Sunday, May 29, 2011

Day 25: Marsh hotness

Although the mercury never rose above 77, marshing felt slavishly hot today. Maybe it's because I'd spent so many months marshing in this weather. Winter was long, spring lasted two days and now, it's summer. Clearing this was my task:

The heat necessitated frequent wildlife-spotting jaunts. Clockwise from upper left: spotted sandpiper, my first sighting of this species in the marsh; osprey gliding directly over the platform, carrying what looked like a respectable bluefish; black-bellied plover and sanderlings on the bayside; a least tern which hovered around the marsh sniping killifish throughout the day.

I also added a killdeer to the marsh list, and an unfortunate diamondback terrapin Malaclemys terrapin hatchling. The head and forelimbs had been eaten. This might have been the work of the resident green heron. I would have preferred to see one in life, but it's encouraging to know these salt marsh reptiles are around.

The low water also exposed swarms of what I think are juvenile killifish, the product of the mass spawning migrations over the past months.

Shamefully, the heat stifled my cleanup progress to the point of rendering an after-shot useless. After feeding the mosquitoes until sunset, I headed home.

Saturday, May 28, 2011
High of 77, average wind S @ 10 MPH, .6 low tide @ 11:18 AM. Moon 22% visible.
Low tide water level recorded at 4 inch mark; high tide at 5 inch mark.
Birds seen in marsh: mallard, dove, starling, red winged blackbird, cardinal, willet, spotted sandpiper, killdeer, green heron, osprey, common tern, least tern, oystercatcher, crow
Birds seen in bay: black brant, black-bellied plover, sanderling, merganser
Other: dead diamondback terrapin

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Horseshoe Cam Test

The GoPro Hero is palm-sized camera designed for extreme sports, but I wanted to try it for underwater wildlife filmmaking. Luckily for me, the horseshoe crabs were grateful for being rescued and allowed me to test it on them. I used two rubber bands to mount a GoPro to the carapace for a 'horseshoe-eye-view' of the marsh and bay. The camera is neutrally buoyant and had no discernible effect on locomotion. After several minutes the horseshoe was relieved.

Many thanks to Caspar for letting me borrow his GoPro Hero. Music by Richard D. James aka Aphex Twin.

Day 24: Close doesn't count in horseshoes...

I spent the first half of the day emancipating horseshoe crabs. On incoming tides they penetrate the farthest corners of the marsh, as evidenced by their tail trails and my own observations. When the water recedes they are left high and dry, often stuck behind debris, or entangled in vegetation. I searched for survivors and returned them to the bay. But for many, the marsh is a death trap. Some were found flipped over with their gills torn out.

Seagulls are known to scavenge overturned horseshoes on the beach. But there seems to be a more enterprising horseshoe-eater in the marsh. Alongside the main channel I found a highway of raccoon tracks, here photographed to look ominous and wolverine-like.

Could it be that raccoons seek out stranded horseshoe crabs and flip them over to get at the soft bits? It seems unlikely that seagulls have the dexterity or muscle to flip a horseshoe, and there are no horseshoe-flipping waves inside the marsh. Until further evidence reveals itself the mystery will haunt Rocky Point.

A great egret made three visits over six hours. Each time it was fishing by the marshy eastern flats, where it's easier to sneak up on unsuspecting fish.

Common terns have also returned, making frequent fly-overs. Several were seen feeding at the mouth of the marsh.

Walking back from the bay I stumbled across a colony of Uca pugilator, the sand fiddler crab. Here's a particularly diesel fellow and his woman.

They feed by scooping sand into their mouths to filter microorganisms. They then spit out the ball of sand. Feeding this way they accumulate massive piles of sand balls, which betray the location of their burrows. Apparently, the females can eat twice as fast, since the male's gargantuan left pincer is useless as a sand scooper.

While cleaning out the marsh I turned around to find two pairs of binoculars staring back at me. They were locals Andrea and Cindy, who have been birding this marsh for several years. They were looking for the resident willets, which they saw nesting here last year. While they didn't find any willets, they did discover a few more stranded horseshoes, which they returned to the bay.

I finished the day in the side channel, clearing the horseshoe's escape route for the next high tide.

High of 72, average wind SE @ 6 MPH, 5.0 high tide @ 11:48 AM. Moon 85% visible.
Water level recorded at 9 inch mark.
Three horseshoe crabs rescued from the west side of marsh.
Birds seen in marsh: great egret, mallard, dove, starling, red winged blackbird, grackle, cardinal, willet, green heron, osprey, common tern, turkey vulture, oystercatcher, crow
Birds seen in bay: black brant
Other: striped killifish, mummichog, sand fiddler crab, ? sp. hermit crab. Possible green crab seen near culvert, approx. 5" wide across carapace

Friday, May 13, 2011

Day 23: Spring Explodes

Back in the wet after a week-long vacation. The first order of business was to re-install the "enticement sticks" on the osprey platform. This time with wind-defying twine. A bit later one osprey made a fly-by. Hopefully he/she will return to finish the installation and lay claim.

The incoming tide swept through with a force I'd not yet witnessed at the marsh. Here are both sides of the mouth at peak tide.

Killifish swirled by thousands at the mouth before streaming into the marsh.

They are striped killifish, Fundulus majalis. The males are striped vertically and the females horizontally.

I found it curious that some had bright yellow tails. They appeared to be larger, and were only seen during the later part of the day.

About an hour before high tide the horseshoe crabs began trickling in.

I found three mating pairs. The smaller males piggybacked on the hulking females around the marsh before landing in some secluded spot, usually beneath logs or floating debris.

At least one pair made it all the way to the culvert. Numerous lines in the sand betrayed their circuitous paths. I watched one lonely male do pirouettes for several minutes before beelining for my boot. If he was looking for love he did not find it there.

The only other arthropod observed was the invasive Cancer beenybabis. Marsh castaways no longer surprise me but this was just too perfect.

The birds were also present in abundance. A pair of black bellied plovers Pluvialis squatarola lingered on the beach side.

And our resident green heron Butorides virescens hung around the marsh banks throughout the day.

Two pairs of willet, Tringa semipalmata, have also made Rocky Point their home.

Unlike the aforementioned birds they actually tolerated my presence. They meandered throughout the marsh but seemed to favor the heavy spartina patches nearest the mouth. I could have tracked their comings and goings all day. Anyone watching might have mistaken me for - I wince - a birder. But between stalking jaunts I did manage to do a little work.

High of 68, average wind SE @ 8 MPH, 5.6 high tide @ 04:06 PM. Moon 61% visible.
Water level recorded at 18 inch mark.
Three mating horseshoe crabs observed.
Birds seen in marsh: mallard, starling, red winged blackbird, grackle, yellow warbler, willet, sanderling, green heron, osprey, common tern
Birds seen in bay: black brant, Canadian geese, oystercatcher, semipalmated plover

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Horseshoes Arrive

On Thursday, 5/5, Tony reported horseshoe crabs mating in the marsh. The water level was at the 9.5" mark. I hope to stake out the mouth on the next full moon to see if more come in. There have also been unconfirmed clapper rail and willet sightings in the marsh. I'll be back Thursday 5/12.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Fish Trapping

With the gauntlet of tires, boards and trash largely eradicated from the marsh, a lot more fish are taking up residence. As a consequence, so are the birds that eat them. This is quantifiable progress for Rocky Point.

But what kind of fish are swimming in the marsh? Intrigued by my fish photos, Steve Finn of the USFWS brought a fish trap with him last week during our Earth Day clean up. After baiting it with clams (leftover striper bait), Brian tossed it out to soak.

An hour later the moment of truth arrived. Tony did the honors.

The trap was a quarter-full.

The verdict? All mummichogs and one four-spine stickleback. The stickles are hard to see out of water.

The fish were duly set free. As the marsh drained it became increasingly fishable for the birds. Two days later, when the water was at it's lowest point (5/3) Tony visited the marsh and saw a great egret feasting on an eel. The life list grows.

photos by Irene Hess and Steve Finn