Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Birds Migration Slows at End of May
May 30, 2009
By Steve Grinley

     As May rolls to an end, so, too, does the migration of songbirds. There may still be a trickle of migrants into June, but the peak of warblers has long passed. Even the weak showing of shorebirds this spring, is weakening all the more with small numbers of black-bellied plovers, least and semipalmated sandpipers, and a few dunlin and turnstones moving through.

     The last week or so has been highlighted by the cuckoos and flycatchers that appear on Plum Island. Both yellow-billed and black-billed cuckoos were seen in proximity to the banding station on the island, and the black-billed cuckoo was seen carrying nesting material. The flycatchers that have been seen, and heard, include wood pewees and olive-sided flycatchers. Then there are the genus Empidonax flycathers: five small, brown ones that look almost identical, and are best identified by their calls. A couple of species nest on the island, but the others pass through the last weeks of May. It is great when you hear them, to help tell them apart, but it is frustrating when their silence keeps their identity a mystery.

     Doug Chickering of Groveland gives his perspective of the Empid flycatchers and this time of season on Plum Island:

     “Our Prius rolled past the deserted Gatehouse just after the morning sun had cleared the dunes and was sweeping a bright unimpeded light out over the marshes. Lois suggested that we stop at the low mounds just past the entrance to the first parking lot; reminding me that when the migrations are high this can be a good measure of what the rest of the island is like; and can even be the center of bird activity.

     “I stopped. I stepped from the car and walked to the side of the road when my attention was caught by the short whit of an Empidonax’ tentative call. I knew that the Willows had arrived and that there was probably even a few Least Flycatchers remaining from what has been an extraordinary good year for Least Flycatcher on Plum. I listened intently, trying to sort the short single note call from the background noise of Yellow Warblers and Song Sparrows and Catbirds and Kingbirds and whatever. There came a space of quiet and instead of the whit I was greeted with that short call of a guttural abbreviated “Free-beer”. Clear and unmistakable; a call I had been hoping to hear, been waiting to hear. In the inner recesses of my mind there was that flutter of recognition. Alder Flycatcher.

     “In a matter of minutes the occasional call had drawn a small crowd of birders, our cars pulled over to the side of the road, our attention riveted on the mound trying to find movement to match the call. It didn’t call often, and for a while didn’t seem to move at all. Finally it flitted to gnarled snag and then with careless disregard of it’s audience’s desires flew to the next mound. Here it plunged into the deep of the Beach Plums. We waited and it started to call again. Finally it came up; as we suspected it would and perched for all to eventually see. The Alder gave it’s distinctive call a few more times and then vanished into the undergrowth. The show was over.

     “It was a sun-filled cloudless morning, a light dry wind keeping it pleasantly cool. We had started our day off with an Alder Flycatcher, so already it was a good day. Plum Island has been replete with good days this May. I suppose nothing spectacular; no days that can challenge the legends of other fallouts or other places. Not much in the way of rarities; no sightings to pulse the internet with breathless excitement, but just a constant pleasurable sequence; almost uninterrupted. There have been birds in the trees and at eye-level and on the ground, feeding and cooperative all May. The Black-throated Blues, and Solitary Vireo’s ; the Waterthrushes and Blackburnians have been in constant attendance and it has been a long time since I have seen the Chestnut-sided’s here so consistently.

     “Every day out is a pleasure. This was the May we hoped for and felt we deserved. There are still warblers around on Plum Island and now they have been joined by the Empids. I love Empids. Those tiny, drab, frustrating little flycatchers, in my heart are a match for the Warblers… Almost. On Plum Island Least flycatchers can still be heard; a Yellow-bellied has been seen and photographed; the Willows are everywhere and this morning I heard and saw an Alder. There is nothing left that can be said. I am hopeful that this in not the end or even the beginning of the end, but even if it is; this has been a fine ride.”

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
Celebrating 2
4 years of service to the birding community! 
Like us on Facebook! www.facebook.com/birdwatcherssupply