Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Early Spring Arrivals for Wednesday Morning Birders
March 26, 2016
By Steve Grinley
I had the pleasure of co-leading the Wednesday Morning Birding Program for Mass Audubon Joppa Flats this week. Fifteen participants joined us for a pleasant morning on Plum Island with a side trip to Turkey Hill Road in West Newbury. Temperatures started in the cool 40s with an early sprinkle of rain as we neared the southern end of the island. Temperatures climbed to the upper 50s after noontime.
High tide was after noon, so I decided we would head down to Lot 7 first to look for piping plovers that were reported on the beach. As our two vans and additional car headed down the island, two harriers (once known as marsh hawks) started to fly along side the vans. A female bird came quite close, providing great looks at these raptors as they glided over the salt marsh.
As we continued along, there were countless sparrows lining the sides of the road. Every time we stopped to look at some, they all turned out to be song sparrows. Occasionally a few cardinals or blue jays would join them, but clearly there was a big movement of song sparrows overnight. We had to have seen a couple of hundred of them!
From the boardwalk platform at Lot 7, we scanned the ocean and beach. A single piping plover was at the water’s edge. It soon moved up to the edge of a clump of sand and seaweed, shielding itself from the wind. It stayed there for the rest of the time that spent looking at the ocean.
On the water there were small rafts of common eider, bufflehead, long-tailed ducks and greater scaup. Two black scoters, a few white-wings scoters and a single surf scoter were seen. A pair of common goldeneye hung out around Emerson rocks. There were a half dozen common loon diving for food – one coming up with a crab for breakfast! Two horned grebes were spotted, one of them in full breeding plumage already showing off his yellow horns!
After spending much time studying the waterfowl, we headed back up island. We stopped at the Pines Trail parking lot and found more song sparrows feeding along the incline to the dike. We got close looks in the scopes, with many participants able to see variations in the feather coloration of some of the birds. Of course many were singing as well, so we could become familiar with their spring song. Also singing was the resident mockingbird and, eventually, we saw a pair. Several northern flickers flashed their yellow under wings and white rump patches in flight.
We continued to the Hellcat Trail parking lot and went up on the dike. Someone yelled out “great blue heron”, which was the expected long-legged wader to fly over. But as it neared, I could see it was white with a yellow bill – a great egret instead! It was a first of year bird for everyone! One sharp eye spotted a pintail duck hunkered down in the grasses in Bill Forward Pool. Other than that and a couple of black ducks, the pools were devoid of ducks.
Continuing up island, we stopped at the Salt Pannes where we had close views of black ducks, gadwall and a pair of red-breasted mergansers. Through the scopes, every one had excellent views of beautiful feather coloration on these ducks. Killdeer called above us and keen eyes caught up with two killdeer flying high over the road and dunes, calling as they went.
There were reports of Wilson’s snipe on Turkey Hill Road in West Newbury so everyone wanted to extend the trip and try to see these first arrivals. On our way there, two turkey vultures were soaring over Scotland Road in Newbury near the Route 95 interchange. We arrived at the Greenbelt property on Turkey Hill Road, just beyond Pike’s Bridge Rd, and scanned the wet fields for snipe.
At first glance, it looked like there were not any there. But longer gazes with zoomed up scopes revealed different patterns of lumps in among the muddy clumps and grass. The well-camouflaged snipes were snoozing with their long bills tucked under their wings. They were very hard to pick out and very hard to see. For experienced birders, the shapes and patterns helped identify the birds. For newer birders, they could only say “possibly” or just “we will have to believe you” on these birds. If the snipe were feeding and moving about, there would be no doubt, but not everyone went away convinced.
All in all it was a fine morning with good looks at most of the other 43 species that we saw. Joppa Flats conducts Wednesday Morning and Saturday Morning Birding most every week. It is a fun way to spend a few hours in the outdoors. For more information, contact Mass Audubon directly at 978-462-9998.
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