Nature Column 07.23

Ruddy turnstone

A walk on the beach in mid- to late July is quite different from one a month earlier or a month later. For one thing, there are a lot more people using the beaches but I tend to go early in the day, so I don’t see too many.

There are plenty of signs of them, though—a single flip-flop, a broken plastic bucket, a soggy beach towel left behind. Food wrappers and containers have been thoroughly examined by gulls and strewn about, a sad sign of negligence. Even as young children we are taught to carry out what we carry in. Trash bin full? Take it off the beach and dispose of it at home or wherever you’re staying. The lifeguards and beach cleanup crews will be along after I’m gone and although I pick up some of the trash, I can’t take it all. It’s discouraging.

On this day the tide is turning. I’m later than usual and a few families have set up to enjoy the sand, sun, and water. Happy children are building sandcastles and splashing in the water while nearby a big black-backed gull stands watch.

The piping plovers have moved on, and a few sandpipers have arrived and are running down the beach. They are mostly semi-palmated sandpipers, heading south already. A few least sandpipers are with them and all of them are in fresh feathers, looking sharp and snappy. A lone willet stands in the shallow water, seemingly watching the waves come in and out. A least tern calls overhead as it prepares to dive into the water after a tiny, shiny fish.

Shorebirds are already migrating. Many of what we will see over the next weeks and months will be transients, stopping here to rest and refuel as they prepare to continue their long journeys. Very few of the thousands of birds we will see actually nest here. Most nest in the arctic tundra far north of us and are heading much farther south for the winter. From now until the first weeks of September is a great time to throw that old bird guide in the back of the car and learn to tell one shorebird from another. Apps are good if you know what you’re looking at but the books drill down to the details. It takes time and patience and helps to have friends who know what they’re looking at as well. Some are fairly easy to differentiate, such as the black-bellied plovers and ruddy turnstones. Dowitchers, yellow-legs and red knots all have distinctive silhouettes and behaviors that help identify them when we take the time to slow down, notice, and watch.

Other birds, such as some songbirds, are also preparing to migrate. Orioles don’t hang around too long after raising the chicks and neither do the tanagers. Some species of birds raise more than one family in a summer and may already be on a second round. A third, even fourth clutch is not uncommon for small birds like house sparrows. Cardinals, robins, chickadees, wrens, and mockingbirds all often have at least two separate families in a season.

Young ospreys are stretching their wings in many nests, and it won’t be long now before they are out and about. Luckily for them the bays and estuaries are packed with small baitfish, so learning to fish shouldn’t be too difficult.

As I continued my walk by a marsh a cluster of snowy and great egrets were busy poking about in the shallow salt pannes, looking for crabs and minnows. Young night herons were sitting on a tree watching, all lined up in a row. These guys are so well camouflaged at this time of year with their brown and white stripes that they can be easy to miss. Speaking of missing, I almost stepped on a green heron that was standing still as a stone next to my foot. It had been so quiet I didn’t see it until it squawked to let me know I was invading its territory. It flew a few feet off, landed in the grasses of the marsh and stared me down. Embarrassed, I moved on. I was so busy watching the young night herons I wasn’t paying attention to what was quite literally right in front of me.

Although some Rosa rugosa shrubs are still blooming a little in the dunes and along the beaches, most of what we are seeing now are their bright orange and red hips, not to be confused with the green knobby-looking fruits of the beach plums. Soon they will darken and ripen to a deep purple and be ready for picking. This seems to be a bumper year for both hips and plums, so get your jam and jelly pots and jars ready.

It doesn’t seem possible that nesting season is over at the beach and migration has already begun but the proof is right in front of me. I stop to watch dragonflies mating in their circular way and marvel at all the wonders July and August bring. Many are obvious, but many others require our quiet attention. Summer doesn’t last forever, so get outside and enjoy it while we can.

And by the way, do take down your bird feeders, including hummingbird feeders, and bird baths until all the facts are in on this bird illness that is killing large numbers of birds. There’s plenty of natural food and water for them. It’s an inconvenience and disappointment for you, not them. See Mass Audubon’s or Mass Fish and Wildlife’s websites for more information.

Mary Richmond is an artist, writer, naturalist, and educator who grew up on the Cape and lives in Hyannis. More information at

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