Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Birding Plum Island is a Challenge
May 23, 2020
By Steve Grinley
This past week, Margo and I had our first chance to bird at least part of the Parker River Wildlife Refuge since its closure. The refuge has closed the gates to all vehicular traffic allowing only walkers and bikers on the refuge. However, there is nowhere to park anywhere near Plum Island for those of us who must walk. For those who can bike, it makes for a long bike ride before you even get to the gate.
I especially feel for the disabled who like to wheelchair down the refuge. I was pleased to see a wood boardwalk over the dune access beside the gate this week, so if they could get to the gate, they may be able to struggle their way in. But then, where do the disabled park? The refuge eliminated the possibility of parking at Lot 1 on the refuge to walk or bike further. The town of Newbury and City of Newburyport eliminated all public parking on the island and all along the Plum Island Turnpike. They even blocked access to Greenbelt’s Graf Reservation, just before the Plum Island bridge. This area has been known to birders for decades as “Plum Bush” and has had some amazing birds including yellow rail and white ibis, in addition to nesting saltmarsh and seaside sparrows. Greenbelt’s properties are all open, so this access closure seems to be an overstep of authority on the part of the town of Newbury.
After being dropped off at the gate, we entered the refuge and we were greeted by the purple martins flying around the gourds at Lot 1. Unfortunately, we could also hear the loud chirping of house sparrows trying to take over the few cavities of gourds that were actually opened. It was apparent that the usual care to manage the martin colony was impaired by the Covid restrictions. Regulations must have restricted the usual competent job done by volunteers to help the purple martin colonies on Plum Island.
As we walked down the refuge, we encountered catbirds, song sparrows, common yellowthroats, mockingbirds and several brown thrashers. On the marsh side, willets were calling in the marsh, as were the newly arrived marsh wrens. We spotted the ospreys on their nests and some were flying around the river hunting for fish. Common and least terns were also fishing the river.
We finally heard our first warbler that morning, the resident yellow warblers that had arrived in recent weeks. We also found a cooperative Wilson’s warbler – a showoff really, who insisted on showing himself frequently in the sunlight.
Our hope was to make it to the ‘S” Curves, the well-vegetated area on either side of the road before the maintenance area where warblers and other migrants often congregate. It is truly a “hot spot” of the May migration. We were only able to walk as far as Lot 3, but we did see a spotted sandpiper there, a first for our year. Willets, yellowlegs, killdeer, and least sandpipers were also feeding in the pannes.
We made our way back to the gate, a couple of exhausted seniors, pleased with the birds we saw. We now know that in the coming days this weekend, when southwest winds bring hundreds of warbler and songbirds migrants to Plum Island, we will not be able to make it to the “S” Curves and enjoy our usual May ritual of seeing them on the Refuge.