Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Autumn Fallout on Plum Island
September 26, 2020
By Steve Grinley
Last weekend, the songbird migration on Plum Island was something I hadn’t experienced since the 1960’s and 70’s – and that was usually in the spring, not fall. Strong northwest winds had brought hundreds, if not thousands of birds and dropped them on the island. As we drove through the refuge gate late morning on Saturday, there were warblers, vireos and kinglets still streaming through the low vegetation on both sides of the road and all around Lot 1.
One of the first birds we saw was an uncommon Cape May warbler, still in its breeding plumage. Many of the other warblers were more of a challenge in their fall plumages, but they were everywhere we looked. We knew this day was going to be special.
Doug Chickering, who had arrived just after dawn, experienced the whole show and I’ll let him describe the spectacle as only he can do:
“Today I experienced the most sensational, Autumn Fall Out on Plum Island in my memory. When I drove on, fairly early, I could tell right away from the many people festooned with cameras, scopes and bins that something special was occurring. It didn’t take any time to discover what. For me, Plum Island has given many magic moments and today was certainly one of them.
“On the marsh side, between the Middens and the boat ramp, the area was alive. Dancing in the perfect lighting of a rising sun, there seemed to be small birds everywhere. Mostly Warblers but with other migrants mixed in.
“There was a mounting, electric excitement among the excited observers as many of the birds fed and flew in and around the two small pines at the edge of the road, giving all a spectacular show which, surely, will become cherished memories of a special day in their birding lives. It was one of those times when your expectation of just another day is swept away and you become more and more aware that this is a special day A day filled with an unexpected magic and is the start of a fantastic birding day.
“And so, it was. I spent close to an hour just picking out and marveling at the birds that seemed to enter and vanish the area like wraiths. I developed an understandable hesitation after a while. What was on the rest of the island? Should I strike out or stay here? Finally, I decided that my best and most productive course of action would be a long walk up the road.
“So, I parked at Lot two and was further excited and encouraged when I walked down the sand road right next to Parking lot 2 that led out to the beach. And staying among the trees I could see that the fallout had not diminished and was most likely good down the length of the road. Then I started walking south.
“To sum up the walk; there were birds everywhere. And this big day was different from the few similar days I have experienced in the spring. Not only was the foliage significantly denser but the birds were much harder to identify. A Bay-breasted Warbler stands out in a tree in the spring, but the same bird hopping through the heavy foliage is much more difficult to identify.
“At the sides of the roads was the constant presence of White-throated Sparrow, Juncos and the occasional Chipping Sparrow feeding in the grass at the roads edge. Also there seemed to be an endless sprinkling of small birds up in the trees, Vireos and Warblers and others, in an endless procession of mystery and beauty. It was dazzling and fulfilling and fun. It took me five hours to walk from Parking lot 2 to the Wardens.
“Later I was told by friends I met that Hellcat was filled with activity and the Pines trail as well. None of the people I met had made it south of the Pines; mainly because they were so tightly captivated by the extraordinary excitement that was taking place north of the Pines, they ran out of time and energy.
“I felt sorry for the friends that I met who had previous commitments. Initially they had intended to visit the island for a short period of time, and immediately became immersed in one of the dream days that we all contemplate and wish for. They had been caught up in the show, but now had to leave.
“I stayed deep into the afternoon and things quieted a bit and I got tired. I had walked around ten miles which is a lot for a slightly overweight man of my age and reasoned that I could return tomorrow, early, and pick up where I left off. That, of course is the triumph of hope over experience. Yet even if it would be only a trace of what it was today, it will be worth the trip.”
The “show” did continue into Sunday, and even trickled a bit into Monday. It was a weekend on the island that those of us birders who experienced it, will not forget.