Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Shorebirds Are On The Move
July 22, 2022
By Steve Grinley
Late July and August is the peak migration time for shorebirds heading south along the Massachusetts coast. Places like South Beach in Chatham and Monomoy Island on Cape Cod as well as Duxbury and Plymouth Beaches on the South Shore are popular spots to watch shorebirds as they stop to feed en route. Some of the best shorebirding in the Northeast can be found right here in Essex County. The thousands of acres of tidal marshes and flats, stretching from Salisbury and Newburyport Harbor to the Parker River and its estuaries in Newbury and Rowley and to the coastal marshes of Ipswich and Essex, are an oasis for tired, hungry shorebirds. They stop to rest and feed on the crustacean rich mud flats and salt pans.
The best time to watch shorebirds along the rivers and harbor is when the tide is ebbing or, better still, on the incoming tide as the birds move closer to you as you watch. About four hours before or after high tide is a good rule of thumb. Low tide generally has the birds too dispersed or too far out on the mud flats for you to view well.
The best vantage points for Newburyport harbor is from the seawall at Joppa Park on Water Street or from the Massachusetts Audubon Joppa Flats property at the beginning of the Plum Island Causeway. Greater and lesser yellowlegs, black-bellied and semipalmated plovers, least and semipalmated sandpipers, short and long billed dowitchers are all common migrants that frequent the harbor mud flats in migration. Hudsonian or marbled godwits are also sometimes seen in the harbor.
At high tide, the shorebirds move to salt pan areas, shallow pools of water amid the tidal marshes. Areas along either side of the Plum Island Causeway are good places to scan for shorebirds during high tide. On the Parker River Refuge on Plum Island, salt pans are scattered throughout the marsh all along the west side of the road. These are especially good spots to get closer views of white-rumped and Western sandpipers or an occasional phalarope. The Bill Forward Pool behind the Hellcat Swamp nature trail on the refuge has a lower water level this year and is already attracting numbers of shorebirds during high tide. Many dowitchers, stilt sandpipers, yellowlegs and a rare avocet have been seen there recent weeks. An added bonus to the Bill Forward Pool is the appearance of herons, egrets, glossy ibis and night herons that stop and feed there, especially in the early morning or evening.
Further south on the refuge is Stage Island Pool where the avocet has moved to in recent days. Shorebirds collect when the water level is low enough to expose the mud flats in the pool and this year the water level has been lowered for the shorebirds, perhaps too much this year as most birds are too distant to view even with a good scope. Stage Island Pool has historically been an excellent spot to view Baird’s, buff-breasted, and stilt sandpipers.
Looking out toward Emerson Rocks from the Lot 7 boardwalk (still closed due to plover nesting), or a walk out to the beach at Sandy Point at the southern tip of the island may turn up a piping plover in the sand or black-bellied plovers and sanderlings along the water’s edge. Distant views of the ocean and Emerson Rocks may be had from the Lot 7 tower.
Wherever you choose to look at shorebirds, be sure to bring your binoculars and a spotting scope if you have one. Many of these birds are often far enough away to require more than the naked eye to see any detail. Bug spray is also helpful near the marshes. A good field guide will help you differentiate the many species. You can also join an organized trip out of the Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Education Center. There is usually an abundance of shorebirds in our area for the next six to eight weeks which increases the chances of getting good views of these early fall migrants.