Talkin’ Trash…

A day in the field for our staff can be filled with many different experiences.  Much of our time is spent focusing intently on reading the behavior, tracks, and sign of beach-nesting birds as part of our monitoring and protection program.  Some days are filled with a sense of pride and purpose as we watch chicks we knew as eggs learn to fly. Other days, we are shocked and outraged by what we witness.  Yesterday was one of those days.  We regularly monitor a 1 mile stretch of beach along the south shore with several species of nesting birds. We often clean up the beach as we walk back after monitoring the birds. On any given day, we find trash. Yesterday, however, we found more trash than we could handle. Three of us were only able to clean half of the mile-long beach because we simply couldn’t carry anything else.


Recent storms washed trash onto the entire south shore of our Island. What kind of trash did we find? Primarily balloons, plastic food and cleaning containers, and glass bottles.  We filled two large tubs and a garbage bag. As we hauled our load back to the parking area, we had plenty of time to talk trash. We discussed the huge gyres of trash in the pacific ocean and steps we thought everyone could take to reduce plastic use.

Our convenience-based lifestyles produce a lot of trash and recyclables. If we don’t change our throw away or “it’s ok if I buy it because it is recyclable mindset,” our oceans will continue to fill with this debris of convenience.

Please join us in making these pledges:

1.  Pledge to purchase a refillable water bottle, or two, and carry it with you everywhere so you never need to use a single-serve plastic water bottle.  You can take it one step futher, and make a plastics pledge via Oceana:  http://oceana.org/en/our-work/stop-ocean-pollution/plastics/overview

2. Pledge to NEVER release a balloon.  Check out ‘balloons blow’ on facebook https://www.facebook.com/BalloonsBlow?fref=ts

If you want to learn more about marine debris, we recommend:

Blue Oceans: http://blueocean.org/issues/changing-ocean/marine-debris/

Oceana :  http://oceana.org/en/our-work/stop-ocean-pollution/plastics/learn-act

“Plastics were made to last forever, but were designed to be thrown away.”   read more here:  http://5gyres.org/what_is_the_issue/the_problem/

and for more ideas about how to help our oceans, check out this page:



Winter Storms Bring Tiny Washashores…

Last sunday, after a winter storm with high winds and heavy rain, a friend mentioned she had found a small injured bird in the middle of a paved road near the beach.  I asked her to describe it, and she said it fit in her hand and was black and white, with a small beak.  Given the recent storm conditions, I knew with some certainty that she had found a Dovekie (Alle alle), which are the smallest birds in the Atlantic puffin family. She later shared this photo with me, which confirmed my suspicion.

A Dovekie found by a homeowner near the beach in winter

These chunky little seabirds measure only 7.5-9 inches, with a wingspan of about 15 inches.  They feed in the ocean on plankton, crustaceans, small mussels, and occasionally, fish.

On Martha’s Vineyard, we are fortunate to host wintering dovekies, razorbills, and murres who leave the arctic winter to feed in New England waters. Most of the time you only see these birds via a spotting scope as they are typically not near the shore.

However, major storms can drive these offshore species inland, where they often strand on paved roads or in parking lots thinking the shiny surface is water. Occasionally, strong and sustained easterly winds can make feeding conditions unsuitable in the Atlantic, and large numbers of weakened birds will be ‘wrecked’ on land.  The last recorded ‘wrecking’ of a large number of Dovekies was in the winter of 1932/33, when Dovekies reportedly rained down upon New York City and washed ashore along the Atlantic coastline from Nova Scotia to Florida.

What to do if you find a storm-driven seabird on land:

Alcids (the family group of Dovekies) are designed for diving. So, their feet are situation far back on their body. Thus, they are not able to walk well on land and will appear injured as they flap their wings trying to move towards the water. The same is true for loons and grebes. If you find a dovekie, murre, razorbill, loon, grebe, or other diving bird on land, and it has no obvious injuries, cover it with a towel to calm it. Then, take it to the nearest shoreline (ocean or salt pond) and place it next to the water. If you are transporting by car, small birds can be placed in a Paper grocery bag and larger birds in a card board box for safety. If the bird appears injured, call your local wildlife rehabilitation center. If you are on Martha’s Vineyard, contact Augustus (Gus) BenDavid at the World of Reptiles and Birds so that he can assess it for rehabilitation.

Dovekie Natural History

Dovekie are the only species in the Alcid group to feed primarily on plankton. They find their plankton prey on the edge of ice shelves, and at ocean upwellings. They gather copepods with their large mouths under water, and their expandable throat pouch allows them to store this food.  They are a colonial seabirds, with colonies numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Most nest on cliffs or in boulder fields in western Greenland, and on Islands such as Baffin Island.

dovekie chick

Dovekie females lay only one egg, and the nest is a bed of pebbles in a rocky crevice. Their chicks hatch with downy feathers and are fed food the parents are able to carry in their throat pouch and regurgitate.

Dovekies have different plumage in winter verses summer. They molt in a ‘formal attire’ for breeding season, where they have all black head feathers. The two photos below show both plumage patterns for this species.

Dovekie in Breeding Plumage

Dovekie Winter Plumage




Otters and the SuperStorm

We recently checked a wildlife camera on a river otter latrine we monitor at Edgartown Great Pond.  This camera was out during the month of October.  In addition to capturing an otter deep into meditation in ‘corpse pose,’ and multiple ‘otterpaloozas,’ it also caught some of the Super storm surge in this coastal Great Pond.  Group sizes during 22 visits ranged from 1 – 7 otters.  Camera and SD card were AOK.   We hope you enjoy the photos!


Midnight on the pond

Edgartown Great Pond Otters

People are often amazed to learn that river otters inhabit the ponds, streams, and nearshore waters of Martha’s Vineyard.  The most common questions we are asked are: “How many are there?” and “Why don’t I ever see them?”

These photos, taken by a wildlife camera in a secluded section of Edgartown Great Pond, sum it all up for you:

This group of otters were out and about, feeding and loafing at their latrine site, at 12:51 am.  With the exception of college kids on summer break, most of us are sleeping at that hour.

Notice there aren’t any markings on river otters such that you could tell them apart by looking at them.  Some may be a little larger than others, but in most photos, they look like “Darrel, Darrel, and his other brother, Darrel.”

One of them is more interested in the camera than the others.

Satisfied the camera isn’t a threat, the otter resumes its activities, and the group moved off in search of fish and crabs in the Great pond.

Later in the night, a raccoon moves through.

If you are thinking the otters are active at the same places each night, they aren’t. The camera was in place for 10 days, and the otter activity occurred on one night- the 21st of July.  For every two weeks we have a camera here, we may get 2 or 3 visits by otter(s).

These fawns that visited on the 29th were a sweet surprise..

Saltmarsh Bird Surveys

Saltmarsh Sparrow (Ammodramus caudacutus ) Nests in saltmarsh hay at the edge of the high tide range


We recently finished the last round of Saltmarsh bird surveys at 14 randomly selected marshes on Martha’s Vineyard and Chappaquiddick.  We conducted 3 surveys during the breeding season at each site in 2011 and 2012 to contribute data to an Atlantic Coast effort (http://www.tidalmarshbirds.org/)


With sea levels rising, saltmarsh habitat is vulnerable in many areas along the Atlantic Coast.  These surveys are providing baseline data about the abundance and distribution of several bird species that rely on saltmarshes for nesting habitat.  I was happy to see nesting saltmarsh sparrows at every site we surveyed this year!

Middlebury College Conservation Biology Students Luke Elder and Max Hoffman assist with habitat assessment at a survey site on Chappaquiddick

River otter (Lontra canadensis) trail from salt pond to uplands


Chick Season

We have been working long hours since early April, but all of the hard work is well worth it when the first chicks begin to hatch.  American Oystercatchers began hatching chicks in Mid-May, and our first Piping plover chicks hatched this week.  Least terns are courting and incubating eggs. We are currently monitoring 28 pairs of Piping plovers, 11 pairs of American Oystercatchers, 180 pairs of Least Terns, and 12 pairs of Common Terns at 14 sites around the Island.  Our volunteers and interns are a committed group of people, and we are happy to be sharing the joy of chick season with them! If you would like to learn more about beach-nesting birds – consider coming to our talk at the Chilmark Library on June 13th at 5:30 pm. Photos are courtesy of Lanny McDowell Avian Art.

Our Flock

This past saturday, we had our first volunteer work day.  Liz and I met 13 amazing volunteers at our storage area to tackle organizing and preparing beach-nesting bird signs and fencing for the weeks ahead.

This happy group worked for 2.5 hours in the sunshine and put our stash of signs into ship-shape!






Another group completed a large, fenced area for nesting birds at Chilmark pond.  We hope the birds and their eggs will be safe from predators and dogs inside this fenced area.

Many thanks to our amazing volunteers for all of their hard work!

An early spring?

American Oystercatcher – photo by Richard J. Stanton, jr.

This morning, a local birder reported the first American Oystercatcher in Lagoon Pond.  This is our earliest record of an oystercatcher returning to a breeding territory on the island.  Will the Piping plovers also arrive early after our mild winter?  Keep you eyes on the beaches for their return.

Liz and I are busy ordering signs and other materials for the shorebird nesting season and preparing for summer surveys for Belted Kingfishers and swallow colonies as well as continued otter work.  We look forward to seeing you all in the field!