"For the Birds" Index

New!  Jim B has opened a message board dedicated to the sharing of information about wild birds and the hobby of bird watching. Birders of all levels of experience and any location are cheerfully invited to join in:

For The Birds (vol 5)


July 15, 2002 - For the Birds originally appeared as a series of posts on the Cape Ann Online message board. It was aimed at the audience who sees birds in their day to day life and is curious about them rather than the hardcore or even intermediate bird watcher.

Any word in blue can be clicked on for more info.

Any word in blue can be clicked on for more info.

What’s Happening

July is a month when serious birders migrate great distances (like to Alaska) to see serious birds. This is not to say we can’t have some fun locally.

For the Love of Hummers

Those who put up hummingbird feeders should have a couple of regular visitors by now and perhaps an irregular guest sneaks in every now and again, If your feeder is within easy viewing range you may get to know these birds on an individual basis and be able to tell them apart.

There is one male and one female Ruby-throated Hummingbird that come to my feeder like clockwork. This means there, most likely, is a nest somewhere nearby. I am so opposed to disturbing nest that I have not even attempted to "follow" them back to it. I recommend you don’t either. O.K., do it once just because it is a really neat nest but try to leave them alone.

Remember to change the sugar water (4 parts water, 1 part sugar) more often in hot weather. If you can’t do it every three days at least change it when the water gets cloudy. In September you will hear well meaning folks saying you must take your feeder down or else the hummers won’t migrate and will be caught in the winter cold. This is nonsense. Your feeder will not effect how long the birds stay. As a matter of fact the local breeders you see all summer will usually head south before the more northern hummingbirds hit your feeder for fuel on their migration. It is when "your" birds stick around long enough to catch the migratories at "their" feeder that things get interesting. Male hummers don’t share well.


There are five different species of swallow / martin found in our area. Swallows’ diet is almost entirely insects with an occasional berry binge. You gotta love these birds! Most nest in colonies or small groups. If you are lucky enough to live near a swallow colony or have an active martin house you should try to watch the area carefully for their return next spring. Some swallows will send scouts back to the same nesting area up to two weeks ahead of the rest of the group to make sure everything is as it should be or to find a new site if needed. The group will return to the same spot year after year.

Swallows are one of the few groups of birds that seem to play. Some ornithologists have said that only Rock Doves (pigeons) and corvids (crows and ravens) fly "for the hell of it". To which one might ask, "How the hell do you know?" Swallows play the "feather game" The feather game is a sheer delight to watch. One bird will take a feather (usually a white fluffy feather" up into the air and drop it. Others will fly below and try to catch it. Whichever bird catches it, gets to drop it next. It is sort of like the opposite of keep-away and can go on for hours.

Barn Swallows

By far and away the most common swallow around here is the Barn Swallow. Barn Swallows are the ones with the deeply forked swallowtail. They may be found all over Cape Ann and may be viewed almost constantly from the Annisquam causeway by Goose Cove.

The others are all kind of rare in Gloucester / Rockport but maybe found from time to time. Northern Rough-winged Swallows also have a forked tail but it is not as noticeable. They are brow/ gray above and white below. Look for them flying into drainpipes in seawall near the Annisquam Restaurant and the northern end of Long Beach.

Tree Swallows are a hit or miss proposition. You either find none or a thousand. They are greenish-blue above, white below and are often seen in great numbers hanging all over telephone wires near Good Harbor Beach during migration. Other swallows do this as well.

Bank Swallow

Bank Swallows are called Sand Martins in the U.K. They small, black and white and dig into the side sand dunes to nest. They are seen in Gloucester at the southern end of Wingaersheek beach. They are easily found on Crane Beach and Plum Island.

Purple Martins have their own rather large fan club. These guys are, well, purple and are the one who live in the multi-plex-condo bird houses. They also live in hollowed out gourds. Every now and then I see some flying over the river.



There are two main choices when it comes to birding software and a bunch of crap. The junk comes in endless "Birds of the World" varieties and has lots of pretty photos and little information. It is hard to learn anything of value or make an ID from this stuff but it can make good wallpaper.

Here’s the good stuff

North American Birds by Peterson Multimedia Guides

Here Roger Tory Peterson, the grandfather of American birding presents 1000 birds in a style familiar to anyone who has ever seen his field guide. 700 birds have photos and songs/ calls. There is a game for sharpening ID skills and a find feature that is customizable in several areas so that you can be drilled on brown shorebirds less than 6" found on Massachusetts shorelines in the winter. This feature is a great aid in finding just what bird that oddball could be. There is also a rudimentary program for keeping a lifelist. This program works on Windows OS 3.1, 95, 98, ME.

Guide to Birds of North America by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology

This is the software I use. It has all the bells and whistles – testing, listing, identification aids, video, songs and sounds. Some of the photos and video shots are breath-taking. This version works with all windows including XP. I have no experience with Macs.


Boating and Birds

I have just returned to work after two hot weeks of vacation. A large part of that time was spent on the water in either my tin boat with the 15 hp four stroke Evinrude or my thousands of strokes kayak looking for birds. On a quiet weekday popping in and out of coves listening for land birds and watching seabirds can be one of the most productive (not to mention coolest) ways to bird in the summertime.

Two of my favorite memories were kayaking alongside a mother and duckling Common Eider about a quarter mile off of Lanesville and the "Jesus" birds. The Common Eider is one of the most common winter birds off of Cape Ann but we are at the southern edge of their breeding range so it is a real treat to see one with young. The Jesus birds are more commonly referred to as Wilson’s Storm Petrels. They are usually found in the Gulf Stream but every now and then good numbers will be seen right up to shore. The Jesus bird name is a reference to the way they feed. They walk on water.

Now I love Crane Beach. I boat, kayak, hike, and bird there year round. It is a real treasure just ten minutes by tin boat from my house. It has been and continues to be a popular boating destination. Perhaps too popular. We may have already have blown it. On Friday I received an email looking for volunteers to observe the boaters impact on migrating shorebirds. The Trustees have long kept Crane Beach open (dual usage) during Piping Plover and Least Tern breeding season and shorebird migration and for that I applaud them.

Folks, this isn’t going to be an observation in the interest of science. This is a test to see if dual usage can continue to work as a principle or if the beach is going to be closed off to boat landings and, perhaps, all human traffic. Needless to say, I did not volunteer. I was upset at the thought of losing this joy of boating to this beach but…..

No contempt prior to investigation. On Sunday I hopped in the boat and headed up to Crane beach. What I saw blew my mind. The boats were not only "around back" of the beach but were on the ocean side as well as far as the eye could see. There were over thirty people inside the wire fence set up to protect the breeding birds. One clown even brought his dog. I saw some plovers and terns but outside of a small group of Sanderling, not a single shorebird. Folks this is not right. This experience changed my mind and I am now willing to go along with a ban on boat landings.

Humans and birds can share the beach. We have done so in the past. All we need do is obey the rules in place and have a little respect for the fragility of this beautiful environment. If you go – stay out of the fenced off area – carry in, carry out – and leave your pets at home. This is a wildlife sanctuary!

Lest we think this boating problem is limited to Crane Beach we should look closer to home- to the marsh lands on the west side of the Annisquam River. Here’s the problem. Law enforcement has gotten the message through to many folks that the speed limit in the river is five miles per hour. The whole river is a no wake zone.

Unfortunately, we have many locals with jet skis and jet boats who don’t think this limit should be observed in the marsh. The cuts through the grasslands are subjected to watercraft flying through at the top speed they can do whenever there is enough water. It is only a matter of time before there is an accident involving a jet boat and a paddle boat or swimmer.

The terrific wakes of these boats in such a confined area is causing large chunks of the grasslands to break off and fall into the cuts and channels. Many species of birds that used to feed and breed there are spooked off and no longer there. Look guys, I can relate. I love speed. I have ridden an HD since 1972. I understand the attraction even though I don’t jet ski/boat. Please, if you want to do this go ahead. But strap on a pair, take to open water and stop f*cking up the neighborhood!


On bird feeding


On binoculars and spotting scopes


What’s happening, a daily compilation of observations by local birders


The local bird club


An on-line field guide


Jim B’s Online Bird Photos