FACTS ABOUT FOX KILLING AT DUXBURY BEACH AND DEBUNKING PIPING PLOVER MYTH #6

Let’s talk about the petition circulating in Duxbury to prevent wildlife officials from taking foxes and coyotes that are eating Piping Plover eggs. Many friends have sent links to the story and I apologize for taking over a week to respond.

Local persons are re-posting the story on their social media platforms unintentionally, and in the case of one, intentionally, inciting outrage at the Piping Plovers. This story has become sensationalized and taken out of context. I experienced a similar situation, that of a story about Piping Plovers being misrepresented, when last summer a Boston news channel interviewed me at Good Harbor Beach about our PiPls nesting in the parking lot. Instead of a feature about what a great job our DPW, Mayor’s administration, and community were doing in helping protect the nesting Piping Plovers that had been driven into the parking lot by dogs, it was edited as a story about GHB loosing income from lost parking spaces. In reality, our PiPl family had returned to the beach by the time all the parking spaces were needed.

Readers should know that fox and coyote hunting is permitted in Massachusetts. The 2019 hunting season dates are January 1st through February 28th, resuming November 1st and continuing through February 29th, 2020. Read More Here. Hunting is part of our culture. To be very clear, I love all animals, I LOVE foxes, and especially Red Fox. When one made a midnight visit to our backyard several weeks ago and snooped around the base of our Blue Princess holly, my husband and I were beyond excited about the prospect of them possibly denning in our garden.

Red Fox Coffins Beach

All that being said, it is sadly understandable why a number of beaches along the Northeastern Seaboard, beside Duxbury beach (including Crane Beach, Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, other Massachusetts beaches, Rhode Island beaches, and New Jersey beaches) have had to resort to predator management programs. This is the course of last resort. Please bear in mind that Eastern Coyotes, Herring Gulls, Great Black-backed Gulls, Crows, and Red Foxes are not endangered, rare, or even threatened species, as are many of the region’s nesting shorebirds.

I have seen first hand at Coffins Beach a Red Fox mom and her kit digging in the sand and coming very close to where there was a Piping Plover nest. Last year, the only nest that was at Coffins Beach was believed by Greenbelt to have been predated by fox. In 2018, at Winthrop Beach, dogs off leash, and a skunk, caused the entire colony of 150 pairs of endangered Least Terns to abandon the established nesting area and move elsewhere. The year before that, again at Winthrop Beach, a Peregrine Falcon had killed numerous chicks, both Least Tern and Piping Plover.

 

Least Tern eggs are exposed in the sand, just as are the eggs of Piping Plovers, and many other species of shorebirds.

At Crane Beach, electric fencing is used during the night to keep fox and coyote away from the PiPl and Least Tern nests. The wire exclosures that we use at Good Harbor Beach to protect the nests will only be used for as long as avian predators do not realize they can perch on the edge of the wire and eat the adults as they move in and out of the exclosure to brood the eggs.

Peregrine Falcon eating a bird and a gull waiting to snatch a few morsels. 

In the case of the Peregrine Falcon, it was relocated to the western part of the state. However, relocating mammals is not a legal option in Massachusetts. Electric fencing is not possible at all beaches. Wire exclosures are no longer used at Crane Beach because Great Horned Owls learned they could prey upon the adult Piping Plovers as they were entering and exiting the exclosure.

Killing wildlife to protect other species of wildlife is a very sensitive topic and again, is the action of last resort taken.

People often say, why not let nature takes its course. But there is really very little that is natural about beaches that were once shorebird habitat that have now become public. The reason why we have predation by Red and Gray Fox, Eastern Coyotes, Skunks, Crows, and a variety of gull species at public beaches is because they are attracted to the garbage left behind by people and there is nothing natural about that!

I urge everyone to read the following to gain a better understanding of why some beaches have had to to turn to predator management programs:

Duxbury Beach and Predator Management

Recently questions have come up regarding the predator management program on Duxbury Beach.  This is a controversial and oftentimes upsetting topic but is one of the challenges that the Duxbury Beach Reservation faces when trying to balance the many uses of the beach.

As landowners and stewards of Duxbury Beach for over 100 years, the Reservation strives to maintain a balance between protecting the natural resources of the beach, including habitat for wildlife, preserving the barrier which shelters the communities behind it, and providing use of the beach for recreational purposes including over-sand vehicles.   In order to provide use of the beach for recreation, habitat and species conservation regulations must be adhered to including predator management mandates by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

Many residents of the South Shore have visited Duxbury Beach since childhood and have likely seen big changes to the beach – both through dune and infrastructure projects and in how the beach must be managed under local, state, and federal law.

Duxbury Beach is unique is many ways, including the nesting habitat it affords to rare and protected shorebirds.  Unfortunately, Piping Plover conservation, which is regulated under the state and federal Endangered Species Acts, can come in to conflict with human interests, including development and recreation.  In order to provide greater options for beach managers working to adhere to state and federal guidelines for plover protection while providing recreational opportunities, the state of Massachusetts has a Habitat Conservation Plan under the US Fish and Wildlife Service.  The Plan allows certain “risky” activities while providing mitigation to ensure the plover population is better protected overall.  The Duxbury Beach Reservation received a sub-permit under this statewide plan to allow recreational driving on the back road and front beach in closer proximity to young plover chicks.

Under this permit allowing recreational driving, the Duxbury Beach Reservation is responsible for continuing an intensive monitoring program and providing mitigation.  As stated by Mass Wildlife, the only form of mitigation acceptable under the US Fish and Wildlife permit is lethal predator control, because it has the highest likelihood of offsetting the potential loss.

Predator management is not the Reservation’s first option and is carefully considered each year and on a case by case basis.  The predator management program has been in place on Duxbury Beach for 8 years.  For comparison, predator management has occurred on beaches in the state of Massachusetts for over 13 years.  The plan on Duxbury Beach has undergone continuance debate and study throughout its tenure, with examination by multiple agencies and several opportunities for public comment.

The Duxbury Beach predator management program design was and continues to be based on extensive data collected on the beach on predator presence and egg and chick loss to ensure the program targets those species that are responsible for heavy losses.  Fox have been removed 3 of the past 8 years that a predator management program has been in place, and every year the number removed has been far, far fewer than the numbers suggested on social media.  This targeted removal during a limited time of year has been successful in providing two rare and protected species, the Piping Plover and Least Tern, a window of opportunity to nest and raise young on some of the little remaining nesting habitat on the east coast.  It has also afforded thousands of visitors the chance to come and enjoy the beach.

Instituting a predator management program is controversial, challenging, often upsetting, and may even seem counter-intuitive to many.  Why remove one species so that another may succeed?  Aren’t there other options?

While it may seem simple to “let nature take its course” we do not operate in an entirely “natural” system.  With the removal of large predators, such as wolves, from this area by the mid-20th century, mid-sized predators, including fox, coyote, and raccoons, were able to extend their ranges and increase in population in these areas.  There are communities of hundreds of homes flanking Duxbury Beach that provide ample habitat for species like red fox that can do very well in suburban and even urban areas while other species, like the plovers and terns, have had habitat regularly destroyed by development.

Today, the largest cause of plover and tern egg and chick loss on Duxbury Beach, and many other beaches statewide, is predation by species whose populations are not in jeopardy.  Unfortunately, the common predators on Duxbury Beach, including the larger mammals (fox and coyote) and avian predators (crow and gull) are more likely to be attracted to the beach due to trash. There are staff on Duxbury Beach in the summer to pick up trash on the beach, road, and parking lots in the hopes of making the beach less attractive to animals like fox.  With communities at the far end of the beach it is impossible to limit the attractiveness of Duxbury Beach to predators with large ranges. There are very few suitable denning spots on the beach and most of the large mammals come to the beach from mainland Duxbury and Marshfield where they find ample denning spots under houses, sheds, etc.

Unfortunately, relocation of individual predators is not an option for multiple reasons:

  • It is illegal under Massachusetts law to capture and relocate wildlife off your property
  • Conflict, stress, or death caused due to intrusion into an existing individual’s territory
  • Harm to the individuals removed from their territory and a struggle to find food and shelter. Humans do not always recognize appropriate habitats for wildlife and put them in bad locations.
  • Spread of disease
  • Disruption of ecological processes by introducing a new species or more individuals to an area
  • The problem is not solved, but moved to a new location

Many have questioned why Duxbury Beach does not use “wire cages” around plover nests as are sometimes seen on other beaches.  These cages are predator exclosures and are oftentimes an unsuccessful and harmful tool. Unfortunately, predators (including fox, raptors, crow, and others) can target exclosures and kill adults when they switch off the nest. This is more detrimental to plover conservation than losing eggs or chicks because of the loss of future reproductive potential of the breeding adult. Predator exclosure use is highly dependent on beach, nesting site, and predator suite.   On Duxbury Beach it is not typically feasible to use exclosures, however, it is carefully considered. In addition, exclosures do not work for Least Tern nests as they are colonial nesters and fly to and from the nest.

In some cases, electric fencing can be used around plover and/or tern nesting areas. While this is only helpful in detracting large, mammalian predators, it does work on some beaches. Unfortunately, given the span, configuration, and location (dynamic beach), electric fencing is not feasible on Duxbury Beach.

This is not an easy topic and one that is discussed and voted on annually by the Reservation’s board. The Reservation will continue to collect and analyze data and assess all possible options for conservation and site management in order to protect the natural resources of the beach and maintain the protective barrier, while providing access for recreation where possible.  The Reservation will also continue to work with state and federal regulators to find the best options for protection on Duxbury Beach in order to adhere to the laws we must operate under.  We appreciate everyone who has taken the time to learn more about the work and understand that we are doing our upmost to strike a balance between the many uses of Duxbury Beach.

If you are interested in learning more about statewide shorebird conservation efforts or predator management work, we recommend reaching out to the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

OUR THIRD GOOD HARBOR BEACH PIPING PLOVER CHICK WAS KILLED THIS MORNING

We are so very sorry to share that the third chick was killed this morning. The seven-day-old chick was taken and eaten by a very large crow that swooped in unexpectedly, as witnessed by the volunteer monitors.

One week ago today all four Good Harbor Beach Piping Plovers hatched in the parking lot. We celebrated, but also knew that the really hard part was yet to come. Monitoring tiny marshmallow sized fluff balls, made the color of their surroundings, is like looking for sand upon sand. To do this several hours at a time is no small feat, made even more challenging on Gloucester’s busiest of beaches.

I would like to give a huge shout out and thank you to all our super dedicated PiPl monitors. Know that they are doing the very best they can to fend off predators of every kind, ill mannered people, astronomically high tides, diminished beach, people who have been drinking in the hot sun all day, garbage left behind on the beach (which attracts crows and gulls), and every other creepy thing you can think of. The core group is putting in many hours, are sunburnt, and neglecting their families.

A terrible mishap of death or injury to a chick could happen on anyone of our shifts. When you see a PiPl monitor at GHB, stop and feel free to ask questions about the plovers, and please thank them for their dedication. I honestly hope I don’t see one more facebook post/comment blaming the monitors about how we are not doing enough to keep the chicks safe and not reporting enough about the scofflaws. It is just plain cruel. Thank you. 

Our one remaining chick, the one volunteer monitor Heather Hall calls Pip, is the smallest of the hatchlings and the one we think hatched last. This afternoon Mom was keeping watchful eye while Pip was foraging between the foot of the dunes and line of folks at the rope’s edge.

Climbing Mount Washington

Mama Plover and Pip

Early this morning when we still had both chicks.
 

HELLO HEDWIG! WHAT ARE YOU EATING? SNOWY OWL WEEKEND UPDATE -By Kim Smith

Hedwig has been seen daily along the backshore, mostly laying low during the day. She has become quite expert in fooling the crows as to her whereabouts.

Fog, snow, rain, or sunshine, she isn’t deterred much from her routine of sleeping, resting, and grooming during the day, in preparation for an evening of hunting.

Early this week I watched in amazement as Hedwig swooped down from her perch and flew hundreds of feet directly to the rocks and in between crevasses. She resurfaced with a small mammal in her mouth and ate it very quickly–from the time she flew off her perch until she gave a satisfied lick of her beak could not have taken more than three minutes. I felt very fortunate to have witnessed a glimpse of her hunting prowess, albeit all too brief.

Perhaps the tail is too long for a mouse or rat and too short for a vole, but perhaps not. Small mammal caretaker Erin Whitmore wrote with her suggestion. What do you think Hedwig is eating?Hedwig eating a black and white sea duck.

Again, tonight she flew off her perch, this time heading out to sea. In mere minutes she returned with a sea duck of some sort and proceeded to eviscerate, much to the thrill of her Sunday evening fan club. The lighting was low and I was mostly filming, but did manage a few stills. The duck was black and white and as she mostly sat on her catch while eating, it was difficult to determine which species. Without a crow in sight (as they had surely settled for the night), Hedwig ate well into the early evening.

The feathers were flying! Hedwig with feathers on her face but it’s almost too dark to see.

She’s finding the eating here in Gloucester excellent, but with the warm weather predicted for the upcoming week, I wonder if Hedwig will stay or that will be a cue to depart for the Arctic.

Please don’t get electrocuted Hedwig, as happened recently to a Snowy in southern Massachusetts!

RATS, RATS, AND MORE RATS! SNOWY OWL HEDWIG WEEKEND UPDATE #2 -By Kim Smith

Hedwig was observed Saturday morning, when repeated harassment by a flock of crows sent her hiding. She reappeared Saturday afternoon, and was again seen Sunday morning in the drizzle, not too far from where she was perched Saturday evening. Later Sunday afternoon she slept and rested in the pouring rain.

Hedwig sleeping in the rain (thank you to Arly Pett for letting me know she was out in the rain!)

That she stays in a highly localized winter territory seems in keeping with known Snowy Owl behavior traits. I read that during the summer season in the Arctic, male Snowies hunt over hundreds of miles, whereas female Snowies typically hunt within a much smaller range. She has been observed eating sea ducks and rabbits and there are plenty of rat holes along the backshore rocks.

Both rats and lemmings (the Snowies super food in the Arctic) belong to the order Rodentia. From wiki, “A lemming is a small rodent usually found in or near the Arctic in tundra biomes. Lemmings are subnivean animals. They make up the subfamily Arcicolinae together with voles and muskrats which forms part of the superfamily Muroidea which also includes rats, mice, hamsters, and gerbils.”

Lemming (Lemmini)

Often Hedwig has been seen flying straight out over the water towards Twin Lights. I wondered, if she is hunting there, does Thacher Island have a rat population. Thacher Island Association president Paul St. Germain answers that question for our readers, 

“Hi Kim, there are lots of rats on Thacher mostly in the shore line rocks. We don’t see them often but know they are there. I discovered a bunch in the cellar of the keeper house making their nest in an old tarp. I would love to see Hedwig out there but we don’t go out in the winter. Have never seen snowy owls in the summer.” 

Great info and thanks to Paul for sharing that! A Snowy Owl has been seen on the rocks in Rockport, across the strait, opposite Twin Lights, and wonder if it is our Hedwig.

Rat and Lemming photos courtesy wiki commons media

This brings up the topic, what to do if you have a rat problem. The absolute worst way to control rats is with rat poison, namely for the sake of beautiful predatory birds such as Snowy Owls, falcons, hawks, and eagles. Birds that ingest rats that have been poisoned with rat poison will generally become gravely ill and die. Secondly, it is a cruel, slow death for the rat. They will usually go back to their nest to die. If that nest is located behind a wall in your home, you will smell that unmistakeable horrendous smell for many months. Thirdly, rat poison is only 60 percent effective. I wonder if the rats that survive rat poison will go on to breed super rats.

The best way to avoid having to kill a rat is to make sure they cannot gain access to your home or business by regularly inspecting soffits and woodwork for holes. Old-fashioned snap traps and live trapping continue to be the most effective way to rid your home or business of rats.

Saturday I stopped to say hello to a group of birders flocked together along the backshore who had traveled all the way from western Mass. They were observing Grebes, Buffleheads, and a Common Murre. And a Puffin had been spotted! I asked if they were planning to go to any of our local restaurants for lunch, but they had packed lunches. One Mom shared that an expert from Audubon told the group that there were at least a “dozen Snowy Owls” on Bass Rocks. Bananas! I have to say that it makes me hoppin’ mad when folks spread misinformation about our local wildlife. I gently told her that no, there were not a dozen owls, but that if she and her group waited until late afternoon, they might catch sight of Hedwig.

Twin Lights from a Snowy Owl POV

 

 

 

 

 

SNOWY OWL HEDWIG UPDATE -BY KIM SMITH

Last weekend was a busy one for Hedwig. She is attracting crowds from all around the Boston area. I checked in on her Monday afternoon on my return from Brooklyn and according to a photographer friend she had a very rough day with the crows. One actually hit her hard in the head. She left Bass Rocks Monday evening and I didn’t see her the rest of the week until this morning.

Found this morning with messy face and talons, tidying up from a morning hunt.

A single crow came by to harass her and unlike previous incidents, where I have seen here hold her ground, she left her post immediately and flew to a very cool super secret hiding place. I have never seen her do this before but am so impressed with her ingenuity. She is safe from both crows and crowds in this locale.

Hedwig returned to the railings at the end of the day. After first fluffing and poohing she took off over the water and headed straight toward Twin Lights. I imagine there is good hunting on Thacher Island 🙂

Heading off to hunt late day 

Sleeping in the afternoon sun

SNOWY OWL AERIAL FIGHT -By Kim Smith

Snowy Owl Aerial FightHedwig arrived at Bass Rocks with the rising sun. Her face was smudged with blood from what I imagine was a satisfying breakfast. Off and on throughout the day, in between naps, she preened and groomed. By the end of afternoon her facial feathers were smooth and white.

After a day of grooming and resting, notice how much cleaner her face is at day’s end.A horde of crows arrived to harass Hedwig but she held her ground.

Hedwig crouching down while the crows were dive bombing

She jumped from the upper rock down to the lower rock just prior to taking off.

Late in the day, about the time when she would ordinarily take off to hunt, a cell phone person crept out onto the rocks, getting way to close to her. Hedwig was visibly uncomfortable and took off over the water. Suddenly and seeming from out of nowhere, Bubo came flying towards her. An aerial skirmish ensued but with no real contact. The battle appeared to be about establishing territory. Although taking place out over the water in the distance nevertheless, you can see the owl’s facial expressions were incredible; click on the photos to see larger images.

Bubo took over the rocky area near to where had been Hedwig’s perch for the day, while she flew further down the rocks.  

She perched on the the rocky beach, when the same cell phone person again got way too close, and caused her to flush a second time.

Perhaps this was just an average day in a Snowy Owl’s life but I was reminded once again that nearly every moment of a wild creature’s life is a struggle to survive.

SNOWY OWL WATCHING TIPS: The following are some helpful tips for watching Snowy Owls.

  1. Watch from a comfortable distance–comfortable for the bird that is. Nothing makes the Owls more stressed than people getting too close.
  2. Please keep children from throwing rocks towards the Snowy or anywhere within the vicinity of the Owl.
  3. Please don’t allow dogs to play near the Snowies.
  4. There have been reports of Snowies flying into cars. They often fly low when flushed and it is easy to understand why this may happen, especially as the Snowies are drawing so much traffic. Please be on the look out when you are in known Snowy Owl territory.
  5. Slamming doors, radios blasting, barking dogs, and loud mufflers all stress the Snowies.

ARE THESE VIALS DRUG PARAPHERNALIA, AND IF NOT, WHAT?

IMG_9811The other morning at the beach I was about to step out of my car barefoot when I looked down at the curbside to see about twenty of these small, cigarette but-sized glass vials littered around the curb. I fortunately stopped before putting my foot down in the glass in what could have a been yucky cut. Litter comes in all shapes and sizes but I was also wondering what they are. Please write if you know. Thank you!IMG_9810

Speaking of litter, that very same morning, while I was filming a group of crows pulling trash across the road and tearing up the MacDonald’s to-go boxes to get to the food remaining within, I looked up from the footbridge and saw a man in his car dumping a shopping bag full of food smack dab in the middle of Nautilus Road (the road that runs along Good Harbor). I stopped him and asked him why he did that. He shook his fist in my face and ironically, considering what I had just been filming, hollered that the crows and the gulls have to eat to.

So, to anyone who may be under the notion that crows and beach gulls do not get enough to eat of their own volition, I can assure you that they do, and that they are probably two of the best fed species on Planet Earth.

Gull and Beach Garbage copyright Kim SmithKeep Cape Ann Beautiful ~ Please Don’t Litter

Video: Good Harbor Beach Sunrise

Good Harbor Beach, with Great Blue Heron and mini time-lapse sunrise towards the end.

Oftentimes I see herons, gulls, and crows fishing peaceably together at daybreak. Not this morning! The heron vigorously defends its territory, while the crow has a reputation for stealing what others catch, and both are very hungry. Look for the heron eating an eel at about @1 minute 40 seconds.

No borrowed music in this mini film; the sound of crickets, shorebirds, surf, and train whistle make a song of their own, and I really wanted the heron’s loud quarking heard. Creating these mini films helps to organize B-roll for my Monarch film and the next daybreak video is the foggy morning sunrise with the whimbrels.