Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Shorebirds, Egrets and Swallows Gather for Migration
August 26, 2022
By Steve Grinley
The orioles left our feeders many weeks ago, although Margo has seen an adult male stop by a couple of times in recent days. He was checking out the suet since we no longer have jelly out for them. A couple of customers have reported similar instances of recent oriole sightings after a long absence. Some folks have scrambled to put out some jelly again for them, and for any other migrants that might come through in September.
Our hummingbirds are still feeding feverishly at our two feeders, fighting for dominance of our feeders among the drought-starved flowers and plants. The birds should stay another several weeks. We usually keep our hummingbird feeders up into October to feed any migrants coming through and hoping for a stray species from the west.
Goldfinches are increasing at feeders as the newly fledged young join their parents for Nyger and finch mix. Most will feed on the new autumn supply of natural seeds from trees, plants and flowers. The lack of water may have stinted some seed crops locally so more birds might look to feeders this fall.
Autumn is officially less than a month away and the fall migration of birds has been in full swing for many weeks now. Shorebirds are blanketing the mud flats in Newburyport Harbor at low tide and, during high tide they are feeding along the edges of the Salt Pannes, and the water-starved Bill Forward and Stage Island Pools on the Parker River Refuge.
Our Great Marsh is an important refueling stopover for many birds on their journey south. Thousands of sandpipers and plovers utilize the Marsh and its mud flats, including greater and lesser yellowlegs, semipalmated, least, and white-rumped sandpipers as well as black-bellied and semipalmated plovers. One will also see short and long-billed dowitchers, willets, dunlin and sanderlings. Less frequently, Hudsonian and marbled godwits, red knots, stilt and western sandpipers are found here. These shorebirds will “stage” on the flats, feeding for a day or more to increase their body fat for the next leg of their journey.
In addition to the shorebirds, the long-legged waders – herons and egrets – also stage in the ponds, marshes and river outlets. Snowy and great egrets congregate on the falling tide near the mouth of the Essex River off Conomo Point along with double-crested cormorants, gulls and terns. The egrets are also gathering at Stage Island Pool on Plum Island and eventually will roost for the night on islands offshore or at secluded ponds in the Newburyport area. As their numbers grow, so does the spectacle of seeing so many of these beautiful birds congregating in one area.
If you stand on the Hellcat dike in the evening, (perhaps on the tower to catch a breeze to help keep the insects away), you can watch small flocks of egrets and herons fly toward their evening roosts. Most of these small groups contain snowy and great egrets, but occasionally you may see a little blue or tricolored heron mixed in. Great blue herons also move by, sometimes singularly or in pairs. Also from the Hellcat dike, you can also watch the night herons leaving their roost in the Hellcat Swamp and heading out for their nocturnal feeding.
Though we are past peak, thousands of swallows are still feeding on the evening insects all over Plum Island. The swallows form large, swarming clouds as they feed, and you can watch others skim insects off the surface of the pools. You can still see the congregation of swallows during the day, as these birds gather and move along the dunes and marsh. In addition to feeding on flying insects on the wing or plucking insects off the top of the water, many swallows gather to feed on the bayberries growing on the bushes in the dunes. The Refuge is an important staging area for tens of thousands of swallows in mid to late August, and it is another birding migration spectacle in our area that is worth viewing.