Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Major fallout of birds awes birders
May 19, 2007
Steve Grinley

     I headed to Plum Island early on Wednesday morning before work to see if there were any residual from the previous day’s fallout of birds. I thought I would check the Oak Hill Cemetery on my way and, as it turned out, I never made it to Plum Island. As soon as I pulled through the main gate off State Street, I was surrounded by a “Wall of Sound” that would have brought Phil Spectre to his knees. I pulled the car over and got out, and there was bird song everywhere. It was almost deafening.

     As I looked up at the trees, warblers were moving everywhere. All I needed to do was to focus my binoculars on a spot, and several warblers would move through my field of vision. In the lower branches were many magnolia warblers along with chestnut-sided, black and white, yellow-rumped, black-throated blue and redstarts. Higher in the trees were brilliant blackburnian, bay-breasted, black-throated green, Nashville and Tennessee warblers. In the forsythia were common yellowthroats, Canada and more magnolia warblers as an ovenbird sang from underneath. In among the warblers were three species of vireos, many scarlet tanagers, rose-breasted grosbeaks and Baltimore orioles – all contributing to the chorus.

     It was sometimes difficult to pull individual songs out of the choir, or to see many of the small birds among the foliage of the trees. I concentrated on the oaks, which were not quite leafed out. When a bird flew to a maple, it was lost for sure. It was an amazing couple of hours, and yet, it pales to the “fallout” of birds that was experienced on Plum Island just the day before. I didn’t read about it on the Internet until the major “wave” was over, so I missed that experience.

     Tom Wetmore of Newburyport, Mr. Plum Island when it comes to birds, was the first to alert the birding community of the event: “Major migrant fallout on the island today. Though it’s been raining fairly steadily, the rain is serving to keep the birds on island. There are 100s, if not 1000s, of warblers throughout, including most of the goodies such as Canada, bay-breasted and Cape May. I think I’m at about 20 warbler species now and am heading back out. There are also veeries and Swainson’s thrushes about, and Lincoln’s and white-crowned sparrows, lots of rose-breasted grosbeaks and a few scarlet tanagers. I did hear that the American avocet was still around, but I never got beyond Hellcat.”

     Rick Heil of Peabody, birder extraordinaire, summed up his experience that Tuesday morning: “Amazing, incredible, awesome! The anticipated fallout of warblers overnight far exceeded expectations, the likes of which I have never witnessed here. The island thickets were saturated with grounded and confused migrants, many initially fighting the west wind to ‘jump off’ back to the mainland, some in futility returning. Later in the morning a steady dense stream of birds flowed southward through the thickets at eye level for nearly two hours, observed at Hellcat. This was all followed in the afternoon by a very strong northbound movement of diurnal migrants, especially hummingbirds and swallows, observed mostly from Lot One.”

     Doug Chickering of Groveland was also there to experience the magic: “The great fallout of 2007 has arrived at Plum Island. What with the forecast and the morning rain it was hardly to be anticipated. We had west winds to be sure, but there have been better winds than this earlier with meager results. This was something quite different. With the chilling winds at our backs and the spitting rain upon our heads, what was transpiring before us was hardly believable. Lois Cooper and I were standing, with just two other birders, at the edge of the road across from the salt pans on Plum Island and we were enchanted. The warblers had arrived. Mostly in the back bushes out of the wind but still in good numbers right before us, often within actual touching distance. They were literally everywhere, and everywhere they were incredibly active. Pirouetting, leaping, and darting about. They snapped at insects that couldn’t be seen, dove into the underbrush and suddenly flew off or flew in. They appeared, they vanished, they clung to branches and poked their heads from out of the low grass. Some, like the black-throated greens, black-throated blues and yellow-rumps, were constantly singing. Most were silent. What they were feeding on in the cold and rain I can’t imagine. But feeding they were. I hadn’t seen such a profusion of warblers in a decade and had almost given up hope of ever witnessing this scene again. The birds before us were in such numbers and were so active that we couldn’t hope to direct anyone’s attention to any particular bird. It was every birder for themselves and all we could do was to call out what we were seeing in a subdued mystical chant.”

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