Words On Birds 06-29-19

Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Saltmarsh Sparrows and Other Marsh Birds
June 29, 2019
By Steve Grinely

     We are lucky to live so close to Plum Island and the Great Marsh that is habitat for a great diversity of birds. One of the more plentiful, but secretive, of the marsh birds is the Saltmarsh Sparrow. This time of year, they can be seen flying low over the marsh grass from one tuft of grass to another. More often they disappear into the grasses and patience is needed to see them reappear, often yards from where they duck in.

     Doug Chickering of Newburyport shares with us his observations during some time at the marsh:

     “It was about as perfect a summers day as is imaginable. The temperature might have qualified as hot – high seventies or low eighties- if it weren’t for a light breeze slanting in off the ocean. And being the middle of June there were no biting insects.

     “When plunged into the frozen days of winter, when we yearn for the arrival of summer it is this type of day we picture in our minds. The sky was a comfortable blue punctuated by a few high clouds that occasionally traversed the sun and rewarded us with passing shadows, breaking up the glare and further moderating the heat of the sun. I sat on Lois’ bench at the northern end of the pans on Plum Island as I often do. Letting the memories slowly glide by, still sorrowful and not yet sweet. And waiting to see what came by.

     “Far out in the salt marshes the Willets were still calling and flying about, and even farther out I could see the Common Terns, diving and swooping; probably hard at work feeding their young. There was the occasional keening call of a Killdeer and the slow lazy flights of Egrets, laboriously making their way south. They too, gullets full, were fulfilling their roles as new parents. It was June. The days of eggs cracking open and a hungry, scrawny, new generation bursting forth.

     “My attention was caught with a clattering call that it took a few seconds to recognize as Least Terns. They always caught my interest. Energetic little birds that would usually flutter ten feet above the surface of the pans, before plunging into the shallow waters after unfortunate little fish. Sometimes they would also fly low over the water and pick at the surface, like skimmers. The skimming rarely was rewarded, but the plunges almost always were successful.

     “Occasionally two or three of them would be plunging and fishing at the same time. Often two of them would noisily fly to the edge of the pans and land, side by side. One with a fish and one without. They would chatter again and the one with the fish would feed the one without. It seemed most peculiar to me. They were both adults and I suspected they had feeding responsibilities back at the beach. Perhaps this feeding one another was a renewal of their vows.

     “I sat there fascinated by the unfolding scene before me, when suddenly I saw movement in the grassy space before the bench. A short low flight from right to left as a small bird came from nowhere and perched abruptly in the grass at the edge of the carpet of straw between Lois’ bench and the shallows of the pan. Even before I had focused in on it, I knew it was a Saltmarsh Sparrow. I was not surprised, for this had happened to me once before this year, and more than once last year.

     “I had even claimed that the best place to see a Saltmarsh Sparrow was from Lois’ bench. All I had to do was sit and wait and the bird would appear; as if by magic. Now Saltmarsh Sparrow isn’t that difficult a bird to find. A little persistence usually does the trick. But for me to see it at this bench, so regularly, so close and just when I need some comfort is something special.”

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
Celebrating 2
4 years of service to the birding community! 
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