The Birds of Barnstable Harbor – Plovers

Piping Plover, Black-bellied Plover, Semipalmated Plover, and American Golden-Plover

Plovers are a family of big-eyed, short billed shorebirds. Globally, there are over 60 species of plover, making them the second largest family of shorebirds after the sandpipers. Most likely, one of the first thoughts that comes to mind when you hear the word “plover” has to do with beach closures and disappointed vacationers, which concerns the endangered Piping Plover. But the Piping Plover is only one of several plover species in the region.

Piping Plover. Photo by Ken Morton.

Plovers are cuter than sandpipers – they have bigger eyes and are rounder and less angular than sandpipers. Their bills are short, straight, and blunt, and their feeding strategy differs fundamentally from their longer-billed sandpiper cousins. Typical plover feeding strategy involves running for a short distance and periodically stopping with head held high, scanning the ground for movement and abruptly pecking the surface if they detect motion. The sandpipers, in contrast, feed by probing in the sand and feeling pray with their long, tactile bills.

Plovers nest in shallows scrape usually lined with shells or pebbles and their eggs look exactly like these same pebbles. The very effectively camouflaged chicks are precocial, meaning that they are able to fend for themselves more or less immediately after they hatch, and leave the vicinity of the nest soon after hatching.

Plover comes from the Latin pluvarius meaning “rain.” Reasons for the association with rain are speculative and includes such things as that they are more easily caught in rainy weather, that they like rainy places, that they arrive during the rainy season, that elements of their plumage look like rain drops, and that their behavior changes when they are anticipating rain. Ultimately, it seems that no one knows how these species of shorebird came to be associated with rain.

Piping Plover (adults and chicks). Photo by Ken Morton.

I’ve observed four species of plover in Barnstable Harbor. The one most people know about is the Piping Plover – a charming, melodic, small and seriously endangered species best known for causing beach closures during their early summer nesting season.

The second and third species are Black-bellied Plover and Semipalmated Plover. The Black-bellied Plover – named after the black underparts of their breeding plumage – is the largest American plover and, in contrast to the Piping, is common and fairly ubiquitous in Barnstable Harbor. As is the Semipalmated Plover – named for their “half palm” or partially webbed feet – which is intermediate in size between the Piping and Black-bellied and is recognizable by its black “necklace.”

Black-bellied Plover. Photo by Ken Morton.

The fourth species is the American Golden-Plover, only one of which have I ever seen in the Harbor. Spotting this bird and identifying it was one of the best moments I’ve had birding. I was looking along a section of shoreline on the north side of Sandy Neck at a high tide crowd of thousands of birds including hundreds of Black-bellied Plovers in various plumages. In the midst of this teeming mass of birds of many species one stood out slightly because it was the only one with a white eyebrow. This was my first sighting of a Golden-Plover. The bird does not stand out much and isn’t one that makes people gasp at its beauty. But being able to pick out this single member of its species in a throng of thousands of birds of a dozen or so species of shorebirds, gulls and terns was satisfying in a way that will always stick with me and is one of the reasons I love to bird.

Black-bellied Plover. Photo by Ken Morton.

Entirely in keeping with my experience, the guides say that the American Golden-Plover is an uncommon visitor to this area, usually seen as a single individual among other shorebirds or after strong winds. It turns out it nearly suffered the same fate as the Passenger Pigeon – extinction – and was incredibly abundant until, in naturalist Edward Howe Forbush’s words, it was “unremittingly slaughtered” in the early 20th century.

Plovers are one of the families of species wherein the parents’ will feign an injury to lure predators away from the nest. Forbush, in his field notes on Piping Plovers, writes: “I was watching a pair of adults trying to lead me away from their young. They threw themselves on the ground breast downward and drooping the flight-feathers or primaries, raised and agitated the secondaries until the motion resembled the fluttering pinions of young birds; meantime pushing themselves along with their feet. As the wings were not spread, the primaries were not noticeable and so the imitation of the struggles of the helpless young was complete.” [Forbush, 1939]

Semipalmated Plover. Photo by Ken Morton.

Piping Plovers are best known, regrettably, for being endangered, protected and the cause of inconvenient and disappointing mandatory beach closures. Forbush wrote in 1939 that “In the latter part of the nineteenth century the dove-like little Piping Plover came very near extirpation on most of the Atlantic Coast. Destroyed by spring and summer shooting, it had become rare where once it was abundant and was rapidly disappearing, when the Massachusetts Legislature enacted a law giving it protection at all times.

My personal opinion is that given a choice between the recreational activities of humans and the survival of a species, I would emphatically choose the survival of the birds. The current debate notwithstanding, we have come a long way as we learn from this account account from Forbush early in the last century: “In August I have seen the downy young, only a few days from the egg, running along the beach, while men and boys who ought to have ‘known better’ were engaged in the pleasant (and then lawful) recreation of shooting the solicitous parents, whose anxiety for the little ones brought them within gunshot.” [Forbush, 1916]

Semipalmated Plover. Photo by Ken Morton.

Semipalmated Plovers, on the other hand, are relatively abundant now, though they were also slaughtered, especially after the more desirable to shoot shorebirds started to become rare through over hunting. They are a little bit larger than Piping, but only slightly less endearing to observe. Semipalmated Plovers can be seen running rapidly about in different directions with heads up, often pausing and standing still as if in thought before stabbing at a morsel they’ve detected on the sand.

Black-bellied Plovers, the giants of the plover species, are yet more common still – they are by far the most abundant plover species in Barnstable Harbor and more are found around Cape Cod than anywhere else in New England. They are identifiable in flight by their clearly visible black ‘armpit’. And their springtime breeding plumage – the black belly and breast – is striking.

American Golden-Plover. Photo via Wikipedia.

Forbush describes a typical Black-bellied Plover scenario: “With the ebbing tide thousands of acres of Cape Cod Bay marshes and flats are laid bare. In late May these flats are the haunts of myriads of shore birds and marsh birds. At high water the shorebirds scatter over the higher parts of the marsh or the upper beaches, but when the tide is out their table is spread, and then they gather on the flats, scattering here and there, and following the receding brine to pick up what the retiring sea has left. Then their flocks spread over the flats for miles and miles.” [Forbush, 1939]

During the early summer and again in the late summer, Barnstable Harbor is temporary home to many hundreds, if not thousands, of Plovers and other shorebirds. Seeing an assortment of species is a virtual guarantee if you are able to be in the right place at the right time, which is easily done if you book an ecotour on the Horseshoe Crab.

Low Tide Birding Tour Monday May 20

On Monday May 20th, we’re going to see a completely different side of Barnstable Harbor on a low tide ecotour! After a cruise around the point of Sandy Neck, we’ll be disembarking from The Horseshoe Crab and walking around on one or more of the enormous sand and mud flats that are uncovered when the water is low. Bring appropriate footwear – even if it’s a warm day, the wet sand and shallow pools will be chilly – and be ready for some light exertion as we wander around the flats.

Our main objective will be to get good looks at the nearly two dozen possible species of birds that will be feeding in the shallow water, on the rocky beaches, or by probing in the mud. We’ll have spotting scopes so that we can get even better views without having to get too close to the birds. We encourage you to bring your binoculars and scopes, too.

Bird species we may see include: Osprey, Common Tern, Least Tern, American Oystercatcher, Piping Plover, Black-bellied Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, Greater Yellowlegs, Willet, Dunlin, Least Sandpiper, Sanderling, Double-crested Cormorant, four species of gull and more.

We hope to see you at 1pm, Monday, May 20th on The Crab! Purchase tickets online!


The Birds of Barnstable Harbor – Herons

Great Blue Heron and Green Heron

I should clarify a couple of terms before we get further into this series of essays. There are many informal, imprecise words that group various bird species together. These can be a mix of useful and confusing. In our last installment of The Birds of Barnstable Harbor, we wrote about gulls and pointed out that the word “seagull” doesn’t actually refer to a particular species of bird. But it’s still a useful word in an informal context.

Great Blue Heron (Bombay Hook - not Barnstable Harbor)
Great Blue Heron. Photo by Ken Morton.

We also talk about “waterbirds,” “seabirds,” “woodland birds,” and “tropical birds” which are informal – non-scientific – terms for all the birds that live in a particular habitat or region. But shorebirds andwading birds are precisely defined words used by serious birders and ornithologists: shorebirds are the sandpipers, plovers, dowitchers, and oystercatchers, in addition to other species not found in Barnstable Harbor; wading birds are the herons, egrets, bitterns, night-herons, and, again, a number of other species found elsewhere. These birds are grouped together because of their genetic relationships as well as their set of shared physical attributes, behaviors and habitats.

Green Heron on mudflat
Green Heron. Photo by Ken Morton.

The common wading birds of Barnstable Harbor, though their numbers vary throughout the year and they are not all equally easy to see, are Great Blue Heron, Green Heron, discussed here, andGreat Egret, Snowy Egret, Black-crowned Night-Heron, and American Bittern. Worldwide, there are 62 species of herons and bitterns . All herons are long-legged, long-necked, long-billed birds with broad wings and short tails.

Diana Wells, in her book 100 Birds and How They Got Their Names, writes “The name ‘heron’ probably derives from the Old English hragra, imitative of their harsh cry. Until the seventeenth century they were often called ‘heronshaw’ or ‘henshaw’…. When Shakespeare’s Hamlet was apparently losing his mind he said he could still distinguish ‘a hawk from a handsaw,’ meaning a heron.”

Great Blue Heron looking prehistoric on tree
Great Blue Heron. Photo by Ken Morton.

Most bird field guides are arranged in the same sequence – the same evolutionary or ornithological order: the birds that evolved first are at the beginning and the most recently evolved at the end. Herons are near the beginning. When flying they look like pterodactyls, we like to say, and, while none of us really knows what a pterodactyl in flight looks like, there may be an element of truth to this intuition. The details are murky, but there is an emerging consensus that not only are birds descendants of dinosaurs, but furthermore that they are dinosaurs.

A special feature of herons is that they do not have a preening gland. Instead they have ‘pulviplumes,’ feathers that disintegrate at the tip, creating a cleansing powder which the bird uses for removing oil, grease, and slime from their feathers. This type of feather is never shed and continues to grow from the base throughout the life of the bird.

Great Blue Heron poised to strike
Great Blue Heron. Photo by Ken Morton.

Besides osprey and the various gulls and terns, the Great Blue Heron is as close as we come to a sure thing when it comes to seeing birds in Barnstable Harbor. They are beautiful, elegant and easy to spot. They are the largest heron in North America standing at nearly four feet tall and having a wingspan of over six feet. Audubon described them as walking “majestically, with firmness and great elegance.” Pete Dunne writes that “the bird flies as if dipping its wingtips into an invisible cauldron of air.”

Here is a description of how they catch their food: “Much of this fishing the Heron does without stirring from the position he takes in shallow water among reeds or near the shore. Motionless as a statue he stands, his long neck doubled into a flattened S and his keen eyes searching the water nearby. As a frog or fish approaches he holds his rigid position until the creature comes within striking range, and the Heron knows what that is to a small fraction of an inch. Then suddenly the curved neck straightens out and simultaneously the long, rapier-like bill shoots downward with a stroke which is quicker than the eye can follow and seldom misses its mark. In a second the fish or frog has disappeared, and the fisherman has resumed his statuesque pose.” [Pearson, 1936]

Great Blue Heron
Great Blue Heron. Photo by Ken Morton.

They have neck vertebrae of unequal length, which is why they carry their necks in an S-shape when flying and often while at rest and it is this feature that lets them shoot their head and bill forward with such great speed.

Great Blue Herons in Great Marsh
Great Blue Heron. Photo by Ken Morton.

The Green Heron is a personal favorite: not hard to find if you know where to look and, looking through binoculars on a sunny day, one of the most beautiful birds you’ll see in this area. It’s also an example of a fairly common bird whose existence I was entirely unaware of until I became interested in birds. Forbush wrote in 1939, Green Heron, “the smallest of our true herons, is commonly startled from its retreats by rowers, fisherman or idlers who frequent our lakes and waterways. Its usual manner of fishing is to steal carefully upon its prey with head drawn in and to strike like a flash when the proper moment arrives.”

Writing around the same time as Forbush, Pearson states: “Though a comparatively small Heron, the Green Heron is perhaps the best known member of his family in this country, and probably most people who see him dismiss him as a gawky, awkward, and rather stupid bird with habits which are not exactly tidy. This is because he is usually seen when he utters his harsh alarm note and flops clumsily along to a nearby perch, where he stretches his neck, jerks his tail, and gazes around in a fuddle-headed manner.” [Pearson, 1936]

Green Heron looking left
Green Heron. Photo by Ken Morton.

Frankly, I don’t agree with this description pretty much in its entirety. At least around the Cape, the Great Blue Heron is clearly the better known bird. Even before I developed my interest in birds, I knew about and appreciated seeing the Great Blue. But I didn’t even know there was such a species as the Green Heron. Now that I’ve spent some time observing the Green Heron, especially along the banks of the marsh in Maraspin Creek from the Millway bridge, I see an elegant, skillful, and very beautiful bird.

But Pearson’s account continues: “Those who really know the bird, however, realize that when he is about his business of catching fish, frogs, salamanders, and the like, he is very far from stupid or clumsy. Then he steps along in the shallow water or through the weeds with true Heron stealth, and the thrust of his long bill, as he seizes his prey, is as accurate as and a great deal quicker than that of an expert swordsman.” [Pearson, 1936] This description is more in keeping with my experience.

Green Heron where it likes to hunt
Green Heron. Photo by Ken Morton.

Writing in the era when birds were generally understood as either something to kill and eat or something to kill and not eat, Arthur Cleveland Bent, in Life Histories of North American Marsh Birds argued that “The green heron is too interesting a bird to be used for a pot hunter’s target as is often the case. He who is fortunate as to have a breeding place for this bird near him should zealously guard it and he will learn many interesting and amusing traits and will be well rewarded.” [Bent, 1926]

I’ll let Longfellow have the last word:

The Herons of Elmwood, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Warm and still is the summer night,
As here by the river’s brink I wander;
White overhead are the stars, and white
The glimmering lamps on the hillside yonder.

Silent are all the sounds of day;
Nothing I hear but the chirp of crickets,
And the cry of the herons winging their way
O’er the poet’s house in the Elmwood thickets.

Call to him, herons, as slowly you pass
To your roosts in the haunts of the exiled thrushes,
Sing him the song of the green morass;
And the tides that water the reeds and rushes.

Sing him the mystical Song of the Hern,
And the secret that baffles our utmost seeking;
For only a sound of lament we discern,
And cannot interpret the words you are speaking.

Sing of the air, and the wild delight
Of wings that uplift and winds that uphold you,
The joy of freedom, the rapture of flight
Through the drift of the floating mists that infold you.

Of the landscape lying so far below,
With its towns and rivers and desert places;
And the splendor of light above, and the glow
Of the limitless, blue, ethereal spaces.

Ask him if songs of the Troubadours,
Or of Minnesingers in old black-letter,
Sound in his ears more sweet than yours,
And if yours are not sweeter and wilder and better.

Sing to him, say to him, here at his gate,
Where the boughs of the stately elms are meeting,
Some one hath lingered to meditate,
And send him unseen this friendly greeting;

That many another hath done the same,
Though not by a sound was the silence broken;
The surest pledge of a deathless name
Is the silent homage of thoughts unspoken.