Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Harsh Winter takes it Toll on Birders
February 28, 2015
By Steve Grinley

     Last week, I emphasized how difficult the snow and cold has been on the birds during the last five or six weeks of storms. I suggested ways that we could help the birds through these trying times. Providing food, water and shelter is the key to survival for many of our local birds.

     I failed to mention the other animals that are affected by this record weather. Of course there are the deer and rabbits, but also greatly affected by the recent amounts of snow and frigid temperatures are the local bird watchers, or birders, whose activities have been severely limited by Mother Nature. Not a life threatening situation here, as with the birds and animals, yet those who of us spend their leisure hours viewing birds are hampered by the aftermath of the same storms.

     I am not talking about the casual backyard bird watcher who feeds and houses birds in their yards. It has been a boon year for them, with great numbers of finches, juncos, sparrows, robins and even bluebirds seeking food, water and shelter. The activity at the feeders has been remarkable due to the snow cover and dwindling natural food supplies. 

     The hit is on the field birder, the population that likes to get outdoors and go to outdoor locations to view birds. The towering snow banks everywhere, lack of parking, lack of access to the usual viewing areas has all but shut down birding activity in the Essex County and beyond. It has resulted in cancelations of most organized birding activities in the last month or so.

     The Merrimack River Eagle Festival was cancelled several weeks ago. The Cape Ann Birding Weekend was postponed and was rescheduled to this weekend. Most of the Parker River NWR on Plum Island has been closed during this period, with drifting snow continuously covering the access road. Only recently was the refuge road open down to Lots 3. Numerous programs, especially weekend programs, by the Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Education Center and the Parker River NWR were cancelled. A record number of Bird Club trips were cancelled during this period, including my Bird Watcher’s Supply/Brookline Bird Club Trip along the Merrimack River last Sunday. The cancellation caused me to post the following cancellation notice to Massbird:

     “I have CANCELLED tomorrow’s (Sat 2/21) BBC Afternoon Walk, Birds Along the Merrimack River-Newburyport to Salisbury.

     “I went out early this morning to check roads and possible viewing areas in and around Newburyport and Salisbury. The PI Causeway still has blowing snow, covering parts of it, (a front-loader was attempting to clear edges) and there is no shoulder for cars to pull over. The same is true of Southern Boulevard on Plum Island and the snow banks on the marsh side are up to six feet high or more. THE PARKER RIVER NWR was CLOSED, I am sure due to continued drifting snow.

     “Salisbury was no better. The road down the Salisbury Beach State Reservation has no shoulder and large dump trucks are using the first 2 lots on the left as a snow farm, so truck traffic is constant and I assume that might continue through the weekend. The road is NOT plowed to the last parking lot where we normally view the river and the Jetties. There is only a single lane road through the campground out to the boat ramp. There are a few places where a single oncoming car could pull over enough to allow another through, but a caravan of cars would never make it. There was an immature Bald Eagle on the opposite bank at the boat ramp.

     “There is no viewing of the Merrimack River from Water Street: Nowhere to pull over at the Clam Shack and only a couple of spaces at the Sea Wall where, it appeared, local residents have parked their cars. Cashman Park is also a snow farm with a 20+ foot mountain range of snow between the parking lot and the river. Heavy equipment is working the whole area.

     There is limited parking on Deer Island near the chain bridge, but the river is mostly frozen there, more than I have ever seen it.

     “There is also no practical viewing of the frozen river from Main Street in Amesbury as there is no where to pull over and snow banks too high to see anything if you could.

     “So for those reasons, I chose to CANCEL tomorrow’s trip. A single car might find its way around, but viewing opportunities are few and far between. Looks like another weekend of feeder watching.”

     A number in individuals have ventured out and conquered the many obstacles to see some bird in the past week or so. One birder reported 2 snowy owls between the gate and Lot 2 on the Refuge in the past few days. Other have parked on Deer Island near the Chain Bridge and seen as many as 6 bald eagles there. Phil brown observed a wintering great blue heron stealing fish from the local red-breasted mergansers, along with numerous great cormorants. Another lucky observer found a Lapland longspur with six horned larks at Salisbury. 

     Duck numbers are low due to the Merrimack River and Newburyport Harbor being so frozen. Even the red-winged blackbirds, which normally show up in good numbers in February, have finally smartened up and, apparently stayed further south for now. 

     The conditions are bound to improve in the March weeks ahead. Or so we hope. Still, if I were a red-winged blackbird or other spring migrant, I would over-stay my welcome in some south Florida location.

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