Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Chilling Weather Slows Migration
April 28, 2023
By Steve Grinley
As May approaches, more birds will be finding their way back to Essex County. On Plum Island a small flock of warblers greeted us at the beginning of the Hellcat Boardwalk. They were the usual early yellow-rumped and palm warblers, and quite a number of each. The yellow-rumps flitted higher in the trees while the palms mostly stayed in the lower shrubs, characteristically “wagging” their tails.
In the company of the warblers were the tiny ruby-crowned kinglets, another early arrival. Flickers were calling and purple finches were singing. Towhees and a lone hermit thrush were sneaking in the brush further along the path.
We usually expect more bird species by now, but the cold, cloudy weather and chilling easterly winds this week slowed the migration. A cold, chilly April morning a few years ago inspired Doug Chickering of Newbury to share with us some signs of spring that he found that day:
“It was undeniably cold this morning as I started down Plum Island. The skies were cloudy and a punishing wind swept in from the west, gaining force across the open marshes. There was a strikingly beautiful Snowy Owl sitting on a set of staddles behind Grape Island.
“An observer could easily be forgiven for thinking these were the first days of March and not the middle of April. We are all concerned and we are all impatient. Yet even with the grip of winter still having an effect, for the first time this year I could feel the new season coming: not completely here, but not completely absent either.
“We were still struggling to get to 50 degrees and everyone at the Hawk watch was muffled against the chill and trying to find a place out of the wind. Even through the wind a beautiful immature Peregrine Falcon, fast and low came skimming over the sand dunes and rushed, effortlessly by us, heading north.
“The migrants have also started to arrive; a few scouts for the great cavalcade to come. In the Old Pines, Hellcat and along the road I saw a total of seven Hermit Thrushes that made me think of the distinct possibility of one of the early migrants. Maybe a Pine Warbler, Sapsucker, both brands of kinglet or Solitary Vireo. I didn’t get any of these but I did have one of those thrilling short encounters. Those delicious, surprising events that are highlights for a day in the field.
“I was at Hellcat, on the boardwalk and heading for the overlook we call “Tom Wetmore’s Bench”. We call it that because right at the end of the trail, where you have a nice overlook of the North Pool and its marsh, there is a wooden bench with “Tom Wetmore’s Bench” carved onto the back. Suddenly I caught a bit of movement. Something had jumped out from under the boardwalk right in front of me. It didn’t stay a second but immediately hopped back under the boardwalk.
“There was shallow water and a great deal of underbrush. My judgment and experience quickly sorted through time of year, the way it flicked from under the boardwalk the way it flicked in and out, its coloration all added up to Winter Wren. It popped up again; long enough to make an ID and then hopped away into the dense tangle and then evaporated into a few sudden bits of movement making its way away from me. Winter Wren. Great find.
“I was doubly overjoyed to discover another one, emerging from under the boardwalk, and then was astounded when I encountered them again on my way back. This time they were together, more or less and one of them slowed down enough for me to get long looks. Long enough the see the tiny white patches along the edge of the folded wing; the rich brown of the wings and upper parts.
“Tail up, fidgety and interjected I managed to follow him around where I stood for at least two minutes. A long enough look to be able pause to wonder at this tiny ball energetic perfection. Ah Winter Wrens. There are small yellow blossoms on my forsythia, green buds on the Honeysuckle and Winter Wrens. Spring?”