Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Soggy Birdathon yields record numbers of birds
May 26, 2007
Steve Grinley

     They should label the 24-hour Birdathon as an aquatic event. It has rained three out of the last four years. Such was the case last weekend when the Birdathon commenced at 6 p.m. on Friday and continued through 6 p.m. Saturday. Teams from each of the Mass Audubon Sanctuaries combed the state to see the most number of species in 24 hours. Donations based on the number of species found, or lump sum donations are made to support the Audubon Sanctuary represented. For Joppa Flats, its teams covered just Essex County for its search. I participated once again this year, except for seven hours of work on Saturday.

     I met my team at the Bald Hill Reservation/Crooked Pond in Boxford a little before 6 p.m. Friday. The rain was coming down, and we donned our raincoats, rain pants and hats and headed down the trail. We arrived at the first stream crossing by 6 p.m. to start our count. There was a barred owl box in sight, which we always check, but no owls were evident. I then gave a few “hoots” on my owl call and a barred owl flew in and perched high overhead in the rain. It was hard to get good looks, as we had to stare straight up in the rain, but we had found our first target bird.

     We searched the usual spots for a couple of other target birds, winter wren and Louisiana waterthrush, but found neither. We were surprised by a solitary sandpiper that flew from the ponds edge – an unexpected addition. We passed the hole of a nesting pileated woodpecker, another target bird, but saw no activity there. However, on our way back, we heard a pileated woodpecker calling and spotted the male a short distance from the nest. We watched as the bird went to the hole and exchanged positions with the female inside who, in turn, flew off to feed.

     The next morning, we met at 6 a.m. to walk the North Dike on Plum Island. This walk was one of the events of the Plover Festival and gave us the rare opportunity to walk restricted area for another perspective of the North Pool. A group of about 20 people gathered in the drizzle to walk from Hellcat to the Warden’s. As we started out, a king rail called from the Bill Forward pool. We stood for a while and watched, but it wasn’t until we started down the dike when it made an appearance and gave everyone excellent views of this uncommon rail. Along the dike, we also heard soras and Virginia rails. An American bittern was seen flying into the reeds and moorhens called from the tall marsh grasses. Distant views of a marbled godwit, red knot and other shorebirds were seen on the mudflats in the river to the west.

     From there I headed to the Joppa Flats Mass Audubon Center to mind the store while the rest of my team went back to Crooked Pond (with limited success) and birded the Ipswich, Essex and Rowley areas. The rain picked up again during the day, yet they were able to find a rare white-faced ibis among the glossy ibis in Essex, and a little blue heron, as well as several other key birds. Poster boards of the Birdathon checklist were set up in the lobby of the center and teams called in their birds that were then checked off on the list. It was easy to see which birds were not yet found and I would phone my team to try to get them to locations where those birds might be found.

     At the center, I watched the harbor frequently to try to find additional birds. I was able to add a kestrel, which was sitting atop the newly erected osprey pole behind the building. A running total was kept on the list to see how we were performing. Late in the afternoon, we approached and then surpassed the previous year’s total of 174. Then a group of birders came in that were not part of any Birdathon team and told me that they had seen a little gull at the north end of Plum Island within the past hour – a bird not yet on the list. With only about an hour left to go, I wasn’t sure that any team in the field could get there. I called my team and they were in Rowley, but said that they would head there to try to find this bird. I decided to head there myself, leaving backup at the store.

     I got to the north end and scanned the area, but there were only fishermen along the beach and no gulls or terns around. I then hiked out the beach to get a better view of the jetties, but still no birds. My team met me there, and we decided to try the harbor one last time before time ran out. We raced to the harbor and scanned the shoreline as we headed to the Sewerage Treatment Plant to view some gulls that were gathered there. It was there that we found the beautiful little gull in adult plumage, with a full black hood and dark underwings. It was just 6 p.m. when we found the bird, so we called it in and headed back to the center for the final tally.

     When we returned, the last birds were being added by returning teams and, when all was totaled, we hit an amazing 200 species! The previous high was 182 birds, and that was in a year with good weather. This Essex County total represented the highest species total of any sanctuary doing a limited area. In fact, only four sanctuaries that covered the entire state did better than we did, with the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary in Topsfield coming out on top with 233 birds. We were pleased with our efforts and congratulated ourselves with pizza and homemade ice cream.

     If you would still like to contribute to our Birdathon effort, you can mail a check to the Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Education Center. They will be most grateful, as will all us slightly water-logged, but accomplished, birders.

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