Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Migrating Birds Slow to Arrive
May 04, 2013
By Steve Grinley

     My local robin started singing its song early the other morning, waking me from a sound sleep. It was still dark outside and as I lifted one eye to check the time on the alarm, the clock read 4:32. It was early for sure, but it was the first day of May and I didn’t blame the robin for announcing it. It was as if he didn’t want me to miss such a momentous occasion.

     After all, May is the month that every birder in Massachusetts longs for. Passerines, neo-tropical migrants- warblers vireos, thrushes, orioles, tanagers and grosbeaks – pour through our area on their way north. The show is there for those who take the time to watch. I took the robin’s queue and decided to get up and see what this day, and this month, would hold. It was a chilly start to the morning, but the sun was rising in the cloudless sky, warming the air quickly.

     I decided to head to Plum Island to see if any migrants came in overnight. As I proceeded down the refuge road, there seemed to be little activity. No birds flitting in the shrubs, no sparrows or thrushes feeding along the road, except for an occasional robin or two. A single pair of pintail was swimming in the main salt pannes, and gadwall and green-winged teal in the smaller pans just south of there. A single greater yellowlegs was feeding along the edge.

     Dominating the songs that I heard as I drove along toward the Hellcat Trail were towhees, brown thrashers and purple finches. Not a single warbler or vireo was heard. As I approached Hellcat, I was greeted by large orange signs announcing construction ahead. I could see a new orange and white barrier gate at the start of the dirt road, with a construction person stationed there, and a “Road Closed” sign.

     But as I turned into the parking lot at Hellcat, I heard the song of a black & white warbler – my first of the year. I was able to get my binoculars on the black and white striped bird as it crept along some branches in nuthatch-like fashion.

     I then spied two palm warblers flitting about nearby. Their rusty caps, yellow body, and bobbing tail were welcome sights. Walking around the parking lot, I also spotted a pair of blue-headed vireos near the top of a birch tree. They didn’t stay long, taking flight across the road. Soon thereafter, a large gravel truck rumbled down the road, checking in at the construction gate before proceeding further south.

     I turned and headed for the trails, and immediately heard a ruby-crowned kinglet singing before I even stepped on the boardwalk. Great, I thought. This must be where all the birds are! But I was soon disappointed. The only bird that I encountered along the marsh trail was a lone chickadee. That is, until I passed the second Marsh Loop intersection when I heard a wren-like song. I turned and realized that it was a northern waterthrush. It sang again, and as I stepped onto the loop trail, the bird flew up from a wet area just under the boardwalk in front of me and quickly disappeared into the thicket.

     I later heard a parula warbler near the old blind, but the sound was drowned out by the gravel truck traffic that had picked up considerably along the road. Marsh wrens sang out in the marsh and I saw a coot feeding along the edge of the dike. I walked the entire Dunes Trail and heard a field sparrow and more brown thrashers, but little else. It wasn’t the warbler bonanza that I had been hoping for.

     As I walked the road back to the parking lot, another gravel truck raced by me. It would have been safer for me to take the trail back. As I traveled back up the refuge road in my car, more trucks sped down, well above the 25 mph speed limit, and I thought about the birds that so frequently cross, or feed, along the road. How many more fatalities will occur this season? I thought it better that there were not more migrants there today. Maybe they know to avoid the island and the truck traffic. Then again, probably not.

     Migrants have been trickling in around the area, so more will surely follow. I received reports this week of Baltimore orioles at a feeder in Byfield and a rose-breasted grosbeak on Turkey Hill Road in West Newbury. A prothonotary warbler was seen in Hellcat on Thursday and I heard a golden-winged warbler on Pikes Bridge Road in West Newbury that same day.

     I am leading some free early morning walks this coming Tuesday and Thursday morning, to Pike’s Bridge Road and Oak Hill Cemetery respectively, plus a Sunday Morning walk on Sunday, May 12. Check our website for particulars or contact the store directly.

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