by Jamie Bogart, Lloyd Center Research Associate
One year ago, at a time when winter coats are the norm, the Center’s annual New Year’s walk at Gooseberry occurred under dreary but unusually warm conditions. This year, warm and outright balmy temperatures returned, to which bird life surely responded after a rainy, windy prior day. But it was a coastal storm weeks earlier that most directly influenced the walk; another rain event coinciding with high tide and causing tidal over-wash not seen since Hurricane Sandy.
Usually the walk starts in the Gooseberry main parking lot, where we scan down the causeway with binoculars and scopes, but focus on the island itself. With the causeway closed due to dense cobble that washed onto the road during the storm, the group of 14 was forced to walk the causeway, and take in bird life along the way. While it’s widely accepted that the causeway impedes natural shoreline flows, and likely is one cause of the shoreline erosion and rock buildup that has increased over time (a study is underway to address this), it also attracts an abundance and diversity of waterfowl on both sides of it that participants witnessed.
The bird spectacle happened immediately, with an unusually high number of Long-tailed Ducks gathered along the east shore of the causeway toward the mainland, the calmer side at the time. For a diving duck usually seen further offshore, rare close views were offered, with participants also seeing the brilliant and complex plumage the bird possesses. Surf Scoter and the familiar bufflehead, two other common divers, were also seen nearby. Ducks gathered close to the causeway, along with an uncharacteristically large raft of gulls offshore, which hinted at reshaped subtidal sands from storm waters that shifted food sources and attracted waterbirds to the area.
On the island, the low tide and calm conditions offered stellar close-up views of winter shorebirds which were in close feeding between the intertidal cobble and sporting their non-breeding plumages. Dunlin were the most numerous, but folks saw comparison with the few creamy-white sanderlings mixed in with the flocks. Species present at low abundance included the familiar Ruddy Turnstone, and less commonly seen Purple Sandpiper, distinguished by its large feet for grasping the wet rocks that provide its niche.
At the south tip, the crew marveled at the landscape, including the long cobble “ridge” exposed at the low tide, and the Elizabeth Island Chain further out on the horizon, both being evidence of the glacial past that helped form the Buzzards Bay and all associated islands. Storm waters significantly over-washed the tip, adding both sand and cobble, which creates a “barrier beach”. The group learned this natural occurrence can potentially increase nesting habitat for endangered birds, including the Piping Plover, which has historically nested on Gooseberry Island.
As often occurs, the west-northwest breeze made for a choppier west shore, which made birding more difficult but offered a different assemblage of waterfowl. White-winged and Black Scoters were seen, along with a high number of Common Goldeneye, all visible intermittently between the chop. A female Harlequin Duck was also seen, this species more common in recent years as a diving duck that hangs out around offshore rocks amidst crashing waves. Horned Grebe and Red-throated Loons were also present offshore but conditions made viewing difficult. Patrons again viewed the Long-tails on the return trip on the causeway, and in the end enjoyed an educational and refreshing morning on this first of many 2023 Lloyd Center birding ventures.