Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Words on Birds
April 21, 2012
By Douglas Chickering

Lois and I made sure that we arrived at Plum Island early Monday morning. Driving on the refuge shortly after sunrise. The weather forecast promised a major weather front coming up from the south. It seemed likely that it would bring the first wave of migrants with it. At last spring had arrived. It has been such an odd year. The winter hardly made its presence felt. There was almost no snow and few brutally cold days. The ponds froze, and then unfroze and many of the traditional winter birds either didn’t arrive or were hard to find. Strangely enough it has been a great year for Snowy Owl, with as many as six around and available on Plum Island for much of the winter season. In March we had a surge of warm spring days. They brought in a very early Eastern Phoebe and sprouting Jonquils and Star Magnolia’s and Forsythia. Then, inexplicably winter returned with hard freezes at night and a halt to the early bird migration.

Now in the middle of April the real spring has returned with a vengeance; and with it the first rush of migration. The weather reports gave Lois and I adequate warning and we made sure we were on Plum island as the sun rose. What we encountered was an iconic early spring morning. And even though the forecast was for midsummer temperatures, at dawn on Plum Island it was cool and dry. A dull red sun hung on the edge of the horizon. Dark flitting forms of small birds becoming active, animated both sides of the road as soon as we entered the refuge and their songs filled the air. Just south of Parking Lot 1, sitting on a pole above the dunes was the form of a Snowy Owl; a relic of the winter; still lording it over the marshes and dunes of the refuge.

We planned to go directly to the traditional migrant traps but all along the length of the road our progress was interrupted by the large numbers of birds. As much as the trails at the Pines and Hellcat tempted us, we simply couldn’t drive by the activity around us. Not a major fall of birds, but good numbers. Not any rarities or even a great deal of variety. Still we hadn’t seen anything like it for months and we simply relaxed and enjoyed it. Mostly the small birds were Myrtle’s; the eastern subspecies of Yellow-rumped Warbler. They darted through the underbrush; danced and pirouetted in the trees; chasing after insects that were nearly invisible to us. We had learned long ago that in these times you had to make an effort to look at every one; for you knew that something different was bound to show up, and the next flitting form at the back of that tree or deep in the honeysuckle might be something rare and spectacular. We never saw, or heard a rarity but we found many Palm Warblers, a few Pine Warblers, and both Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets. At the side of the road and occasionally in the middle of the road there was a constant parade of Robins, Song Sparrows and Hermit Thrushes. As long as we moved slowly, and stopped often, the birds seemed impervious to our presence and many times were close enough so we could watch them without binoculars.

Then there was the sound. All through the winter, as mild as it might have been, the near silence of winter prevailed. Maybe one heard a duck or a gull, or a Chickadee in the bush. Now it was spring and all were singing, setting up a sweet chorus of the multitudes. We hadn’t heard many of these songs for nearly a year and at first they seemed strange and unfamiliar. Then they would eventually stir the deep recesses of memory. Oh yes that’s the song of the yellow-rumped warbler; and that complicated distinctive song is the Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Through sound we had birds that we never saw; the first Towhee, at least three, maybe four Fields Sparrows the constant melody of White-throated Sparrows, the high chirp of Purple Finches. Occasionally a new song would suddenly intrude on one’s consciousness. At Hellcat, against a background of multiple songs there came a quiet, halting call that was vaguely familiar. Wait a minute that’s not a Purple Finch, that’s… let me see. It’s a vireo, Solitary Vireo. First Solitary Vireo of the year. We would eventually find two.

Upon a review of our day we had to admit that we hadn’t come across any rarities. In fact the birds we saw were ones that are to be expected at the vanguard of the migratory season. Perhaps the coming days will not have the pure number of birds we had today; but it is certain that this is only the first of great days in the field. Somewhere far away we knew that other Warblers, tanagers and Indigo Buntings are rising into the vernal winds. And they are coming our way.

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

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