Category Archives: Atlantic Seashore

Sorting Sparrows: “Ipswich” Savannah Sparrow

Photo of "Ipswich" Savannah Sparrow
"Ipswich" Savannah Sparrow | Biddeford Pool, ME | 3 Oct 2016

Savannah Sparrows breed in grasslands throughout much of Canada and the northern US, and winter for the most part in coastal and southern US and Mexico. One distinctive subspecies of Savannah Sparrow, which breeds almost exclusively on Sable Island in Nova Scotia, Canada, is the "Ipswich" Savannah Sparrow, or "Ipswich" Sparrow, for short.

Due to morphological differences like their larger size and sandy gray plumage, this subspecies was formerly thought to be a separate species, though current taxonomies now lump this form with the browner, slimmer mainland types of Savannah Sparrows (see photo below). Outside of the breeding season, "Ipswich" Sparrows can be seen in coastal habitats throughout the eastern seaboard, places where being the color of sand can be a distinct advantage.

To view the following images in full-size, click here.

Coastal Crabs: Hermit Crab

Photo of Hermit Crab

While looking around a nearby beach at low tide for living Northern Moon Snails, I came across a slew of Hermit Crabs re-purposing the shells of the species I was seeking. Instead of growing protective carapaces of their own, these crafty crustaceans prefer the rental model, trading in their mobile homes for a larger version when their personal needs and shell availability coincide.

Photo of Hermit Crab

According to Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman's Field Guide to Nature of New England (2012), there are at least 5 species of Hermit Crabs in our area. The individuals shown here are Long-clawed Hermit Crabs* (Pagurus longicarpus). This species has a roughly cylindrical right claw which is larger and longer than the left.

Photo of Hermit Crab

*Thanks to Aaron Hunt (an editor at the Bug Guide) for confirming my tentative identification.

Low Tide Life: Atlantic Dogwinkle

Photo of Atlantic Dogwinkles

In addition to Common Periwinkles, I've eaten another local saltwater snail this year, the Atlantic Dogwinkle (Nucella lapillus). Also known as Dogwhelks, these native, pointy-shelled mollusks live in rocky, intertidal zones, alongside the non-native and often more numerous Common Periwinkles. Atlantic Dogwinkles come in a variety of colors (often white), have pointed spires (unlike the blunt spires of Common Periwinkles), and have a groove at the base of the shell opening.

Photo of Common Periwinkle vs. Atlantic Dogwinkle

Scouting out a low-tide Biddeford location, I was able to find areas with more Dogwinkles than Periwinkles, enough for me to feel comfortable harvesting a dozen to eat. After boiling them for a minute or two in saltwater, extracting them with a pin, and removing each operculum (the thin cover on their shell-opening), I enjoyed them as an oceany appetizer.

The top photo shows both snails -- Atlantic Dogwinkles (with white, pink, yellow and black shells) and Common Periwinkles (a light-tan one on left and a smaller, darker one on right). To view the following images in full-size, click here.

Low Tide Life: Blue Mussel

Photo of Blue Mussels

Blue Mussels (Mytilus edulis) live along the New England coast in intertidal and subtidal waters. They anchor themselves by attaching their byssus filaments to a substrate, and in turn sometimes serve as anchors for seaweed. These bivalves are preyed upon by fish, other shellfish, humans, and birds, including Herring Gulls and Common Eiders.

Two inedible mussel species also live in coastal New England waters. Ribbed Mussels (Geukensia demissa) prefer salt marshes and mud flats, and have radially ribbed shell surfaces, while Horse Mussels are typically larger than Blue Mussels, and have a double-bump at the narrow end of each shell.

Mainers can collect two bushels of Blue Mussels per day for personal consumption without a license, though, according to a 2015 article, these marine bivalves have become scarce in places where they were formerly abundant. Wild harvested or cultured Blue Mussels are available at fish markets and grocery stores near me for $2-3 per pound. (To view the following images in full-size, click here.)

Low Tide Life: Common Periwinkle

Photo of Common Periwinkle

One of my personal goals for 2016 is to eat more shellfish. So far, in addition to dining on store-bought mussels and oysters, I've hand-harvested and eaten a couple dozen salt-water snails called Common Periwinkles (Littorina littorea). I'd long known these abundant gastropods were edible, but it was reading Hazel Stark's periwinkle post (on her Partridge, Pine, and Peavey blog) that finally got me to try them. Thanks for the nudge, Hazel -- they're tasty!

Photo of Common Periwinkle