Bob MacDonnell Photography | OUTDOOR EDUCATION


June 24, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

After such a nasty winter, I really couldn't wait for spring to arrive this year, but this spring brought new, unpleasant surprises. My photography took a back seat, and when there was time for it, it wasn't very productive or enjoyable, especially early on. The unusually cold weather continued into March and April and seemed to throw off the rhythm and timing of spring's changes. I always look forward to my first sighting of an Osprey returning to Niantic in early March as the true signal that winter is on the way out, but this year it was closer to early April. The runs of Alewife returning from the ocean to spawn in area streams and ponds usually begin shortly after the Osprey return, and are an important food source for them. I've learned that this can produce some great spring photo opportunities if you can find the Osprey that have found the fish, but this year it didn't quite work out for me. There were a few days when I saw a dozen or more Osprey circling and hovering above sections of the Bride Brook in Rocky Neck State Park where the fish were to be expected, but saw just a few dives and even fewer catches. OSPREY 15-04-1282263OSPREY 15-04-1282263NIANTIC, CT Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) with Alewife catch.

There just didn't seem to be that many fish this year. I figured the cold spring had delayed the Alewife runs as it did the returning Osprey, or even worse, that the number of returning fish had declined sharply. Either way, it was a disappointment for me, and a problem for the Osprey, that were forced to look farther away for different types of fish. One Osprey I photographed in a courtship display near Rocky Neck actually had a trout in its talons.

OSPREY 15-04-0181812BOSPREY 15-04-0181812BOLD LYME, CT Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) in courtship display with trout.

In mid-May I took an evening drive through Rocky Neck even though I've usually moved on to greener pastures (actually the woods) by then, and noticed a lot of gull activity near the bridges near the mouth of the Bride Brook. The park has usually quieted down a lot by then, so I was surprised to see so much commotion. I stopped to investigate, and saw the gulls circling and diving into the water, which was percolating with schools of fish. It was a month or so after the Alewife runs were expected, but could they have arrived this late?

HERRING GULL 15-05-1382730HERRING GULL 15-05-1382730NIANTIC, CT Herring Gull (Larus argentatus).

The next morning I went back and found the same situation. I could see the large schools of Alewife swimming between the two bridges, sometimes right below me. I had never seen the fish like that before, and was surprised to see them swimming back and forth up and downstream during the day. Several years ago, while working on a newspaper story about the DEEP's efforts to restore the dwindling Alewife runs, I learned that the fish swim upstream at night, so this seemed odd. 

ALEWIFE 15-05-1482809BALEWIFE 15-05-1482809BNIANTIC, CT Alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus) is an anadromous species of herring that returns from the ocean each spring to spawn in fresh water. Shortly after spawning they return to the ocean. These fish were photographed in a shallow salt marsh tidal creek on there return run to the ocean. Even though the water was "boiling" with fish, only one or two Osprey were in the area to fish them, most had established their nest sites and fishing grounds by then. Even the gulls were not as active as the night before, perhaps they had their fill already? One creature, however, was having a field day with the abundant supply of Alewife. A mink repeatedly slunk to the edge of the brook, and slid into the water. AMERICAN MINK 15-05-1582618AMERICAN MINK 15-05-1582618NIANTIC, CT American Mink (Neovison vison). A short while later it would climb out and bound along the same route through the salt marsh with its impressive catch, to a spot at the edge of the adjacent woods. The fish looked to be close to half the size of the mink itself. I witnessed this five or six times within the span of a couple hours, so it seems unlikely that it could be eating the fish on its own, and must have had a family to feed in a hidden den. One two occasions the mink had an eel, equally impressive in relative size, instead of an Alewife.

AMERICAN MINK 15-05-1582625AMERICAN MINK 15-05-1582625NIANTIC, CT American Mink (Neovison vison). As the light got too harsh for photography, I walked back to my car and a man in a pick-up truck rolled his window down and asked what I was photographing. "Birds", I said, not wanting to get too specific. He replied that I should go the the beach at the mouth of the brook because the gulls were having a field day with river herring. We struck up a conversation and I found out he worked for the DEEP's anadromous fish program and was monitoring the Alewife in the Bride Brook. It turned out that the fish were not entering the brook to spawn, but actually on their way back out to the ocean. They had become trapped by the sandbar that built up in front of the restored channel the DEEP created at the mouth of the brook and could only exit the brook at the highest tide. This was the reason they were swimming back and forth during the day. I also learned that the herring did return at about the same time they usually do and the numbers were actually pretty good this year. 

ROCKY NECK 15-05-1583417ROCKY NECK 15-05-1583417NIANTIC, CT Alewife restoration efforts at the mouth of the Bride Brook at Rocky Neck State Park. ROCKY NECK 15-05-1583433ROCKY NECK 15-05-1583433NIANTIC, CT Alewife restoration efforts at the mouth of the Bride Brook at Rocky Neck State Park.

One of the things I like most about photographing wildlife is that it provides a first hand opportunity to observe and learn about the things I take pictures of. What I learn can then be helpful in finding new photo opportunities in the future. Instead of getting the herring on the way in, this year I got them on the way out. I haven't ever seen the Alewife returning to the sea in such a dramatic way, and may never again, but now I'll be looking out for it if it happens.



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