Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

October 5, 2008

She’s a Maniac, Maniac…

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:06 pm


NOTE: This is the fifth entry in a series of entries sent from the road. I guess you could call this my “Wandering Naturalist Series.”  My punctuality will depend completely on internet access along the way and the amount of daylight.  I have no doubt that nature will provide ample material



Though the morning itself was peaceful enough, the long sandy beach at Scusset, MA was a beehive of activity. Shorebirds and gulls of all make and size were frantically feeding on the sea gifts that arrived with each coating of frothy surf. The tide was just coming in after its long nightly retreat out into Massachusetts Bay. Black and white Sanderlings, the smallest and most active of the bunch, were keeping just ahead of the wave lines. They probed the wet sand with their black bills in a continuous effort to pull small crustaceans from the surf zone.  A dozen Knots mimicked the movements of their smaller cousins but did so in a slower and distinctly more refined manner (befitting their larger size).

  Gulls dominated the beachfront. A pair of small Laughing Gulls surveyed the scene from higher on the beach with apparent disinterest. They were garbed in their dull winter colors and were not in a laughing mode this morning. Huge Black-backed Gulls lorded over every form of fowl, but the Herring Gulls outnumbered the lot. Without the need of a thousand words to describe it, you can watch a bit of the action here (Scusset Beach Scene).

  With all this going on, you wouldn’t think that the lowly Herring Gulls would be the thing to capture my attention. After all, these birds are equally as common along our Great Lakes shorelines as they are along the wide ocean beaches, so their appeal would seem even more diminished given their exotic company. They were exhibiting an interesting behavior that I’ve never seen before, however.  Perhaps you caught it at the end of the previous scene.  Did you see one of them engage in a bit of fancy footwork just before the sequence ended?

  Herrings (like the one pictured above) are easily distinguished by their pink feet and the red spot found on their lower mandible, so you should be able to spot them in the video.  This time of year the mature birds are heavily speckled and the immature birds are quite dark and mottled.  Every time the surf broke and began its backward slide, the Herring Gulls would begin to rapidly pump their feet as if running in place. Take a better look here and tell me what comes to your mind (Dancing Gull).

  Unfortunately, the only thing that came to my mind when viewing this was the dance style that typified that miserable early ‘80’s movie Flashdance. The part that popped into my head was the “Maniac” sound track: “she’s a maniac, maniac on the floor and she’s dancing like she’s never danced before.” More contemporary thinkers might have visions of Riverdance, but either way the step is eye catching.

  While you could say that Jennifer Beal and Michael Flatterly (or what ever his name is) are dancing for their food, the gulls were literally dancing on their food.  By pumping their feet, the gulls could liquiefy the sand in order to dislodge their prey – in this case I believe the intended quarry were sand crabs. Tiny crustaceans that filter organisms from the water, sand crabs only expose themselves briefly as the waves rush past. By locating the spot and churning up the sand around it, the gulls are able to flush out the buried crabs and eat them for breakfast. You’ll notice that something pops out from under Jennifer’s …er, I mean… the gulls feet and is hastily snatched up by the performer.

  Neither of the previously mentioned movie/dance titles fits this gull behavior since it is not flashy nor is it performed on a river.  This is an ancient step delivered to the beat of the rolling surf. Let’s call it Surfdance and see if it catches on.

October 3, 2008

There She Blows

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:36 pm

NOTE: This is the fourth entry of what I hope will be a series of entries sent from the road. I guess you could call this my “Wandering Naturalist Series.”  My punctuality will depend completely on internet access along the way and the amount of daylight.  I have no doubt that nature will provide ample material


When Augusta Penniman accompanied her husband Edward on a whaling expedition in 1864, she recorded her experiences in a journal. Their journey set out from New Bedford, Massachusetts and brought them half way around the globe to the Arctic and the Hawaiian Isles. In her journal, she makes regular mention of the commercial end of the whaling business and keeps an on going tally of the kill along with everyday concerns. Each whale capture is marked by a stamped image of a baleen whale (such as this wooden stamp) along with the amount of whale oil rendered from it (see this page entry from 1865).  Her existing journal, available for viewing at the Cape Cop National Seashore Museum, is a fascinating record of a long lost way of life.

  My modern day whaling journey, which set out from Hyannis 144 years later, bore some small resemblance to Mrs. Penniman’s trip. My wife and I set out to get some whales aboard a commercial whaling vessel and I journaled my entries as a record of the event. Our trip was to last only four hours, however, as opposed the four year trip by the Pennimans. Our capture implement was to be the camera rather than the harpoon and our ship was powered by four huge Detroit Diesels instead of canvas sails. We, along with a 150 of our closest friends, ventured out to the shoal area just off the N.E. tip of the Cape as part of one of the many whale watch excursions that operates out of these parts. Based on the ticket prices, it’s safe to say that modern day whaling is still a lucrative commercial venture.

  Fortunately, we did encounter several whales and I’d like to record their presence in the following electronic journal. In all, we sighted about a half dozen individual Humpback Whales and were able to observe four of them closely. Rather than go into detail about each whale and how it was sighted, I offer a few photos and commentary.

  The first sign of activity was the sight of a flipper. It was held high into the air and repeatedly slapped down onto the surface with a sound like that of a large wave striking a seawall (see here). It is believed by some that this is a means of communication, but the experts are just as willing to admit this could be some sort of play as well. This barnacled appendage belonged to an immature individual that was lollygagging about and performing an occasional belly roll. During these occasions you could clearly see the deep pleats, or folds, which allow the throat and belly to expand when gulping fish and krill (see here).

  Beyond the “flipper flapper” a small pod of three Humpbacks, which included a calf and its mother, surfaced at all locations around the ship.  The best view of any individual was an extended glimpse of the humped back with its small dorsal fin (see here).  When they dove, the tail flukes lifted high above the water and exposed distinctive white patterns (see above). Powerful thrusts from the flukes churned up smooth plates of water that marked the animal’s passing (see here). Appropriately enough, these are called “whale tracks.”

  Whales are air breathing mammals so they need to hold their breath for an extended time when diving.  Upon returning to the surface the first task is to blow out the old air and take in some fresh stuff – this is the “blow” which follows “there she”. You’ll note in this shot (here) of a spouting whale that this species has two openings at the blowhole atop the head.  Although the positioning might seem odd to a land dweller such as ourselves, these holes are really nostrils that have migrated over time to a location above the eyes. The forcible stream of moist air is propelled at nearly 300 miles per hour and vaporizes immediately into a cloud.

  One of the last spouts of the day (ours, not hers) was let loose right next to the ship and the mist drifted over the onlookers (look here). The sensation was a refreshing blast of whale breath – smelling of the sea and shrimp.

  More than 1,900 individual humpbacks have been identified and catalogued over the past thirty years. Based on tail patterns and dorsal fin shapes, these individuals are given names such as Zeppelin, Mephisto, Aye-aye, and even Michigan (Michigan was born in 2003 and her mother was Dapple, by the way).  By keeping record, new calves and family associations can be tracked over time (see here a page from that catalogue).  Canopy (born 1998), Pele (first sighted 1997), and Milkweed (born 2000) where three of the whales that visited us on this particular day.

  We were among whales for the better part of an hour before heading back to harbor. The additional sighting of a Basking Shark added some excitement to the journey (Basking Shark). As one of the largest fish in the world, this was a treat – even if the experience only consisted of a fin, a tail tip, and the unconscious mental recall of “Jaws” music.

  On the way back we asked the naturalist aboard -the fellow who was doing the onboard narration – how many times they have been “skunked” by not seeing any whales at all.  He said they’ve been whaleless “only about five times” in his memory. The trip previous to this one was nearly skunked, but managed a small pod of whales near the end.  Of course, the good news here is that whales are still around to be seen in spite of the best efforts of Edward Penniman and his sort.

  I leave you with a short movie clip (Humpback Trio) that sums up the experience without the need of any further words. Being in the company of giants is an experience quite unlike anything else.

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