Blizzard and the return of the Horned Grebes

The weekend brought a legitimate (by technical definition) blizzard to the region – more than a foot of snow, very high winds, and temperatures in the teens and twenties –  so I was eager to get out to Gooseberry to see how things fared there, but it took me a couple days. When I got there yesterday the causeway was still closed to cars and a stiff wind was causing icy waves to break all along the western side.

Looking south along the causeway towards Gooseberry. Click image for larger view.

The snow plow stopped where the causeway begins, leaving a five-foot high artificial drift blocking the way. However, it was a simple matter to get out and walk around this, though in the 25-degree temperatures, high winds, and icy footing just crossing the causeway was enough walking for me. The causeway itself only had a couple inches of snow and salt ice on it. The bay to the east was calm – the ocean to the west quite choppy, with breakers throwing icy spray over the rocks and causeway surface. And no where was there any life. All seemed barren. But in time, as I walked and looked, it came quite alive and the best part was there were several Horned Grebes on both sides. These look to me like little cousins of the Common Loons that I frequently see and while they were the first Grebes I’ve seen this year, I have seen them in previous years. What surprised me this time was how many there were. I’m used to seeing one or two, but there were at least half a dozen, alone or in pairs.

I love Pete Dunne’s descriptions of birds – they do more for me than the pictures in the field guides. Here’s just a sampling of what he says about the Horned Grebe – think of these words as you look at the pictures.

Small . . . somewhat large-headed and heavy-necked grebe . . . Horned’s head is largish, flat-topped, peaked at the rear, and down-sloping to the tip of the of the short, pencil-straight bill; at a distance , the head looks like a doorstop.

Horned Grebe - click image for larger version.

Bright white wraparound cheeks are standard features and contrast sharply with the crisply trimmed black cap.

Horned Grebe - click image for larger version.

Sits low in the water, dives for fish. . . .  Generally not social. . . . Occasionally two or more feed in close-proximity – perhaps for company, perhaps because the fishing is good . . .

Horned Grebes near Bar Rock - click image for larger view.

In Dunne’s “Essential Field Guide Companion” it says  that in winter the Horned Grebe  “strongly prefers the inlets, back bays, and other protected inshore habitats of coastal waters.” The waters around Gooseberry are hardly protected – but I suspect ice might have driven these Grebes out of more sheltered areas.  This is really the very end of their fall migration season, so I doubt they just arrived here – but I’m just speculating from a small knowledge base – one book 😉

Some old friends were here also, but in small numbers – such as a few Buffleheads and this lone – quite handsome – male Common Eider. (A lone female was on the bay side of the causeway – maybe they had a spat.)

Male Eider - click for larger view.

Speaking of spats, I wasn’t sure if this White-winged Scoter was just coming in for a landing – and telling everyone to “gangway” – or if he was being obnoxious, or maybe on the make.

White-winged Scoter - click for larger image.

White-winged Scoter - click for larger image.

I have seen few shorebirds in the past month or so, but as I was about to leave I caught a glimpse of this whirling flight of a dozen or so Sanderlings – at least I think they’re Sanderlings.  The pictures blow up only well enough for me to be somewhat certain.

Sanderlings - click for larger image.

Finally, I couldn’t help imagining how absolutely frigid – not to mention dangerous –  it would have been around 1890 to launch a surfboat into the angry seas of a blizzard and try to rescue  folks who have run up on any of the many rocks around Gooseberry. That’s what this little building near the entrance to the causeway is all about – the one with the big wreath on it.  It has a surfboat inside and boat and building have been lovingly restored recently – I’ll need to write more on this another time – as a historical shrine and a tribute to those brave souls who did venture into the angry seas to rescue those less fortunate – not a bad Christmas metaphor when you think about it!

Historical life-saving station - click image forlarger view

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