Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Spring Birds Arrive to Protected Habitat
March 31, 2023
By Steve Grinley
The end of March and start of April is a time of transition. The weather is trying to push winter aside and bring us into spring. The birds are transitioning as well. The wintering tree sparrows and juncos are giving way to the arriving chipping and song sparrows. Spring robins are now feeding on the awakening lawns.
Herons and egrets are returning to the marshes as sandpipers and plovers arrive on the mudflats and beaches. Soon the least terns will arrive as well. The arrival of piping plovers and least terns changes the open beach of the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge to a closed, protected nesting habitat for the birds. Local birder and writer Doug Chickering of Newbury shared with us his ritual concerning this transition of the beach some years ago and I bring it to you here again:
“This winter may be characterized as mild but it is also persistent. April is upon us and there are thin panes of ice across the waters of the Center street marsh in the early morning. Choosing the right coat isn’t a given and there are times when you wish you brought your gloves. Still the sun rises high and bright and warms things up pretty quickly and there is a trickle of birds arriving on schedule – more or less. The good news is that with this wintry cold hanging on, the result should be a retardation of the bursting foliage, which should add up to easier and more open birding in May. There are few things more disheartening than hearing that Blackburnian [Warbler] in the tree above your head calling from an opaque cluster of new leaves, completely out of sight.
“Today, Thursday, the last day of March was one of those transitional days. It was cold and still in the morning and then a heavy, blustery wind came up with the rising sun and with it a pleasant warming. The wind was from the southwest and birds on Plum Island were quite lively; even in the midst of the punishing wind. Like the last few years I have set aside this last day in March to walk the beach.
“Tomorrow it would be closed, not to be open again until sometime in the late summer or even early fall, depending on the collective fate of the Piping Plover. If storms roar in during the spring and wipe out the nests the opening of the beach will be postponed until another set of nests produces young and they fledge. I wanted to see the plovers before the beach closed. It didn’t matter that I had already seen them at Emerson Rocks a few days before; this last walk had become a personal tradition.
“I trudged south from the entry at Parking Lot#3; into the glare of a bright sun and into the teeth of a high, blustery wind that, at times, sand blasted me to such an extent that I had to turn away from its force. However, all in all it was a subtle but glorious experience. There were occasional small flocks of Oldsquaw, close into shore and a single Red-throated Loon, sleek and gray; coming into breeding plumage.
“It was dead low tide so the hard packed sand made for easy walking and in two places I had a mixed flock of Dunlin and Sanderlings feeding at the water’s edge; so busy that I could walk right past them, only a few feet away. They were so completely at ease with my presence that they barely looked up from their foraging.
“The highlight of the walk, of course were the Piping Plovers. I saw nine of them in the three miles of beach I traversed. They too seemed unflustered at my presence. A few whistled their distinctive song and a couple of them seemed to be cavorting one with the other. I also noticed a curious behavior of at least two Plovers as they would stop where the sand was still wet from the falling tide and stir at the sand with one of their feet as if trying to draw something out. Very much like Snowy Egrets when they stir the mud while they feed.
“There were a few moments before my trek when I considered abandoning it. I knew that the wind would be unpleasant and I had already seen Piping Plover, but in the end I made the walk. And I am glad that I have continued this tradition. If at all possible, next March 31st I shall do the same.
“Later on I saw my first Palm Warbler of the year. As winter retreats and spring advances, I can feel the joy and excitement rising within me.”