Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Fallout on Marblehead Neck Captures Birders
June 01, 2013
By Steve Grinley

     Last Monday, after a fairly quiet weekend of birds on the North Shore, Margo and I decided to start our day at Mass Audubon’s Marblehead Neck Wildlife Sanctuary and work our way north from there. Our plan was to then check some areas in West Newbury and, perhaps, Plum Island if we heard any reports. We even bypassed Nahant, where we usually check the Nahant Thicket Sanctuary for migrants.

     As we arrived at the Marblehead Sanctuary parking lot, we found it full of cars. We parked on the street and got out, and immediately we could hear bird song all around us. I think we knew then why the lot was full.

As we walked into the sanctuary, we immediately encountered a few birders with their binoculars trained on the large oak tree in front of us. The first bird I focused on was a bay-breasted warbler. Near to it was another stunning warbler – a blackburnian, the same stunning bird that Doug talked about in last week’s column. Starting a morning with these two special birds meant we were in for a special day. A major fallout had occurred and we were in the middle of it.

     More warblers were moving about the same tree, and in nearby trees and shrubs as well. Several magnolia, yellow, chestnut-sided and black-throated green warblers, and lots of northern parulas and American redstarts were feeding away. We even watched common yellowthroats foraging high in the trees, while we are used to seeing them skulking through the underbrush.

     Red-eyed vireos sang constantly, as if providing all the background music for the warblers. They all sounded like a chorus that was happy to be there. We were happy for the entertainment.

     Wilson’s and Canada warblers were feeding in the lower vegetation. We could hear orioles, great-crested flycatchers and wood pewees calling around us. Willow and Alder flycatchers were flitting about as well. It was a sensory overload, where we weren’t sure where to look or what to listen to next. We were mesmerized to the point where we spent more than two hours at this spot, moving very little in any direction. We never got past the welcoming kiosk during that time.

     As some of the song started to quiet a bit, and when we felt that we had seen most of what was in that area, we did decide to start walking around the sanctuary. We had heard about an olive-sided flycatcher and a hooded warbler near the main pond, so we headed in that direction, along the front trail. We eventually caught glimpses of not one, but two hooded warblers, which we later decided were female birds. Neither of us realized that females had as much black around the face as these birds did, but rather, the clean yellow look that most field guides show.

     We heard a black-billed cuckoo calling, and then found the olive-sided flycatcher perched atop a dead snag, as they characteristically do. Later we heard an olive-sided flycatcher calling, presumably the same one, from the back pond area. Birder’s remember its call in a pneumonic “hic, three beers”. It has been a few years since I have heard one call, so it was great to hear it.

     We continued to bird the sanctuary into the afternoon. Though the birds were singing less, we still encountered hummingbirds, rose-breasted grosbeaks and scarlet tanagers to keep our attention. Black and white, as well as black-throated blue warblers continued to flit about. A fellow birder called our attention to a yellow-bellied flycatcher that was calling from well off the trail. We waited with patience as the bird finally revealed itself. We had good looks at it as it sang, as the yellow wash on its belly, and its call, differentiated it from other, otherwise, similar flycatchers.

     The next hours were spent helping some other birders find some of the birds that we were lucky enough to encounter and enjoy. It is always fun to share these birds and to share the experience.

     As we finally ran out of steam, we found that we had spent more than six hours at Marblehead Neck amidst this outstanding display of birds. Needless to say, we never made it to any other destination. But we weren’t disappointed. It had been one of those magical May days that birders dream about the rest of the year.

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