Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Plum Island Raptors Capture an Audience
February 03, 2018
By Steve Grinley

     Last Saturday, Paul Roberts of Medford, one of the leading hawk experts in Massachusetts and beyond, led his annual Bald Eagle and Snowy Owl field trip for Mass Audubon’s Habitat Sanctuary to the Plum Island, Newburyport, and Salisbury area. Paul shares his trip report with us:

     “For the first time in several decades, we didn’t get off the island in over 7 hours, with most of the raptors within 4 miles of each other on the PI turnpike and north refuge road. Sunny to largely overcast at times, 30 to 54 degrees, SW winds increasing during midday to 20-30+ mph…

     “Initially found 1 juvenile Bald Eagle on osprey platform in marsh west of the refuge entrance, 1 basic third year on Seal island, and 1 Basic second year on ice flow in harbor. An adult Red-tailed hunted in the marsh grass on the east side of Plumbush Creek, along with a subadult male Northern Harrier. Glorious light, and then the juvenile harrier flew out of the sun towards us on the road and wheeled next to us, enabling us to see what an injured goose might see in its last minutes. (The bird had clearly seen something good on the other side of the road.) 

     “Also saw two distant adult eagles “duetting,” skydancing along the north shore of the harbor, in apparent “courtship” flight. (Recently heard interesting professional research suggesting that much, if not all, of what has historically been considered courtship behavior, including talon grasping and wheeling, is actually combative, with competing adults of the same gender trying to intimidate or otherwise hinder the competition.)

     “Saw the bodacious juvenile Red-tailed Hawk at the refuge entrance and later on down the road several hundred yards, oblivious to cars and people but affording many photo ops. Heard that many people were calling it a roughleg.

     “Then we had 3 immature Bald Eagles land on the marsh just west of Plumbush Creek, jumping up and down as though playing. Great views. We assumed these were the same three immatures we had seen individually about an hour earlier, but they could have been different. (There have been at least 8 immature eagles on the river in recent weeks).

     “Driving down the refuge road in early morning light we had 6-7 individual Snowy Owls of highly various markings, sitting out in the marsh a fair-to-considerable distance from the road and many not obvious or not well appreciated without a scope. Checked ice cakes and floes carefully with a good scope at 60X. One white object was almost dismissed as a chunk of ice until it turned and coughed up a pellet. Not good photographic subjects but great through the scope. 

     “One very distant owl then jumped up and flew towards us and sat down several hundreds yards away, and then flew south twice again, affording wonderful views of flight behavior, “roller coasting” high in the sky and then swooping low mowing the grass, like the last thing a meadow vole ever sees. [It was] the only flight by any owls we saw in 7.5 hrs of looking. [There were]At least six different owls, possibly 7 in less than four miles from refuge entrance to the warden’s. Also saw one lone owl in the marsh out from Stage Island causeway, the most heavily marked owl of the day. (Was reminded that four years earlier this field trip had seen 18 Snowy Owls, in the first weekend of the big “invasion”.) 

     “We had a sharpie dart quickly over us on the road, and farther down had “to-die-for” views of an immature dark morph Rough-legged Hawk, which soared low and wheeled on the dune side in incredible light. For many, Snowy Owls were a life bird, but they will never forget the spectacular views we had of this dark winter raptor.

     “South of Hellcat I spotted a distant light morph Roughleg hunting on the northern edge of Grape Island, where it then hovered and perched briefly. Also had 2 distant Red-tailed Hawks and 2 similar Northern Harriers soaring over the west edge of the marsh. We also had a smallish full adult Bald Eagle soar up low over the dunes and then fly close overhead, so we saw one adult “up close and personal.”

     “We had a distant flock of Horned Larks in the marsh about two hours after high tide, and had a close flock of 25 Snow Buntings on the ice northwest of the warden’s, and then wheeling over us, affording great views to all. For many these were life birds.

     “The best day I’ve had for seeing raptors on the island all winter, and a great group of people enjoying a spectacular day seeing winter raptors.”

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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