Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

First Big Wave of Migrants This Week
May 10, 2008
Steve Grinley

     Tuesday was one of those magical mornings on Plum Island. Not that every day isn’t special there -or so I thought when I lived on the island. But there are those remarkable days in May when the migration hits just right and nearly every tree and bush has birds moving through them. Such was the case on Tuesday. After the cold April that we had, and an especially miserable last weekend, many of the spring migrants were just not here yet. They had to be “backed up’ somewhere south of here. Just a change in the weather pattern, some southerly winds, and they would come.

     And come they did. I arrived on the Parker River Refuge just after 5:30. Yes, a.m.! But there were ten other cars already on the refuge, also anticipating the birds. Cars were stopped along the road just after the entrance as birds were moving slowly through the low shrubs by the side of the road, calling and singing as they went. Willets had arrived in numbers overnight and their loud calls could be heard all over the marsh. Catbirds, which were totally absent the day before, had also arrived and were singing everywhere.

     Warblers streamed through the low shrubs, the majority of which were yellow-rumped warblers. But there were also large numbers of black & white warblers – more than I remember in a long time. They were crawling along branches, like nuthatches do, everywhere I looked. Blue-headed vireos were numerous. So, too, were ruby-crowned kinglets.

     On “normal” days, I usually head for one of the parking areas, either at the Hellcat Trail or the Pines Trail and walk around from there. But on this day, the birds were moving north along the vegetation and if you didn’t stop, you would miss the bulk of the birds as they moved north. Unfortunately, until you get well beyond the Salt Pannes where vegetation grows on the marsh side, you are forced to look east into the rising sun. The boardwalks are closed at Lots 2 and 3 which would, otherwise, let you look back at the birds. So it was a struggle to turn silhouettes into discernible images by getting a good enough angle on the birds to see color.

     Four large birds were a particular struggle to see while looking into the sunlight. I caught one at just the right angle to see a deep red spot on its chest at which point it sang its familiar warble of a song – rose-breasted grosbeaks. Another large bird flew and landed briefly, just long enough for me to catch some orange-yellow color on the rump and tail. It was a female Baltimore oriole.

     But it was the warblers that stole the show. A few palm warblers with yellow underparts, rusty cap and a wagging tail were at several stops along the road. A few other tail-waggers passed by. These were prairie warblers, and one or two sang their diagnostic song of distinct notes, ascending the musical scale. Stunning black-throated blue warblers were showoffs, their plumage makes them look dressed for the prom. Parula, chestnut-sided and black-throated green warblers all made appearances in their colorful garb.

     The common yellowthroat, whose black mask gives it the “lone ranger” nickname, will now be heard throughout the island once more, singing its “witchity, witchity, witchity” song from the low scrubby, wet areas. I saw several along the road’s edge. The loud “teacher, teacher, teacher” of the ovenbird echoed at a couple of stops. Even the usually secretive northern waterthrush sat up and sang at one place along the road.

     I finally made it to Hellcat and to the Pines Trail a few hours later, but it was decidedly quieter by then. Still, there were pockets of warblers and vireos along each of the trails. There were many more birds than there had been just a few days ago, and a glorious May morning it was.

     But time was against me that morning. I had to leave for work. When you work for yourself, you can’t call in sick! (Otherwise, I would have.) As I drove off the island, I could only imagine the birds that I left behind. But there was some solace in knowing that this was just the first big wave of migrants to come this May, and I am looking forward to the ones that follow.

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