Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Southern Birds Highlight Birdathon
May 23, 2009
By Steve Grinley

     Last weekend’s twenty-four hour Birdathon began at the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary in Topsfield for our team. We were blessed with some fine weather for a change. Our plan was to find the prothonotary warbler, a rare southern migrant that had been there for many days, at the 6pm start time Friday night and then spend a little time searching for other birds at the sanctuary. As the starting hour approached, we couldn’t find the prothonotary despite listening along the river bank on both sides of the canoe ramp where the bird frequented.

     In the meantime, we heard a rose-breasted grosbeak, warbling vireos, Baltimore oriole, and Eastern kingbirds. A couple of blue-gray gnatcatchers flitted nearby. We had a brief look at a flyby pileated woodpecker. Then we heard the warbler. It came nearer, and we found it feeding among the apple blossoms in a tree less than fifteen feet away. Its deep yellow-orange coloration and blue-gray wings make it one of the more striking warblers. It was hard to drag ourselves away from such a great look at what is usually a skulking bird, but we had many more birds to find.

     We spent the rest of the evening canvassing the sanctuary. We found red-bellied, hairy and downy woodpeckers, phoebes nesting under a bridge, and red-eyed vireos sang everywhere. Wood thrush and a veery sang from the deep woods along with the echo of ovenbirds. Black-throated green warblers, redstarts and pine warblers made themselves known. Hoping for bluebirds, we encountered only tree swallows and house wrens at the bluebird boxes in the fields.

     We left the sanctuary and tried for the cattle egret among the cows at a farm in Ipswich, but we came up empty. We stopped at a great horned owl nest in Rowley, but it was too dark to see the young birds in the distant nest. We made one last stop on Newman Road in Newbury and heard a distant whip-poor-will calling. It is a sound we seem to hear less each year.

     The next morning, our team gathered at the Bald Hill Reservation/Crooked Pond in Boxford. We were hoping to find barred owls and winter wrens but failed to turn up any. We did hear, and later saw another target bird, a Louisiana Waterthrush singing along a stream. Blackburnian warblers, scarlet tanagers, and hermit thrushes were singing, but we missed red-breasted nuthatches and brown creepers that we usually find there.

     We decided to try a couple of areas in Wenham for winter wren. Cedar Pond Park had some promising spots but, again, we came up empty. However, we did find an uncommon worm-eating warbler, singing among the pine warblers in the Park. Both make a buzzy thrill, but the worm-eating warbler’s song is stronger and more insect-like. With patience, we were able to get great looks at this bird. It was one of our highlights for the day.

     The biggest highlight came when we called Joppa to check to see what other birds needed to be found. We were told that a chuck-wills-widow was found by a team in Nahant. The chuck-wills-widow is the southern counterpart to a whip-poor-will. It calls and hunts at night and is more often heard than seen. Occasionally one is heard on Cape Cod or the Islands, but it is rare. I’ve heard them down south, but not in Massachusetts and I’ve never seen one anywhere.

     Our team made a quick decision to deviate from our plan and to go to Nahant to get a “life look” at this bird. We found the bird shortly after arriving and we were surprised to see no other birders there. But, after all, it was Birdathon and birders were scattered all over the state. The bird was perched in a thicket at eye level and only about forty feet away. I was amazed how large the bird was-almost twice the size of a whip-poor-will! We had great scope looks and we took many photos. It was a thrill!

     After we had our fill of the “chuck”, we headed back north to try for one more target bird-a nesting goshawk. I always remember my first goshawk. Years ago, I had walked into a stand of woods in the western part of the state and this bird came screeching toward me. He was attacking with talons down and he missed my head by inches. I high-tailed it out of there, for I had entered the nesting territory of a goshawk!

     Well, you’d think we get smarter with age, but here we were about to enter another stand of woods in Groveland where we KNEW there was a goshawk nesting. We each grabbed a long stick and entered the trail, holding the stick high above our heads. We only walked about a hundred yards in when we heard the “kye, kye, kye” call of the male goshawk as the bird crossed the path just in front of us. We all looked at each other and simultaneously said “check”. That was good enough to count, so we immediately did an about-face and headed back out of the woods.

     After making a few more stops we arrived at Joppa at 6pm to tally our birds. Our individual team had found 114 species and the collection of Joppa teams totaled 182 species. It was a great 24 hour total for Essex County in May.

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