Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Swallows Still Highlight Plum Island Birding
September 03, 2021
By Steve Grinley
I have always associated the autumn nighthawk flight with Labor Day weekend, though peak numbers probably happen earlier. Hundreds of birds have already been tallied in Concord and the other southern New Hampshire cities and towns. Margo and I had three fly over the car on High Road In Newbury on our way home last evening. They were cruising among the scattering of tree swallows that were also feeding on the move. It is worth a check of the evening skies for these birds in the days ahead.
Speaking of swallows, if you haven’t seen the swallow show on Plum Island yet this year, it is probably not too late. Though numbers probably peaked earlier this week, there are still enough birds to mesmerize even the most casual observer. If you can catch an evening with enough of a stiff breeze to keep off the mosquitoes and no see-ums, plant yourself on the Hellcat dike and wait for the show.
Doug Chickering of Newburyport shares one of his birding days this past week that culminated in the swallow show that he experienced:
“There was something strange about birding on Plum Island today. The weather was atypical, cloudy and a little chilly. Although uncommon the weather was no more than a backdrop to a day that was both ordinary and peculiar. And almost had an other-worldly quality. Everything was as we expected it to be.
“The shorebirds are passing through, the tree swallows are staging; the Egrets are spread across the marsh; white outposts in the sea of green. All familiar; just like it always is.
“For me today was a little different. When I set up my scope and pick through the small sandpipers at the pans, I hope to see a few White-rumps among the others. Today they were all White-rumped Sandpipers. All but a brace of Short-billed Dowitchers. If I see twenty White-rumped Sandpipers during the course of the season I would think it a terrific year for White-rumps. Today I counted 61 in the pans alone.
“There were tantalizing rumors of Hooded and Prothonotary Warbler to consider and shorebirds to look for, like Buff-breasted sandpiper and Western Sandpiper, and Golden Plover. And this requires patient observing, looking for field marks, or for that shape that stands out.
“I never caught up with any of those, I was however enthralled and thrilled by the swallows. At times I think that my birding compatriots don’t really appreciate the staging of the Tree Swallows. You go onto the island in August and September and the tree swallows are in the air all around you. At first there aren’t many and they vanish into the background. But then their numbers keep growing and this staging ends in a crescendo that cannot be missed.
“Today was one of the active days. In at least three places they would rise up, again and again, in a dense mass of, probably a thousand birds. In any case a dense insect like swarm. They seem to electrify the air around them and the combination of their wings and their calling is like distant thunder. When I walked up on the Hellcat dike, I noticed there were a lot of swallows in the air. Not as many as I had seen the day before here. I stopped and just scanned the cattails in the North pool and was somewhat astounded to find the tree swallows were packed onto and into the marsh. There were more than I had seen yesterday.
“Then they took flight, and I could almost feel the wash of all the flight activity as they took off. One of the most spectacular and almost disorienting parts of their flights is the fact that they burst open immediately. An observer is probably unaware that such a large number of birds is nearby, so to have them suddenly take flight is, startling. I’ve been watching this particular show now for 40 years, and I never tire of it. Even though the bird numbers are a shadow of what they were in the 1980’s, it is still s spectacular and uplifting show.”