Words On Birds 07-12-24

Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Shorebirds Need Critical Habitat During Migration
July 12, 2024
By Steve Grinley
     On Plum Island the past few weeks, a Virginia rail with babies has been seen feeding at the edge of North Pool from the Hellcat dike. Least bitterns have been moving between North Pool and Bill Forward Pool. A young least bittern with pin feathers was seen and photographed in the pools in the past a week ago. 
     Shorebirds are arriving already and have been seen feeding in the salt pannes along the refuge road, and can be seen and heard only flying around their favorite fresh water pools with nowhere to land. The water levels in North Pool, Bill Forward Pool and Stage Island Pool have not yet been lowered for the shorebirds.  
     Shorebird migration starts in late June and peaks during July and August. Thousands upon thousands of shorebirds rely on these fresh water mudflats to rest and feed during their journey south. These pools are their most critical stopover north Cape Cod. With shorebirds numbers already in sharp decline, we shouldn’t leave them high and dry, or should I say high and wet, by not having the pools levels lowered.
     It seems like every year the refuge staff needs to be reminded of this important task.  Rick Heil of Peabody queried them this year and their reply was: “Our bio team continues to monitor shorebird migration numbers and is on track for a planned schedule to continue to monitor water levels throughout the season.”
     Rick replied to them: “Unfortunately your bio team doesn’t appear to understand that southbound shorebird migration begins in late June and that thousands of shorebirds are passing through and looking for high tide roosting and foraging sites throughout July. Some years the peak counts of adults, which precedes juveniles, occurs in late July. By keeping the Forward Pool high, you are denying and stressing thousands of these declining species a critical refueling and resting and forcing them to move on to try to find other less preferred locations. Water levels need to be gradually drawn down now, not early in August. The impoundments should not be completely drained but only so much as to leave shallow pools and fringes to provide the best foraging habitat.”
     Unfortunately, the water level at Stage Island Pool has not been lowered for the shorebirds, but pied-billed grebes, Virginia rails and least bitterns have been seen or heard there. Only a few ducks and a pair of swans are using the higher water. Tom Wetmore has volunteered, and the refuge has agreed, to open the Stage Island Pool gate at low tide on Sunday to begin that draw down. The last word that I heard was that the Bill Forward Pool isn’t planned for draw down until August. Too late for so many birds.
     Meanwhile, Short-billed dowitchers, greater and lesser yellowlegs, least and semipalmated sandpipers are already here in small numbers.  Semipalmated plovers and stilt sandpipers have also been seen this past week.  The summer resident willets are constantly flying and vocalizing loudly over the marsh, flashing their white-striped wings to scare potential predators away from their young.  The killdeer are guarding their young along the roadside, gravelly areas, and mudflat edges. A view of the closed beach area will reveal the piping plovers with young.
     At low tide, some shorebirds can be seen on the exposed flats in Newburyport Harbor from Joppa Park or behind the Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Education Center.  On some days, the tides have been running high and even low tide hasn’t exposed the flats long enough for good viewing. 
     During high tide, the shorebirds will have to depend on the salt water pannes, if the water is even low enough there. It is worth checking along the Plum Island Turnpike or the pannes along the refuge road. The main Salt Pannes pull off on the refuge is a good viewing spot, if the water isn’t too high and the greenheads are not too bothersome, where you can view the closer birds from the car.  If using a scope, we find that setting up away from the car will keep most of the greenheads off if there is a breeze. Wearing light colored clothing may help as well. 
     Hopefully the refuge will step up their management of the pools for the shorebirds. Despite the challenges of greenheads, mosquitoes and no-see-ums, it is still worth the effort to try to catch views of the amazing shorebird migration that this area is known for.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Port Plaza West Shops
45 Storey Ave, Suite 7B
Newburyport, MA 01950

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