Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Phenomenal Warbler Fallout on Plum Island
May 20, 2022
By Steve Grinley
Last Monday was a birding day on Plum Island like non other in the more than half century that I have been birding there. It started early as our phones started lighting up like Christmas trees with reports of warbler sightings from the refuge. Last week, I had hoped that the southerly winds would start bringing in more migrants, but we weren’t prepared for what unfolded on Monday.
As birds migrated north over us on Sunday night, rainstorms came across ahead of them in Southern New Hampshire and Maine, halting their progress. The thick fog on the North Shore captured them as they settled down below for the rest of the night. The result was hundreds, even thousands of birds awakening on Plum Island and, to some extent, Eastern Point, Marblehead Neck and Nahant. Such a phenomenon is termed “fallout”.
It was mid-morning by the time we arrived on Plum Island but the coast was still shrouded in fog. As we drove through the gates of the refuge, we could see warblers flitting in the shrubs and crossing the road in front of us. Lot 1 had a number of cars with birders looking around, but we were hoping to get to Hellcat where there were so many early reports.
We could see that the road ahead was lined with cars, so we decided to start by the middens. Stepping out of the car we were surrounded by song and birds flitting in every shrub we could see. The colors were mesmerizing, the songs a background chorus.
We started calling out birds, but they were moving so fast that it was hard for others to get on them. There were multiples of most every species of warbler, so everyone could find their own. There were often multiple birds in the same binocular view. As we tried looking at one bird we were often distracted by other birds in the same view. It was almost sensory overload.
As the waves of warblers in one area passed, or quieted down, we would move a little further down the road. At each stop, there were double-digit numbers of so many warblers: parula, black &white, yellow, magnolia, yellow-rumped, chestnut-sided, black-throated green, black-throated blue, and redstarts. There were even tens of the less common warblers, blackburnian and bay-breasted. We usually rush to see one of these in the area, but on this day there were multiples of these birds in the same tree!
Canada, Tennessee and Wilson’s warblers were also spotted in smaller numbers. The warblers were supplemented with Baltimore and orchard orioles, red-eyed and blue-headed vireos, great crested and least flycatchers, Swainson’s thrushes and veery. Rose-breasted grosbeaks, scarlet tanagers and ruby-throated hummingbirds added to the array of colors.
As we inched our way down the island, cars coming back up island would stop and tell us how great Hellcat was. Some birders said that they were there for more six hours. We found it hard to pass by birds so it ended up taking us six hours just to get to Hellcat!
When we finally arrived at Helcat, we spent the rest of the late afternoon and evening there with most birds still moving through the vegetation. I guess that is what made this “fallout” so amazing, over and above others that we experienced on the island in years past. Usually by late morning, many of the migrants leave the island for the mainland. Part of it may have been the sheer numbers of birds, or their exhaustion from the night’s experience. But I believe that the fog in and out most of the day helped to keep them on the refuge.
Doug Chickering dubbed the event “Fallout in the Fog” and called it “exhilarating.” Diego Fernandez shared “Hellcat right now is like walking through a dream. I’ve never seen so many warblers so close. Over 20 magnolias, many BT blues, multiple bay-breasted, over 15 redstarts, etc.” Marymargaret Halsey called it “Phenomenal. Biggest fallout ever seen in my life.”
I believe the same was true for most every birder on Plum Island that day!