Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

After Sunset Birding on Plum Island is Magical
May 21, 2016
By Steve Grinley

     Those of us that live in the area know that the Parker River Wildlife refuge on Plum Island is a special place. If you are a birder, it is even more special. The refuge management has continued offering after sunset walks this May so that folks can experience the magic of a refuge coming alive at night. These are free, but limited participation requires advance reservations. I was lucky enough to experience one of these walks back in 2010. I would like to share that experience with you again today:

     When we watch birds, we usually do so in the daylight when most birds are active. In the light of day, we can recognize their shape, watch their habits, and we can see their coloration. Birds are easier to see and, therefore, easier to identify during the daylight hours.

     There are some birds, however, that are most active right at dawn or dusk and many birds that are active after the sun goes down. Everyone associates owls with the darkness, and most owls are nocturnal, spending their waking hours at night. But one merely needs to go to a marsh or woodland and watch and listen to the other bird activity that goes on after sunset.

     This past week, we had a rare opportunity to experience this on the beautiful Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island. Normally, the refuge’s policy of visitors exiting the refuge by sunset prohibits such an experience, but the refuge sponsored a couple of programs from 7:30-9:00pm to allow participants to hear, and hopefully view, woodcock, whip-poor-wills, and some of the marsh birds that come alive at sunset. These trips were led by Tom Wetmore, Mr. Plum Island in the bird world. No one knows the birds of Plum Island better.

     Twelve participants gathered at Lot 4, the Hellcat Trail parking lot, at 7:30pm on a less-than-ideal evening –weather-wise. Light rain had already started to fall. Most of the birders were experienced, but there were a couple of people that were new to birding. All were there to experience the magic of Plum Island after sunset, despite the weather.

     We proceeded out the Marsh Loop on the hellcat boardwalk and immediately heard marsh wrens gurgling in the reeds. The rain kept them pretty well hidden, but we were all able to enjoy their bubbly song. The soras were calling, both their whinny-type song as well as their “Sor-A” call, from whence this rail gets its name. Then the entire group was treated to wonderful views of one sora feeding on the grasses by the boardwalk. Despite the diminishing light, we could all see the bright yellow bill and white tail. It was a life bird for the newer birders, and a great experience for all of us.

     We also heard the “coo-coo-coo” call of two, and maybe three, least bitterns. On last week’s evening program, the participants actually got to see the bitterns, but the rain was definitely a limiting factor on this night.

     Before we left the board walk, we could hear a one-note call from a Virginia rail. Tom squeaked and imitated the rail’s call, and it responded. Many participants got to see it feeding in the marsh and walking through the grasses. Not an ideal look in the rain, but a fun experience just the same.

     When we got back to the parking lot, we carpooled down to Lot 5 in search of whip-poor-wills and woodcock. A rare chuck-wills-widow, southern cousin to the whip-poor-will, was heard near Lot 5 last week, so we were hoping to also hear that bird. As we drove to the next lot, the rain had increased in intensity, so we knew that it would be a challenge to find more birds.

     Despite the rain, we drove with the windows down and we heard out first whip-poor-will calling from the pines around the Bill Forward Blind. A second one called from the dune side of the road. I also heard the “peent” of a woodcock over the sound of the rain.

     When we arrived at Lot 5 and got out of the cars, we immediately heard at least three more whip-poor-will songs. Tom thought that he heard the flight dance of the woodcock, but the rain continued to intensify and it was hard to hear anything but the closest whip-poor-wills over the rain. We never heard the chuck-wills-widow, despite walking up and down the road for a short while.

     The rain caused us to end the program ten minutes early, as even the rain silenced the whip-poor-wills. The rain soaked our clothes, but it didn’t dampen our spirits. It was still a rewarding experience to be on the refuge after sunset and to see and hear all of the nature around us.

     The participants were all grateful to Tom for his efforts at finding and showing us the birds. They were also thankful to the refuge management for conducting these after-sunset programs. I hope that the refuge considers running more of these, especially during the warmer months and during spring and fall migration periods. Perhaps they will even see the value of keeping the refuge open at least a half hour after sunset, as many other refuges do, so that more people can experience this magical time in this special place.

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