Community Columns

Looking at nature on a hot, humid day

Barbara and Paul Stoutenburgh photos
A least tern sits on eggs in its nest, which is nothing more than a depression in the sand that often includes bits of shells.

I can’t remember when the weather showed its ugly side of heat and humidity as much as it has in the past few weeks. One day recently we took advantage of the coolest part of the day and headed down to the causeway, where we could stretch our legs before being forced back home and inside, away from that heat and humidity.

All along the roadside we could see chicory, with that lovely blue flower that’s sometimes called cornflower. In days past, when rations became scarce, this chicory served as a substitute for coffee. The roots and leaves were roasted and ground to make the coffee, but when I tried it I never thought it made a very good substitute. I guess when the chips are down you take what comes. You can purchase coffee blends today that include chicory if it suits your taste.

I have found the intense blue color of the chicory flower most difficult to catch on film. In my experience it is always over- or underexposed. I never seem satisfied with the results.

We stopped on the causeway and got out and were greeted by a noisy mockingbird singing from the top of a cedar tree. He was giving calls of other birds as well as his own. He can mimic 10 to 15 other birds, and often sings late into the night.

Mockingbirds get most of their food value in fruit, and here along the beach were Russian olive bushes that the mockingbird was probably trying to protect for himself. Each year when we visit the causeway we see and hear the mockingbird in the area.

The other songs we heard as we stepped from the car were the high-pitched calls of the smallest of terns, the least tern. There were 10 to 20 of these terns resting at the water’s edge. They had probably been out fishing for small spearing or other small fish that make up their diet. This is the bird you see pumping its wings at a rapid pace as it hovers above its prey just before dropping into the water in hopes of catching a meal. Some were just resting in the beach area that had been marked off to protect the plovers and terns during their nesting period.

We’ve been interested in keeping an eye on these least terns, as they appear to be nesting now. It did seem late, but someone was photographing the birds and had watched a young bird last night and saw another, larger young bird today. We’ve read that if their first nests are destroyed, they will nest again — some books say not after June 21 and others say as late as the middle of July.

As long as I can remember, we’ve had least terns nesting on our beaches. We remember them as kids, when they would dive down on us if we walked near their nesting area. When anything moves into their area they get excited and start dive bombing and calling to such an extent that often the intruder is splattered with white wash.

A group of sanderlings was running along the water’s edge. By this time, many of our shorebirds, including the sanderlings, have nested in the far north and are on their way south, where they’ll spend the winter. Along with the sanderlings was a lone willet probing for his next meal. This bird has started nesting on our East End. Another shorebird that has moved into the area is the oystercatcher, which we have seen nesting on Robins Island.

There are other birds that have moved into our area from the South. A few have already made their mark on our local bird population, such as the common cardinal, which was once was absent from our area is now a common nesting bird; so it is also with our mockingbird. I can remember when we first saw that bird nesting on the South Shore over 40 years ago. The photograph with this article was actually taken in 1967. Numbered among these newcomers is also the noisy red-bellied woodpecker, a resident many of you are probably familiar with today.

As we headed to the car to get back inside before the heat and humidity caught up with us, we saw a tall plant with fuzzy gray-silvery leaves and a few yellow blossoms at the top of its tall, erect stem. Here in the dry sand of the upland beach it was growing along the walkway with other beach plants. The goldenrod plants are getting larger and will show their bright yellow blossoms as the season moves along and fall comes in. There are also other beach plants, like pepper bush, Russian thistle and sea rocket, along the walkway and the upper beach. Our short walk in the coolness of the morning with its plants and birds was a welcome relief from the heat and humidity that has lasted far too long for all of us.