Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Jaeger makes a rare appearance
April 14, 2007
Steve Grinley

     The weather these past few weeks has dampened hopes for any significant migration, but we did have a remarkable birding day last Saturday. Margo and I headed to Littleton in the morning, to an area known by the birding community as the Route 2 rookery. This is a heron rookery that you can see on the south side of Route 2, just east of Interstate 495. Reports of a red-headed woodpecker the week before prompted the visit. We drove to the area and parked near the railroad tracks off Depot Road. We walked along the road next to the tracks and heard winter wrens, red-bellied woodpecker, downy and hairy woodpeckers along the way. We met John Nelson of Gloucester walking the other way. He told us about the proper path to take to get to the edge of the rookery. Discouragingly, he hadn’t seen the red-headed woodpecker, but he did see bluebirds and a pileated woodpecker.

     Shortly after John left, Margo did hear and see a pileated woodpecker while I was answering a work-related call on my cell phone. While I was talking on the phone, I caught a glimpse of the winter wren moving about the underbrush – (multitasking they call it)! The winter wren continued to sing many times as we continued along. We found the proper path and we walked down it. It was quite wet in spots and, even though we were wearing boots, we had to circumvent the path at a couple of spots. Our eyes did catch the brilliant blue of a bluebird feeding vigorously on the grasses below. I also caught a brief glimpse of a hermit thrush as it skulked through the woods.

     We reached the edge of the water and I began to pan the dead trees along the edge of the water where the red-headed woodpecker had been reported. As I scoured the trees, I thought I caught sight of something red. I continued to stare at the area and finally saw what I thought was the woodpecker. It was mostly white, but then I realized it was facing me on the back side of a narrow tree. I was able to get Margo on the bird and after some time of it being quite stationary, the bird finally flew a couple of times and came closer for better, clearer views. Its bold black-and-white pattern was distinctive, and its crimson head shone in the morning sunlight. We spent some time enjoying this rare visitor.

     When we finally started to walk back, I received a call that a parasitic jaeger had been seen by Paul Roberts in Newburyport Harbor. A parasitic jaeger is a bird of the open seas. We most often have to go out, way out, on the ocean in a boat to see one. This “hawk-of-the-ocean” steals prey from gulls and terns and the idea that one was IN Newburyport Harbor seemed amazing! We suspected that it would make a brief visit and be gone within the hour. Still, we thought we would make our way back to Newburyport, since we had no other plans, in the unlikely chance that the bird might stick around. We couldn’t pass through Westford and not stop at Kimball’s Ice Cream – just in case it was open for the season. Sure enough, it was. Even though the weather had “warmed up” to only the high 40s, we couldn’t resist having chocolate raspberry swirl for lunch before heading back to Newburyport.

     When we arrived a couple of hours later at the seawall along Water Street, where the jaeger had been seen, there were several birders there, with scopes readied. As it turned out, they had been there for at least an hour or two with no sign of the jaeger. After spending some time there ourselves, viewing the ducks in the river and ospreys fishing from above, we decided to head toward Plum Island. I needed to stop at my Nature Shop at the Joppa Flats Audubon Center along the way to pick up some things, so we stopped in there.

     Everyone was talking about the jaeger. Unfortunately, it hadn’t been seen since midmorning and it was nearly 2:30 in the afternoon. As we were talking with friends in the lobby, I looked out the window and, suddenly, there it was – the jaeger! It was chasing a gull over the marsh just beyond the back fence, not more than a hundred feet away. Its dark coloration, a faint flash of white at the base of the primaries as it banked, and the short, pointed central feathers in the tail, could all be seen well from such short distance.

     It chased the gull over the building and several people went out the front door to see if they could see it. They were unable to relocate the bird. In fact, that was the last time that day, to my knowledge, that the bird was seen. It was an amazing bird for the harbor, and we were lucky enough to see it. Of course, we may not have seen the jaeger had we not stopped at Kimball’s for ice cream. But then, with such good birds in Newburyport, we don’t need to stray too far, especially now that Haley’s is open again.

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