It is a knot, it’s not a monarchy – story and photo of two amazing travelers and much more

First, the Monarchs are starting to arrive on their incredible trip to Mexico and I was able to catch this one in midflight and morning sun.

 More Monarchs later. As with all pictures in this post, click image for larger version.

Second, here was a little puzzle for me  – who’s the guy leading these three Ruddy Turnstones through a wave? As it is, they’re in a pretty good finger four formation as used by fighter planes. If this were a scene from a WWII movie we’d probably call him “Red One,”  as in “hey Red One, do you see that wave ahead?”

Pete Dunne and Sibley came to my rescue here. He’s not Red One, he is a Red Knot!  (My apology for the bad pun in the headline, but what’s with that name “knot?” Anyone know?) This puzzle actually started a little earlier when I snapped several shots of what I assumed at the time was a juvenile Black-bellied Plover.  But when I looked at the shots at home I discovered I had a pretty plain bird with a bill significantly larger than the Black-bellied Plover’s.  That was yesterday afternoon and I was  wandering out near the southwest point. Here’s what I saw. Quotes about the Red Knot are from “Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion,” my favorite bird book because somehow Dunne manages to give me more assistance using words than even Sibley does with his wonderful illustrations.

"Body is elliptical and held horizontal making a distinctly humpbacked profile."

“In nonbreeding plumage birds are  dingy grey above and  . . ., dull white below, with a grey-washed breast and lavish amounts of grey speckling along the sides (right to the tail).”


“The pale grey tail and rump contrasting with the darker back is distinctive.”


"Where Sanderling retreat before the oncoming wave, Red Knot commonly lets the wash roll up to its belly . . ."


“Highly social.”


“Sanderling on steeroids. . . The head appears a little too small for the body, the eye a little too small for the head, and the legs a little too short for the bird. . . The straight bill is slightly longer than the head is wide . . . (resembles a golf tee).”


. . . and as a reminder, this is not a Knot. This is what I had assumed the others were – a Black-bellied Plover juvenile. Notice the shorter beak, for example. But otherwise, easy to confuse until he flies and shows the black armpits.


So yes, that is a Red Knot leading three Ruddy Turnstones in the intial flight pictures over the waves. Dunne mentions that turnstones are one of the birds the Knots socialize with, but appearing to lead a flight? Seems a bit above and beyond socialization.

And while many of the shorebirds breed in the arctic and come by here on their way to and from the breeding grounds,  the Red Knot can stay the winter, though most of them, according to Dunne, “winter in extreme S. South America . . .”  So this little dude really does travel from one end of the Earth to the other. Simply incredible.

Monarch over northeast beach.

Yet, the Red Knots travels don’t leave me in as much awe as the  Monarch butterflies’.  As I understand it, these frail and goregeous creatures have an amazing cycle of four generations a year. The fourth generation winters in Mexico and when it comes out of a sort of hibernation, it flies north briefly and lays eggs and so generation one is hatched, frequently in our southern states. Generations two and three may get born farther north. Each of these generations lives about 8 weeks – from egg to caterpillar to adult butterfly – and it is the fourth generation that amazes.  That generation, born in the fall, makes the journey south to Mexico – feeding and getting much fatter enroute. They live off this fat during the winter, then emerge to go a bit north, lay eggs, and die. So one generation out of four lives much longer than the others and follows a complex behavior that is somehow packed into that butterfly brain!

This fourth generation is what is starting to arrive at Gooseberry now and should peak about the first or second week of October when I’ve counted more than 100 in a 45 minute walk. By November they’ll be on their wintering ground. Yesterday I saw 15 – and what surprised me is they all seemed to be flying north – away from the island – despite a pretty brisk northwest wind.  Then this morning I photographed another  – and that was a surprise because the temperature was 48 – technically too cold for them to fly. At such times you usually see them hanging on plants, frequently with their wings spread. This one, however, was hanging on the end of the house right at the start of the causeway – obviously soaking up solar energy to warm  its little engine.

Monarch seems to be scouting out a landing place near the roof of this home.
You figure this one out – look closely –  I swear it has done a back flip, though I haven’t a clue why!
It did hold still for a little while – perhaps 30 seconds – soaking up solar energy.
Then, off it went, heading towards me, away from me, to right, to left . . . I took several more photos but it was so small and moving so quickly I found it difficult to get in focus.

Of course my walks weren’t all about Red Knots and Monarchs – they were the highlights, but it continues to  amaze me how, out of each little walk, Gooseberry opens up new sights for me – or new angles on old sights.  One of the first things that caught my eye out near the towers was this little Eastern Phoebe doing it’s fly catching routine – and there were some nasty flies out that needed some catching – but I had a heck of a time trying to catch it in action. I should have used a higher shutter speed!

OK – that leaves me a goal for another day. 😉

At first I didn’t know what I had here, but as I lightened the shadows the underside came out and I decided it was a young Laughing Gull.

I really have to spend more time out here on the south beach – the wave action is nice and so are the birds. In fact, it was the combination (waves and cormorants) that caught my eye here. I also like the view of Cuttyhunk in the background.

Moving around to the northeast beach, I found the Semipalmated Plover which has a terminal case of the cutes!

Does this look huggable? Like a child's stuffed toy?

And with two you get a double dose of cute!

I love to watch them fly, though – as a group they look disorganized . That is, they hang together and move together nicely, but with formations that are constantly changing . . .
Must be tuned into super air traffic controllers!

Remember what Dunne said about the Red Knot – that it’s head was a little too big for the body and its eyes a little too big for the head and the legs a little too short for the bird?  Think of those things as you look at these pictures of a lone Black-bellied Plover – not a Knot.

This morning I got to Gooseberry early and was surprised to see the Monarch butterfly whose picture tops this post. There wasn’t much action on the causeway, except my usual friend, the perky little  Semipalmated Sandpiper, scooting along just above the surf on the ocean side.

Then out at the parking lot I spotted a bird watcher who was tuned into the warblers in the brush just south of the  lot. I saw this one as I started down the central trail.  Warblers don’t stay in one place long, and they can easily get lost in the branches, though the morning sun certainly highlighted this Common Yellow Throat female very nicely.

As I walked out there wasn’t too much action, but the sky was pretty yielding a colorful Sundog to the south of the sun the required 22 degrees – the result of ice crystals in high clouds. I couldn’t see it’s partner on the north side of the Sun – just no clouds there – but as I turned to the west a beautiful waning Moon was showing above the towers.  I find that some folks who visit my backyard observatory are surprised to learn the Moon is visible during the day time.  It is – every month. It’s easiest to see in the late afternoon sky when near first quarter – and in the early morning sky during or near last quarter.

And speaking of the towers, I had a chance to speak a second time to the folks who were sealing the entrance. They confirmed – with some added details – that the person who fell recently fell about 15 feet while climbing inside the tower – not while climbing the outside as had been reported in the local paper.  The entrance way is now sealed.

On the way back I paused in the parking lot to watch the antics of  laughing Gull diving repeatedly at the water and barely skimming the surface – very tern-like. I assume there were small fish there. At times he looked like he was walking on water.  He seemed to stir up the interest of a couple Ring-billed gulls that were nearby – and near the end a Cormorant came in for one of his patented landings – honestly, these guys have the role of court jester down pat!The Laughing Gulls black wing tips, white trailing edge on wing, white tail, and grey head are good identifying marks. (During breeding season the head will be black.) The Ring-billed can look similar in the air, but is obviously a lighter gray and – of course – has a ring around its bill.

I had a Semipalmated Sandpiper scooting along near the causeway on the way out – on the way in it was this lone Semiplmated Plover scooting just above the waves.

As noted – near the end of the causeway was the Monarch butterfly and just as I neared my car this beautiful tern flew over and – well – I have to admit, I’m really not sure what kind of tern it is. I need to work on these more. Heck -please keep in mind, I am just learning as I go. I think my identifications are correct – but I welcome comments and suggestions from those who know better!

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