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Fun to Explore in Every Season!
Cape Ann’s Halibut Point State Park on Gott Avenue in Rockport, Massachusetts, attracts a wide variety of people year round. Regardless of the season, there’s always fun to be had. Everyone from hikers to birders to coastline explorers and photographers love this idyllic location that borders the Atlantic Ocean.
Historic Granite Quarry
Once home to a large granite-quarrying operation around the turn of the 20th century, the park is now cooperatively managed by The Trustees of Reservations and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management.
Views of the former Babson Farm quarry are diverse and include scenic vistas, granite reflections, changing foliage, and some magical sunsets.
Hiking Trails, Dramatic Surf and More!
Featuring 2.5 miles of trails and a rocky coastline overlooking some dramatic surf, the park is a wonderful place to explore. Hikers enjoy climbing the rocky ledges and traversing the trails that make their way through the woods, around the quarry, and along the edge of the ocean.
A Birder’s Paradise
Bird watchers get a diverse eyeful year round — including loons, grebes and a variety of ducks. Tidal pools delight visitors with harbor snails, hermit crabs, and sea stars. I love to visit every season, as migration patterns bring different feathered friends to the park throughout the year.
View from the Visitor Center
The park’s Visitor Center is housed in a renovated World War II fire-control tower near the edge of the Babson Farm Quarry. This 60-foot tall structure offers a panoramic view that includes Crane Beach in Ipswich, Massachusetts, Mount Agamenticus in Maine, and the Isles of Shoals off the coast of New Hampshire.
Halibut Point State Park is open year round from sunrise to sunset. A small parking fee is charged year round. Admission is FREE for Trustees members (proof of membership required), and also for pedestrians and bicyclists.
On weekends from Memorial Day through Columbus day, tours of the quarry are offered by staff and volunteers.
A self-guided walking tour brochure is also available for download by clicking here.
For a closer view of the park’s map, click here.
Note: Dogs must be kept on a leash at all times.
Worth The Trip!
So if you’re heading to Cape Ann — or looking for a great new place to explore — make sure to check out Halibut Point State Park. It’s worth the trip any time of the year!
~ Liz Mackney
Ah, spring. The time of year when birders and bird photographers alike rub their hands together in anticipation of the spring migration of the neotropical warblers as they head north from their winter locations. April and May are the prime months to see migrating warblers in New England, however the cold spring has pushed the time frame back as warblers are just now starting to move through.
Photographing warblers is one of the most challenging experiences a wildlife photographer can face. They are small, hyperactive bullets of color, who flit from tree to tree, moving among the leaves in search of insects. They rarely stop in one spot for more than a second or two. But it can also be one of the most rewarding experiences. Capturing a sharp image of a resplendent warbler, after hundreds of missed opportunities, is an exhilarating feeling.
So where do you find these warblers? The easiest approach is to subscribe to local bird listserves such as the NH birders listserve. Birders constantly update these sites with their local observations. Check out local woodlots, swamps and if you have the time, travel to known hotspots such as Parker River Wildlife Refuge in Newburyport MA. Lastly, follow your ears. Most warblers are heard before they are seen.
Technique is important when trying to capture a sharp image of a warbler. Bring your longest lens, a flash (for fill light), a tripod, and a good amount of patience. Anticipate where the warbler is going, and focus on that spot. If you focus on where the warbler is, by the time you press the shutter he will be gone. Always try to shoot with the sun behind you. Set your focus point on the bird’s eye. If the eye is sharp you can get away with the rest being a little out of focus. Use a fast shutter speed, and a wide open aperture to produce a pleasingly blurred background.
As the weather continues to warm up, the warblers will begin coming through in large groups. If you have never experienced a warbler fallout, I encourage you to get out there, bring your camera and give warbler photography a try. I hope to see you in the field!
~ John Vose
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Bird Irruptions in New England
A flock of redpolls swept in on the north wind this morning and lighted on the hawthorn that I planted nearby the bird feeding station last spring. This first year, the tree is not sporting any of the bright orange berries that hawthorns retain throughout the winter and the reason I planted the tree just outside my office window within range of my Canon 300mm f2.8. I’m looking forward to photographing winter birds perched among colorful berries capped in white toques of snow from my office. For now, I’ll just admire the redpolls and wait to see what other irruptive species come to visit the feeders.
Living in northern Vermont, I’ve been fortunate to photograph many irruptive birds, species that are forced to migrate unusually far south whenever their preferred foods, including berries, pine mast, or small rodents become scarce over the winter. Then boreal and arctic emissaries frequent bird feeders and woodlots here in New England, species that otherwise could only be found by traveling hundreds of miles north, and even then chances of spotting some of these birds in their native habitat would be slim at best.
Take the Great Gray Owl. Often referred to as the ghost of the boreal forest, it’s an extremely elusive species even though, unlike most other owls, it hunts during the day. Driving north 400 miles to the boreal forest around James Bay to spot a Great Gray in a photogenic situation is a very dicey proposition. But owing to the boom and bust cycles of their prey – moles, voles, and lemmings, we can expect to have Great Grays perched in the spires of the spruces and firs scanning the local golf course or cemetery for a furry snack here in Vermont, Maine, and southern Quebec about once every seven to ten years. Thus, if you’re not in any special hurry, be patient and they will come.
In between “special appearances” by these iconic species we can find other reasons to freeze our fingers to the bones while we shiver behind our tripods enduring subzero wind chills and wait for a winter sojourner to give us a photogenic glance. Snowy owls are much more common in winter, especially along the New England coast, while the smaller hawk owls show up occasionally in conifer forests. Meanwhile, white-winged crossbills, snow buntings, and pine grosbeaks, all of which rely on seed-bearing trees, irrupt irregularly so that, in any given year, the nature photographer has little excuse to stay by the wood stove.
These days, it’s very easy to learn about what species are irrupting. Find an online birding network (such as http://birdingonthe.net/namerica.html) to stay informed about bird sightings in your area. Or, just keep an eye on that bird feeder.
Got to go. The redpolls are back.
~ Gustav W. Verderber
Stewardship 4-Watching and Waiting
In my last blog I documented the rebuilding of The Johannis North Platform and the building of a new platform in the Jacob’s Point Marsh. After finishing both projects, all we could do was sit and wait. In all likelihood the birds, especially the males, had left South America before I actually started to build anything. It takes them about 3 weeks to make the trip. After both platforms were done, I began the process of checking both platforms every few days.
For me, it’s kind of like waiting for your kids to come home from the prom. The new platform, if it gets taken, will be new birds. The Johannis North nest is another story. I feel like I know these birds. I have been watching them for 6 years now. Last year they were the most prolific pair in the state, raising 4 fledglings. When the fledglings were nearly full grown, there wasn’t a lot of room in the 40 inch x 40 inch platform.
I kept checking both platforms every couple of days. On March 19, 15 days after we had finished the Johannis North platform, I walked out to the marsh – binoculars in hand. When the platform came into view, I didn’t need the binoculars to verify what I already knew – Notch was back! I put the binoculars to my eyes to get a better look. He was sitting on the perch adjacent to the nest.
While I watched, he flew up onto the platform and walked around, no doubt checking out the new digs. The males arrive up to 2 weeks before the females. They establish ownership of the nesting site. The birds mate for life and return to the same nest every year. While the pole and place were the same, the platform was new. Would they accept it? Only time and Joanna’s return would answer that question. As time passes, there probably will come a time when I return to observe a platform in the spring and no one will show up. It’s a long hazardous journey between Columbia, South America, and the East Bay of RI.
It includes a 460 mile crossing of the Caribbean Sea, twice a year, once during the height of hurricane season. They have monitored birds making the trip. One bird, from Jamestown RI, flew from Cuba to South America – 460 miles in the air and 26 hours flying time – with no stopping to rest, eat, or drink. Next time you go out for a jog think about this.
The new Jacob’s Point platform became a real hit in a short time. Situated along the East Bay Bike Path, it is visible to everyone who uses the path. That, and the local paper running a front page story on the installation of the new nesting site, gave it instant notoriety. I really didn’t have to check this one because people were calling and emailing me everyday with updates. It didn’t take long for an osprey to be spotted sitting on the platform. This raised everyone’s hopes for a nest being built this year. At the same time the birds were being spotted in the platform, a new nest started taking shape in the top of a tree about 200 yards south of the platform. There had been a pile of sticks there last year that may have been an aborted attempt to build a nest, but it was never active. Apparently it will be this year. Over the next 10 days or so the pile of sticks grew into a nest. I watched the male bring in dried seaweed and the female position it in the nest. The platform sits empty, and, barring some last minute activity, will likely remain empty this season.
Meanwhile I was returning to the Johannis North platform every 3 or 4 days. Notch was lording over his new digs and I could see sticks beginning to show over the edge of the 2×4’s. About a week to 10 days after Notch’s return, we walked out into the marsh. The first thing I noticed was Notch wasn’t alone, Joanna-had returned. Together, they began to build in earnest. The platform began to show the nesting material above the sides of the 2×4′s. On one of our trips out to see what Notch and Joanna were up to, we were able to witness something few people see. Joanna and Notch were flying above the nest. She came in low into the wind and landed. Notch was right behind her, reminiscent of fighter planes coming into a carrier. She raise her tail and he landed on her back. They were going to mate. The males will ball up their talons when landing on the female in order not to injure her. We watched as they mated and then he flew off again, in typical male fashion, probably going fishing.
So as of this writing, the Jacob’s point platform remains empty but there is a nest in a tree nearby. Notch and Joanna have mated. Soon she will lay her eggs and the long incubation period will begin. Once Joanna lays her eggs, she will remain on the nest until the chicks fledge. Notch will fish and feed her and the fledglings. Once again it becomes a waiting game.
Here in New England, like most of the United States, our “winter that wasn’t” has been followed by an early spring. Record warm temperatures, with the thermometer hitting 80 degrees in mid March, has everyone thinking about gardening, baseball, golf, etc. The sound of motorcycles can be heard on area roadways, convertible tops are down, snowdrops, crocus, and daffodils are all in bloom at the same time, something I’ve never seen happen before. Migrating birds are showing up at nesting grounds ahead of their normal schedule, peepers can be heard in the woods in March instead of April. Because of recent events in my life, my shooting schedule has become restrictive.
I now only get one week in four to get out and shoot whenever I want. My free week happened to be the 3rd week in March. As I watched the extended forecast for the week, it was hard to believe it was going to be as warm as they predicted. By midweek the high temperature was supposed to hit 80. My mind started to run the list of all the things I could possibly shoot during the week. Flowers were a big possibility, everything was blooming ahead of schedule. I was tempted to go looking for migrating birds as this time of year brings all sorts of birds through here on their way to their summer breeding grounds. With all the options that were rolling around in my mind one kept haunting me….Snowy Owls. I know from talking to other photographers that they have been disappearing, one by one, from places along the New England coast that they have haunted all winter.
I wasn’t able to spend any time looking for them during the winter, except for one brief excursion to Hampton Beach, NH. So what would my chances be if I went looking, now that the weather was supposed to be sunny and 80 degrees? I sent off an email to an online friend who keeps tabs on them in one area all winter. If anyone would know he would. He responded that he had been laid up but had gotten word and confirmed that there were still 3 owls there as of March 18. We planned our trip for March 21.
I set the alarm for 5AM. When I got out of bed and looked out the window it was foggy. We dressed, loaded the gear and mountain bikes into the truck, and got on the road. We were in varying densities of fog all the way to the beach. As we neared the beach the fog began to lift — just the opposite of what normally happens. As we crossed the bridge to the beach we found ourselves in bright sun. I packed my camera gear and Cyndy and I mounted our bikes for the long ride along the beach. Searching for a single bird along 4+ miles of dunes and beach can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. We had ridden about 3 miles when I heard Cyndy say, “Is that him”? I looked in the direction to which she was pointing — the top of a dune between the beach and the road. Looking into the sun I could pick out the unmistakable silhouette of an owl. I knew I had to get on the other side of him for any kind of a picture.
We started riding slowly down the road. We had to pass fairly close to the owl. Last thing I wanted to do was spook him. As we got close I heard the growl of a large truck coming up behind us. I looked back to see a huge dump truck approaching. It would go right by the owl. All I could do was watch. As the truck passed, the bird gave it an unconcerned look and continued his surveillance of the dunes and beach. I figured if the truck didn’t spook him neither would we — I was right. We stopped when I got to a spot where the sun was lighting the front of the owl. I took the pictures I wanted and then decided to ride to the next crossover and walk the beach back to the owl. I had a feeling he was sitting on the dune, just above the beach. After riding about ½ mile we found a crossover, locked up the bikes, and hiked the beach back.
We found him on the dune just above the beach. I moved as close as I could without spooking him and sat down and started taking pictures. The day had warmed to the point where I was comfortable in shorts and a t-shirt, not exactly Snowy Owl weather. I remembered John Vose’s blog about shooting a Snowy back in the winter in bitter cold with 30+ mph winds and a sub zero wind-chill. Here I was starting to tan. I watched the bird through the telephoto for a while. He was constantly scanning the beach and the marsh. Suddenly his posture changed. He stood taller, tail off the ground.
Suddenly, the massive wings spread and with one downward thrust he was off the dune, moving west toward the marsh. I couldn’t see where he went. We backtracked to the bikes and started riding back along the marsh. We didn’t get far before we discovered Cyndy had a flat. From here we would have to walk back to the truck. As we walked along we spotted him way out in the marsh. He was too far away to photograph but I had gotten what I had come for. The calendar said March 21. Many of the Snowys have already left. How long will this one stay, only the owl knows. One day, a trigger buried deep in the DNA of the bird will release and he will just disappear, guided back to the Arctic by some invisible map only he can see. Will we see him again? Who knows? It may be next winter or 5 years from now. In a future fall season another trigger will trip, be it a food shortage, over population, or some other phenomenon and suddenly they will reappear in our dunes and marshes, gracing us with their presence for another winter season.