Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Elusive Warblers Challenge the Best of Birds
June 02, 2012
By Steve Grinley

     As May ends, the spring songbird migration is nearing its end. The flycatchers are among the later migrants as yellow-bellied and olive-sided flycatchers are being seen on Plum Island. A few warblers are still trickling in with mourning warblers being one of the late migrants. The coast has been particularly good for warblers this May, with many more migrants hugging the coast on their route north. There have been a few more Kentucky warblers spotted this year, a southern bird that is overshooting its range more often in recent years. This is giving more opportunity for birders to see this elusive bird.

     One such opportunity presented itself for Doug Chickering of Groveland, who writes about his encounter with this skulking warbler:

     “There is a spot on the hellcat trail leading out to the old blind that has always seemed to be particularly productive. It is right after the north junction to the marsh loop, after the short flight of steps. Known by many as “Warbler corner”, Lois Cooper and I have always referred to it as “The Quiet Please Sign.” There used to be a wooden “quiet please” sign right where the boardwalk turns left. The sign was vandalized and removed many decades ago. This immediate area has a justified reputation as a consistent hotspot for migrants during spring and fall, with a special emphasis on Warblers and thrushes.

     “Yesterday (May 24) I spent well over two hours here; standing around, occasionally sitting on one of the stairs, accompanied by a handful of my birding friends waiting for that inconsiderate Kentucky Warbler to show itself. We knew that it was out there by its periodic unmistakable song. It moved all around us, completely unseen! Sometimes close, first on one side of the boardwalk, then the other and never very far away. Never betraying any movement; as if it were a disembodied song from another dimension.

     “I had frustrating encounters with Kentucky Warbler earlier this month and this one seemed intent on a repeat performance. Waiting was easy. The company was genial and the day was nice; and occasionally we could entertain ourselves with sightings of a Parula or Magnolia [Warbler] or tales of Warblers past. I had already abandoned this bird earlier in the morning but when three of my friends saw it, I returned determined to stick out until I got a look good enough to ID or darkness put an end to the attempt. It was a Plum island Life bird. Enough said.

     “The song rang out and I saw a flash of movement as a bird hopped up on a branch fairly deep in the underbrush. I picked up the movement and saw a Kentucky Warbler as it paused — just long enough for a positive look — before hopping behind a thicket of leaves. Finally I had it! Now there were only three warblers that I have seen in Massachusetts but not on Plum island, and furthermore it was Plum island life bird #329. As the years go by the number of possible Plum Island lifers dwindles. There was a time when 320 seemed unreachable and here I was on the threshold of 330. So close but so far. Still it could be a long wait.

     “Today, May 25, Lois and I joined Tom Wetmore up on the ocean platform at parking lot#1. He had told us that there were two pair of Piping Plovers visible from this vantage point and we decided to end our day by trying to find them. Once up on the platform we scanned the beach and the ocean. There were gulls, a distant but active band of feeding terns and a Common Loon, in full breeding plumage, but no Piping Plovers. Then suddenly as we looked and chatted I heard a strange cry of excitement from Tom as he scanned south down the beach.

     “”GAAA!!” he cried out. “Ahh!” His presence of mind trying to overcome his excitement. Lois and turned south to look down the beach and finally Tom blurted out clearly, “Oystercatcher!! Oystercatcher, flying towards us.” My heart leaped. “American Oystercatcher has been my Plum Island Nemesis bird. Everyone I knew who had a relatively serious Plum Island list has already seen this species. I had chased after Oystercatcher sightings and rumors of Oystercatcher sightings for well over a decade, and finally now there it was just off the beach, about a foot above the water and heading north with a avian purpose. “I got it!” I followed the black and white bird with the long bright orange bill up the beach until we could see it no longer.

     “Back in 2001 I saw my Plum Island life bird #300 and #301 on consecutive days. And now it has happened again, 329 and 330 on consecutive days. The adventures of birding are mysterious and wonderful altogether.”

     One comment to add to Doug’s great story: I think that the refuge should erect “Quiet Please” signs all along the Hellcat and Pines Trails. These are the only two trail areas where the public is allowed to walk to observe birds and other wildlife. Yet, many people stomp along the boardwalks and carry on loud conversations, with no regard for (or even awareness of) the people and the wildlife around them. Sad. There are so many places where people can do this, that I feel like telling them: “If you want to walk and yak, go to a Mall!” On these trails it should be “Quiet Please.”

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