In Defense of Blue Jays by Miriam L. Rowell (President of The Cape Cod Bird Club)

“. .. steel cold scream of a jay, unmelted, that never flows into a song, sort of winter trumpet screaming cold; hard, tense, frozen music, like the winter sky itself .. .” H. Thoreau.

The terrace sits raw and stark in the winter light, its rim of russian olive and beach plum hunch their bare branches against the cold, all somber-hued and drab. Even the ocean is a sullen grey, sulking under heavy clouds.

Then, with a clarion, ringing cry, comes one of winter’s glories, as the bare boughs, etched dark against the sky, suddenly explode into a bush burning with beauty, blossomed with brilliant, coruscating, vivid blue jays.

Loud raucous voices swell as they sight the table set with sunflower seed, suet, and doughnuts, and they rush it, lustily gobbling, elbowing each other, excitedly brawling with vigor and enjoyment, each intent on satisfying his own hunger.

This boldly beautiful bird is accused of many sins; greed, harrassment and predation. But perhaps his greatest sin is, he is very common.

Because he is so common, we don’t really see him until he is gone, and then we wonder at his absence. That is why there was concern this winter throughout the Northeast when winter found many areas without jays, or with greatly reduced populations. Were they ill? Had they migrated? Nobody knows for sure exactly what happened or why. Enormous flights of jays were seen on the Outer Banks and in Florida down to the Keys; larger flocks appeared on the Gulf coast and spilled along it into Texas. What had caused this movement of birds from their normal wintering habitat? Were they birds from the Northeast, or were they populations displaced by the northeastern birds moving into their territory?

What caused them to move? Will they return? Only time and study will give us a clue.

The blue jay’s lusty appetite gives him a reputation for greed, though it is unearned, for he never claims the feeder as his own after he has eaten his fill. The smaller birds never scorn the crumbs from his table, and he has learned he can’t get into their feeder. He never lays claim to food just for the joy of possession, only for his loud and gusty enjoyment of eating it. And it takes a large amount of food to sustain such an exuberant, boisterous fellow.

He sounds the alarm for all. No hawk can raid the feeder when he is near. No prowling cats escape his eye. And his habit of harrying dozing owls is an aid to birders seeking the elusive creatures. He thrives on excitement and noise, creating alarms and diversions wherever he goes.

But what of his other life, his summer life, his private life?

It is quiet and secret, full of soft murmuring song and private courtship. And, except in areas where he nests near man, after his almost silent wooing, he is evasively secretive of nest, slinking soft as a shadow to feed his brooding mate. A careful parent, he shares in the feeding and raising of his young until they are grown and return to flock together with other jays. There is one charge of which he cannot be cleared. He attacks other bird’s nests and robs them. Even the fact that he also enjoys a meal of mice doesn’t excuplate his sin. But it is a charge that can only have meaning within human values, and we cannot judge him thus. Just as his intense, iridescent blue isn’t in the feather, but is a reflection of blue light, so is his reputation a reflection of us and our values, rather than what he is: a most beautiful bird, handsome and vigorous, living in his niche in balance with his world.

Insect-catching Plants, particularly of Cape Cod by Dr. Henry K. Svenson

Most people have an acquaintance with the carnivorous plants, ordinarily called “insectivorous plants”, since the subject is included in all textbooks that deal with natural history. Few plants have been so attractive to sensational fiction writers, but the man-eating kinds exist purely in the imagination. Most of them are small terrestrial plants of boggy or sandy places, but some Asiatic pitcher plants (Nepenthaceae) climb or are bush-like. All have normal chlorophyll in stems and leaves; in addition there are adaptations for trapping insects, spiders, and other small creatures. Only in nutritionally poor environments is there need of additional protein, and the plants get along without it over long periods.

About 500 species of canivorous plants occur in six unrelated families over nearly all parts of the world, but they have greatest diversity in the tropics. As to methods of trapping insects, the plants found in eastern United States fall into three groups.

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New Alchemy on Cape Cod by Nancy and John Todd

The Cape Naturalist: 1972


Made from scrap automobile parts, this windmill at the New Alchemy Institute’s farm, north of Falmouth, draws on atmospheric power to charge a storage battery mounted atop the pole. It is flanked by the ancient alchemist’s sun symbol on the vane at left and by the real moon on the right.

The sky over San Diego in California is usually a brilliant blue, but on the rim of the horizon is an ugly band of yellowish brown, and it is hard to watch children playing without feeling frightened about the poisons that they are breathing into their small bodies as they run. Inland, scarred eroded canyon walls attest to the developers’ endless expansion. By the shore, the comic grace of the brown pelican reminds one to ask, “Were there young this year?” for it is common knowledge that the high percentage of DDT and other toxins in their egg shells have made them too thin to permit the chicks to develop. Reminders of the threatened state of the environment are everywhere in San Diego. It was there that New Alchemy was born.

It is easier to forget on Cape Cod. A blurred horizon can mean fog. The woods and fields bloom with wildflowers, birds are everywhere, and usually a discreet row of trees can screen the fact that here too the developers are felling trees, laying roads, threatening the salt marshes and destroying steadily the dwindling acres of unspoiled habitat. And so here too, as everywhere, there is a need for people who would hope to restore the land and protect the seas. This is, in essence, the basis for New Alchemy. Read the rest of this entry »

Waves Against Cape Cod: An Uneasy Truce by Victor and Yvonne E. Goldsmith

The Cape Naturalist: Vol 1 No 1

June, 1972

The outer beach of Cape Cod from Provincetown to Monomoy Point may be considered to be 30 miles out to sea, and as such, is subject to the relentless attack of the waves. However, the outer beach has shown that it is capable of adjusting to the continuous onslaught of the waves through changes in the shoreline configuration. Two of these coastal processes will be discussed in detail.

The Growing Shield. A glance at a map shows that the outer beach of Cape Cod resembles a curved shield which appears to protect the Cape from the storm waves generated out in the Atlantic. Most of the waves approach Cape Cod from the east-northeast. The cliff and beach of the outer Cape in the Truro vicinity, in the center of the shield, are oriented perpendicular to the dominant wave approach direction, and so receive the brunt of the wave attack. North of Highland Light and south of Marconi Station the east-northeast waves approach the outer Cape shoreline at an oblique angle, and some of the wave energy is transformed into longshore currents which flow parallel to the shore and in the general direction of the wave advance. These currents transport much of the sediment eroded from the Truro cliffs to Race Point and Long Point to the northwest, and to Nauset Spit and Monomoy Island to the south. Indeed all four of these features were formed as a direct result of the processes of wave induced longshore currents discussed above.

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Birding on Cape Cod by Randolph Bartlett

The Cape Naturalist: Vol 1 No 1

June, 1972

The geographical uniqueness of Cape Cod makes it an exciting place for the summer visitor interested in bird watching. The Cape’s varied terrain and moderate maritime climate makes it a home or regular port-of-call for nearly 400 species and sub-species of land and shore birds.

The two best months to observe these assorted “goodies” (both quantitatively and qualitatively) are July and August, when the fall migration is in progress. Lasting from July through October, the migration reaches a peak of shorebirds in mid-August, and of landbirds in September when our beaches, marshlands, and woodlands furnish food and rest for thousands of weary feathered travelers. These birds may stay only a few hours, or they may remain for several weeks. In fact, it is not uncommon for some to double their body weight during this time in preparation for long, arduous, non-stop flights to Caribbean Islands or even South America.

Rule #1 for birding on Cape Cod is to keep the weather and tides in mind. In less than a few hours, a day which begins bright and calm can become overcast, cold, and stormy -particularly when the winds shift into the easterly quadrant of the compass. Although good Nor’easters may last three days or more, they can be a blessing to the hardy birder, since their strong winds frequently carry in unexpected species to the Cape. In this connection, First Encounter Beach in Eastham is an excellent spot to find sea birds after a storm.

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Fisherman’s Chronicle of Cape Fish by Harvey W. Bloomer

The Cape Naturalist: Vol 1 No 1

June, 1972

When did it start and why? Year after year it continues as it has for countless ages. Changes occur, but mostly from the destructive efforts of man in his greedy, wasteful means of harvesting the sea.

Our beginning of the year: January, a cold bleak, windy month. The fish are scattered. A few hardy cod remain on shoals of the Atlantic Coast of the Cape. The larger schools have long since gone to warmer and deeper water, along with “trash fish”, lobsters, crabs, for the shallow waters of the coast have become much too cold.

The pond, or black back, flounder is snug in his headwater, quietly lying in his bed of mud, as so the eel in the spring hole, or marsh bank.

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Environmental Education -The Museum’s Program by Robert Lucas, Educational Assistant

The Cape Naturalist: Vol 1 No 1

June, 1972

Environmental Education -The Museum’s Program

by Robert Lucas, Educational Assistant

Our Environmental Science Program now in its second year, is by no means polished and perfected, but we are proud of our endeavors and we believe that we are making accomplishments in developing an environmental awareness in the young people with whom we work. The program reaches a total of more than 1000 children in attendance at the following elementary schools: Ezra Baker in Dennis, Brewster Elementary, Eastham Elementary, Orleans Elementary, Trinity School of Cape Cod in Yarmouth, Truro Central, and Wellfleet Elementary. We hope to keep you informed of the aims of the program, the principles upon which we are operating, and what we believe have been successes and failures and why.

The term environmental education probably has as many interpretations as there are people who use the words. To some it means nature study, to others it connotes a sophisticated experimental approach to science, and to many it is the instant panacea to our environmental problems. Even the educators currently involved in environmental education would not be in unanimous agreement on a definition of the term, but the majority would probably subscribe to the following: environmental science should be taught outdoors, should involve exploration, and should impart a sense of awareness to the student. The Museum’s program embodies, to varying degrees, the above three principles.

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Oil Spill on the Wild Harbor Marsh by John M. Teal and Kathryn A. Burns

The Cape Naturalist: Vol 1 No 1

June, 1972

Oil Spill on the Wild Harbor Marsh

by John M. Teal and Kathryn A. Burns

The oil spill at West Falmouth which resulted from the grounding of a fuel oil barge in September 1969, is probably the best studied such accident in the world. Within one week of the spill scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution began studying the lethal effects of the oil on bottom animals. Observation of changes in abundance and distribution of animals and chemical characteristics of the oil remaining in the sediments have continued to the present.

Our work has dealt with the effects of the oil on the salt marshes of the Wild Harbor river onto which the oil was carried by a storm a few days after the spill. In spite of large numbers of dead estuarine animals, the immediate, apparent effect of the oil on the marsh itself was minimal. Marsh grasses were already seasonally brown when oiled. Dead fish and mussels were found on the marsh surface but throughout the first winter after the spill the marsh was fairly normal in appearance. During the following spring the effect of the oil became apparent.

Grass did not sprout on the oiled marsh as it did on the unoiled portions which turned green as usual. A small growth of green algae, along with a scattering of Salicornia (saltwort) grew on the oiled surface but the sparse growth only emphasized how complete was the destruction. Plant production of the oiled portion was reduced to zero. What little production remained was not sufficient to offset the rate of decomposition. The latter was determined by measuring carbon dioxide production resulting from the respiratory activity of all marsh organisms. Since only a few minute soil animals remained in the marsh, most of this activity was due to bacteria. Even this bacterial activity on the oiled marsh was only one quarter of that on the nearby healthy marsh.

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The Cape Naturalist – Reference List

We want to thank Edna Murphy for the countless hours she volunteered to put together this subject matter reference list of The Cape Naturalist topics:

1.    Reference List

2.    The 1978 tern season. Cape Naturalist. 1978 Winter; 7(3 ):62-63.

3.    The 1979 tern season. Cape Naturalist. 1980 Spring; 8(4 ):76-77.

4.    The 1980 tern season. Cape Naturalist. 1981 Summer; 10(1):22-23.

5.    The 1981 tern season. Cape Naturalist. 1982 Spring; 10(4):78-79.

6.    Barrier island habitats : worlds of constant change. Cape Naturalist. 1994; 22:31-33.

7.    A bunch of trees. Cape Naturalist. 1972 Dec; 1(3):45-47.

8.    Cape and Islands rare and endangered plants : Adder’s tongue  (Ophioglossum vulgatum variety pseudopodum). Cape Naturalist. 1988 Winter-1989 Winter; 17(3):63.

9.    Cape and Islands rare and endangered plants :  broom crowberry. (Corema Conradii Torr.). Cape Naturalist. 1991; 19:63-64.

10.    Cape and Islands rare and endangered plants : golden club   (Orontium aquaticum). Cape Naturalist. 1990 Spring; 18 (3):59.

11.    Cape and Islands rare and endangered plants : sandplain gerardia (Agalinis acuta). Cape Naturalist. 1988 Spring; 16(4):81.

12.    Cape and Islands rare and endangered plants : slender arrowhead (Sagittaria teres). Cape Naturalist. 1989 Winter-1990 Winter; 18(2):47.

13.    Cape and Islands rare and endangered plants : tinker’s weed (Triosteum perfoliatum). Cape Naturalist. 1989 Summer; 18(1):9.

14.    Cape and Islands rare and endangered wildlife : eastern spadefoot. (Scaphiopus h. holbrooki)  ; spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum). Cape Naturalist. 1991; 19:60-62.

15.    Cape and Islands rare and endangered wildlife : gray seal (Halichoerus grypus). Cape Naturalist. 1989 Winter-1990 Winter; 18(2):27.

16.    Cape and Islands rare and endangered wildlife : leatherback turtle. (Dermochelys coriacea). Cape Naturalist. 1990 Spring; 18(3):58.

17.    Cape and islands  rare and endangered wildlife  : :piping plover  (Charadrius melodus). Cape Naturalist. 1988 Spring; 16(4):77.

18.    Cape and Islands rare and endangered wildlife : regal frittillary. (Speyeria idalia). Cape Naturalist. 1989 Summer; 18(1):3.

19.    Cape and Islands rare and endangered wildlife : roseate tern (Sterna dougallii). Cape Naturalist. 1988 Winter-1989 Winter; 17(3):43.

20.    . Cape and Islands rare and endangered wildlife  : water-willow borer (Papaipema sulphurata) . Cape Naturalist. 1988 Summer; 17(1):11.

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Cape Cod Museum Of Natural History

This is the first blog posting from the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History. This blog will be used to periodically “reprint” articles from The Cape Naturalist that began publishing in June of 1972. Prior to those postings we’d like to give you an overview of the Museum.

The Museum is located on the Old King’s Highway in Brewster, Massachusetts. The address is 869 Route 6A, Brewster, MA  02631-1032. You can find our Facebook presence here and you can join our ConstantContact list here.

Mission: To inspire appreciation and understanding of our natural environment through discovery and learning by integrating three strands of its organizational identity – as a museum of natural history, nature education center, and steward of conservation land.

  • As a small museum of natural history, we preserve, exhibit, and interpret our own collections of natural history artifacts and display relevant traveling and loan exhibits.
  • As a nature education center, we are a gathering place for citizen scientists and amateur naturalists, and as a forum for informed discussion of important issues related to the natural world, especially on Cape Cod.
  • As a steward of 400-plus acres of museum-owned land in Stoney Brook Valley and Brewster conservation land adjacent to the Museum, we monitor and protect the land and focus our programming on its varied habitats – our outdoor classroom and teaching tool.

There are several popular nature walks – around a salt mash, through the Lyn Peabody Wildflower garden (received the  2007 Homer Lucas Award for Public Gardens from the New England Wild Flower Society), or through a wooded path down to the beach; most of the Museum land (south of historic Route 6A) is within the Massachusetts Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program Priority Site for Rare Species and Exemplary Natural Communities; Museum land is entirely within the Old King’s Highway Regional Historic District established by state law in 1973 and thought to be the largest in the country (as of a 2004 study); there is also a major herring run, Paine’s Creek, going through the property that most likely attracted Native Americans to the area long before colonists arrive – it is celebrated by renowned naturalist John Hay’s classic book, “The Run” published in 1959.

The Museum has also been responsible for an archaeological dig on Wing Island (town-owned land). The island is named for John Wing—the first English settler to live in this part of Cape Cod, and was part of the territory that the original Plimoth colonists reserved for themselves. It is also a microcosm of the archaeology of the Cape and provides clues of what the past of the region contains. Findings date back 9,000 years to prehistoric Cape Cod and demonstrates a slice of what the Cape was like prior to European settlement. There is also remnants of an old salt works that operated on the island. Wing Island is the inspiration for “Jack’s Island” in William Martin’s 1991 novel, Cape Cod.

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