This Thing Called Courage

Monday, August 27, 2007

Ghost Cats in Greenfield, Piping Plovers on Rever Beach

I SUPPOSE THE NEXT THING WE'LL HEAR ABOUT IS NESSIE IN THE MYSTIC RIVER. But this is true-- how wonderful, though a bit bizarre. This is from this morning's Globe. (Article below)

And speaking of rara avis, reports persist of mountain lions in the state. The cougar (Puma concolor) is the world's fourth largest cat species and the second largest cat in the New World. Here in New England it goes by many names-- Catamount, Ghost Cat, Eastern Mountain Lion, Painter, Panther, etc. It has one of the largest ranges in the world, extending from southern Canada to the tip of South America. In North America, cougars were formerly distributed from coast to coast. However, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the East was largely cleared for agriculture and the forests that remained were heavily logged. Cougar prey populations (mostly deer) were hunted to near extirpation in many states. This combination of habitat destruction, prey decimation, and extensive large predator control programs resulted in the elimination of the cougar from most of the East, and restricted their distribution in the West to wilderness areas largely devoid of human influence. A remnant poppulation lives on in Florida and is called the Florida Panther-- there are thought to be less than 100 of these magnificent cats left in the overdeveloped Sunshine State (and still overdeveloping at last look)-- this year alone, 13 cougars have been killed in Florida on roads and highways.

The cougars seen in New England (there have been about five 'confirmed' sightings, and hundreds unconfirmed, all told) could be a remnant population, or escaped pets, or travelers from the west, or a combination thereof-- the cougar found at Quabbin had its DNA checked, which showed North American ancestry on one side, and South American on the other). It should be noted that the same skepticism from New England wildlife officials regarding the cougar was first applied when coyotes began returning to this area some years ago-- and now coyotes are in EVERY town in the Commonwealth-- I've seen them myself on two occasions in Happy Land. My, I wonder if the day will come when we spot a mountain lion in the Middlesex Fells Reservation!! That would be-- well, wild.

Cougar populations now appear to be expanding from rugged, undeveloped areas into more human-dominated landscapes. Since 1990, increasing cougar presence has been especially evident in the Midwest. Cougar sightings, tracks, feces, and vehicle- or hunter-caused mortalities have been confirmed by wildlife biologists in several Midwestern states. It is uncertain whether confirmed Midwestern cougars represent individuals re-colonizing from the West, or former captives that have adapted to the wild. Regardless, the long-distance dispersal capabilities of cougars (some radio-collared cougars have been tracked traveling over 900 miles), proximity of this region to established populations, recent cougar confirmations, and opinions of cougar experts indicates re-colonization of the Midwest is certainly possible. And fromt he Midwest they would come, of course, eastward. Further, western cougar populations appear to be growing, which may partially explain their expansion into the Midwest.

There have been many cougar sightings in New England, especially of late. The 'official' stance of state wildlife boards has been that the eastern cougar is extinct. Well...maybe. At the Quabbin Reservoir in 1997, feces was analyzed and determined to be that of a cougar. And this is from the May 10, 2007 edition of the Greenfield Recorder (Greenfield is one of the towns we visited during my first Western Swing, and where my friend Glenn Johnson lives):

Just before 6 a.m. a week ago today, Amanda Gaffigan Steele of Plainfield was taking a circuitous route to work in Hatfield, traveling toward Greenfield on Route 2 near the overgrown Mohawk Mountain ski trails when she noticed something unusual crossing the road near Jed's Cider Mill. Of a grayish-brown hue, the large animal carried a long tail that curled gently toward the awaking sky. No doubt about it: big cat.

''You're not gonna put my name in the paper, are you?'' she asked, when called Monday night at home.

''That's the plan,'' I responded.

''Well, OK, but I hope people don't think I'm crazy.''

It's a fear cougar sightings stir in most witnesses' souls, that of being written off as some sort of lunatic. But still the reports keep coming, and coming, and coming.

You be the judge of the reporters' sanity.

Known to friends as Mandy, the pregnant, 34-year old Shelburne Falls native had just passed ''the moccasin place'' on the Mohawk Trail when the animal appeared in the road, crossing slowly from out of the brook hole near Jed's toward the old Schechterle place. In no great hurry, it reached the guardrail, walked gracefully over it and disappeared into the pastel-green, spring forest to Steele's right.

''I never got a look at its face because it was looking the other way, but I know what I saw and it wasn't a bobcat or a coy dog or a deer or a bear,'' Steele said. ''What I noticed most was the long tail, curved upward. It was a mountain lion. I couldn't believe my eyes.''

Overcome by excitement, Steele called her mother, Bunny Tirrell, waking her from a sound sleep at her Shelburne Falls home.

''She told me she was amazed by its powerful shoulders,'' Tirrell reported. ''Big, powerful shoulders. That's what I recall her telling me.''

Her mom wasn't the only person she phoned that morning. She also called her grandfather, Bill Gaffigan, who lives right there overlooking Cricket Field in Shelburne Falls, Buckland side. An experienced hunter of coons, bobcats and deer, you name it, Old Bill's probably hunted it.

''I was reluctant to call him because he's apt to give me a hard time,'' Steele admitted. ''But not this time. He believed me. Said people have been seeing mountain lions around here lately.''

She learned later that not only have there been many recent mountain lion sightings, there have been others right around where she saw hers. And that's a fact. Many reports have come from within a mile or two of hers; even a track in the mud in an old apple orchard a stone's throw from Jed's, one a veteran local outdoorsman identified as a cougar's, only to be overruled by state wildlife officials who identified it from photos as a dog track. Big dog.

The local outdoorsman still doesn't buy it.

''I say it was a cougar track,'' he says whenever asked.

Where the beast Steele encountered last week will show up next is anyone's guess. Could be Shelburne or Conway or Becket or Saratoga for that matter. Big cats cover a lot of territory. But if it happens to cross your path, don't bother alerting the authorities. They have a pat answer written in bold letters across their desktop calendar pads; it reads: ''Eastern cougars have been extinct for nearly a century.''

Call it ''the official stance.''

Go figure.

For more info on cougars, go to

Okay, here's the Globe article on Piping Plovers at Revere Beach:

One hot beach chick

Piping plovers breed hope, joy in Revere
By April Yee, Globe Correspondent | August 27, 2007

REVERE -- They fear for the life of this little plover, and come in shifts to the beach to track the feathery puff as it skitters across the sand. The baby piping plover's human guardians need to defend this vulnerable stretch of beach from predators, because the tiny bird is oblivious to the danger.

The chick is living proof that, for the first time since anyone can remember, the birds once in danger of extinction have made a home at one of the most trafficked beaches in the state, giving birdwatchers and environmentalists reason to hope for the species' future. If the chick grows up, they say, Revere Beach could continue to be a breeding ground.

On the morning of Aug. 19, Susannah Corona, a scientist from the New England Aquarium who has organized about 10 volunteers to rotate guard duty, perched on the sea wall and peered through binoculars at the birds feeding near the edge of the water. Only with powerful magnification could she spot the piping plovers, scurrying and stopping as they pecked at water insects.

"If you take your eye off them," she said, "they just vanish."

For years, Massachusetts has tried to protect piping plover breeding ground by blocking off stretches of shoreline with twine and snow fencing, frustrating beachgoers. Today, the highest number of piping plovers is living on Massachusetts shoreline since the species was declared threatened in 1985.

"They're on the road to recovery," said Ian A. Bowles, secretary of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. The chick in Revere, he added, is "a validation of more than two decades of effort by the Commonwealth."

The problem is, adult piping plovers are raising fewer chicks. In 1992, each pair of plovers tallied in Massachusetts fledged two chicks. Today, one plover generally survives of the four eggs the mother usually lays.

Two chicks hatched from the nest on Revere Beach. But one has gone missing.

"Maybe he tried to fly and got over the wall and into the street," Corona worried. "Maybe he was chased by a dog. Maybe he was chased by a dog and got over the wall. Maybe he ran over to Point of Pines and got eaten by a skunk. Maybe he starved . . .." She trailed off.

Birders blame the 1-in-4 survival rate on the proliferation of such predators as foxes, skunks, and seagulls. With the increasing number of piping plovers, perhaps predators are becoming more adept at catching them, said Scott Melvin, senior zoologist with the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. The birds' natural defenses may also work against them on beaches frequented by humans: The eggs, speckled like sand, are hard for beachgoers to spot, and the chicks freeze when startled, which makes them vulnerable to oncoming vehicles.

"They're still teetering on that brink," said Lee Elliott, a biologist with The Nature Conservancy of Texas who helps protect piping plover wintering spots.

The risks are even greater on Revere Beach, where more than 2.5 million visitors flock each year. Corona said most beachgoers have actively supported the area's new residents.

Despite the precautions, one of the parents, most likely the mother, has not been seen since earlier this month.

The parents must have circled above the beach in March or April, said Rebecca Harris, director of the Massachusetts Audubon Society's coastal waterbird program.

"When the plovers are arriving, it looks like a great spot," Harris said. "And then comes the sandcastle competition."

In early July, from their nest, a little depression in the sand, the robin-sized adults squawked at passersby, Corona said. Piping plovers are known for their staccato chirp, which they sometimes prolong to a flutelike trill.

Corona's volunteers cordoned off a 500-yard stretch with sticks, twine, and yellow caution tape. The state Department of Conservation and Recreation ordered its sand-raker to stop cleaning the area.

Seaweed washed up on the beach, bringing the tiny insects chicks feast upon. Fledglings need the energy to grow the wing feathers they require to fly 800 miles or more, to a wintering spot in North Carolina or as far as the coast of Mexico.

Letting her binoculars hang from a strap around her neck, Corona slowly walked toward the piping plovers. The parent hopped closer and gave Corona what she called "the eye."

"They're not little meek, mild birds," Corona said. "I think that's why people in Revere like them."

April Yee can be reached at


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home