Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Spring Comes Early for Eagle Festival
March 05, 2016
By Steve Grinley
February is behind us and, despite today’s cold temperatures, it looks like we have turned the corner on spring. Of course here in New England, we have learned to say such things quietly. We know how the weather can turn on a dime. But with the longer daylight hours and the sun higher in the sky, we know that any snow that comes hereafter should quickly disappear.
Customers have told me that their crocus and snowdrops have started to emerge already. A Byfield resident sent me a video of the large flock of blackbirds (red-winged blackbirds, grackles, cowbirds and starlings) that are gathering in the trees near their home.
Margo and I went south of Boston last Saturday to the Cumberland Farms fields in Middleton. Every spring and fall, large flocks of blackbirds gather there to feed in the corn and grass fields. It seems that every year, a yellow-headed blackbird or two is found among the thousands of blackbirds there. We have seen one there several times and there was a female bird reported there over the past few weeks.
When we arrived, there was hardly a blackbird to be seen. But on our second time circling the 2,000 acre parcel, were did find flocks of red-wings, grackles, cowbirds and starlings flying around in the middle of the fields. The birds were in distant corn fields, but often flew up to trees where we could scope them from the road. The flock was always moving, so we did too in order to keep them close enough to identify and in decent light. We spent several hours at it and perused every bird we could get our scopes on.
A male yellow-headed blackbird would have been easier to spot with its bright yellow head and large white wing patches which show in flight (which these birds did a lot). But the female has limited yellow on its face and breast and no white in the wing. So getting a face-on look was critical to picking it out of hundreds of birds in a tree. It was a true “needle-in-a-haystack” search, made even more difficult because the haystack kept moving!
We were able to pick out at least one rusty blackbird among the masses, but we finally decided to give up on the yellow-headed blackbird by late afternoon. We were losing light and light was critical for picking out this bird at these distances. Our consolation prize was the rusty blackbird, and a flock of about twenty American pipits in a field along Fuller Street. We used to call them “spring pipits” because they always came in the spring, so they did lift our spirits as they pecked through the grass with tails wagging.
Another sign of spring that day was the four killdeer that we saw in another field. That muddy field had large puddles of water where the killdeer were stationed. I must say that we didn’t hear them call, as that is usually the first indication of their arrival. Usually our first killdeer are in March, so this late February sighting bodes well for an early spring.
I got a call about another “early bird” last Sunday. Marj Watson of Georgetown called Sunday evening to tell me that she had woodcock displaying at the Timothy Dexter Industrial Park in Newburyport. American woodcock usually start arriving the first week of March, so the woodcock were a few days early. They immediately begin their courtship ritual, twittering through the air, as soon as they arrive. Their distinctive nasal “peeent” call can be heard at dusk.
Reports are in that bluebirds have already begun checking out nesting boxes in western Massachusetts. If you have bluebird boxes, or are thinking about putting one up, March is a good time to make sure they are ready. With the mild winter that we had and the promise of an early spring, bluebirds will get an early start and could even have up to three broods this spring and summer season.
Though it may be an early spring, one thing that is happening later than usual is the tenth annual Merrimack River Eagle Festival, which is happening today, Saturday March 5. Last year’s Festival was canceled due to the snow, so we are overdue in celebrating our eagles. Presented by Mass Audubon’s Joppa Flats Education and the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, there is something for everyone during this all day event. You can visit Eagle Hot Spots 9am to 4pm along the Merrimack River, where naturalists are stationed with scopes to help you spot eagles. Eagle Tours are happening from 9am to 2 pm.
Indoor events include raptor demonstrations featuring live raptors at Newburyport City Hall at 10am and at 1:30pm. Family activities, arts and crafts, and live hawks and owls take place at Mass Audubon Joppa Flats and at the Parker River NWR Headquarters 11am to 3pm. Maps and more information are available at each of these venues, at the Newburyport Chamber of Commerce, and also at our store. We hope to see you there!
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