Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Impressive Hawk Show on Plum Island
May 14, 2016
By Steve Grinley

     As I predicted in last week’s column, the winds finally turned by the end of last weekend and this past week has opened the floodgates for the songbird migration into Massachusetts. Orioles, rose-breasted grosbeaks, catbirds, purple finches and hummingbirds have all been showing up in backyards and visiting bird baths and feeders.

     The warbler show has been excellent on Plum Island and on the mainland, with 1to 20 species of warblers being reported in a day. Just driving down State Street in Newburyport one morning on my way to work, I heard black-throated blue, black-throated green, northern parula, and yellow warblers all singing along the road. I didn’t dare drive through Oak Hill Cemetery on my way as I would have surely been late for work!

     It is not just the songbirds that are moving through. Shorebirds numbers are increasing in Newburyport Harbor and the Hawk Watch on Plum Island has seen some spectacular days. Paul Roberts of Medford posted the following hawk report of the floodgates opening at the beginning of the week:

     “Until May 9, the spring hawk migration at Plum Island had been disappointing. Deeply disappointing. Only 648 hawks in 143.5 hours, or 4.51 hawks per hour. Our largest flight had been 85 on April 8, with the best kestrel flight of the season only 44, on April 8. All our flights had been double-digit at best, and all but one under 50 birds! Discouraging. Dismal. Depressing. Disastrous. Damnable. 

     “A huge Omega block had been sitting over the Midwest for more than a week, pumping hot air from the south into the northern prairie states and provinces, while a stationary front sat along the east coast from Cuba to Newfoundland, providing an expressway for a series of small, weak lows, which slipped northeast along that front generating cold, moist northeast and east winds, either trapping hawks “in place” south of us, forcing them to fly longer routes on the west side of the front or to struggle onesies-twosies into those adverse winds to get back home.

     “Today that block was crushed by a Canadian high pressure cell that brought clearing skies and strong SW/W/WNW winds to the region. There was consternation early this morning when despite the forecast it rained for roughly 45 minutes and there were reports of hail in the area. Hour 1, from 7 a.m. (hawk time, i.e., standard time) totaled 3 birds. Aaaauuugghhh. 

     “That rain was followed by unmitigated, unrestrained joy in Lot #1. Hour #2, 106 hawks, including 91 Sharp-shinned Hawks and 8 Cooper’s Hawks! Hour #3, 57 hawks, including 47 sharpies, 3 kestrels and 3 Merlins. In the strong winds, these birds were zooming low over the terrain, often below eye level. By 5 p.m. hawk time we had an unofficial tally of 333 hawks, one of the ten best flights ever reported at Plum Island! 

     “That included the second best Sharp-shinned Hawk flight ever reported at Plum, 224, exceeded only by a flight of 289 on May 2, 1987! Most of the sharpies, the vast majority of whom were immature (as expected), flew barely over, around, or below the eye level of the observers on the deck. The views were incredible. A majority of the sharpies had full crops, obviously feeding successfully on the good flight of warblers and sparrows seen on the island early in the morning. I don’t know that I have ever seen more raptors migrating with full crops. A very high percentage of the sharpies were male, really small, and really forced to crab their way into the wind across the barrier beach. The 20 Cooper’s Hawks seen were obviously larger and much more stable in flight than their cousins.

     “Oh, I shouldn’t forget the flight of 25 breathtaking Merlins, the fifth largest Merlin flight ever reported at Plum. What a show. These dark falcons rocketed towards us, usually below eye level, and swopping up and swerving over or around the platform. Again, the views were incredible in great light. For hot rodders, Merlins appear able to accelerate from 0 to 60 faster than anybody. And to execute 90-degree dives in incredibly tight quarters. 

     “One Merlin exploded east to west across the island in front of us, did a “180” and then flew downwind into a flock of birds snatching one right out of the air as it struggled into the strong westerly winds. Another Merlin flying west executed a 90 degree stoop straight down. How can any bird do that? But that Merlin did. 

     “I believe the Merlin that caught either a grackle or a tree swallow sat down on a shrub on a dune, out of the wind. It sat there peacefully for some time, until a second-year Northern Harrier ambling up the spine of the island swooped up and over the dune and made a pass at the perched Merlin. The Merlin flushed, but it harassed the harrier mercilessly for the next five minutes or so, pursuing it everywhere and dive-bombing it repeatedly, not so gently instructing that young harrier to NEVER EVER harass a Merlin, even only once. 

     “I won’t mention the three Peregrines, all of whom passed within sight of one another, including a spectacular adult that appeared to slow as if to pass in review just over our heads. Or the Broadwing soaring high, really over the beach before it drifted northwest.

     “You should have been there. You really should have been there.”

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
Celebrating 2
4 years of service to the birding community! 
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