And I hope these photos show that you can have fun photographing the birds that visit your own backyard. These photos are taken with an old Sony Cybershot in my Hyannis backyard….not very exotic but lots of fun!

Cruising the great marsh of Barnstable…

Over the last weekend I was lucky enough to ride the high tide into the creeks and channels of the great marsh of Barnstable on The Horseshoe Crab, the boat for the Barnstable Harbor Ecotours. I had been asked to fill in as a leader for a trip so was going out with some other leaders to get a lay of a land and to become familiar with the kind of tour they were looking for.

The views of the flooded marsh were simply spectacular…. Continue reading

Ode to a Catbird

This column was published this past week in the Cape Codder and has elicited a huge response from my readers. Since it is not available online I am posting it here.

Nature’s Ways, 6-29-12
By Mary Richmond

Ode to a Catbird

Way back when, in 1964 when I turned 10 to be exact, my grandmother gave me a beautiful hard bound copy of John K. Terres collection called “The Audubon Book of True Nature Stories.” I had read all the Thornton Burgess stories and any other nature stories I could find but this was my first book of “grown up” nature stories and I read it over and over. It was in these pages that I first met Crip, the brown thrasher from “Crip, Come Home!” that revisited Ruth Rowland Thomas’s home each spring and summer. Like her, I fell in love with him. Crip still carries on from my bookcase in spirit though he himself is long gone.
I have been thinking about Crip and the woman who loved him this week for I have my own Crip of sorts. Mine is a gray catbird and to be fair, I have no way to be sure it is the same bird I see each spring but each year for the last seven years a catbird arrives each spring and chases the resident winter mockingbird from its preferred territory and begins to sing. It usually doesn’t take long for him to attract a mate for he has some prime real estate safe in a holly tree, close to a garden and a feeder and a good supply of fresh water. He’s also quite handsome.

There’s something about a catbird that amuses me, perhaps going back to when, as a child, I would hear them “mewing” in the branches just out of reach of our feisty cat. Even as a youngster I knew the bird was taking a risk mocking a cat like that but in most cases the bird prevailed. It would be years before I realized that the catbird was a successful mimic and could sing its own melodic but often confusing song long after dusk began to creep upon the land. Catbirds come by their mimicry honestly, being related to mockingbirds and brown thrashers.  Continue reading

Discovering new places….

I love getting out and discovering new places, especially here on the Cape where I’ve lived virtually my whole life. Over the next 7 weeks I’ll be leading art and nature walks on Saturday mornings for the Barnstable Land Trust and while preparing for these walks I’ve discovered some wonderful places. This morning we were at the Sydney Woodlands in Hyannis, a new piece of property for the BLT sandwiched between town watershed land and a very suburban neighborhood. You would never guess it to look at it but this area even has its own crystal clear spring outlet with drinkable water.

The area is off Pitcher’s Way heading south toward Craigville Beach Rd. and you would never know this little gem was there. It backs up to Simmons Pond on one end and Ben’s Pond on the other. We started off looking at the wonderful ground cover plants and doing some sketches. Star flower, Canada mayflower and sarsparilla are all in bloom–among the very healthy poison ivy plants.

We heard a lot of the usual bird suspects you would expect to find in a fragmented woodland and pond area like this–towhees, pine warblers, common yellowthroats, yellowwarblers, robins, catbirds, blue jays, red winged blackbirds, downy woodpeckers, white breasted nuthatches, song sparrows, titmice, grackles and so on….and at one point we heard the sounds of grackles in distress. It didn’t take us long to find their nest, or the cause of their distress….

Their nest was being raided by a Cooper’s hawk! The hawk landed nearby and began to enjoy its catch while the grackles continued making distress sounds.

After taking its fill the hawk turned, the young bird still in its talons, and flew into a tree nearby…

There, up high in the tree was its own nest. We watched it join the other adult bird which then took off, leaving this hawk with the food and the hungry young, which we could hear begging.

Look closely toward the top of the nest and hopefully you can see the hawk–its long tail is sticking out toward the right and just looks dark.

Soon the other hawk was raiding the same grackle nest and it became apparent right away that ma and pa grackle had made a dreadful mistake in their choice of nest location. These grackles will probably build a new nest, lay more eggs and try to raise more young but hopefully they will choose a different neighborhood….

Anyway, it was pretty exciting to find this hawk nest–which is very close to homes and busy paths. We know that Cooper’s hawks have adapted to suburban living with the proliferation of bird feeders offering them easy pickings and this was just one more example of that. Also, don’t feel too sorry for the grackles….they raid plenty of other bird nests themselves…

For more information on upcoming Barnstable Land Trust walks please check their website.

Painting a few eggs and babies….

Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to go to some wonderful places, including gull nesting colonies, while working with people doing various bird studies, etc. The nest that I painted here was off Plymouth and I did many sketches and took many photos during the few days I was there helping someone weigh and measure baby gulls. These are most likely herring gulls since they were the prevalent bird nesting in that area but I can’t swear to that–when this tiny the baby black backs look similar and so do their eggs. Gull nests are built on the ground and have an average of 3 eggs. The baby in this nest has just hatched and you can see the pip, or hole being made by the next gull that will hatch.

I thought it might be fun to show you my process while I painted this. I don’t pretend it is perfectly done but it was fun to do.

First, I sketch in the basic shapes with a pencil and then lay in the first watercolor wash.

I build up the painting, layer by layer by adding different mixes of colors

Watercolors need to have their layers built up gradually, allowing for a lot of transparency and play with colors and their complements…

I start to add some details…

Continuing to add layers I am darkening the darkest parts but beginning to add more layers to the eggs and bird, too

More details, more layers, another wash or two…

and it’s done! The finished piece is 8 x 10″ and makes a nice addition to my bird painting portfolio. I hope you enjoyed seeing how it was done.

More Swans….

I was at South Cape Beach in Mashpee yesterday when I saw these swans. There must have been 60-70 of them just hanging out on the edge of the marsh during a high tide.Many swans are already on nests but obviously these ones aren’t. The weather has been so awful that some swans lost their nests and may try again but many of these may simply not have found nesting areas yet or are too young or otherwise unable to be paired off and reproduce this year.
I was photographing these at quite a distance so ended up with more back ends than front ends as the swans faced into the very brisk winds….
I will see if I can find out more information about these large gatherings of swans since it seems late in the year for them to me….